Chris Hughes is the young and photogenic owner of The New Republic.
Sorry, that’s Chris Pratt.
I mean Chris Evans.
This is the Chris Pratt that is not Chris Hughes.
Oops, that’s Chris Hemsworth.
This is Chris Pratt.
And this is Chris Hughes, I think.
Photogenic enough, no? Still, if I had to put a name on the affect given off I would have to say he seems a little more callow than the other three Chris people. And that seems about right. No Guardian of the Galaxy, he. He’s bailing on TNR.
In his own words:
After investing a great deal of time, energy, and over $20 million, I have come to the conclusion that it is time for new leadership and vision at The New Republic.
Or, as a wag on Twitter put it:
Ah, the rich kid bought a toy, broke it, & wants to sell it. Sigh.
I don’t mean to be snide, I really don’t.
Shit, I do mean to be snide.
I wouldn’t mind that he broke a brand but he broke a brand I cared a lot about. Even if my roughly 30-year subscription to The New Republic was built mainly on a middlebrow mythology that is meaningless in the postmodern milieu, it was a good thing in its time. Maybe Walter Lippman or his many distinguished compatriots were insufferable blowhards in the end, but there’s little question that they aimed high and often hit the mark. Compare that with the latest generation of truly insufferable brats who inhabit the place, penning ridiculous screeds defending campus trigger warnings by recourse to the logic of post-traumatic symptom disorder. Ugh. At least Stephen Glass was entertaining.
Andrew Ross Sorkin had a piece in the Times a couple of days ago that made some valuable points about this pass. As he suggests, there are a lot of nouveau riche, minted especially on the tech side, that figure they can parlay their wealth as well as prowess into change-the-world plays. This hubris is kind of new.
Under the old rules of philanthropy, you gave back to Alma Mater because you loved her, and she was to be trusted to handle your gift in an appropriate fashion. Newfangled donors are not nearly as passive. If they give to higher education, it is not about money to Alma Mater, but whether the prospective donor is the proper agent for implementing the donor’s vision. It’s not a romance but an interview that is going on in the donative process. Can you help me do what I want?
This so-called “donorcentric” shift has been going on for a while but the new tech lords have amped it up on two dimensions. First, why bother with interviewing an intermediary when you can do it yourself? Bill Gates and others dispense with the donations to third-parties in favor of direct action. Second, since the tech lords have made a bundle by selling the vapors, is it not the case that technology is capable of helping turn a profit wherever it looks? Don’t give to a charity–how 20th century! Build a business!
As Sorkin points out, that idea can have merit, and Jeff Bezos may yet find a way to turn tired institutions like daily papers into money makers via the magic of technology. But it is a mistake to think that all enterprises with a public good character are poised for profitability with only the right tech genius at the helm. Some worthy enterprises need subsidies to be effective.
This appears to be the hubris problem Hughes had with TNR. As he was lowering the curtain he said the paper needed a “new business model.” Maybe. But TNR always lost money, always depended on the kindness of rich benefactors. It may be that an opinion magazine of TNR’s original ambitions and scope should lose money.
In that case the new business model might not strictly speaking be a “business model” in the for-profit sense. It might instead be a standard issue non-profit 501(c)(3) entity, like Harvard, the Red Cross, or the United Way.
When the numbers are run on a hypothetical ideal TNR, a level of subsidy can be estimated that will equate to an endowed amount that would support that subsidy level in perpetuity. Let’s say you are a very rich individual wishing to have maximum impact on the world and to get your name out there on the society pages to boot. Perhaps you’ll give several hundred million to Harvard or Yale. Happens all the time. Alternatively, you can in one stroke of the pen endow The New Republic in perpetuity. Might that not be a better deal for the tech tyro/tyrant on the rise?
Maybe Hughes has damaged the brand beyond all repair, and maybe there is no longer a place in the social media environment for an opinion journal that aspires to, and sometimes succeeds at, forging elite opinion. Maybe it’s all Buzzfeed and Salon from here.
I don’t think so, though. In fact, we are at a point in our republic a little like the point at which the magazine was founded in the early 20th century. Herbert Croly’s vision requires a drastic updating, but that is the challenge that the new editor and publisher should rise to. The idea of a republic, and of making it new again in new ways, is ever important.