The New Republic and the Imperfect Media Market

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Photo: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Many journalists, myself included, are currently mourning the meltdown of The New Republic, a century-old liberal magazine currently abandoning its historic mission. But Ezra Klein has a contrary take, summarized in his headline “Even the liberal New Republic Needs to Change.” The line is a joke on an old phrase, “Even the liberal New Republic … ,” which became a kind of catchphrase for the magazine’s regular habit of publishing attention-grabbing stories that challenged liberal thinking (some of them good, some of them not). That strain of contrarianism left many liberals, including Klein, with a deep-rooted hostility toward the magazine. Ironically, his column is a prime example of attention-grabbing, neoliberal contrarianism.

Having read through Klein’s story, my substantive disagreements are actually small. He describes TNR as a “policy magazine,” a description he qualifies by noting its tremendous culture section, but doesn’t qualify enough. TNR has never been a policy magazine. It is and always has been a magazine of politics and culture pitched at a high intellectual level, which necessarily limits its appeal to a slice of the public too small to be financially viable.

Crucially, nothing has changed to make the magazine less financially viable. It has required subsidy for its entire existence. Frank Foer and the staffers who resigned in protest today are, in fact, completely willing to decrease the print magazine’s frequency and shift their resources onto the web. As recently as last April, Hughes was conceding the magazine’s role as the same unprofitable social mission it has carried out for a century.

What changed? Hughes dumped a large amount of money into his husband’s disastrous race for Congress, and he hired a chief executive officer who finds the magazine’s incredible long-form journalism too boring to read past 500 words, and then he and that CEO repeatedly lied to and humiliated the magazine’s beloved and extraordinary editor.

The odd thing about Klein’s column is that, other than this small disagreement about TNR’s character, I cannot find anything in it with which I disagree. He straightforwardly described the problem of highbrow magazines that serve a public-interest function and have always lost money. He proceeds from that accurate description straight to the conclusion in his headline — TNR must change — without explaining why. One could just as easily conclude that TNR will always lose money, and its value should be assessed in non-market terms and subsidized accordingly by a willing donor.

That unacknowledged leap of logic contains nearly all our disagreement. It seems to be rooted in a deep faith in the power of the free market when it comes to media. Klein has always been very explicit about his view that media functions that earn money are good. An interview he gave earlier this year with Joe Coscarelli is typical. The question referenced an old, widely mocked practice that the Huffington Post used to grab huge amounts of internet traffic from people googling the start time for the Super Bowl, Klein had a telling exchange:

Is there an SEO play involved here? The web seems to have moved away from the Huffington Post “What time is the Super Bowl?” stuff in favor of social and sharing …
People always bring up that Huffington Post article. What I think is missed in that discussion is that that article is super useful. Every year I need to know when the Super Bowl is. I always forget. I often find that article. It tells me exactly what time the Super Bowl is.

Sometimes I think in the media there can be a weird condescension toward the idea of providing people simple useful info they need in a simple format.We shouldn’t be laughing at the idea that Huffington Post managed to provide a service that people all over the internet needed provided. That’s something to learn from.

The Huffington Post produces a great deal of excellent, original journalism, but there was nothing useful about its annual Super Bowl start time article. The article was not designed to inform people when the Super Bowl began. It was designed to capture search traffic so that people clicked on the Huffington Post’s page saying what time the Super Bowl began rather than some other site’s article. If the Huffington Post did not publish a Super Bowl start time article, 100 percent of the people who learned the start time of the Super Bowl would have instead learned it elsewhere.

His instinct to defend even the cheesiest, zero-value-added media gimmick should not be taken as evidence that Klein places no value on great journalism. On the contrary, he has created and facilitated a great deal of it as a writer and an editor. Rather, it indicates an underlying faith in markets as a signal of media value. If a Super Bowl start time post creates financial value, it must therefore have actual value.

The logical inverse of this proposition is that a media property that lacks financial value must therefore lack value. Klein does not state this, but it is the only way to make the leap from his correct, straightforward claim that “policy magazines” lose money to his conclusion that TNR must change.

That sort of market fundamentalism is largely associated with the political right. You can find traces of it on the center-left among the winners of the new media economy, like many otherwise-liberal winners of other sectors of the new economy. They implicitly associate success with virtue. They may understand that an institution like The New Republic creates externalities that are not captured through market value, but this factor does not intrude upon their model.

Yet the fact that TNR does not meet a market need does not mean it serves no purpose. The main thing it needed to change was its owner.