Years ago — long before the internet — my mom gave me a subscription to The New Republic, and I dutifully read it. She had told me that it was not exactly a liberal publication but it had good writing and a long history of in-depth journalism going back to 1914.
But when it came time to renew I didn’t bother. I think I was in the midst of moving from Colorado to Michigan or something and I already had subscriptions to enough magazines — Newsweek, The Nation, The New Yorker, and Caribbean Travel & Life cluttered the coffee table — and if there was something really important in TNR, Mom would clip it out and send it.
Now the magazine, like most print publications, is going through paroxysms of change as the internet and on-line writing overwhelm the ink barrels. A few years ago TNR was bought up by Chris Hughes who once won the lottery and roomed with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and therefore had the money to buy it. Last week it went through a major seismic change at the top — mass resignations by editors and top managers– and over the weekend the magazine announced that it was going on hiatus until February. My money is on it not coming back at all.
There’s no doubt that the magazine had an impact on a lot of readers and writers. Respected journalists from both the left and the right worked there; people like Michael Kinsley to Andrew Sullivan were editors, and the history of the publication goes back to the heyday of investigative journalism in the early 1900’s. But as Josh Marshall notes, it has had its time.
I do not think there can be any doubt that what TNR was in decades past was deeply undermined by the publishing revolution of the last 20 years. This didn’t happen in the print versus digital sense we normally think of, not like what happened with newspapers, which is very different.
The key is that 30 years ago, if you wanted to read meaty, smart and incisive writing about politics, policy and the political culture of the United States – written for people who were really into those things – there just were not many places to find it. There were very, very few places in fact.
There were no blogs. There were none of the numerous digital publications which all to some degree take a stab at producing that kind of writing. There was The Nation further to the left, National Review on the right. And none of this is to diminish other even smaller magazines playing a similar role. But there was just nothing comparable to the profusion of material (content, as we now say) we have today.
I don’t like to sound callous and I’m sorry that the people who worked at TNR who had no role in management or editorial decisions are out of a job right before the holidays, but that’s what happens in the business of journalism: magazines come and go, and in the era of on-line journalism, it is especially tough. Besides, as I noted elsewhere, if I want to read long articles with obscure cultural references, I’ll click on Andrew Sullivan.