The New Republic’s onetime, longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, wants to run a learned journal again, according to multiple sources in TNR’s orbit. Despite what happened last time with Facebook’s Chris Hughes, Wieseltier is throwing his high-minded lot in with another tech-money billionaire: Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the late Steve Jobs.
But the as-yet-unnamed journal, which among other things will seek to discuss the effects of technology on our lives and think critically about it, will not be a reboot of The New Republic, despite rumors that he was going to buy the old place back, and maybe publish many more of those essays picking apart internet triumphalism or crusading to break up Amazon.
The restlessly Gchatty TNR alumni network — and most of them are alumni, since they, like Wieseltier, walked out after Hughes fired editor Franklin Foer in 2014 — has been trying to convince itself this was happening ever since, ten days ago, Hughes, 32, officially gave up on his $20 million, four-year experiment of trying to turn the century-old magazine into something “vertically integrated” and announced he was putting it up for sale.
In a letter he posted on Medium.com (and for some reason not on TNR.com), Hughes blue-skied the options for a potential “steward”: “Perhaps it should be run as part of a larger digital media company, as a center-left institute of ideas, or by another passionate individual willing to invest in its future,” he wrote. “There are many possibilities.”
So why not Laurene Powell Jobs, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $16.9 billion? She and Wieseltier (who, truth be told, seems to know everyone) are friends. For all her wealth, she’s mostly been behind the scenes, concentrating her philanthropy in education projects (she is the founder and chair of the Emerson Collective, “an organization that uses entrepreneurship to advance social reform and assist under-resourced students” and co-founded the College Track, which “helps disadvantaged students prepare for and graduate from college”). She’s also been a big supporter of the Ready for Hillary super-pac, and she did her best to get the Aaron Sorkin film Steve Jobs killed, reportedly calling studio heads and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale to ask them not to do the movie.
And she also has a bit of the media bug: She’s a backer and board member of OZY Media, a well-funded, sincere, and energetic digital journalism outfit that promises to “make you smarter, sooner,” and cover “the new and the next.” (It’s curiously named after the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” — you know, the one about the face-planted statue of a formerly important king: “Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!/No thing beside remains … ” Apparently team OZY finds this a useful team-building notion.)
Three years ago, Wieseltier told me, in a profile of Hughes, that the new owner might help TNR prop up its ambitions and traditions: “It’s this classical story … In the nineteenth century, there was no Internet, but Balzac is all about young people who come from the countryside to the big city,” Wieseltier said. But Hughes was always a cipher — people read into him what they wanted — and after two years of putting polish on a revived TNR, he lost patience. The magazine’s august centennial celebration in the fall of 2014, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Bill Clinton on tap, came off something like a state funeral for the old magazine. Soon enough, Hughes decided to radically change the place — and in the process, destroy it, many alumni argued. Wieseltier was out of a job for the first time in 30 years, and wrote a lament for the Times’s “Book Review” titled “Among the Disrupted”: “Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability.”
That said, when I called Wieseltier to wonder if, in fact, he is buying TNR with Jobs, he laughed and laughed, and then, to make sure I got the point, told me that his quote was “He laughed loudly. Oh, no, no, no.” He then re-quoted a quote he said he gave another reporter, who was writing about the post-Wieseltier digital reinvention of the magazine, quoting The Sopranos: “How can I express how little I give a fuck?”
But something is definitely afoot with Jobs: Wieseltier has been talking to editors at other elevated literary journals about joining his new venture. But it won’t be a new, old New Republic — even if Hughes was interested in selling it to him. “I can’t imagine a more distressed asset,” he says. Hughes “vandalized it. He sacked it.” And he has no plans for restoration.