MEDIA

Chris Hughes Selling The New Republic After Rocky Stewardship

The Facebook co-founder says he "underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company."
Chris Hughes, here celebrating The New Republic's centennial in 2014, looking for new owner as second century gets under
Chris Hughes, here celebrating The New Republic's centennial in 2014, looking for new owner as second century gets underway. 

NEW YORK -- New Republic owner Chris Hughes announced Monday he's selling the liberal politics and policy magazine nearly four years since purchasing it and after overseeing sweeping changes that resulted in two top editors resigning, a staff exodus and a couple of relaunches. 

"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," Hughes, a Facebook co-founder worth an estimated $700 million, told staff in a memo obtained by The Huffington Post. 

In the memo, Hughes said the staff has "made good progress in reinvigorating this institution," which launched just over a century ago. He touted the magazine's journalism and business moves, such as building a brand marketing studio and launching a faster website.

"We have made it possible for The New Republic to survive and begin to flourish in its second century," he wrote. 

However, Hughes said that he "underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today's quickly evolving climate." He also questioned whether The New Republic, which had historically lost money before Hughes took over, could find a sustainable business model. 

"There are bright signs on the horizon: Vox, Vice, the Texas Tribune, Buzzfeed, ProPublica, and Mic embody a new generation of promising organizations -- some for-profit, others non-profit -- that have put serious, high-quality journalism at the core of their identities," Hughes wrote. "The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other traditional outlets seem to have found business models that work for them. I hope that this institution will one day be part of that list. To get there The New Republic needs a new vision that only a new owner can bring."

Hughes has spoken to major media companies, startups and political activists about possibly buying the magazine, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

In addition, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, who has a minority stake in the magazine, will also sell his shares as part of any transaction, according to the source.

Ackman was once a student of Marty Peretz, a former Harvard professor who bought the magazine in 1974 and owned it for more than three decades. In 2009, Ackman joined a consortium of investors, along with Peretz, who bought the magazine back, only to sell a few years later to Hughes. Ackman is the only consortium member to still own shares.

Ackman spokesman Fran McGill declined to comment. 

The New Republic, an influential liberal magazine that had also been a staunch backer of the Iraq War, went on the market in 2012. Several media suitors kicked the tires before Hughes, 32, emerged as the buyer. 

He took the helm in March 2012, and in his first editorial meeting, pledged to uphold the magazine's traditions. He brought back former top editor Franklin Foer two months later and expressed ambitions for The New Republic to be mentioned in the same breath as The New Yorker. He tried recruiting big-name journalists from outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine.   

Hughes oversaw a relaunch of the print magazine in early 2013, but the first newly designed issue proved controversial. Initially, editors were planning to feature a cover story by journalism Steven Brill on America's dysfunctional health care system, but instead opted for an interview Hughes and Foer conducted with President Barack Obama. Brill, whose 24,000-word piece later ran in Time magazine and won a National Magazine Award, called Hughes a "liar" for having committed to run the piece in the relaunch issue.  

While Hughes initially seemed committed to the magazine's traditions of long-form journalism and cultural criticism, staffers began to fear that he and CEO Guy Vidra were more focused on boosting web traffic and transitioning the century-old magazine into a technology company.

A rift developed between Hughes and Vidra on one side and Foer and longtime culture editor Leon Wieseltier on the other. The clashing visions were on display at The New Republic's centennial celebration in November 2014, and just weeks later, both Foer and Wieseltier resigned -- followed by dozens of editorial staffers and contributing editors. 

The New Republic relocated its headquarters from Washington to New York, where Hughes lives, and again relaunched the print magazine in February under the stewardship of editor Gabriel Snyder and with a largely new staff. 

Hughes told The New York Times at the time that he was thinking in terms of years when it came to The New Republic's transition toward the future. 

“One of the key things is trying to create a culture of innovation around here,” he said. “But that takes time. There’s no shot clock.”

Read Hughes' full memo to staff:

To the staff of The New Republic,

I have some difficult news today: I have decided to put The New Republic up for sale. I bought this company nearly four years ago to ensure its survival and give it the financial runway to experiment with new business models in a time of immense change in media. 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.

Over the past few years we have made good progress in reinvigorating this institution. Our readership has grown younger and more diverse, largely as a result of our digital strategy. Our journalism has been widely recognized as impactful, impassioned, and more relevant to our nation's challenges than ever. As a business, we have launched a brand marketing studio called Novel, built a flexible and fast mobile website, and developed our own content management system. We have made it possible for The New Republic to survive and begin to flourish in its second century.

Yet I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today's quickly evolving climate. When I bought The New Republic, it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and I believed that an institution as old and important as it should survive and evolve in an era where its values were still relevant and needed. This place stands for some of the best and most important elements of liberalism: a belief in the role of government to correct free markets, in the power of representative democracy to hold the elite accountable, and in America’s responsibility to be a force for good in the world. These values have sustained and animated not just me, but this tireless and dedicated team over the past few years.

The unanswered question for The New Republic remains: can it find a sustainable business model that will power its journalism in the decades to come? There are bright signs on the horizon: Vox, Vice, the Texas Tribune, Buzzfeed, ProPublica, and Mic embody a new generation of promising organizations — some for-profit, others non-profit — that have put serious, high-quality journalism at the core of their identities. The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other traditional outlets seem to have found business models that work for them. I hope that this institution will one day be part of that list. To get there The New Republic needs a new vision that only a new owner can bring.

As many know, in 2014 I broke with legacy editors over fundamental questions of how digitally-oriented and business-focused this place should be. It was clear then, as it is now, that any acrimony was motivated by deep passion and care for an institution that is bigger than any one of us. Our disagreement didn’t help our ability to make The New Republic viable today, but it also did not spell our demise. The journalism and technology that we have produced since has been some of the most forward-thinking, creative work that has been done in the history of the magazine. Our Editor-in-Chief Gabriel Snyder has assembled an incredible team of talented journalists who are some of the best in the business. Even though our search for a workable business model has come up short, we have shown that digital journalism isn’t at odds with quality and depth.

Over the coming weeks, I'll pursue conversations with those interested in taking on the mantle and supporting the next era of this institution. My aim is to place The New Republic in the hands of the most promising and dedicated potential steward. This next chapter could take many forms. Perhaps it should be run as part of a larger digital media company, as a center-left institute of ideas, or by another passionate individual willing to invest in its future. There are many possibilities. Although I do not have the silver bullet, a new owner should have the vision and commitment to carry on the traditions that make this place unique and give it a new mandate for a new century.

As these conversations unfold, our staff will remain in place and fully supported over the coming weeks. We will hold an all hands meeting for staff at 11am this morning.

It's time for the next chapter to begin.

With gratitude,

Chris

This article has been updated with information about The New Republic's possible buyers and Bill Ackman's stake in the magazine.

Ben Walsh contributed reporting.

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