Some thoughts about the meltdown of The New Republic

I don’t have much to offer on the meltdown of The New Republic except for a few inchoate thoughts. Many people have written many things, but it seems to me that the one essential read is Lloyd Grove’s piece in The Daily Beast. Now then:

1. Despite owner Chris Hughes’ excruciatingly awful behavior last week, it still isn’t clear to me why everyone resigned. When then-owner Marty Peretz fired editor Michael Kelly in 1997, mass resignations were threatened, but only one writer — media columnist William Powers — actually walked out the door. Kelly was an enormously popular, charismatic figure, but maybe the lack of solidarity was in recognition of how far he had dragged the supposedly liberal magazine to the right. Still, does no one want to see if there might be some positive aspects to Hughes’ plan?

2. And yet — if Hughes wants a digital media startup, why didn’t he just do it instead of buying TNR and turning it into something else? That makes no sense. And yet again — if Hughes is looking for the kind of print/online/events strategy that has transformed The Atlantic, as media-business analyst Ken Doctor argues, how could that possibly be a bad thing? I’d be the first to admit that I don’t like The Atlantic nearly as much as I did when it was a staid, Boston-based monthly. But it has managed to combine success, influence and seriousness, and that’s nothing to be scoffed at.

3. During Peretz’s long ownership, TNR was derided not just for its lack of diversity but for its hostility to any steps aimed at ensuring racial justice. I wrote for TNR twice. The first time, in 1998, was about the departure of Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle for fabricating, and Barnicle for plagiarizing as well. When I received the edited version of my piece, I saw that someone had inserted some harsh anti-affirmative action language. (The idea was that both Smith, an African-American, and Barnicle, an Irish-American, had been beneficiaries of some sort of affirmative-action mindset.) I was appalled, and fortunately was able to get the language removed before publication. But it showed what kind of thinking prevailed at TNR.

4. Among the former TNR editors lashing out at Hughes is Andrew Sullivan, who, among other things, once gave over the cover of the magazine to the authors of “The Bell Curve,” a racist tome that argued that black people just aren’t as intelligent as whites. Sullivan also published an infamous, falsehood-filled article by Betsy McCaughey that trashed the Clinton health plan and may have contributed to its defeat. Sullivan did far more harm to TNR than Hughes, but now he’s seen as a defender of tradition. (For more on the sins of TNR during the Peretz era, see Charlie Pierce.)

5. Probably the worst thing you can say about Hughes is that he decided to blow up The New Republic just as it was rediscovering its footing as a liberal journal. Editor Franklin Foer, by all accounts, was doing a fine job before Hughes fired him. But what is the role of a magazine like TNR in the digital age? The policy pieces in which it specialized are everywhere. Hughes could have kept it going as a small, money-losing journal, of course. But there was a time when TNR was an influential small, money-losing journal. Those days are long gone, as Ezra Klein notes at Vox. You can’t blame Hughes for wanting to try something different. If his behavior had been less reprehensible, maybe he could have brought his talented staff and contributors along for the ride.

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Washington Post to expand staff and ambitions

Then-Boston Globe editor on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) in 2009.
Marty Baron (2009 file photo)

The Washington Post faced a lot of questions after Ezra Klein packed up and took his talents to Vox Media. Were Jeff Bezos and company making a Politico-level mistake in not finding a way to keep Klein, the founder of Wonkblog, under its own roof? Or was Klein making unreasonable demands — reportedly a $10 million investment for a much bigger staff?

My own view is that the two sides should have found a way to keep Klein loosely affiliated with the Post, although I have no way of knowing whether that was a realistic option.

In any event, I’m burying the lede. On Wednesday the Post went a long way toward answering those questions by announcing a significant investment in its news operations. Wonkblog will continue. And according to a memo to the staff from executive editor Marty Baron, a considerable amount of hiring and expansion is under way, including more blogs, a breaking-news desk and an expanded Sunday magazine.

“With these initiatives, we can all look forward to a future of great promise,” Baron wrote. (Thanks to Jim Romenesko, who also links to a Washingtonian story in which Post publisher Katharine Weymouth offers further insight into Klein’s departure.)

In an interview with Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times, Baron says of Bezos: “He hasn’t been passive. He’s heavily engaged, keenly interested in what our ideas are. He offered his own thoughts and expressed a willingness to invest.”

These are very good signs at a time when the news about the news is more favorable than anything we’ve heard in years (Patch’s latest near-death experience notwithstanding). Whether such optimism is warranted will be the media story of 2014 and beyond.

Photo is a screen grab from an appearance then-Boston Globe editor Baron made on WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston with Emily Rooney” in 2009.

Volokh’s ‘joint venture’ points toward a new model

David Carr has the details of Wonkblog founder Ezra Klein’s new venture.

I recently argued in the Nieman Journalism Lab that legacy news organizations like The Washington Post should find ways of forming loose networks that would include partnerships with stars like Klein rather than traditional employment/ownership arrangements. That may not have been feasible with Klein specifically, but it’s a model that ought to be considered.

So I find it interesting that, last week, the Post began hosting The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian blog that’s been around since 2002. In a message to his readers, Eugene Volokh describes the arrangement as a “joint venture.” He writes:

We will also retain full editorial control over what we write [his emphasis]. And this full editorial control will be made easy by the facts that we have (1) day jobs, (2) continued ownership of our trademark and the volokh.com domain, and (3) plenty of happy experience blogging on our own, should the need arise to return to that.

Of course, Klein’s ambitions are a lot bigger than Volokh’s, and reportedly came with an eight-figure price tag. By contrast, the Volokh move would appear to present little risk for Post owner Jeff Bezos. Still, Carr’s assertion that the Post “has long-festering problems with its core business” left me wondering why Bezos didn’t see Klein as part of the solution to those problems.

Update: According to the Post’s Paul Farhi, Klein never pitched Bezos directly. The major issue, Farhi reports, was how much independence the Post was willing to give Klein.

Ezra Klein has left the building

To no one’s surprise, Ezra Klein, founder and editor of the popular Wonkblog, is leaving The Washington Post along with two other journalists in order to launch a new venture. Andrew Beaujon of Poynter has the details. In Politico, Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold report that Klein was looking for the Post to invest $10 million for a 30-staffer operation.

Post owner Jeff Bezos and his top lieutenants may have had good reasons for not meeting Klein’s conditions, but there’s no question the Post’s online traffic and buzz are going to suffer as a result of his departure. Recently I wrote a piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab arguing that news organizations need to find ways of forming loose networks with independent-minded stars like Klein.

If Bezos didn’t want to give Klein $10 million (and there’s no reason why he should), why not let Klein raise some of that venture capital on his own and give him an ownership stake? Maybe the two sides talked about ideas like that and couldn’t come to an agreement. But I suspect this is a divorce that could end up hurting both parties.

A big hire for the Globe — and an intriguing idea

This may not be an exact analogy, but it looks like The Boston Globe is thinking in terms of networks. The paper just announced a major hire — John Allen, who covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. And the press release includes this intriguing quote from Globe editor Brian McGrory:

He will be a correspondent first and foremost. He will be an analyst on all things Catholic. He will also help us explore the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism, drawing in other correspondents and leading voices from near and far.

Allowing entrepreneurial journalists like Ezra Klein to operate semi-independently inside a traditional news operation like The Washington Post is one way to embrace the network. Another way is to do what the Globe is considering — treat the news organization as a hub, with various spokes feeding into it.

Ezra Klein and the problem with top-down control

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

This commentary was published earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

With the likely departure of Ezra Klein from The Washington Post, the management of one of our last great newspapers might be showing signs of preferring the former approach. Klein, who founded and runs the widely read Wonkblog at washingtonpost.com, is reportedly leaving for a new venture, as yet undefined. According to Ravi Somaiya in The New York Times, Klein sought an eight-figure Post investment in the new project. Klein already has his own Wonkblog staff, but clearly he has something much bigger in mind — perhaps an all-purpose independent news organization along the lines of Talking Points Memo. (Although it wouldn’t be called Wonkblog — the Post owns the name and will be keeping it, writes The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who broke the news about Klein’s proposal last month.)

We can’t know everything that went into the decision. Maybe it came down to money. But Wonkblog generates a hefty amount of Web traffic — more than 4 million page views a month, according to a profile of Klein in The New Republic last February. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” a Post source told TNR’s Julia Ioffe. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” Apparently, that’s no longer the case.

Significantly, the Times reports that new Post owner Jeff Bezos was involved in the decision to let Klein leave. Last September, shortly after announcing his intention to buy the Post for $250 million, the Amazon.com founder lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning paper — which led to some chiding by one of the Post’s own journalists, Timothy B. Lee. Despite Bezos’ well-earned reputation as a clear-eyed digital visionary, he appears to have some romantic notions about the business he’s bought into. And allowing entrepreneurs such as the twentysomething Klein run his own shop inside the Post might not fit with that vision.

What makes the likely Klein departure even more significant is that in 2006 the Post, under the ownership of the Graham family, allowed John Harris and Jim VandeHei to walk out the door and start Politico. Now, I have a lot of problems with Politico’s gossipy “drive the day” approach. But as Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, much of the media conversation about Washington politics has shifted from the Post to Politico, threatening one of the Post’s franchises. It would have been enormously beneficial to the Post if Politico had been launched under its own umbrella. And Politico itself might be better.

So if the Post is reluctant to loosen the reins, are there any other news organizations that are taking a different approach? Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher walked away from their AllThingsD site at The Wall Street Journal and set up a new project called Re/code in partnership with NBC. Perhaps the most famous example is Nate Silver, who brought his FiveThirtyEight poll-analysis site to The New York Times a few years ago and then moved it lock, stock and barrel to ESPN. In that regard, I suppose you could say NBC and ESPN have embraced the network approach. To some extent you might say also that of The Huffington Post, as it combines professional journalists, unpaid bloggers (I’m one) and a dizzying array content — from Calderone’s excellent media coverage to the notorious Sideboob vertical.

Jeff Jarvis recently argued that Patch — AOL’s incredibly shrinking hyperlocal news project — might have stood a chance if AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had taken a network approach. Rather than running cookie-cutter community sites from the top down, Jarvis asked, what if Patch had offered advertising and support services to a network of independent or semi-independent sites?

The problem with such scenarios is that media executives — and business leaders in general — are not accustomed to the idea of giving up control. Calderone reports that some Post staffers have long grumbled at what they see as “preferential treatment” for Klein, which suggests the depth of the problem. But entrepreneurial journalists like Harris and VandeHei, like Mossberg and Swisher, and like Silver and Klein have a proven track record.

Legacy news organizations need to find a way to tap into that success outside the old models of ownership and not worry about obsolete notions of employer-employee relationships. Reach and influence are what matter. And they are proving to be incompatible with the ambitions of young journalists like Ezra Klein.

More: After this piece was published at Nieman, Mathew Ingram responded at Gigaom with his own smart take.