Give Franklin Foer credit. He made The New Republic relevant again

FranklinFoer

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in Shattered Glass, the 2003 film depicting journalist Stephen Glass’s journalistic fabrications and attempted cover-up at The New Republic. Hayden Christensen, who plays Glass, refers to The New Republic as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One” in an attempt to hammer home the magazine’s venerable standing with the elites. Its circulation may be small, the movie argues, but that doesn’t speak to its outsized influence among those who matter most.

The New Republic’s pre-Glass prestige did carry at least some weight. As former editor Hendrik Hertzberg recently recalled for its 100th anniversary, a cover story in the magazine could spark a national debate, and not always for the better. The most notable example was a five-page article titled “No Exit,” written by Elizabeth McCaughey in 1994, in which McCaughey made histrionic claims about Bill Clinton’s proposed healthcare reform. Prominent conservatives quickly pounced on the article, using it as a cudgel to hammer the legislation, both in media outlets and in the official Republican response to Clinton’s State of the Union address. Though senior New Republic editors described the article as “wrong,” “misleading,” and “completely distorted,” it dealt a significant blow to the healthcare law, which was ultimately defeated.

But whatever impact The New Republic had leading up to and through the 1990s, it began to slip into obsolescence as it entered the aughts. Few of its articles garnered much attention at a national scale, and when it did spark conversation, it was usually over some embarrassing, colossal screw-up. The longtime owner and “editor in chief,” Marty Peretz, pushed the magazine into a neocon swampland, one that reached its nadir when he published an editorial claiming that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” In 2007, the magazine suddenly found itself embroiled in a Glass-like controversy when critics began challenging the veracity of the “Baghdad Diarist,” an anonymous Army private who wrote shocking first-person accounts of his experiences in Iraq. New Republic editors were unable to verify the claims of the soldier, who eventually unveiled himself as Scott Thomas Beauchamp, and, after investigation, concluded that they “cannot stand by these stories.”

As a web operation, The New Republic left much to be desired. Its design was uninspiring and most of its output was published to a group blog. One of its senior editors, Lee Siegel, was suspended from the magazine in 2006 for using a sock puppet account to defend himself in the blog’s comments. I rarely found myself visiting The New Republic, except occasionally to read its acerbic book reviews, like the takedowns of Arianna Huffington and Jeff Jarvis.

The iconic logo of The New Republic is a sailing ship at full mast, and if the 2000s represented an arid period when those sails were devoid of wind, its purchase, in 2012, by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes could be considered the moment when its mast sprang to life. Almost immediately, Hughes reinstated Franklin Foer as the magazine’s editor, and within months its content, aided by a spruced-up article design conducive to longform reading, began its ascent back to cultural relevance.

Sure, its longform reported features made plenty of large splashes, whether it was a profile on Valerie Jarrett and her influence within the White House or Foer’s case that Amazon should be viewed as a monopoly,  but even its daily analysis, the kind that appeared on the web but not in the print issue, became a must-read. In the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections I was engrossed by Nate Cohn’s use of data and political science as he parsed through polls and political issues. And Jonathan Cohn’s wonky explainers on the impacts of Obamacare have been indispensable when it came to wading through the fog of bullshit dispensed by Republicans and understanding the law’s true value. I don’t know what magazines President Obama keeps on Air Force One, but make no mistake, The New Republic is relevant again.

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This is why I was saddened and more than a little perturbed to hear that Foer resigned his position this week after being pretty much pushed out by Hughes. According to the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, newly-installed CEO Guy Vidra “complained to Foer that the magazine was boring and that he couldn’t bring himself to read past the first 500 words of an article.” His resignation was followed by a mass exodus  from many of its senior writers and editors. Supposedly, Hughes and Vidra want to pursue a more web traffic-friendly model, perhaps publishing punchier, viral content.

As I’ve argued before, pursuance of more web traffic doesn’t necessarily result in more revenue, as a dilution of brand can drive down ad prices (ironically, I made this argument in response to The Atlantic shutting down The Wire, which was previously edited by Gabriel Snyder, Foer’s replacement). Longform journalism, I posited, attracts higher quality readership and actual loyalty to a magazine’s brand. In a statement to Erik Wemple a month ago, Vidra himself acknowledged the success of the magazine’s longform reporting, citing Foer’s piece on Amazon specifically. So why abandon a strategy that seemed to be working?

Fortunately, The New Republic’s rise to prominence ensures that its recently-resigned staff likely won’t have much difficulty landing in new positions. And since I follow each of them on Twitter I’ll easily be able to find their stuff. It’ll be interesting to see where Snyder steers the vessel in the coming year, but as it pursues a reported “BuzzFeed-like” strategy, I hope its senior executives recognize why BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith began to hire great journalists to perform serious reporting even though listicles are BuzzFeed’s main traffic draw; anybody can get you to click on a link, but only the best journalism can convince you to keep coming back for more.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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