As I was getting ready to leave town Monday morning, I saw that Chris Hughes had decided to sell New Republic. It’s interesting to me because I was harsh in my criticism of the late 2014 resignation debacle. I first wrote, New Republic: 1914 – 2014. And then later, Attack of the Crybaby: Why Chris Hughes Turned Against New Republic. It is this latter one that I find myself thinking about now. What exactly was Chris Hughes thinking all this time.
I don’t think that what happened is opened to debate. Hughes started by thinking it would be fun to own a magazine. He had a great time hanging out with really accomplished, sophisticated people who had earned their reputations at the top of the liberal publishing pyramid. It must have been heady for Hughes, because let’s not forget: all Hughes did was happen to be Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate. That’s it. There’s no doubt that he’s smart enough, but he isn’t even at Zuckerberg’s level, and that level is low itself.
But after hanging out with the cool kids for a couple of years, Hughes got bored with it. After all, people like Jeet Heer were little more than celebrities to Hughes. And the truth is to them, Hughes was probably just a rich kid who owed his position to luck. They appreciated the money, but that was as far as it went. So given that New Republic was no longer fun, Hughes had to come up with a reason to have bought it — something to save face. So he came up with the idea he would revolutionize publishing.
The problem was that Hughes couldn’t revolutionize anything — the best he could hope for is to be the roommate of someone who might revolutionize publishing. And that wasn’t going to happen. But even if he had been a genius, he didn’t understand the publishing industry. So he was destined to fail regardless. And so that led to his letter Monday where he announced that he was selling New Republic because of the question he can’t answer, “Can it find a sustainable business model that will power its journalism in the decades to come?”
Well, it’s going to be pretty hard to sell New Republic as anything but a brand name that someone might want to take on. Thirteen months ago, it employed a great staff of writers and editors. Now they are mostly distributed throughout the publishing industry. Now I pretty much only follow Brian Beutler and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Stoker. I don’t see who is going to be all that interested in buying Chris Hughes’ plaything now that he’s broken it.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo made a great point about the constraints of running a news organization within a budget. That was something that Hughes had no interest in. The idea of managing New Republic better doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to him. Instead, he blew $20 million in four years. His idea seems to have been that he could use the power of the internet to turn the magazine into something really special. But of course, there are already millions of people on the internet trying to do that.
A lot of people are talking about the old New Republic business model: modest financial losses made up for with donations from rich donors. Certainly that is what I thought Chris Hughes was going to do when he first bought the magazine. But he’s turned out to be far more immature than that. He never had a plan. He never tried to make the magazine efficient. He just tried to have fun. And when he was done, he tried to say face.
His legacy will be that he destroyed the magazine. There really is no point in it continuing on. But of course, it will continue on — just like Netscape continues on. But what it shows is that it is dangerous to have really rich people around. Hughes is like Bill and Melinda Gates. They are all people who think that because they are wealthy, they must be smart and able to fix difficult problems. And because they can throw around a lot of money, there are always lots of people around to tell them they are right. But now that Hughes isn’t having fun and everyone is laughing at him for being incompetent, he’s giving up and going out looking for something else to have fun with. After the Gates Foundation manages to finish all its education “reforms” only to find that they’ve made things worse, the Gates will find something else that they don’t understand to help “fix.”
No one should care that New Republic is dying. But we should care very much that our excessive income inequality allows rich fools to destroy venerable institutions because they think their money makes them smart.