But it’s a less odd qualification than you might imagine. Hughes wants the magazine to be more friendly—to have more “entry points.” He’s on the board of a site called Upworthy, which takes a more high-minded approach to viral content (like a jaunty ThinkProgress video breaking down the deficit), and doubles as something of a laboratory for how to make The New Republic more digitally enticing. And the magazine’s new website will have, he promises, a daily “cover story” driven by the editor’s judgment of what’s important, not what will get the hits. Sadly, that propriety—he’s not going to dress this thing up in SEO hot pants—might be considered a heroic stance in these hypermetric days.
“I look at Twitter once a day, maybe twice,” he says. “I look at Facebook quite a bit, because for me there’s more stuff happening. But Twitter—so many people have TweetDeck in the background,” he motions around his newsroom overlooking Madison Square Park. “I realize that I purposely want to keep a distance between me and that.” He is always trying to schedule time for reflection. The New Republic “means not just producing a magazine,” he says. “We have to be convening conversations.”
On November 15, the magazine convened what promises to be the first of them, moderated by Hughes and featuring Arianna Huffington and Peter Thiel, the libertarian Silicon Valley investor who helped found PayPal and funded Facebook. The panel was held in a glass-walled events room at Lincoln Center and built around the putative provocation: Has Twitter Made Democracy Impossible?
Nine days after a successfully accomplished election, it felt like a moot question. But to keep the theme going, the audience members were invited to tweet from their seats and the conversation was live-streamed. Tweets hashtagged #tnrconvos were projected, distractingly, up on a screen stage right.
“I found that I had to stop myself from reading it,” complained Huffington. “I’d miss something that Peter said, and then I regretted that.” She told the audience she’d felt compelled to create a device-free sanctuary in her bedroom after she fell and broke her cheek in exhaustion five years ago. Thiel, for his part, doesn’t tweet and reads the Times and the Journal in print every morning. They both agreed that “unitasking” beats “multitasking.”
In other words, it turned out to be a conversation about Twitter that was about as substantive as a conversation on Twitter. But it was a way for Hughes to be a part of things. Which is all anybody who owns a printing press—or, these days, a server farm—ever wants. Up onstage, Hughes, one loafer twisted on its side supporting the other sole, kept the chatter going with poise and alacrity, never challenging or adding much, clearly delighted in the company he was keeping.