Last week, about a dozen members of the editorial staff of the New Republic walked out in protest over new leadership. By their account, this was a clash of cultures: Silicon Valley versus tradition, and everyone must choose a side. I believe this dangerously oversimplifies a debate many journalistic institutions are having today. They were colleagues whom I personally liked and respected, so I was sad to see them go and regret much of how it happened. But the New Republic is too important an institution to accept their departures as its end.
I didn’t buy the New Republic to be the conservator of a small print magazine whose long-term influence and survival were at risk. I came to protect the future of the New Republic by creating a sustainable business so that our journalism, values and voice — the things that make us singular — could survive.
I’ve never bought into the Silicon Valley outlook that technological progress is pre-ordained or good for everyone. I don’t share the unbridled, Panglossian optimism and casual disdain for established institutions and tradition of many technologists. New technologies and start-ups excite and animate me, but they don’t always make our lives or institutions better. That’s one of the many reasons why I bought the New Republic — to preserve and invest in an important institution in a time of great technological change. Its voice and values have been important for a century, and technology should be used not to transform it but to develop and amplify its influence.
At the heart of the conflict of the past few days is a divergent view on how the New Republic — and journalism more broadly — will survive. In one view, it is a “public trust” and not a business. It is something greater than a commercial enterprise, ineffable, an ideal that cannot be touched. Financially, it would be a charity. There is much experimentation in nonprofit journalism — ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are proving the model — and that may be the right path for certain institutions. At the New Republic, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few. Our success is not guaranteed, but I think it’s critical to try.
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For anyone who loves what makes the New Republic special — the valuable journalism that pours forth on its digital and print pages — and believes there ought to be more outlets committed to quality journalism rather than fewer, the current choice is clear: Either walk away mourning a certain death or set to work building its future. That means we have to embrace some change.
Those who have watched the recent evolution in media know the dichotomy between techy buzzwords and tradition is a false choice. Journalists across the industry are using new techniques to tell vital stories and make passionate arguments. Innovation is happening in traditional newsrooms like The New York Times and The Post and at start-ups such as Vox and Politico. The New Republic should and will be mentioned in the same breath.
The New Republic’s future will be in both digital and print, and it will mean aspiring to be a strong and sustainable institution that constantly challenges itself to adapt. Former editors and writers who claim in an open letter that the New Republic should not be a business would prefer an institution that looks backward more often than forward and does not challenge itself to experiment with new business models and new ways to tell important stories. Unless we experiment now, today’s young people will not even recognize the New Republic’s name nor care about its voice when they arrive in the halls of power tomorrow.
If we wanted to chase traffic with listicles and slide shows, we would have. Instead, I have spent the last 2 1/2years supporting an institution whose mission I believe in and investing millions of dollars into its singular journalism so that it can continue to be influential and important.
I have and will continue to invest because I care about the strength of journalism in the United States and a national media that serves as a guardian of liberty. The New Republic is much larger than myself or any single individual. Despite what has been suggested, the vast majority of our staff remain. They are eager and excited to build a sustainable and strong New Republic that can endure.
If you really care about an institution and want to make it strong for the ages, you don’t walk out. You roll up your sleeves, you redouble your commitment to those ideals in a changing world, and you fight. This 100-year-old story is worth fighting for.
Chris Hughes is owner and publisher of the New Republic.
Special to The Washington Post