A Brief History of The New Republic: From Lippmann to Peretz to Hughes

Benjamin Wright


The New Republic was on the verge of collapse just shy of its 100th birthday. But in March of 2012, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes swooped down to its rescue, saving the iconic magazine from ruin, nursing it back to health, though not necessary profitability. This was not the first time the influential magazine has stood on shaky ground, nor is it the first time that it has operated at a financial loss. And judging from its recovery in recent months, it seems fair to say now that it will likely not be the last.


The Early and Middle Years

The New Republic was founded by co-editors Walter Lippmann, Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl in 1914, and funded by American investor Willard Straight and his wife, Dorothy Payne Whitney, of the Whitney family fortune. It was from its start a bastion of American liberalism and an early supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism. The magazine’s foundations began to splinter shortly after its founding. Despite many early pro-Roosevelt articles, a falling out with the former president soon occurred. The First World War and the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations became polarizing issues for the magazine, and the years directly following the war were tumultuous ones for the nascent publication. Willard Straight’s life came to an end with the influenza epidemic of 1918. At age 32, Randolph Bourne, a contributor from the magazine’s founding days, also succumbed to influenza. And Weyl died prematurely, in 1919, at the age of 46.  Lippmann left in 1920, partly due to disagreements with Croly.


When the first issue of The New Republic hit newsstands on 7 November 1914, it sold a mere 875 copies. After the first year, the number ballooned to 15,000, hitting a wartime high of 43,000 copies (when the U.S. population was about one-third of what it is today), favored mostly by young intellectuals – white, educated and well-to-do. But these glory days were shortlived. By 1924, The New Republic filed for bankruptcy. It soon revived and began publishing again, Croly remaining at the editorial helm until his death in 1930, but some believed that the magazine was never the same as in the early years.


In 1930, Croly was replaced by Bruce Bliven as editor-in-chief of the publication, and later by Henry A. Wallace, a central figure in Democratic Party politics. Wallace led the magazine to its first post-war peak performance years, achieving a circulation of nearly 100,000 – double the circulation when he jumped on as editor – but, reportedly, with some significant financial losses. Whether or not The New Republic was as culturally and politically significant as it was in its beginning, the Wallace years were arguably the second glorious phase of the magazine. Wallace – having had some disagreements with then-publisher of the magazine, Michael Whitney Straight, son of Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney – resigned in December of 1947 to run for the U.S. presidency in the 1948 election on the Progressive Party ticket, though he achieved less than 2.4 percent of the vote in the general election. Michael Whitney Straight filled the editorial shoes Wallace left vacant.


In the 1950s, circulation again took a significant plunge. In 1953, Gilbert Harrison purchased the publication. According to a New York Times obituary, during much of Harrison’s tenure the publication operated at a loss:  “You can say losses ranged from about $200,000 to $50,000 a year.” The publication during these years, which stretched from 1953 to 1974, was a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, a defender and then a critic of the War in Vietnam and a champion of Eugene McCarthy over Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. By the early 1970s, Harrison brought TNR’s circulation back up to the 100,000 range.


But after more than 20 years as owner, Harrison sold the then fiscally sound magazine to Martin Peretz, a Harvard social studies lecturer and husband of Anne Labouisse Farnsworth, heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Peretz purchased the magazine for $380,000 and agreed to keep Harrison on as editor-in-chief for three years, until 1977, though disagreements between the two led to a premature split just one year after Peretz acquired the magazine. Many of the esteemed staff either quit or were replaced, and while the voice of The New Republic gradually shifted rightwards, its relevance and stability remained relatively intact during most of the Peretz years.


The Peretz Years

Martin Peretz has been described as belligerent, bigoted, loyal, argumentative, generous, and, perhaps, most fittingly, controversial. He acquired The New Republic when it was in good standing and circulation remained in the 90,000 to 100,000 range throughout most of his tenure as publisher. According to Peretz, though, the magazine fluctuated back and forth between the black and the red for many of the years of his ownership. 


It took a significant plunge throughout the 2000s, during which time Peretz served as editor-in-chief, though he held only a minority stake in the ownership of The New Republic. As per the Alliance for Audited Media, TNR’s circulation peaked in 1993, during Andrew Sullivan’s early years as editor. At that time, circulation was more than 102,000, and that year the publication also earned its highest profit: $175,000. 


At the start of 2000, the magazine’s circulation was more than 100,000, but it plunged by 13 percent the following year, taking another dip of nearly 26 percent by 2003, at a time when the magazine was supporting the War in Iraq.


The Nation, a liberal publication with a longer history and a stance traditionally to the left of The New Republic, saw a growth in circulation during the same time that TNR lost readers (actually hitting peak circulation figures during the same time that TNR was on the decline), suggesting the possibility that many readers abandoned the liberal magazine due to its right-leaning views on divisive foreign policy matters. At the same time, the conservative National Review’s circulation (which has been much higher than that of either TNR or The Nation) remained relatively stagnant; its editorial stances, of course, are a bit more predictable within the existing boundaries of conservative ideology. 

Peretz, very much a part of the organized left in his youth, a champion of civil rights, an opponent of the War in Vietnam, a supporter and (with his wife) major donor to the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, was – according to New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells – never deeply committed to leftist ideology. Writes Wallace-Wells: “Peretz’s ideological commitment to the left, though fervent on civil rights, had always been a little thin. By 1967, it was near total collapse. The problem was Israel.” The son of Zionists, the obligations Peretz felt to the state of Israel were always indisputably stronger than his commitment to the left.


The New Republic had, as Wallace-Wells writes, “a politics well to the left of [Peretz’s] own . . . Peretz has kept it roughly that way, hiring editors more liberal than he and punctuating the magazine with neoconservative ideas.”  But being to the left of Peretz did not always mean bringing on writers or editors with the same ideological bent that the magazine had maintained throughout its history. While The Nation stayed truer to 1960s-style liberalism, The New Republic moved with the tide, coasting on the new wave of conservatism in American politics. 


Under Bliven, the magazine endorsed a Socialist president. In the initial years following the Soviet Revolution, the publication supported it. Wallace, the former editor, when he ran for the presidency, proposed the idea of a universal government healthcare plan (by the time the Obama Administration considered healthcare reform, even a much more conservative “public option” was quickly taken “off the table”). Under Peretz, The New Republic was fervently anti-communist, militarily hawkish and when Andrew Sullivan was editor ran a controversial piece that vehemently attacked Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan (based on some faulty claims nonetheless), just before the 1994 State of the Union address.


While the publication has vacillated between the left and right sides of the liberal ideological spectrum over its long and harried history, it moved right of center during most of the Peretz years and stayed there, occasionally bouncing slightly back to the left.


Following Harrison’s departure, Peretz assumed the role of editor-in-chief, a position he held until 2011. In 1979, he brought on Michael Kinsley, an economic neoliberal, then Hendrik Hertzberg, a former Carter speechwriter. Kinsley reprised his role in 1985, and Hertzberg returned again as editor in 1989.  Under Hertzberg’s tenure, the magazine twice won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.


Hertzberg was followed by the provocative conservative editor, Andrew Sullivan. Like his predecessors, the British-born Sullivan attended Oxford and Harvard. (Peretz is sometimes accused of favoritism toward those who graduated from Harvard, and especially former students; many of The New Republic’s acclaimed staff under Harrison were replaced by Harvard alumni.)


Among the more controversial moves made by Sullivan were his decisions to publish excerpts from Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s fiercely contentious work The Bell Curve – which argued that racial differences in IQ had genetic roots – and Elizabeth McCaughey’s attack against Hillary Clinton’s healthcare proposal in 1994. Added to this period of tumult was a plagiarism scandal involving writer Ruth Shalit.

With Sullivan’s departure, the editorial helm was manned by several men: Michael Kelly, Charles Lane and Peter Beinart, with Beinart serving the longest, from 1999 to 2006. Kelly was fired after a year, largely because of political differences with Martin Peretz regarding views on the Clinton Administration. Lane served only two years, quitting just after finding out that Peretz was planning on firing him.


Beinart’s term as editor was, overall, a period of sharp decline for the historic publication, marked largely by its controversial stance on the War on Iraq. It was under Beinart’s leadership that TNR launched its blog, The Plank, and invested greatly in Internet spending, shifting some of its focus from the print market. In financial hardship, the magazine cut its staff and reduced both staff salaries and circulation. Beinart left on relatively good terms, though The New York Times’ Steven Rodrick suggests the reason was at least in part because of disagreements with Peretz over the conflicts between Israel and Palestine.


Franklin Foer took editorial control following Beinart’s departure, and, perhaps sensing the need to return to the roots of The New Republic, promised to make the magazine more liberal, making amends in his first editorial for the magazine’s role in helping discredit Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan. Foer set out to make amends for the errors of previous editors whose decisions may have, at times, disenchanted many of the readers who made up TNR’s base.


But despite Foer’s efforts, the magazine was in a bad position. According to Stephen Rodrick in The New York Times, Peretz had lost considerable money on “various Internet ventures . . . he was facing divorce, and his finances forced him to sell the magazine. ‘We just didn’t have the $3 million a year to spend any more,’ Anne Peretz says.”


In 2001, Peretz sold a majority share of the magazine to Roger Hertog and Michael Steinhardt. Hertog was an American businessman associated with conservative and neoconservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. Ideologically, though he claimed to champion the free sharing of ideas, the magazine’s liberal reputation was at odds with Hertog’s own political views. The politics of Steinhardt, an American hedge fund manager, cannot be as easily pinpointed, though seem to be more traditionally liberal. Both Hertog and Steinhardt were very rich and both were also champions of Jewish causes and defenders of Israel, points of interest very dear to Martin Peretz.  It was through these commonalities that Peretz first met Steinhardt 30 years earlier. Steinhardt later introduced him to Hertog, a longtime friend, approximately six months prior to the duo’s acquisition of majority ownership in The New Republic.  


In January of 2006, the Canadian media company CanWest purchased a 30 percent minority share in The New Republic, becoming majority owner by February of 2007, when Hertog and Steinhardt sold their shares for a reported $5 million. 

Under the ownership of CanWest, with Peretz as editor-in-chief and Franklin Foer as editor, TNR implemented some major format changes. Among them: decreased frequency of publication, from almost weekly to a little less than biweekly; more frequent website content updates, and  more durable pages and a new layout in the magazine, at an increased newsstand price – $4.95 instead of $3.95.


By 2009, CanWest entered bankruptcy protection and Peretz purchased the magazine back with the help of investors. 


Throughout the trading of hands, Peretz remained part owner until CanWest took control of the magazine and also remained as editor-in-chief (even through the CanWest ownership years), despite becoming an increasingly polarizing figure at The New Republic. Not that Peretz had not stirred controversy before, but after September 11, and particularly in the late-2000s, his tirades against Muslims became more acrid and the public started taking notice.


Peretz was given his own blog to voice his opinions because, according to Stephen Rodrick, “other TNR writers were embarrassed to share space with him.” Rodrick continues: “The move solved one problem but created a bigger one; Peretz behaved like a rogue state.” Among his more troublesome blog posts were several verbal attacks against the Arab world and a piece against former TNR staffer Sidney Blumenthal flagged by an intern as “potentially libelous.”


By 2010, Peretz took heat for stating that “Muslim life is cheap,” and asserting that Muslims might not be worthy of the protections of the First Amendment. These were not Peretz’s first slurs against Muslims, but many took notice. Peretz was condemned by Eric Alterman of The Nation, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and The Atlantic’s James Fallows. Letters came in demanding accountability. At Harvard, there were protests organized against Peretz when he came to campus for the 50th anniversary of the Harvard social studies program, with many protestors holding up signs illustrating outrageous Peretz quotes.


Shortly after these 2010 blog postings, amidst a series of layoffs, Franklin Foer resigned as editor. Richard Just took his place under some tough circumstances, and, despite the troubles he faced, Just led the publication to its first National Magazine Award nomination for General Excellence in 20 years. Despite Just’s efforts, the fact remained that the magazine, which had been solvent throughout most of Peretz’s ownership, was in a precarious position. The future of the publication was uncertain, really for the first time since the 1920s. Just and literary editor Leon Wieseltier would often confer over the best course for the future of The New Republic. Then, one day, according to a Wieseltier interview with New York’s Carl Swanson, Just approached Wieseltier and asked, “Do you know who Chris Hughes is?” 


Chris Hughes Gives The New Republic a Chance

Richard Just soon contacted Chris Hughes about investing in the publication. Hughes, whose background was in social media because by happenstance he was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate during their sophomore year at Harvard, agreed to invest in the magazine.


The Facebook co-founder and online media strategist on the 2008 Obama campaign bought majority ownership in March of 2012. Among his first moves were establishing himself as editor-in-chief and ousting Richard Just, and bringing back Franklin Foer as the top editor of the magazine. 


It soon became clear that Hughes, if he were to invest in the publication, would do things his way. He was going to reinvent the magazine for the 21st century, and he had some big changes in mind.

But one may wonder why anyone would find it desirable to invest in an unprofitable enterprise, in a magazine that had been losing ground for most of the 21st century. The magazine was lacking in ambition, as Franklin Foer told Christine Haughney of The New York Times, and seemed to many to be “obscure and obsolete,” as New York’s Swanson writes in his profile of Hughes.  Swanson explains, though, that this is an “experiment” for Hughes, and even if it turns out to be a flop, it is an experiment that the young multi-millionaire can afford. For Hughes this venture is about informing the political and cultural dialogue, and it seems, in ways, following a Lippman-esque model of shaping public discourse (Lippman believed the masses were a “bewildered herd,” and that their views should be shaped by experts and elites – the types of people who worked at The New Republic – people who could, in Lippman’s own words, tell readers “what to think about”). As Swanson writes, “Hughes wants to produce what thoughtful people ought to read, as opposed to churning out what most people like to ‘like.’”


Hughes explained to Swanson that “The New Republic is the brand you go to to engage in intellectual discourse . . . and be entertained in the process.” But, Hughes also clarified later that he wants the magazine to report on the same political and high culture stories that it has in the past, but also wants to bring in more mass culture (some of what people “like”), perhaps in an effort to expand TNR’s reader base, without necessarily alienating the readers it has already wooed over the years.


Since taking control of the magazine, in addition to making some major changes in the historic publication’s editorial leadership, Hughes has recruited writers from other high-profile publications, increased the magazine’s staff, redesigned the magazine, in addition to the app and website, and he took down TNR’s paywall, opened a new office in New York City and has rethought new opportunities for advertisers.


Since Hughes’ purchase of the publication in March of 2012 to the start of 2013, subscriptions have grown by more than 10,000, from 34,000 to more than 44,000. Website traffic and the number of followers and fans on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have also experienced a major boom.  


Circulation of the publication at the time of Hughes’ acquisition was in the 39,000 range, a big drop from its 102,000 heyday. In the short time that Hughes has been in charge, circulation has jumped back up to 50,000. It has a long way to go before it is back to where it was at the start of the last decade, but it is making progress nonetheless, and not without weathering some storms.


When the magazine relaunched in late January 2013, the cover story was supposed to be Steven Brill’s well-researched and critical analysis of the U.S. healthcare system. Brill told the Huffington Post that Foer offered him a “ton of money” for the piece. But when the opportunity to do an interview with President Obama – more a PR fluff piece than a hard-hitting interview – presented itself, Hughes and Foer decided to pursue that avenue instead. They offered to run Brill’s piece as a cover story for the next issue, but Brill declined, taking his story ultimately to Time magazine. So bitter was Brill with Hughes – doubting Hughes’ sincerity in running his piece in the first issue of the relaunch and skeptical of Hughes’ interest in the story – that he told the HuffPost’s Michael Calderone, “There isn’t any amount of money that would let me do business with that guy . . . . He’s just a liar.”


In addition to this dispute and the ouster of Just, former Slate writer Timothy Noah, one of the political writers recruited by Richard Just, was fired by Hughes in the early weeks following the relaunch, prompting Noah to call Hughes “a young man with more money than sense.”


So far, Hughes’ decisions have been shrewd, controversial, and closely watched – a media-world soap opera of sorts. And the relaunch has been met with mixed criticism. While circulation has increased and the publication has received more attention in the digital world, the future of The New Republic is still uncertain. Hughes plans to make the magazine a profitable enterprise within the next two years, intending to reach a broader audience, without compromising the publication’s integrity. The magazine also plans to appease some of its base by backpedaling its neoconservative direction to embrace a more traditional brand of liberalism, at least according to Foer. 


Hughes, however, says, "The journalism in these pages will strive to be free of party ideology or partisan bias.” It is unclear how this could be the case in a traditionally liberal publication, and how this statement by Hughes balances against Foer’s aims to make TNR more liberal again.


One of Hughes’ toughest critics so far has been Martin Peretz. Following the relaunch, Peretz wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “I don’t recognize the magazine I used to own.” He added: “The New Republic has abandoned its liberal but heterodox tradition and embraced a leftist outlook as predictable as that of Mother Jones or the Nation.” Few writers have agreed with Peretz’s take, many not finding the content substantively different, others finding the relaunch noble in intention but underwhelming.  While Hughes may have different ideas for making the magazine more accessible than it has been in the past, at his core, as Wieseltier explained to New York’s Carl Swanson, “He shares our general orientation, which is we’re liberal, in the sense that we believe in civil liberties, meritocracy, capitalism, but not the religion of the market.”


New York’s Joe Coscarelli rightfully remarks that “In a media era of insta-reactions, the journalism world's top pundits may be rightly overwhelmed by the intense rollout phase of the publication's new life, in which writing about The New Republic far outweighs writing from The New Republic.” The changes at The New Republic, so far, have been interesting to follow, as have media reactions to those changes, but the new New Republic has yet to prove itself. While the initial reaction to Hughes’ leadership, in terms of Web traffic, social media buzz and new subscriptions has been strong, it is yet to be determined how much of that may be attributable to a renewed, but perhaps temporary, interest in the publication in its new post-Peretz phase.


Observers are on the lookout for more shake-ups at the historic opinion journal, and speculations have rested lately on the literary department, which has been headed by acclaimed editor Leon Wieseltier – a cornerstone of Peretz’s New Republic – for the past three decades. While Wieseltier has traditionally had relatively free rein, as Swanson writes in New York magazine, Hughes, pursuing a “single, readable magazine,” will likely be “treating Wieseltier . . . as an employee for the first time.”  Media spectators are also looking at the numbers and listening to the buzz surrounding TNR, which has become fainter in recent years, more of an indistinct hum now than in its glory days. Whether or not The New Republic can resurrect its relevancy in the 21st century remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the world of media is watching with great interest.


Author Bio:

Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


***Wright contacted Annie Augustine, TNR’s Media Relations Manager, for this article, but Augustine did not respond to questions Wright sent her via email.


Photos: Steven Rhodes (Flickr, Creative Commons);  Wikipedia Commons. 

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