Move over Warren Buffet, there’s a new media mogul in town. Chris Hughes, one of the original founders of Facebook and a pioneer of new media, announced in March that he had bought a majority share in The New Republic and would become editor-in chief with immediate effect.
A bimonthly publication sent to its readers through the post, The New Republic is a publication steeped in history and weighed down by a turbulent recent past. In the space of 5 years the magazine had changed owners four times, and at present its circulation stands at about 40,000 copies, less than a third of what it was 15 years ago. It’s a story familiar to many print publications struggling to answer the challenges thrown down by online news and information sources. What makes the case of Chris Hughes’ involvement in the magazine particularly interesting is that, instead of looking at immediate ways to make money, the 28-year-old businessman has indicated a desire to look to the long-term health of the magazine. Addressing TNR’s readers, Hughes made it clear that, unlike other media outlets, the magazine would not “chase superficial metrics of online virality at the expense of investing in rigorous reporting and analysis of the most important stories of our time.”
As a result, instead of the job cuts, money-saving solutions and attempts to capitalise on online content that usually follow title takeovers, in the past three months Hughes has expanded the magazine’s editorial staff, added to the number of pages printed in each edition and removed the website’s paywall. The New Republic will be re-launched this autumn, at which point observers will be able to judge the extent of its new owner's involvement in the management of the publication and influence over editorial content.
Hughes’s decision has led some to hope that we are starting to see a developing trend in the ownership of print publications. Citing the examples of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg along with that of Hughes, Sarah Lacy, editor-in-chief of PandoDaily suggests that wealthy individuals are attracted to the idea of owning publications that offer "inherited prestige and legacy". The idea of magazines and newspapers as new status symbols is, she argues, the best thing that could happen to an industry in dire need of a cash injection. The presence of activist shareholders will often prevent public companies from giving struggling print businesses the time and space needed to find their feet and adapt to the changing media landscape. Individuals in a position to acquire a majority share or outright ownership of a magazine or newspaper often have pockets deep enough to cover the losses incurred by these publications at the same time as investing in quality journalism.
It is encouraging to see that the new owner of The New Republic appears to view journalism and reporting as an important end in itself. Hopefully Chris Hughes' attitude is a trend that other publishers will soon be willing to adopt. However, it is still essential for publications to seek sustainable business models, so as not to be dependent on the whims of philanthropists.