The New Republic as a product

From a poster at Hacker News commenting on The New Yorker article, Inside the Collapse of The New Republic:

I think I’m exactly the audience that TNR wants. I’m well-educated, make a good living, largely agree with them politically, enjoy long-form journalism, and am familiar with the brand and its history.

Yet I don’t think I would ever subscribe to TNR. I just see a magazine as something that’s going to pile up in my house. I can read more than enough great content online for free. If I was going to subscribe to a magazine, I think that The New Yorker is a lot more interesting than The New Republic.

Take note, journalistas. This is how your readers view your stuff — not as a “public trust”, “a voice”, or “a cause”, as TNR was described by the exiting editors in their resignation letter.

For better or worse, readers view your stuff as a product. And a product, to be bought, let alone used, needs to be useful.

The New Republic's logo: a ship that set sail in 1914, about 100 years ago
The New Republic’s logo: a ship that set sail in 1914, about 100 years ago.

As Jay Rosen put it:

Technologists tend to ask what the “product” should be, and they know what they mean by that. The product is “what the users interact with.”

To technologists, “product” is always changing because tech changes, platforms rise and fall, user habits shift, what works evolves, etc.

For journalists, “what should the product be?” is an EASY question to answer. Should be great journalism! Big stories. Brilliant writing.

Because of this disconnect around “product,” technologists and journalists talk past one another.

Going back the the Hacker News commenter, there is a reflection about what the responsibility is of a media owner given that the primary thing in his stewardship is a declining product:

The media has largely portrayed this as Hughes carelessly destroying a renowned and vital institution. Hughes has certainly made some mistakes, but I wonder whether Foer and Wiesetlier were just letting the magazine gradually slide into irrelevance and inevitable death anyway.

This is a magazine whose readership has dropped by half since 2000. If Hughes doesn’t want to subsidize a money-losing institution with a declining and aging readership, then isn’t it his prerogative as an owner to shake things up?

He may have gone about it the wrong way, but ultimately wouldn’t the public be better off with a TNR that has an ability to support itself and thrive in the future?

That’s an excellent question, and one that I wonder whether the departing editors would have been wise to ask themselves before rushing out the door.

In their resignation letter, they wrote of TNR’s conversion into a digital product with heady, apocalyptic language:

It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon. The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.

“Liberalism’s central journal”? The “promise of American life” has been… “dealt a lamentable blow”?

If TNR wants to be a “liberalism’s central journal” contributing to the “promise of American life”, it had better live on the Internet. I have a few other companies you might care to read the histories of — they also offered to be “central journals” of various things in the pre-web era, and failed to adapt: Encyclopedia Brittanica as a central journal of knowledge, The Yellow Pages as a central journal of business listings, and Rand McNally as a central journal of cartography.

Consider this: Rand McNally owns maps.com, but uses the website to sell its print maps. Imagine how much accidental type-in traffic they receive from people expecting to actually get what Google Maps offers for free? And ponder how many years it will be from now when young citizens — members of “American life” — type in this address and wonder to themselves, “What on earth are these people selling?”

It won’t be that long before these “maps” look to this person the same way a telegraph machine — or even, a fax machine — looks to me today. Like a clunky artifact of history. An irrelevant product of a prior era.

Liberalism’s central journal won’t be a journal and it won’t be central.

This is something that political blogs like DailyKos.com (Quantcast Rank #299) and AlterNet.org (Quantcast Rank #641) always understood, at a deep level. It is something that the most successful print-to-digital transformations, such as The New Yorker (SimilarWeb US Rank #1,018) and The New York Times (SimilarWeb US Rank #42), are increasingly coming to understand.

Hughes was only speaking the hard truth to his staff: to remain relevant, TNR needs a growing and loyal digital audience. Because sooner or later, there won’t be any other kind for journalism and opinion.

Would you rather be a footnote of history, or part of history?

I am reminded of another “central journal”, one that focused on the counter-culture communities of the 60’s and 70’s: The Whole Earth Catalog. It is the magazine that Steve Jobs famously quoted in his Stanford commencement speech, the one whose back cover featured the slogan: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”.

In 2008, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired, described the Whole Earth Catalog this way:

For this new countercultural movement, information was a precious commodity. In the 60s, there was no Internet; no 500 cable channels. It was a great example of user-generated content, without advertising, before the Internet.

Basically, Brand invented the blogosphere long before there was any such thing as a blog. […] No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included.

[…] This I am sure about: it is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

What did Stewart Brand, the editor/founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, think of the rise of the web and what was to become of his own “central journal”? Well, Brand put it bluntly:

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.

3 Responses to “The New Republic as a product”

  1. Baron Says:

    I am probably in the minority now, but I specifically want paper magazines to read. The experience on a digital device just isn’t good imo. And I can’t read one during takeoff and landing. And I can’t stuff it into a bag without worrying about breaking it. And it tracks me and is a privacy and security threat if it is stolen or lost. And its batteries run down. All these and more reasons are why I want tnr in paper form. Some of.this will change over time, some will not.

  2. Making money as a public trust | Smash Company Says:

    […] Andrew Montalenti comments on the fall of The New Republic: […]

  3. Lawrence Krubner Says:

    I disagree with the emphasis of this post. I wrote a long rebuttal on my blog, but here is the key paragraph:

    TNR did not die because it is printed on paper. TNR died because it systematically and deliberately broke all ties with any faction that might have been its constituency. I believe that back in the 1950s and 1960s and even 1970s it operated as a real public trust, but it stopped doing so 30 years ago. For 30 years it operated as the personal journal of one guy who has an eccentric set of opinions that are completely out of touch with any of the larger political movements in the country. Again, he has a right to his own opinion, but the rest of us have a right to ignore him. His unwillingness to represent any political faction that exists in the USA today is what lead to the demise of TNR.

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