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Chris Hughes Is About to Turn 100

Hughes with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard in 2004.  

That theme rhymes with the mission of The New Republic, which was founded in 1914 as a principled progressive political organ, then went through various liberal iterations—from Communist fellow-traveling to New Democrat centrism to neoconservatism. But by the time Hughes came calling, many at the magazine weren’t sure if it would make it to its 100th birthday. The formerly weekly, steadfastly wonky D.C. publication was becoming obscure and obsolete as the political-opinion and advertising markets migrated to the web. It had always been an influential money-loser, founded by a man who’d married into the Whitney family fortune and owned more recently by the indulgent, idiosyncratic Marty Peretz, who’d married into the Singer family fortune. In recent decades, under Peretz, it had distinguished itself as a contrarian policy journal in a town dominated by political tribalism and careerist sellouts. But the Internet did for considered opinion what globalization did for fashion: It made it cheap, widely available, and disposable. The days that insiders had to read The New Republic for their new ideas were over. The circulation had shrunk to around 39,000, about a third of its 1990s high point, and the staff to about twenty.

For Hughes, the advantage of trying to fix journalism by fixing The New Republic is that, in addition to its good breeding, it’s always been small and will remain small: He wasn’t taking the helm of a grand, listing superliner like, say, Newsweek. (Though, a source says, he did ask around first about buying The New York Review of Books, which isn’t for sale and is, actually, profitable.)

Certainly he can afford this experiment. But it is an experiment, his goals noble if abstract. Hughes wants to produce what thoughtful people ought to read, as opposed to churning out what most people like to “like.” And while he’s completely upfront about not having a business-side “silver bullet,” he has confidence that there’s a way to make it work and faith that the magazine’s relaunch, scheduled for February, will make enough influential people want to pay to read it on their phones.

One of the first experiments Hughes made at the magazine was to take down its paywall, to help it get back in the conversation in the months leading up to the election—it quickly got to over 3 million unique visitors. He hired a Harvard M.B.A. who’d worked at Bain & Co. to be COO and rethink the business model. He tried other things, like getting people to subscribe by offering a chance to win a seat at a table at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but he had to withdraw that idea when he learned it was against the group’s rules. He went on a research-and-hiring tour, zipping up and down the Acela line in a trim blazer, meeting writers and editors and publishers, and making, in some cases, eyebrow-raisingly generous offers. He fired the magazine’s editor and rehired his predecessor, Franklin Foer, who then hired back an editor who’d gone to The New York Times Magazine to lead the new Manhattan office Hughes wanted to start. D.C. may be the capital, but it was too provincial for Hughes’s TNR, which wants to be about “power,” he says, defined more generally to include all that glitters—from technology to movies—beyond mere politics.

“If you’d told me three years ago that a founder of Facebook would buy The New Republic and reinvigorate it, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Foer. “This is the Hollywood version of the old-media narrative.”

Even if Hughes (inevitably these days) refers to the magazine as a “brand,” which produces “content” oriented toward a “North Star,” he’s a sort of cultural revanchist, animated by affection for something that’s been in decline his entire adult life. In fact, he’s never really known a time when the mainstream media was a power to be resented. After having dinner with him, David Bradley, the publisher of The Atlantic, quoted a friend who called him “the youngest old man any of us knows.”

“It’s this classical story,” says Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor of three decades, who’s giddy at the prospect that Hughes will save the magazine he calls “a public good.” “In the nineteenth century, there was no Internet, but Balzac is all about young people who come from the countryside to the big city,” he says. “I mean, if you think about it, he has been on one of the most amazing rides that any young person in the history of the world has ever seen.”

Before Hughes was a character in Wieseltier’s novel, he was a reader. “He’s usually reading two or three books at once,” says Eldridge, who’s less instinctually bookish but no less committed to the pursuit of rigor than his husband. “It’s good. He pushes me to read more.” Hughes’s favorite books, according to his Facebook page: Midnight’s Children, Les Fleurs du Mal, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, something called The Wealth of Networks. On their honeymoon, Hughes and Eldridge read War and Peace together—Hughes read much of it on his iPhone and finished first. If that doesn’t sound conventionally romantic, for them the intellectual ambition is part of their romance.