Published in The New Yorker.
Within a few days earlier this month, Gerry Lenfest, the eighty-five-year-old owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, announced that he would transfer ownership to a new nonprofit organization, and Chris Hughes, the thirty-two-year-old owner of The New Republic, announced that he would sell the magazine, and mentioned a change to nonprofit status as one of several plausible futures for it. Do two instances qualify as a trend? At the very least, they make public what the people who work at these publications have known for a long time: that parts of the news business might not really be a business.
The New Republic belongs to a category of journalism—small-circulation magazines about politics, culture, and intellectual life—that is not, has never been, and likely can never be profitable. Such publications, oddly, often survive longer than profit-making magazines. (I should say that I am a longtime denizen of this world; I’m involved with several nonprofit journalism ventures, I’ve written occasionally for The New Republic since the late nineteen-seventies, and my wife was a senior editor there who arrived early in the Hughes era and was part of an exodus of editorial staff a couple of years later.) The Spectator has been continuously published since 1828, Harper’s since 1850, The Atlantic since 1857, and The Nation since 1865. The reason they have lasted so long is that they are relatively cheap to produce (far cheaper than a daily newspaper), and, on their good days, they have a visibility and effect disproportionate to their size, which gives them a plausible argument in seeking nonmarket support. The most workable business model for these magazines—if it were fair to use the term, which it isn’t—has been having a wealthy owner/patron who is willing to cover modest losses for a generation or so. That was what Hughes appeared to be when he bought The New Republic, in 2012, but it seems he believed that, by switching the magazine from a primarily print to primarily digital publication, he could make it profitable. His announcement shows that his hypothesis was wrong.