The Denuded Republic

Welcome to the brave new world of vertically-integrated digital media, whatever that is. Seriously, what does it mean? People witnessed an example of the power of buzzwords to make masthead earthquakes late last week, when a shakeup at the centenarian Beltway institution and opinion journal The New Republic, a political commentary magazine that has been on the racks of Washington salons since Theodore Roosevelt, led to the exodus of nearly all of its editorial staff, totaling 55 people. The next issue will not be published until early February.

Ex-Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, 30, took over TNR and brought on Guy Vidra, a business strategist formerly with Yahoo, as CEO. Vidra’s memo, in part, triggered the walkout, with boilerplate corpro-speak like “making significant investments in creating a more effective and efficient newsroom as well as improved products across all platforms [italics mine]. This will require a recalibration of our resources in order to deliver the best product possible.” Also, they’re cutting the number of issues per year in half and moving the whole shop to New York, where the main nexus of news seems to be concentrated. Reduced to the status of an app, TNR has excoriated itself. And one year after Newsweek came back from its own near-death experience, are there more dominoes to fall? Magazine publishing has never appeared more dynamic and dysfunctional.

“Vertical integration usually means controlling the production arc from resource acquisition all the way through final sales,” wrote Ed Morrissey in the blog Hot Air. As another product in the marketplace of ideas, TNR would turn into a more streamlined editorial-delivery system. Naturally, this change of policy and values appalled nearly all of the senior staff. Lloyd Grove, a top editor at the Daily Beast, reported that “multiple sources” told him that Hughes “came to think of his writers and editors as ‘spoiled brats.’” Vidra was “said to have complained to [former longtime editor Franklin] Foer that the magazine was boring and that he couldn’t bring himself to read past the first 500 words of an article,” Grove wrote.

Julia Ioffe, a former senior editor at TNR, was quoted by Ravi Somaiya in the New York Times that Vidra’s verbage was “Silicon Valley mumbo jumbo buzzwords that don’t mean anything.” In another example of buzzwords that don’t mean anything, Somaiya also quoted Hughes as describing TNR as a “core differentiator” because of its history in the Washington backyard providing a center-liberal perspective on officialdom. Someday soon newsrooms across the land will see an internal memo for the editorial desk to “optimize the flowshare, monetize the linkgrabs, and chartify the intangibles,” and interpret sheer flabbergasted nonsense as forward-thinking visionary leadership in changing times. Ioffe, reached for comment, is a Russia expert, and presumably familiar with brazen bureaucratic blustering. What seemed to break the proverbial camel’s back was a vow Vidra made in front of an all-staff meeting that the new goal is to “break shit,” evoking what Mark Zuckerberg felt was the chief goal of any worthy enterprise.

“Breaking shit” is another way of describing the idea of what’s called disruptive innovation, which is another tech-sector neologism. No doubt that magazines, like all print in general, need to cut through the current stasis of an over-fragmented media sphere spinning so fast that people do not have the requisite time to read long-form articles, even though, across the spectrum, readers acknowledge that as a society we need “long-form content” — to use the fashionable term of entrepreneur-cognoscenti who most likely have stopped reading this sometime after the phrase “media sphere,” if they are reading this at all. The conundrum of commodifying commentary cannot concern the New Republic alone. What Vidra, the new boss at TNR, described as the “media landscape” is, in fact, very fraught with danger as well as opportunity. How this plays out is anyone’s guess. Michael Rusch, the night editor at BuzzFeed, concisely summarized what is going on: “White men mad at other white men,” he wrote to me. “Kind of sad and funny all at the same time.” When reached for comment, Nina Fortuna, director of the Association of Magazine Media, wrote, “I cannot comment.”

Evgeny Morozov, one of the very few senior editors whose name has not yet departed from the masthead, told me that “these SV guys are full of themselves (and other things),” also adding that he “had problems with TNR even before this week so I was mostly a goner anyway.” Morozov could not comment on their “internal politics” as he “spent no time in their office.” Meanwhile, the opiner Ross Douthat quoted Ezra Klein as saying “the eulogy that needs to be written” is for the “‘ambitious policy magazine,’ whether on the left or right, that once set the terms of Washington’s debates.” Douthat described publications like TNR as one “that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art,” a magazine that “never implied that technocracy was somehow a self-sustaining proposition, or that a utilitarianism of policy inputs and social outcomes suffices to understand every area of life.”

It is true that not all facets of life are comprised of “policy inputs and social outcomes.” People are not simply data processors. The role of opinion journals is to reflect, amplify, deflect, and challenge the Conventional Wisdom. The news is getting restructured. But what shape will it take? and who is paying attention? Outlets that set the terms of debate. Magazines of opinion. These are not sustainable only within a venture capital context that sees them as ontological oddities like “core differentiators,” a non-phrase only a little less risible than the nothingful pseudo-profundity of “value-adds” and “leverage.” The word soup emblematic in Vidra’s memo is a microcosm of a larger issue: selling ideas — whether they relate to politics, culture, or anything else — as widgets that go down the supply chain from originator to user. Every schoolchild grows up to provide content that creates engagement and leads to frictionless sharing. We were born to optimize the flowshare. Forget about influencing the powerful for worse or better: monetize the linkgrabs. Are you a team player? Let’s disrupt the info-space.

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