Chris Hughes hasn’t been in the journalism game long, but he knows better than to take a business-as-usual approach to running The New Republic. The 98-year-old title relaunched with a new look in print and online last week, almost a year after the 29-year-old Hughes purchased the magazine. Though Hughes may be a millionaire many times over thanks to his time at Facebook, he has no intention of committing endless fortune to his new magazine: He says he wants it to be in the black by 2015.
“I think it should be profitable,” he said Tuesday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “I think it’s our challenge to ourselves, and to the world, to prove we can find a profitable model.”
Hughes was in town to talk about The New Republic’s place in the shifting media landscape. He made it clear he intends to take ideas from companies like Facebook and apply them to the media business: “One of the key things we’re trying to do at The New Republic — which I think is very much in the DNA of Silicon Valley, but not so much in this industry — is take a highly experimental approach,” he said.
In its relaunch, The New Republic took on a variety of new forms: a newsweekly in print, a minimalist responsive site on the web, and an iPad app with multimedia features. Of those three, Hughes said their main focus is on the HTML5 site, which he said offers the greatest potential to snag a new audience through features that improve the reading experience. It’s not just that the site can bend to fit a desktop browser as well as your phone, but it can sync up between the two, allowing subscribers to pick up a story from the point they stopped, regardless what platform they were reading on. The site has a number of other interesting touches, like audio versions of each story and a visual indication of how far you’re into your reading. “One of the things we want The New Republic to do is build the type of technology that adapts to how consumer are reading and consuming content today,” he said.
Hughes said 20 percent of the people coming to newrepublic.com are on mobile. Similarly, 20 percent of the site’s traffic comes from Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, doubling the rate from the previous year, he said. But there are a few obstacles the magazine may have to overcome in its quest to be more webby. The new site’s front page doesn’t do the best job of illustrating what new content is available; users must click through to “Our Latest” to see what’s new. The front page of NewYorker.com — produced by a magazine Hughes has cited as a model — contains over 50 links to stories, blog posts, and multimedia content; the front page of NewRepublic.com has nine. There are design arguments to be made in favor of that choice, but it also could hurt repeat front-door traffic.
With the new site also came the return of the magazine’s paywall, now with a meter, allowing non-subscribers only eight stories a month per device. That wrinkle was not promoted as loudly as other new features; it could prove either problematic in attracting readers or useful in attracting revenue. (And TNR’s position as an opinion journal — and thus one aimed at influence — complicates the equation of open vs. closed. Hughes worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign; his husband filed papers to run for Congress a few days ago.)
Still, it may be the business side that presents the biggest challenge to The New Republic. Magazine journalism, like all journalism, is having its difficulties, something Hughes is acutely aware of: “From my perspective, the era when there were sizable profits in this industry is over,” he said.
Under Hughes, The New Republic will follow the tack of many other publishers by putting greater emphasis on generating online revenue from readers. But doing that means changing the relationship with the audience, Hughes said. Titles like The New Republic now have to make the case that you get more for your $35 annual subscription than a print product delivered to your mailbox. “People are not willing to pay for access to content in a digital environment,” he said. “But I think they are interested in supporting brands they believe in, and I think they are interested and willing to pay for experiences.” Experiences, to Hughes, could be anything from the immersive setting of an iPad app to subscriber-only events held in cities around the country.
He also wants the magazine to experiment with advertising, something noticeably in short supply in both web and print version of The New Republic. Hughes said the way to improve advertising is by focusing on reader metrics that are valuable. Rather than measuring pageviews and unique visitors, look for data that can tell you about reader engagement and retention, he said.
Advertising and editorial play into one another — quality stories and reader experience can grow an audience, which can in turn build capacity for better advertising, he said. Hughes sees himself as an idealist when it comes to the journalism, saying he believes in “the power of great writing to shape how we view the world.” But on the business side, he says an open, practical approach to technology and revenue are what will help The New Republic succeed.