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The New Republic collapses as it turns 100

If the New Statesman has a sister publication, it is the New Republic. The magazine’s collapse provokes us to ask whether such an institution can be more than a vanity project without destroying its purpose and heritage, or losing its political identity altogether.

If the New Statesman has a sister publication it is the New Republic, the voice of American heterodox liberalism, which celebrated its centenary on 19 November with a gala dinner in Washington, DC at which Bill Clinton was guest speaker. I was invited to the gala by the publication’s owner, Chris Hughes, a hugely wealthy 31-year-old entrepreneur who was a Harvard room-mate of Mark Zuckerberg and co-founder of Facebook (he had the fifth Facebook account; Zuckerberg had the fourth).

In 2012 Hughes bought the impecunious, once-great New Republic and declared his intention to invest in “high-quality long-form journalism”. It felt like an exciting moment – new media meets old – and I watched what was happening with fascination.

I met Hughes for lunch in London not long after he had reappointed Frank Foer as TNR editor. We spoke about the history of our titles and the crises that had afflicted them. Yet we were both optimistic about the prospects for high-quality journalism and niche publications in the digital age.

By this time, TNR and its website had been lavishly redesigned and relaunched (once weekly, the magazine was now appearing fortnightly). Its new iPad app was being marketed aggressively. New staff were being expensively hired.

Over the past year or so, I’ve liked Frank Foer’s work on TNR (though I understood that its annual losses were as much as $5m and the app had not been the hoped-for success), and he and Hughes expressed admiration for the way we had rejuvenated the NS. We agreed to share and showcase a selection of our journalism on our respective websites.

Then, on 4 December, it was announced that Foer and Leon Wieseltier, who had been literary editor since 1983 and was seen as the conscience of the paper (even if he was perhaps too fond of publishing 10,000-plus-word reviews about Kafka), had resigned, or been forced out after disagreements with Hughes and a new chief executive, Guy Vidra. Formerly of Yahoo! News, Vidra told staff, in a disastrous briefing, that the magazine would be reimagined “as a vertically integrated digital media company”. Foer’s replacement would be Gabriel Snyder, formerly editor of the Atlantic Wire, an online aggregation site.

The next day most of TNR’s senior staff and contributing editors resigned in protest. Several writers threatened to pull their work from the next issue, which was only a few days from going to press. Hughes responded by suspending publication until February, when the magazine will be (yet again) relaunched as a not-quite-monthly (ten issues a year, down from 20). David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, described what had happened as “a terrible loss and an outrage”.

In an article in the Washington Post, Hughes expressed regret but remained defiant. “At the heart of the conflict of the past few days is a divergent view on how the New Republic – and journalism more broadly – will survive. In one view, it is a ‘public trust’ and not a business . . . I believe we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few.”

Hughes has been accused of an act of cultural vandalism. But publications such as the New Republic – and the New Statesman, for that matter – deserve to survive, let alone thrive, only if a readership exists for them, in print and online. Very few publications can afford as the Guardian does to operate a debt-financed expansionist model – it loses as much as £30m a year and yet professes the desire to become the “world’s leading liberal voice”. Let’s call the Guardian’s the Manchester City model of journalism. It is clearly one that Hughes no longer wishes to share. Yet can TNR become more than a vanity project without destroying its purpose and heritage, or losing its political identity altogether?

In a farewell memo to staff, Foer wrote: “Part of the joy has been the struggle: We’ve fought to preserve an institution that was perpetually imperilled.”

I empathise with what he said. One of the many pleasures (and challenges) of editing the New Statesman has indeed been the struggle: first you have to rethink the magazine for a new era and create a vibrant website; then you have to make it viable as a sustainable business as well as increase your influence and readership without the ruinous costs of marketing. In other words, the journalism becomes its own marketing. And I’m happy to say it’s working for us and we can face the future with confidence. Would that one could say the same of the stricken New Republic.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.