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New Republic Staffers Saw A Clash Between Its Mission And New Methods


And yesterday on this program, we heard about the crisis at the 100-year-old magazine The New Republic. After an editorial shakeup, dozens of its staff dramatically quit, expressing concern about the future direction of that venerable publication. Today, we hear from the owner, Chris Hughes, the 31-year-old who made his fortune as a cofounder of Facebook. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has our story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: When Chris Hughes bought The New Republic in early 2012, he promised to be a faithful steward of the magazine's traditions, and he used that same word with me yesterday.

CHRIS HUGHES: So I bought The New Republic about two-and-half years ago, and as its owner, see my role as being its steward. This place has been around for a hundred years and is built on some pretty important values of provocative argumentation and covering politics and culture as deeply as possible.

FOLKENFLIK: Yesterday, he said being a good steward involved in building a sustainable business model, one based on much greater digital savvy and a quicker metabolism.

HUGHES: We're the kind of place who's, you know, built our reputation on doing serious high-quality journalism. Some of that's long; some of that's short. But we're certainly not wedded to a single form. In fact, I think we have to tell our stories in multiple forms.

FOLKENFLIK: Hughes says the magazine must maintain its dedication to deep dives, richly reported pieces on politics and culture, both because that reflects The New Republic's best traditions and because such pieces can have a major impact.

HUGHES: But we also need to make sure that we also tell those same stories in a way that embraces new digital storytelling techniques. What does that mean? That means video; that means interactive graphics; that means maps; that means conversations, real-time analysis of events as they play out.

FOLKENFLIK: The magazine enjoyed renewed momentum. Hughes committed significant new resources and endured losses of several million dollars a year. But the mood shifted in recent months. Hughes became estranged from editor Franklin Foer, who also clashed with the new CEO. Foer resigned when he learned Hughes intended to replace him. A lot of the staff quit, too, and so the steward becomes the disruptor. Ken Doctor is a news industry analyst and consultant who writes the blog Newsonomics.

KEN DOCTOR: What you've got is an old brand, a venerable brand here in The New Republic, 100 years old this year, that is roiled by digital disruption the same way The New York Times is, Time Inc. is, NBC, ABC, NPR, BBC, you name it.

FOLKENFLIK: In this case, Doctor says, too much too quickly.

DOCTOR: We're really just at the beginning of that process. It's creative disruption, as we would call it in Silicon Valley, but it can be pretty ugly in the short-term.

FOLKENFLIK: Doctor warns that Hughes risks badly damaging The New Republic's reputation among readers. Julia Ioffe resigned as a senior editor last week. She says she was perfectly game for cutting publication of the print version to 10 times a year and a quick-twitch reporting online.

JULIA IOFFE: We brought something different to the table. There's already a Buzzfeed; there's already a Vox; there's already a Huffington Post and a Mashable, and they do great work. But they already exist, and they're unique. You can't reproduce what they do.

FOLKENFLIK: Ioffe says The New Republic retained a different purpose.

IOFFE: We brought something deeper and more rigorous to the discussion. There was a kind of cultural criticism that you don't get most other places.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet Hughes says The Atlantic has reinvented itself. The New York Times has innovated. Why not The New Republic?

HUGHES: I did not come to this place to preserve a calcified institution. I came to make sure that the kind of journalism that it's done historically continues to happen not just, you know, today or tomorrow, but for - hopefully for decades to come.

FOLKENFLIK: It won't appear again in print until early February. The website is said to be back in business sooner. That would mark the first work under Hughes's new editor, Gabriel Snyder. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.