TNR at the Crossroads

Since the travails of political and policy magazines–their financial struggles, ownership and management changes, personnel turnovers, “rebrandings” etc.–are so very common these days, it takes a pretty big explosion at one of them to make news. I’m guessing The New Republic’s “transition” is making news in part because the magazine just celebrated its 100th anniversary, and in part because one of those very rare fixtures in American magazine journalism, Leon Wieseltier, is leaving TNR (where among other things he edited the “back of the book,” the arts and culture section, forever) along with editor Franklin Foer, who’s getting the boot for the second time in recent years.

The two big assessments of these events today are from the passionately opinionated long-time TNR alum Jonathan Chait, who thinks owner Chris Hughes is unnecessarily trading TNR’s birthright for a mess of trendy and transitory pottage, and the infinitely more detached Ezra Klein, who thinks what’s happening there was inevitable. Klein, BTW, views TNR as part of a trio of influential progressive Washington magazines (the others being the American Prospect and the Washington Monthly) that have been forced by financial exigencies to adapt to the digital era by significantly scaling back their print operations.

I have an unusual perspective on this subject since I now labor mostly on the digital side of one of Klein’s three Liberal Organs In Winter, and spent a couple of years writing weekly for the digital version of another, TNR, mostly before Hughes bought the operation. In my experience there was never a moment when TNR did not regard itself as a magazine with a web page rather than a journalistic enterprise operating via multiple media. Some of that, of course, was because the print version of TNR brought in most of the revenue, inadequate as it was. But a lot of it was sheer mystique. And it showed in the very casual attitude the management had towards anything that wasn’t in print (example: the online editorial team put in place in 2012 under Franklin Foer did not bother to notify the magazine’s “special correspondents”–regular online writers operating on contract–they had killed that whole category of contributors).

That anachronistic approach was, as Klein indicates, doomed to fail at some point. But Chait’s also right that it’s unclear how TNR will maintain a distinctive role in progressive journalism if it completely abandons its traditions. In some respects, I find both sides of the argument over TNR puzzling; is there some law that the decision to physically relocate TNR to New York means the Washington-based writing talent has to be discarded? Does a “digital media company” really need its writers to punch a clock and attend “editorial meetings” like it’s 1965? (Guess I’m prejudiced, since I work for the Washington Monthly and haven’t set foot in Washington in about three years).

I dunno; I still don’t have a subscription to the print edition of TNR, and while I ignore a lot of the content put up on its webpage by its eager young culture-focused staff these days, it still produces political journalism of considerable value, from long-time TNR writers like Jonathan Cohn and John Judis to younger recent hires like Danny Vinik, Brian Beutler and Rebecca Leber. I see no inherent reason that should all go away, but then again, I have a form-follows-function attitude towards media that a lot of people don’t seem to share.

I know TNR has stimulated a lot of love and hate over the years, so since we’re informally noting a big if not terminal change in one of political journalism’s oldest continuing operations, please add any thoughts you have in the comment thread.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan, who edited TNR back in its High Marty Peretz days, perhaps unsurprisingly called the developments at the magazine “corporate manslaughter.”

UPDATE II: The list of resignations at TNR today is massive, and includes most people there who predated Chris Hughes.

UPDATE III: Should have included, since I quote and/or link to him a lot, Alec MacGillis as a newly-former TNR writer I especially value.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.