Poking the New Republic

Zuckerberg roommate risks tarnishing storied magazine

• June 7, 2012 5:00 am


While the New Republic magazine was making ambitious predictions about its future under a new owner with deep pockets, start-up GOOD Magazine was cleaning house, firing the majority of its editorial staff just a day after throwing a party to launch its most recent issue.

That embarrassing collapse has raised questions among some media insiders about what is in store for the New Republic, which was recently purchased by the wealthy socialite Christopher Hughes, who shared a room with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, won the Facebook lottery, and, as a board member of GOOD magazine, helped run that publication into the ground.

Hughes considers himself an entrepreneur, tech guru, and Obama campaign confidante. He is also a liberal activist who has had a string of business failures since his friendship with Zuckerberg led to an ownership stake in the social networking giant.

Hughes—who is said to be worth upwards of $700 million, though perhaps less given the continued decline in the value of Facebook’s stock price—raised eyebrows among media insiders earlier this year when he purchased a majority stake in TNR and immediately crowned himself "publisher and editor in chief," despite being a Democratic partisan with little publishing experience.

Though it remains unclear how Hughes will pilot the once-mighty institution, insiders say the new regime could turn the magazine into a partisan rag, even if its wealthy owner manages to halt its decade-long decline.

"I’m sure he doesn’t know what he’s in for," said the author and media critic Andrew Ferguson, who is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. "Like taking over a movie studio, you think you’ll get to date all the starlets, but he’ll end up with this big, floppy mess on his hands."

"My big fear is that Chris Hughes led the social networking in the Obama campaign and this will now become more a shill magazine for Obama," said Ronald Radosh, a historian who has contributed to TNR.  "I just thought Hughes, from what he’s announced, didn’t have any vision for the magazine. It just seemed like a rich guy’s toy."

Hughes has already pursued some of the biggest names in liberal journalism and continues to engage in a "hiring spree," according to Politico, which reported Monday that TNR hired novelist Walter Kirn as its "national correspondent."

Hughes also recently convinced former editor Franklin Foer to reassume his former position at the magazine, a move that stunned some D.C. insiders.

During his four-year tenure at TNR, Foer oversaw one of the most startling journalistic frauds to emerge from the war in Iraq.

Months after soldier Scott Thomas Beauchamp filed several gut-wrenching dispatches about the war in Iraq under a pseudonym, Foer was forced to admit in a 7,000-word mea culpa that the bulk of the stories were fabricated.

That revelation led critics to question Foer’s stewardship of TNR.

"If only Foer had repressed his sense of victimhood and applauded the release of information rather than whined," media critic Jack Shafer wrote in Slate at the time. "He and the magazine embraced maximum hazard by giving an inexperienced writer and non-journalist the cloak of anonymity to report from the battlefront."

Foer also failed to arrest the New Republic's downward spiral in circulation.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the magazine's "paid" circulation for 2005, the year before he assumed the editorship, was 61,771. By October of 2011, that number had dropped to 28,961 according to the magazine's Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation—a decline of more than 50 percent.

To assist Foer, Hughes reportedly has tried to poach several prominent writers from competing outlets such as Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, Robert Draper of the New York Times Magazine and the Times’ Mark Leibovich.

Hughes, however, has "been rejected by all these people," said one of the insiders familiar with the publication. "Why would anyone at the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine go to the New Republic? Unless he’s willing to dramatically increase and pay outrageous salaries, why would they go from a prestigious magazine with many subscribers to one that has 30,000?"

Ferguson said that while Hughes is smart to approach such well-respected writers, "normal people pay zero attention to bylines, so they wouldn’t know Walter Kirn from Betty Grable."

But some TNR insiders remain skeptical that Hughes is the right leader to restore the magazine’s past reputation of intellectual independence and critical analysis, which has been so badly battered by plagiarism scandals and editorial flip-flops.

"Has he ever written an article?" wondered one insider familiar with the publication.  "He doesn’t know anything about journalism. He’s a pro-Obama guy. He worked for the guy. Clearly, he’s interested in reelecting the president."

Already, Hughes has vowed to make an aggressive foray into social media and new technology, declaring that TNR will become a "tablet technology leader."

"Everyone assumes because he’s mister money bags he won’t be worried to spend money, but look at what he’s just done" at GOOD magazine, noted the insider. "Just because the guy has $700 million doesn’t mean he’ll want to spend it endlessly."

Hughes’ hands-on management style has already ruffled feathers and isolated longtime TNR stalwarts, according to multiple insiders. The individuals asked not to be quoted on the record so as to avoid retribution from the magazine’s new owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief.

"Hughes puts himself on the mast head as editor in chief and that’s a joke," said historian Radosh. "He doesn’t know how to edit a magazine."

Dubbing himself the editor-in-chief "was a surprise," added the insider source. "I don’t think he appreciates anything about the history" of the publication.

Hughes, who resides in a sprawling 80-acre estate in rural New York, "is most interested in being seen as a player in the media scene and getting invited to the right parties in New York, and being seen beyond being the guy who invented the ‘poke’ button," said another media insider who is close to the magazine. "What better way to do that than buying a storied literary magazine?"

Political ideology aside, said the source, Hughes mostly wants "to own a magazine that people will be coming up to him to compliment. But money can’t buy you love, and it might not be able to buy you the kind of magazine Chris Hughes apparently aspires to have," the insider said.

From his first days in charge of the magazine, Hughes asserted himself by dumping the magazine’s editor in chief, Richard Just, who was identified only as a "former editor" of TNR during a recent panel at Princeton University.

Just was forced out of the top slot by Hughes after arranging the deal that allowed the Facebook prodigy to purchase the magazine, and lavishing praise on the new owner in a note to readers even as Hughes claimed the editor in chief title for himself.

In other instances, sources say, Hughes has personally dictated the magazine’s editorials and shown disrespect for the magazine’s old guard, including Martin Peretz and longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier.

"This guy didn’t know anything about the New Republic beforehand," said one of the TNR insiders. "It just shows he wasn’t really interested in the magazine."

"They made it pretty clear that Peretz is finished even though his name is still on the website," Radosh said. "They want a message sent to the readers to say, ‘We know how much you hated Peretz and now he’s gone.’ But that’s outrageous; he built the magazine up."

Added another knowledgeable D.C. media figure: "It’s not clear Chris Hughes understands the assets he’s acquired."

Though Hughes has amassed a sizable fortune, his previous ventures suggest his fortune may be more the product of being in the right place at the right time than any business acumen.

Hughes first met Zuckerberg during his freshman year at Harvard University. As Facebook began to grow, Hughes emerged as its cheerleader-in-chief, taking on the role of spokesman while leaving the technological aspects of the website to Zuckerberg and others.

Eventually, the Obama campaign came calling, and Hughes departed Facebook in February 2007 to become the future president’s "online organizing guru," a role that placed him in charge of Team Obama’s web portal.

He retained a financial stake in the social network.

Following Obama’s victory, Hughes joined up with the progressive political communications firm GMMB.

He left the firm less than six months later with few accomplishments under his belt.

"As far as we can tell, no one noticed that Hughes has left GMMB," the website Mediabistro noted in a 2010 post about Hughes’s stint as the "entrepreneur in residence" at a Massachusetts-based venture capital firm.

Hughes left that job a year later to launch the non-profit project, which aimed to match social innovators with likeminded charities across the world—a concept that had already been successfully implemented on the web.

Jumo initially received flattering press coverage, which allowed Hughes to raise more than $3.5 million in seed money from various left-leaning nonprofits such as the Ford Foundation.

The website, which suffered from poor design and cumbersome controls, did not perform as well as many expected, earning a spot on a list of "10 Tech Start-Ups Whose Sizzle Fizzled."

Jumo eventually merged with the now floundering GOOD magazine. Priced at $62,221, Jumo was purchased at a vastly lower cost than the millions Hughes invested to fund the project.

"When all was said and done, Jumo didn’t quite offer anything revolutionary and it never did become a household name, even among activists," wrote finance reporter Joe Mont. "Multiple redesigns were symptomatic of its failure to cultivate a reputation as a go-to resource."

As TNR undergoes a similar facelift, media observers say they are most concerned that Hughes—who majored in French history and literature—may be woefully underprepared to lead a venerable magazine through a rough-and-tumble media environment.

"Certainly, it’s not nearly as glamorous as he thought it would be," said author Ferguson, who explained that TNR is just a shadow of its past self.

Former editor in chief Peretz "had something definite he wanted to say about the political world," Ferguson said. "I don’t quite understand what it is [Hughes] wants to say, except that he is the owner of a venerable magazine. It would be terrible to lose that sense of intellectual adventure that magazine has had and turn it into a piece of propaganda."

There is some evidence that employees at the magazine are less willing to rock the boat, particularly when it comes criticizing Democrats.

One recent post by senior editor Timothy Noah defended Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has been harangued by Democratic and Republican leaders alike for claiming that she is descended from Native Americans.

"Is TNR really that much of a doctrinaire Democratic publication?" wondered one of the insiders.

Others said that Hughes’ "radical changes" could fatally poison TNR’s newsroom.

"If Hughes alienates this stable of writers who made it great by making radical change … you’ll see a lot of people who are part of the magazine’s history express concern, which would dramatically undermine its credibility and value," said one of the insiders.

Hughes and the New Republic declined comment.