The problem is not what Chris Hughes did, but how.
Since Thursday, December 4, The New Republic has embodied the split between Silicon Valley and the world. The disputes between editorial staff and Chris Hughes are still too muddy to discuss. His vision for the magazine as defined in this Washington Post editorial are not. Simply put, there is no reason for a technologically modern publication and intellectually curious journalism to be exclusive.
What Chris Hughes did is not wrong. How he did it is.
Hughes bought The New Republic in 2012 with the perceived purpose being to serve as an the old guard magazine’s moneybags benefactor. Apparently, after a few poorly thought out schemes failed and debt began to pile up, he changed tune and began directing The New Republic towards his new vision of the future of journalism. To help him achieve this, he hired Guy Vidra from Yahoo News and more recently Gawker’s Gabriel Snyder. Vidra’s hiring is a lesson in the importance of culture and employee fit — the high energy tech buzz didn’t sit well with the older school magazine employees. Snyder’s hiring is simply a lesson in politeness — the former editor Franklin Foer apparently realized he had been displaced through Snyder himself.
Hughes’ new goal was to modernize the magazine without losing its intellectual and impactful voice. We can guess that Hughes chose to purchase The New Republic precisely because of its powerful voice and tradition. These intangible things take years to build. A digital media powerhouse can be created in a few months. However, Hughes’ vision requires both.
Before continuing to analyze the vision of Chris Hughes, it is necessary to examine the discussion which so many have joined over the weekend — are new age media outlets and honorable media traditions mutually exclusive? It seems many of those who work for the older, well-established media outlets have taken up the gauntlet against the new “BuzzFeed era” of journalism. I don’t blame them, because from the surface so many new age media outlets are just click magnets looking to capitalize on advertising. However, I also share Chris Hughes’ vision for the future of journalism.
This vision destroys the wall between digital outlets and long form journalism. There is nothing that prohibits short form journalism from being impactful. If anything, the challenge of packing the value of a long form piece into a listicle or interactive display is the art of modern journalism.
It is my opinion that the highest goal of journalism has and will always be to spread impactful ideas to the masses.
Today, long form is not fulfilling this goal. Times change, and we no longer live in the era when people go to Barnes and Noble to purchase the latest magazines. There are fewer and fewer newspaper hawkers crowding our streets. Today, we have Amazon’s Kindle, Twitter and Facebook feeds, and blogs galore. You can dismiss these as new age fads as much as you want, but the truth is indismissable — the way we consume our media has changed.
Chinese society hosted a similar debate one hundred years ago. Throughout history, only the elite Chinese were able to read and write. These elite scholars were selected through the Confucian exam system used to select bureaucrats. Less fortunate Chinese passed down stories orally until the end of the imperial system in 1911.
Following the May 4 Movement in 1911, intellectuals began to debate what changes China needed to make to regain the superiority they felt had recently been lost to the West. Many of the more traditional Chinese scholars felt the traditional Chinese character system was a cultural staple and not something with which to be tampered. Other intellectuals, and eventually the Chinese Communist Party as well, believed that increasing literacy and raising nationwide educational standards took precedence over whatever cultural ties the traditional character system may have had.
The adoption of the simplified character system has resulted in increased literacy throughout the nation, a more well-educated populace, and now a rapidly growing economy. This is the definition of innovation — removing social barriers to a good or service — in this case literacy.
Today we face a similar dilemma. While popular literacy is not at stake (at least in the US), the dissemination of knowledge and viewpoints very much is. Just as more families have sent their first child to college over the past thirty years, so too are many Americans just having their eyes opened to the social issues of race, religion, inequality, etc. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, while sneered at for their youthful pokes and hashtags, are also the key infrastructure that broaden critical discussions about Ferguson, campus rape, and women’s inequality.
The New Republic boasted a monthly readership of 6 million readers at its peak. BuzzFeed has a monthly readership of over 150 million. Neither is making the social impact that it is capable of, but imagine the result if they were combined.
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