Chris Hughes: The separation of business and editorial is outdated

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on September 27, 2013

From The News Desk

Chris Hughes, Facebook co-founder, Obama campaigner, and current owner and editor-in-chief of the New Republic, says he would repeat the most controversial move he's made since the publication's January re-launch.

Earlier this year, Hughes came under fire when he chose to put his softball interview with President Obama on the cover of the New Republic instead of an already commissioned 24,000-word story on America's healthcare system by journalist Steve Brill. Brill, livid at Hughes' decision, took the story to Time, which ended up selling out on newsstands and went viral.

At last night's PandoMonthly in New York, Sarah Lacy asked Hughes if he'd do it again. His response? Absolutely. "Not only from an editorial perspective would I do it exactly the same a second time, but from a sell-through perspective," he explained. The issue in question, according to him, had a record high sell-through rate. Therefore axing Brill's cover story was a no-brainer in his eyes. That decision is indicative of the role Hughes feels he must play as the publication's latest editor.

Since Hughes bought the New Republic and took on the editor-in-chief role, critics have wondered what qualifies him for the job. It turns out his editorial background is anything but voluminous. Asked by Lacy about journalism background, he recalled his time editing his high school newspaper, as well as a student-oriented publication called Current, which was later acquired by Newsweek.

But Hughes told Lacy that he saw his role not as one of overseeing the minute details of the magazine, but in "setting the editorial vision."

His mission is in re-thinking what the publication should be, he said. Part of that means reconsidering the meeting point of business and editorial. Perhaps controversially, he believes the church-state separation between editorial and business is now arcane. As Hughes put it: "I knew that in buying a content and media company, the idea that business sits over here and lets a newsroom do whatever it wants over there is anachronistic."

He didn't want to be an owner at the sidelines funding the project while a crack team of editors and ad sales work on the product. While he doesn't line-edit the magazine's stories, or even read all of them before they go to print, he does take an over-arching approach to his editor-in-chief role, especially when it comes to building the team. "It has been very important for me to be able to work on both sides of the organization," he said.

Hughes purchased the nearly century-old publication a year and a half ago, with the intent of restoring it to the high position it once held. For instance, as the movie "Shattered Glass" pointed out, it was once reputed to be the only magazine offered on Air Force One (there may have been some truth-stretching to this suggestion, but you get the point).

Part of this restoration is understanding how an age-old magazine can transform into a 21st-century media company. That has been Hughes' biggest challenge. Sadly, he doesn't yet haven't answers for how such a company might be profitable.

Hughes said there is no "magic bullet" for monetization, and he said he's not even aiming for a wildly profitable product. It would be enough if the magazine could just pay for itself. "We want to be a sustainable media company that does quality journalism about politics, culture, and society," he said.

Earlier this year, he was quoted as saying that he plans to make TNR profitable by 2015. Now he's slightly hedging his bets, but said he would be a patient and determined owner. He also pointed out that the magazine's circulation has risen from 34,000 to 44,000 since he took the helm.

One of his most important goals is expanding the publication's reach. When he took the reins, it was an ailing magazine with a meager circulation rate. At its peak, TNR had a circulation of nearly 100,000. Over the years that dropped well below 40,000. Transforming it into a fully fledged media company rethinking everything from videos to photos to features, including what works on social media.

"We don't have a lot of listicles… we don't have a lot of stuff that is naturally going to attract a lot of eyeballs," he told Lacy. "But we [try] to package them in a way that is interesting and shareable."

Since last winter's re-launch, the publication has been highly scrutinized. PandoDaily's Hamish McKenzie reported on Hughes' first year as editor-in-chief, saying that he "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." Former New Republic editor and owner Martin Peretz wasn't as even-keeled. Peretz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he didn't "recognize the magazine that [he] sold in 2012." In the piece, Peretz argues that Hughes' political stronghold over the content doesn't reflect the nuanced and "intellectual traditions" for which the publication used to be so renowned.

Despite the criticisms, Hughes remains upbeat about the media industry. "I think that this is arguably the most optimistic time for the content business," he said, pointing to a growing digital ad market and the New York Times' success with digital subscriptions as reasons for good cheer.

In which case, he should probably have a long conversation with Paul Carr.

[Photo by Timothy Briner for Pandodaily]