Chris Hughes is throwing in the towel. The Facebook co-founder, who acquired The New Republic in 2012, announced on Monday that his attempts to turn the legendary political publication around have failed, and that he is putting it up for sale. But it is far from certain who—if anyone—will want to buy it.
Hughes, who bought the magazine when he was just 28 for an estimated $2 million, said in a memo to staff—also posted on the blogging platform Medium—that he tried to find a business model that would support it, but was unable to do so.
The Facebook co-founder said he bought the magazine, which at the time was on the brink of bankruptcy, "to ensure its survival and give it the financial runway to experiment with new business models in a time of immense change." But after investing more than $20 million, Hughes said he believes it is time for new leadership and a new vision.
"I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate."
As Hughes mentions in his memo, one question The New Republic and its new owner will have to face is: What would a business model for such a publication look like? Although there are some large media entities that are arguably successful, such as BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice and ProPublica, it's not clear that TNR can duplicate any of these.
Ironically, many media-industry observers assumed that the magazine had already found a successful business strategy for the future—namely, being acquired by a young almost-billionaire (Hughes is worth an estimated $450 million). But Hughes apparently doesn't have the stomach for owning a giant cash sink.
While $20 million might seem like a lot, however, there are owners who have spent far more than $5 million a year on their assets. The New York Post, part of News Corp., is said to lose more than $30 million every year, and some newspapers have spent $20 million or more on failed tablet strategies, let alone running the entire paper.
What's more likely is that Hughes painted himself into a corner. He arguably damaged his own asset not long after he acquired it, when he got into a fairly public pissing match with much of his staff over the changes he wanted them to make to become more digital. Many senior writers and editors eventually left.
In his memo, Hughes said this dispute "didn't help our ability to make The New Republic viable today, but it also did not spell our demise." That remains to be seen, but in any case, whether it was Hughes' fault or not is almost irrelevant—it happened, and it likely increased the difficulty of turning the magazine around. According to some reports, the website's traffic dropped by 50% after the furor and never recovered.
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As far as strategies go, the closest analog to The New Republic would probably be The Atlantic, another venerable U.S. magazine that was hemorrhaging money in 2008, when it embarked on an ambitious digital strategy. Luckily for Atlantic Media, it was early to the race and managed to build what appears to be a fairly successful business around its websites and events.
Harper's magazine has found a different solution: Much like The Guardian newspaper in Britain, the U.S. magazine is owned by a trust that was set up by the MacArthur family. It has more or less rejected the Internet, but no one seems to mind (at least not yet anyway).
Unfortunately for The New Republic, its former savior doesn't seem to be interested in that kind of structure, and while the magazine launched its own "brand marketing studio" and other efforts, they apparently haven't been enough to make a difference. And it is a little late in the game to try duplicating The Atlantic's strategy.
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There are really just three possible futures for The New Republic: 1) Another rich person comes along and decides to shoulder the burden that Hughes says he can't manage; 2) A large entity such as Time Inc. (which owns Fortune) or Conde Nast acquires the magazine, or 3) It goes out of business.
And what kind of business model could either a billionaire or a media giant come up with? The mass-market advertising driven approach not only doesn't seem to be working for anyone (except perhaps Facebook) but it is a poor fit for a magazine of political commentary. The New Republic's only real strategy is to focus on its core, however small that might be, and build a smaller business based on subscriptions etc.
If The New Republic retains any of what its core readership loved about the magazine, it should be possible to concentrate on that loyal audience and get them involved somehow, through a combination of subscriptions, events, even crowdfunding. Those are some big "ifs," but there is no other obvious future for it, except as another rich person's plaything.