In a sense, I started writing online because of The New Republic.
Before I had my own barely-read little blog (of which we shall not speak further), before I joined the community here, I participated widely in the comments section on TNR’s various blogs, particularly The Plank. (Given the unmitigated contempt I now hold for all online comments sections save the one hereabouts, the irony is not lost on me.) It was my first foray into digital communication, into sharing ideas with unknown other readers connecting across the Internet. When a friend suggested a blog together, I went with the idea because I’d gotten familiar with the kind of writing I wanted to do thanks to the host site.
This week, the new owner of The New Republic, venerable American journal of political and cultural commentary that it is, decided to destroy it. Chris Hughes, the Facebook billionaire who bought it, sacked both editor-in-chief Franklin Foer and long-time literary editor Leon Wieseltier, all in service of transforming the publication from a place for in-depth, long-form articles into a “digital media company.” This has led to the mass exodus of essentially its entire editorial staff (including favorite writers of mine), and a resoundingly horrified outcry from many of its prominent alumni, including Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait.
As someone who considers himself incredibly lucky to have become a paid writer at a bona fide digital media company, perhaps it seems hypocritical to lament this. It’s conceivable that outlets like The Daily Beast are what the new New Republic will resemble, after all. I’m all too happy to write for the one, so why should I grieve the loss of the other?
But of course, one doesn’t have to hate Buzzfeed to want alternatives. (I am addicted to their videos of staffers eating unfamiliar foods.) One doesn’t have to hate the Gawker media empire to be afraid of every outlet coming to resemble it. One doesn’t have to dismiss the journalism at Slate or Salon or Huffington Post to want a source of long-form articles that would likely bore the ever-living crap out of most of their readers.
Even when I have disagreed with the political perspectives contained in its pages (I was never a fan of Marty Peretz’s geopolitical views), what has always been undeniable is the depth and breadth of the thinking there. The writers it has fostered are among the most skilled in the industry (Chris Orr remains my favorite movie critic), and even though my print subscription lapsed years ago (along with so many others) it’s always been a reliable source of thoughtful, insightful commentary and analysis.
In fact, I’ve always harbored the ambition to write something for them. Friend and one-time fellow Ordinary Conor Williams is the subject of my unalloyed envy for contributing there, and one of these days I hoped to pester him to connect me with an editor when I finally sat down and wrote a policy-heavy piece I thought might be a good fit. The very first thing I ever submitted for consideration was to The New Republic (a review of the film version of “Rent,” which I loathed), eventually politely declined. But I still harbor an ambition to land a byline there.
Or rather, I did. Because what’s the point now that the new owners have decided a century’s worth of prestige and intellectual rigor is worth discarding? Why bother trying to consider a thoughtful, lengthy discussion of some aspect of healthcare policy if thoughtful, lengthy discussions are no longer going to be what they want? If their model is to be just one more “digital media” outlet rather than an actual journal, then it hardly seems an ambition to shoot for.
The New Republic offered something special and worth protecting in the American intellectual and literary landscape. If ever there were something worth preserving with one’s billions of dollars, its legacy would be one of them. The bloodbath at the head of the editorial staff seems roughly akin to me to buying “Starry Night” then cutting it into squares for sale as coasters. If the new owners never understood the real value their new acquisition had in the first place, it is a tragedy for American letters that they bought it at all.