Open Thread: A Murdoch for the Center-Left?

Via Dave Weigel, news from the old-media world: Jack Shafer (now at Reuters) is not (officially) looking for a job at TNR:

Chris Hughes joins the pantheon of vanity press moguls with the announcement today of his purchase of a majority interest in the New Republic. The 28-year-old Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, commands a net worth that Forbes put “in the $700 million range” last year. Based on this portfolio, Hughes should be able to sustain the magazine’s annual losses — which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year — for a couple of hundred years after his death…
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The rich often buy vanity publications when they learn quickly that having a lot of money doesn’t necessarily make them “players.” They want that sort of influence and are crestfallen by the fact that the only reliable way to get people to do as you say — or even nod in agreement — is to put them on the payroll. Purchasing a publication, even a down-on-its-heels magazine like the New Republic, conveys some of that status, providing entree into certain salons and cabals of influence. (Although it still publishes many worthy articles, I rarely hear it cited as often as its competitors — the Atlantic, Mother Jones, the Weekly Standard — but that’s just anecdotal evidence.)
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Publications aren’t always “rich people things,” to pinch the wonderful Chris Lehmann’s construction. But for every man who spent part of his fortune on publications and got it all back when he sold to the next sucker, there are a dozen department store owners, real estate operators, trust fund kids, tech tycoons and hedge fund whizzes who haven’t. From the outside, owning a publication looks like a lot of fun, but there are only two guaranteed ways to have fun at a publication: writing and editing. Even if you’re lucky enough to make money off your publication, pocketing profits aren’t anywhere near as fun as producing stories…

From the 2009 Fast Company story:

…[A]t the age of 25, Hughes has helped create two of the most successful startups in modern history, Facebook and the campaign apparatus that got Barack Obama elected. Both were dedicated to the proposition that communities, and the way we share and interact within them, are vitally important. As he recounts his two years as director of online organizing for the man who put community organizing on the map, the existential reverie is understandable. He doesn’t know what community means? Really? “Well, I just never think of myself as being in the business of building an online community.” …

From the embedded NYTimes link:

[Mr. Hughes’s] focus, he said in an interview in advance of the announcement, will be on distributing the magazine’s long-form journalism through tablet computers like the iPad. Though he does not intend to end the printed publication, “five to 10 years from now, if not sooner, the vast majority of The New Republic readers are likely to be reading it on a tablet,” he said.

Shafer has his precious reputation as a contrarian media ninja to protect, but we here are JustABlog. Rupert Murdoch famously started his international media criminal career with a couple of downmarket local newspapers in his native Australia. Are we allowed to fantasize that a younger billionaire from a less antiquated medium might provide a spark for those of with less retrograde political leanings?

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24 replies
  1. 1
    Redshift says:

    An entry in a less antiquated medium that actually makes money, no less. This definitely has potential.

  2. 2
    BGinCHI says:

    “five to 10 years from now, if not sooner, the vast majority of The New Republic readers are likely to be reading it on a tablet toilet”

    Fixed for accuracy and context.

  3. 3
    Warren Terra says:

    It’s not a good parallel. Murdoch famously got rich selling sleaze – low dudgeon, cheap thrills, and exposed mammaries on page three. Buying The New Republic means you want to be courted and somewhat feared in the cocktail party circuit, not that you want to make megabucks off of the horny handed sons of the soil following their team in the pages of your rag. Sure, Murdoch has his money-losing small-circulation party-propaganda middle-to-highbrow organs (The Weekly Standard for example), but that’s not how he built his empire.

  4. 4
    Egg Berry says:

    which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year — for a couple of hundred years after his death.

    Wow, I didn’t realize Peretz had been dead that long.

  5. 5
    fasteddie9318 says:

    @BGinCHI: In five to ten years, when “the vast majority of The New Republic readers” amounts to about a dozen people, this will probably be scarily accurate.

  6. 6
    Bob says:

    But will the TNR’s new owner continue to represent Likud?

  7. 7
    fasteddie9318 says:

    @Egg Berry: Well, the undead are technically dead, no?

  8. 8
    Warren Terra says:

    I despise Peretz for all the obvious reasons, but he did say something quite witty once: that he’d only consider selling The New Republic for twenty times its annual losses.

    Of course, he said that before his personal financial situation had taken so many hits (which caused him to sell first part and then all the magazine for undisclosed sums), and also he said it before the magazine’s crusade to destroy Gore in 2008, to endorse Dubya in the recount, and to flatten Iraq had utterly destroyed the magazine’s once-lofty reputation. The magazine seems to have become a bit more respectable of late, but in the second half of the Dubya administration any affiliation with The New Republic was rather a badge of shame – like an affiliation with The Atlantic nowadays.

  9. 9
    Cat Lady says:

    The Moonie Times is a better analogy than Murdoch. I’d say good luck kid, but with his track record and money I don’t think it’s about luck. I like that he believes that he can bring something to the party and kick the old guard in the nuts, and I like his chances.

  10. 10
    Nutella says:

    Hughes doesn’t need to make money so it’s possible he’ll do something interesting and/or groundbreaking.

    Real innovation almost always comes from industry outsiders. All those clever people in the newspaper business couldn’t come up with Craigslist or Groupon because they couldn’t think outside of the box they were in, and they lost most of their revenue to the new guys.

    Maybe this outsider will shake things up that way for political magazines, although buying a moldy old one may not be the ideal way to break new ground.

    We’ll see.

  11. 11
    Quincy says:

    It’s a lovely thought. Even if he doesn’t have Murdoch’s impact, he appears bright and forward-thinking enough to have success. I’m just happy to see anyone with reasonable political views enter a media environment that consists almost entirely of war-mongering and pandering to wingers.

  12. 12
    DougJarvus Green-Ellis says:

    TNR Is actually fairly decent these days, except on Middle Eastern stuff.

  13. 13
    New Yorker says:

    Are we allowed to fantasize that a younger billionaire from a less antiquated medium might provide a spark for those of with less retrograde political leanings?

    George Soros ain’t gonna be around forever.

    Plus, it will be harder for the wingnuts to speak in coded terms about how Hughes is part of the international Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy the way they do Soros.

  14. 14
    Martin says:

    Are we allowed to fantasize that a younger billionaire from a less antiquated medium might provide a spark for those of with less retrograde political leanings?

    I’m not sure how these two things are even remotely comparable. Prior to the late 90s, journalism had exactly 3 forms, all with nearly identical business models: print, radio, TV. The latter two were expensive in terms of broadcast licenses, equipment, and so on and neither lent itself well to long-form journalism, with but a few notable exceptions. The former required a decent outlay in consumables and also expensive equipment, not to mention per-user costs for distribution. All 3 were dependent on some combination of subscriptions heavily, heavily subsidized by advertising – local being the most critical due to volume/effectiveness.

    Rupert came up in this era. In all 3 forms, geographic locality was a constraining factor except for a handful of national outlets. And in the case of print, it wasn’t until fairly late in the game that a national daily was even possible as it required electronic distribution to geographically local printers. The only real differentiation possible was in content. You either needed to find a niche like business reporting, or jog left or right, or grow to such scale that you could do original reporting with remote bureaus and whatnot. But there was absolutely no significant mechanism in which to differentiate in terms of delivery. USA Today and CNN were the last to really innovate in that manner.

    In the late 90s you got internet which promised to change the delivery mechanism but actually didn’t – at all. All it did was swap out the subs for full ad subsidization. The barrier to entry was relatively low, everyone did it, and nearly everyone failed. The move had virtually no impact on radio or TV.

    Today there’s a new distribution mechanism available – app sales/subscriptions which are easy and well protected on appealing delivery platforms – smartphones and tablets, and soon TVs as well. Bloomberg has an on-demand streaming channel for set-top boxes, for example. No cable needed. There’s going to be a land-rush here where every publication has an opportunity to reinvent itself content-wise by carving out a better subscription/delivery mechanism. That’s what Hughes is doing. Anyone can step into this space, but you need content to succeed, so the only way to approach it is to buy someone with content.

    I expect that this will look nothing like Murdoch because Murdoch succeeded exclusively by carving out a specific content space – tabloids, and using that differentiation to drive his success. That’s a strategy that relies on manipulating the meaning of what is delivered. Hughes so far is only proposing manipulating the structure. That’s a wholly different proposition.

  15. 15
    BBA says:

    Hughes is openly gay. After the closeted Peretz, that’s some sort of progress.

  16. 16
    New Yorker says:

    @BBA:

    Ah, then never mind. The wingnuts don’t need to talk about international Jewish conspiracies when the Godless sodomite conspiracies will do.

  17. 17
    Jay B. says:

    The New Republic used to be a great magazine. Probably before I was born, but it used to be at least (I’m 41). No reason it couldn’t be again. Good luck sucker Mr. Hughes!

  18. 18
    lamh35 says:

    I kinda can’t wait for the Olympics. It’s the few times I actually watch track & field, swimming/diving, and gymnastics consistently.

    Anyhoo:
    Michelle Obama to Lead U.S. Delegation in 2012 Olympics

    And if any GOP/Repub wants to make an issue of it tell ’em stuff it!

    …As tradition would have it, Mrs. Obama follows in the footsteps of so many First Ladies before her — Laura Bush led the U.S. delegation during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy and Hillary Clinton did the same at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway.

  19. 19
    Suffern ACE says:

    Ah. Who said there won’t be any bipartisan consensus this year. I give it 3 years before the “holy shit, them stocks I own are in companies that can’t be valued” monster rears its head in the investor class again.

  20. 20
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Warren Terra:

    Murdoch famously got rich selling sleaze – low dudgeon, cheap thrills, and exposed mammaries on page three… Sure, Murdoch has his money-losing small-circulation party-propaganda middle-to-highbrow organs (The Weekly Standard for example), but that’s not how he built his empire.

    Way I heard it, Murdoch got rich because he saw a market (downscale low-info consumers who wanted titties & outrage with their sports scores) where more discerning publishers saw only a disreputable rump of low-dollar luzers it wasn’t worth courting; Rupert was happy to collect buckets of small change and leverage the results into “respectable” venues, including eventually the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal. Chris Hughes has just bought a premier product in another “dying” market — one that appeals to totebaggers with credit cards & coffee tables. He seems to want to leverage the product’s established presence online (conventional wisdom: Nobody pays for stuff on the internet) by appealing to the totebaggers’ affinity for high-end devices — smartphones & tablets. It looks to me like the same tactics, applied to a different market that’s been neglected by more “experienced” sellers.

  21. 21

    One thing to keep in mind is The New Republic’s history. Decades ago, they were among the worst of the fellow travelers that fell for Stalin’s bullshit and praised the Soviet Union. Despite changes in ownership, it took them a long time to rebuild their reputation after that and is a partial explanation for why tilted so far to the conservative end of the Democratic Party.

    That’s not meant as a defense of where it went under Andrew Sullivan and Charles Lane. Even setting Stephen Glass aside, it became horrifyingly bad. On the other hand, I thought that it was fantastic through the Reagan and Bush I years under Michael Kinsley. That was before he jumped the shark into pure contrarianism.

    So, the rag once again faces the task of rehabilitating itself. As someone above pointed out, they have a stable of writers who do very good work on domestic politics. Hopefully kicking Peretz out the door will restore some sanity to their foreign policy coverage. I know from things they’ve written elsewhere that a number of people on the masthead disagreed strongly with Peretz’s Likudism, but stayed on because they thought it was a good platform for the things that they were doing.

  22. 22
    middlewest says:

    A good analysis of the online Kony 2012 slacktivist orgy, and the somewhat less than admirable impulses that drove it.

  23. 23
    Drum Circles And Weed says:

    The only interest of those with money is get more. And they’ll carve it out of your ass if they have to.

    This man is not the savior you’re looking for.

  24. 24
    priscianusjr says:

    @drum circles:
    The only interest of those with money is get more. And they’ll carve it out of your ass if they have to. — This man is not the savior you’re looking for.

    I don’t see him as a savior, except in the sense of keeping the magazine going, but nobody in his right mind would think of TNR as a money maker. It never has been. He’s buying “respect”. TNR has been going since 1914. It has a very distinguished history. It hasn’t been a good magazine in a long time. You might describe it as “Even the liberal TNR”. If Newt Gingrich is a stupid person’s idea of an intelligent person, then TNR is the plutocracy’s idea of “respectable” “left of center” opinion.

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