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Thinking About The New Republic

December 10, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky

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Is the fate of a well-known political magazine worth commenting on? Will it mean anything to those who don’t share your once strong affinity for the publication? Does it really matter if a public policy journal has been turned into “a vertically-integrated digital media company?”

The recent ruckus over the sinking of The New Republic (see what I did there?) may prove to be all over nothing. Perhaps over time, as the magazine’s primary focus shifts, certain staff writers and contributors will be able to do justice to its legacy. After all, people weren’t too happy when Tina Brown took over The New Yorker, but that magazine has managed to survive even the latest rounds of industry shakeups.

But why does this matter?

The New Republic was once my favorite magazine. When I started For the Sake of Argument, it was my dream to either turn it into something like TNR or a place for me and Andrew to get picked up by the magazine itself. This was back in 2011 when I was still a wavering supporter of the Obama administration and more of a hawkish orthodox liberal than I am now. But even as my loyalty faded and I became more of a libertarian, I still enjoyed reading what people like Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Cohn and Timothy Noah had to say. I steadily agreed with them less and less, but still felt it was worth checking in. But there were other contributors who mixed things up and kept the magazine interesting, particularly in the book review section where Chris Caldwell wrote an excellent piece on totalitarianism in eastern Europe, along with John Gray’s takedown of authors trying to rehabilitate Marxism. The often maligned “liberal contrarianism” of TNR was what actually made it appealing.

When Chris Hughes took over, I was a little skeptical. The new logo typeface was kind of stupid, and I mourned the death of so many trees over that puff-piece Obama interview. But I picked up a few print edition issues last year and brought them with me to read on my break. There was still a lot of great stuff in there. The long expose on the collapse of the law profession was highly amusing. And once the Ukraine crisis broke out, Julie Ioffe’s writing proved indispensable. But over time, some of the magazine’s fawning support of President Obama began to wear on me. And Sean Wiletz’s supposed “bombshell” smear of Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange made me cringe so much I though I needed a Valium. So I stopped paying attention. It wasn’t just a matter of disagreement. Hell, I still check out The Weekly Standard sometimes, when I have the stomach for it. But the magazine had become predictable, slowly descending into clickbait territory.

And then this happened.

Commentators have mourned the event as a disaster, but seem resigned to the fact that TNR was responding to market forces. This is a little overblown.

“But Drew, long-form journalism is a dead medium!”

Only if people go around saying so.

People tend to forget that journalism doesn’t just respond to what the readers want, it helps shape that want. It doesn’t just respond to the message, it crafts the message. No industry lies totally prostrate in the grip of consumer demand, it helps create that demand. Though many companies are still seeing losses while adjusting to more digital-based publishing, we still have Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Reason, Mother Jones, The Nation, The American Conservative and several other publications.

And as Matt Yglesias writes in Vox (no, the irony of quoting Vox here isn’t lost on me):

something of a renaissance is taking place in the larger universe of “small magazines” — the kind of publications that deliberately eschew a mass audience in favor of a deep engagement with a niche.

The same digital technologies that enable viral hits on social media have also made it cheaper and easier than ever for committed intellectuals to produce well-edited and increasingly well-designed journals. At their best, the small magazines challenge the terms of mainstream debate.

It might not be easy to be a Jacobin or a New Inquiry, but it is possible. So perhaps one day, someone will see that it’s possible to be The New Republic as we’ve known it. Let that be a sign of hope to anyone still at TNR, or to any future owner, should Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra move on to do something else. Maybe they start an artist management company where they can tell Pearl Jam to start playing Creed covers from now on.

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