The Catos of Old Media
Those who resigned are senior editors Jonathan Cohn, Isaac Chotiner, Julia Ioffe, John Judis, Adam Kirsch, Alec MacGillis, Noam Scheiber, Judith Shulevitz and Jason Zengerle; executive editors Rachel Morris and Greg Veis; digital media editor Hillary Kelly (who resigned from her honeymoon in Africa); legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen; and poetry editor Henri Cole and dance editor Jennifer Homans. Contributing editors Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, Jonathan Chait, William Deresiewicz, TA Frank, Ruth Franklin, Jack Goldsmith, Anthony Grafton, David Grann, David Greenberg, Robert Kagan, Enrique Krauze, Damon Linker, Ryan Lizza, John McWhorter, Sacha Z. Scoblic, Cass Sunstein, Alan Taylor, Helen Vendler and Sean Wilentz.
Many of those who resigned on Friday believe that Hughes and Vidra now intend to turn TNR into a click-focused digital media company, at the expense of the magazine’s strong editorial traditions and venerable brand, according to sources who attended the gathering at Foer’s house.
“The narrative you’re going to see Chris and Guy put out there is that I and the rest of my colleagues who quit today were dinosaurs, who think that the Internet is scary and that Buzzfeed is a slur. Don’t believe them,” Julia Ioffe, one of the resigning senior editors, wrote in a Facebook post. “The staff at TNR has always been faithful to the magazine’s founding mission to experiment, and nowhere have I been so encouraged to do so. There was no opposition in the editorial ranks to expanding TNR’s web presence, to innovating digitally. Many were even board for going monthly. We’re not afraid of change. We have always embraced it.”
Here’s the masthead, pre-resignation. Of the twelve senior editors, only Brian Beutler, Evgeny Morozov, and Rebecca Traister remain. Both executive editors are gone. The digital media editor is gone, but most of the editors who actually put out the magazine seem to still be in place. (“Senior editor” is a title that usually means someone in the first rank of staff writers, though depending on the culture and structure of the magazine, it could also involve some editing).
Given the state of the media profession today, it takes real moral courage to resign a journalism job on principle. Contributing editors aren’t paid much, if at all, but senior editors and other staffers depended on their TNR paycheck to pay bills. And they gave that up as a matter of principle, even though they live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, and have dim immediate prospects for finding a new job in this declining industry. These men and women have my deep respect.
I don’t judge those who have remained behind, precisely because it is so difficult to find a job elsewhere. I expect at least some of them will resign later, if they can put together a plan for supporting themselves after they quit. Maybe others will remain, not because they necessarily agree with the Hughes/Vidra vision for the magazine, but because they need that job. How Gabriel Snyder, the incoming editor, manages to put out a magazine with such a traumatized staff is beyond me. What’s more, all of these writers are well networked in Washington media and political circles. The Hughes TNR is going to be radioactive. I think Gabriel Snyder is walking into one of the worst jobs in elite journalism. It’s like being appointed manager of a hotel in Sarajevo right after the shooting stopped.
UPDATE: Former TNR editor Andrew Sullivan has some remarks well worth reading. Excerpt:
And isn’t there a place for just that – for a group of writers and thinkers to put out a publication that doesn’t seek to maximize pageviews or generate profits, but which dares to believe it has something to say, a point of view to fight over, and just gets on with it and hopes for the best? That was the formula we followed in the decade I worked there as editor and before. If you build it, they will come … and when I left it, we had over 100,000 subscribers. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a million, or even 105,000. They were the right 100,000 – and built a shared community of ideas and a heritage to fight over. That’s what’s missing in this era of pageviews and clickbait and sponsored content: a self-confident team that, at some level, doesn’t give a shit what others or even readers believe, as long as the debate itself is rigorous, fair, open and reasoned. I remember Michael Lewis throwing back his head and giving that barking laugh of his as he marveled: ‘The is the first magazine I’ve ever been a part of that never asks what its readers want.” Where is that kind of publication now?
Yes, the era in which a handful of magazines were the effective gate-keepers for an entire national conversation is gone – and that is a good thing for the discourse and for the democracy. But only if what TNR did can be replicated in the new era.
More, on how the new media start-ups, for all that’s good about them, don’t do what old media warhorses like TNR did:
Do you get any sense from Vox that its editors are actually struggling to figure out the world, that there are battle-lines over policy and politics, that high culture and low culture are critical complements to a nothing-but-politics-and-policy view of the world? Say what you like about Marty Peretz – but there was more diversity of thought in one issue of TNR than there has been in one year of Vox. That’s what I’ll miss. Along with the contrarian refusal to go along with the latest left-liberal fad, or to cover for Democrats in office, for fear of giving “the other side” ammunition.
Amen to all that. But here are three related points that are hard for people like Andrew and me (and you, maybe) to take:
1. There is no way to be that kind of magazine today and make money. Maybe there never was. Some rich guy owner, or collection of rich guys (donors), are going to have to subsidize these magazines. You have to hope for a wealthy owner, or wealthy donors, who see themselves as stewards of certain principles, which includes encouraging debate and discussion — I mean, what Andrew Sullivan calls “struggling to figure out the world,” as distinct from having the world all figured out, and telling it what to think about itself.
If I won the Powerball, I would sink a fortune into The American Conservative, but I would not want it to be a mouthpiece for my views, nor would I want it to become a magazine that lays down a party line. I would be pleased to spend my fortune making it into a lively magazine that sees the world generally from the perspective of the traditionalist right (as opposed to the neoconservative right), with some libertarian leanings as well. I’m not much of a libertarian, as you know, but some of the most interesting and important thinking is coming from libertarians. My point is simply that “struggling to figure out the world” is a vital mission, one worth supporting even if some of the answers the strugglers come up with are wrong. I would not want to fund a magazine that gives pre-fabricated conservative answers to the world’s problems; I would want to fund a magazine that asks conservative questions, and thinks about them in a conservative way.
2. Because we are mostly a bunch of romantics, journalists and writers have a huge blind spot to the money side of running publications. Andrew is right: not having to care what your readers thought about you gives writers and editors a lot of freedom, and they can use it in admirable ways. But if that’s your attitude, you had better have a sugar daddy to subsidize your losses. Andrew is running a very lean operation, and so far he seems to be doing well. But his is an opinion and aggregation site, and that’s something that can be done cheaply. His site, like this blog, is a free rider on the investment other media outlets make in reporting and in-depth essays. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (and by the way, I’m a paid subscriber of Andrew’s site), but I am saying that we writers look down on the bean-counter side of running publications, as if it contaminated our sacred labors. The money to pay the salaries of writers and editors doesn’t come from a pot of leprechaun gold.
3. We also tend to ideologize these matters in a way that’s unhelpful to clear thinking. When I was at the Dallas Morning News in the past decade, the few conservatives at the paper were often astonished by how the newsroom, in what it chose to cover and the way it chose to cover it, seemed to go out of its way to offend the kind of people who actually subscribed to the paper (older north Dallas and Collin County suburban Republicans, mostly). I would argue, in a friendly way, with liberal colleagues over this, but all the time I would be thinking, “If we empathized more with our actual customers, and reported more on the things that concern them, and were more fair and representative to their views, we wouldn’t be losing so many subscribers.”
As the decade wore on, though, I came to disbelieve that diagnosis. Our subscription losses were on par with the subscription losses of most other newspapers in the US. You could say that the DMN was too liberal for Dallas, and you could make a good case for that. But could you say that the Boston Globe, which also suffered steep circulation declines, was too liberal for Boston? The shift away from print media is not mostly about ideology, though a lot of people like to think so.
So when people like Freddie de Boer, a true leftist, sneer from a left-wing perspective at the demise of TNR, I understand where he’s coming from and don’t begrudge him his opinion. But I think he shouldn’t be quite so confident, because the same dynamic that’s brought TNR down threatens all small magazines of opinion in this country. I would be surprised if any of us could pay our bills on subscriptions and ad sales alone. We depend on the generosity of donors — many of them wealthy and public-spirited — who believe that the work we do is important, even if it is not money-making.
Somebody said yesterday that TNR doesn’t need a better business model, it needs a better owner. Yes, exactly. I don’t know how many rich people are willing to subsidize a money-losing journalistic operation out of principle and for the common good, but we sure need to find them.