Vox is a digital version of a think tank bereft of ideology…
In the wake of the firings and resignations, Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, argued that “policy magazines” like TNR were destined to fail because of the economics of the Web, and that Hughes had been correct to shift it to the Web. But Klein, whose column reeked of self-promotion, did not understand what was at stake. The New Republic had never been a “policy magazine” like, say, The National Journal. It was a political magazine that aimed to shape where the country was headed. Vox is a snappy, digital version of a think tank bereft of ideology and able to court advertisers and corporate sponsors in a way that political magazines never could. It could potentially be profitable. Attempting to turn The New Republic into a profit-making vehicle would destroy it.
In addition, the controversy was not about the transition from a print to a Web magazine. Most of the editors, with the exception, perhaps, of Wieseltier, accepted that the magazine would move gradually to the Web. It was Hughes who had been slow to understand this transition, and when he finally realized that it was necessary, attempted to make it with little thought of preserving The New Republic’s political and intellectual role. Looking back, I am convinced that Hughes was out of his depth from the start. Instead of allowing the magazine to change incrementally, while he learned how to run it, he attempted to transform it immediately from “d” to “a”—into “The New Yorker of Washington”—and when that failed, into simply another profit-making Web entity. There remains, I believe, an important role for the magazines in the ignominious “d” slot occupied by The Nation and National Review. They won’t make a profit, but with the right owner or owners, they can operate with acceptable losses and play a significant role in American democracy.
There is a historical lesson, perhaps, in Hughes’ failure at the helm of The New Republic. The original money for the magazine came primarily from Dorothy Whitney Straight, whose father was a leading investor in steel, street railways, and real estate. Gilbert Harrison’s wife was an International Harvester heiress, and Peretz’s wife got her money from Singer Sewing Machine. These were older American companies that emerged after the civil war. Many of their owners had been described as “robber barons.” In their old age, some of them, chastened by labor strife and public criticism, had devoted themselves to philanthropy and to what they understood as the public interest; and their heirs and heiresses, like Dorothy Straight, had followed suit.
Hughes is a member of a new generation of fabulously wealthy American capitalists who made their money in the cybersphere. Since he left Facebook in 2007, Hughes had been trying to put his fortune to good use, and turned to buying a venerable political magazine that was in danger of going under. His intentions were good. But like others from this generation, when he ventured outside of Silicon Valley, he didn’t know what he was doing, and his commitment to social responsibility turned out to be skin-deep. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, he dismissed the idea that The New Republic was a “public trust and not a business.” But that’s exactly what it was, and he violated it.