Just over a year ago, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic, a print magazine and Washington DC institution that, like its peers, was staring death in the face. Hughes came on as publisher and “Editor in Chief,” supposedly with the aim of making it like the New Yorker of the US capital.
Today, Hughes sent a letter to readers noting that the company has set new records for its Web traffic and passed the 50,000 mark for circulation. (Note: It’s not strictly a one-year anniversary, since Hughes bought the magazine last March, but it’s close enough.) In the last year, he said, the company has doubled its staff, opened a second office in New York, redesigned the print version, and re-launched the iPad app and website.
While those metrics seem encouraging, Hughes’ first year with the magazine has been eventful for other reasons, both internal and external to the company.
A lot has happened in “print” media in the last 12 months. Newsweek and Spin have become online-only entities; BuzzFeed has launched tech and business verticals and hired a longform editor along with several ex-New York Times staffers; and the New Yorker has ramped up its online presence, adding a tech blog, books blog, and a science and tech vertical to its site. Bucking the webward trend, meanwhile, Paul Carr’s NSFW launched a print magazine.
In the meantime, Hughes has taken heat for his editorial decisions. Huhges was roundly criticized for passing up the opportunity to publish an epic healthcare cover story by Steven Brill, who took the story to Time after the New Republic decided instead to run a soft-ball interview with President Obama for its relaunch issue. (Hughes was an Obama staffer and donor.) As a result of the fall-out, Brill called Hughes a “liar.”
Similarly, Hughes took another smack for firing journalist Timothy Noah, who griped that the publisher “might be a young man with more money than sense.”
But while Hughes might have got off-side with a few journalism veterans, his arrival at the New Republic has transformed its digital prospects. As well as hiring a creative director to redesign the print magazine – the first time someone has held such a position at the company in its 99-year history – he quickly set to work in pulling the New Republic to the top of the digital totem pole.
In January, the New Republic unveiled a new website built with responsive design, so the page adapts to whatever browser it is being viewed on. Among the nifty features is a drop-down tool bar that includes a “progress meter” that ticks up the further you get through a story. The design also focuses heavily on text, with clean left and right side rails, interrupted only by the occasional footnote – or, I guess, “side note.”
The minimalist homepage, meanwhile, highlights just a handful of important reads rather than going full-slather by linking to everything in the magazine. By contrast, its “latest stories” page features a long list of links and endless scrolling. Pushing the ball forward on digital formats, the New Republic was also one of the first publishers to sign up with Spokenlayer, a recent graduate of new media incubator Matter, to provide audio versions of every one of its stories.
As much as anything, however, the New Republic’s example so far shows that nifty digital tools and design alone are not enough to keep a magazine alive. One year in, Hughes, who recently told the Wall Street Journal that he hasn’t given up on print, has shown that he has the ability to reinvigorate the look of a modern magazine, but the question of whether or not he can save it as a business remains very much open. His letter today ended with a plea for more subscriptions, noting “there are still many of you who are waiting on the sidelines to subscribe.”
That end note is a reminder of the enormous challenge that faces magazines today. The New Republic’s website is beautiful, but being behind a partial pay wall – one that gives readers access to eight free stories per month – it may ultimately fall short when lined up against competitors that offer plenty of quality content for free on competing sites such as the New Yorker, Slate, and the New York Times. And even its record Web traffic is unlikely to bring in enough advertising revenue to pay for a strong editorial staff, not to mention a bi-weekly print publishing schedule. Nor is that circulation of 50,000 enough to make advertisers clamor.
To that end, it’s no wonder Hughes is pleading for more subscribers. Without them, the New Republic won’t get close to Hughes’ stated goal of becoming profitable within two years. And at that point, that print version might start to look like a liability alongside the sexier, cheaper digital versions. Despite having a Facebook co-founder at the top of the masthead, the new New Republic has to face all the same problems as its peers in this new new media world.