I should like to pose a question to the overnight press baron Chris Hughes, who owns the New Republic that he has rendered moribund with astounding speed and no class at all.
My question is an old-fashioned one that might have circulated within the humanities faculty at universities two generations ago. "What," I would ask, "makes a book more authoritative and satisfying than a news report?" Most of the profs in their tweed jackets, and some pulling on their briar pipes, would answer that the author of a book has more time to write it than the author of a news story, and the author of a book has more sources to consult and more interviews to conduct. He or she works from more evidence and writes with greater care — at least one would hope. To which today's slightly crazed neoteric shouts some gibberish about "a vertically integrated digital media company" and leaves the room, preferably with the slam of a door.
That was approximately the response of one of Hughes' cronies, Guy Vidra, during a meeting with the staff of the New Republic in October that did not go very well. He added a witticism about "breaking" human waste that seems to have offended the Victorian members of the staff. Vidra had just been made Hughes' CEO at the New Republic, which Hughes purchased two years before, at the age of 28. Now he and Vidra plan to remake the New Republic into a slam-bang multi-media presence on the web where readers will be able to read 700-word pieces that interlace narrative with video, with music, with maps, charts, and — who can say — perhaps video games and other distractions for their busy minds? This is, according to Hughes, the wave of the future, and if you think today's addicts to the web seem skittish and unfocused, just wait until the next wave comes in and the next.
Hughes got tired of losing money with the magazine — after two years — and he now plans to make money with the New Republic, which has rarely been done before. He made his $700 million fortune by being the college roommate of the founder of Facebook. My guess is he will be out of the magazine business in five years, but what will the magazine business be like by then? Hughes' idiot enthusiasms are typical of the world he comes from where the instantaneousness matters — whether verified or not — and eyeballs and guff. Intelligence is never factored in. We live in an amazing moment in history. Never has so much bad currency driven out the good currency. The frenzied obsessions of a Chris Hughes drive out the reading mind and replace it with the multitasker. At the New Republic not enough staff members were willing to hang around after he fired his editors last week to put together a magazine. Thus it was "suspended" and will not be appearing until February, we are told.
Now, as I say, the reading mind is being driven underground as we see sales drop catastrophically for books, intelligent magazines, newspapers and newspaper reports. They are replaced by a generation of itinerant consumers of the web. Call them Bedouins of the web, who are actually proud that their response to events and to personalities can be deposited in a message of 140 characters. Today Gibbon would be expected to sum up "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" in 140 characters.
Yet as the New Republic becomes the latest casualty to the neoteric nihilists it is worth asking: What will become of a nation that no longer thinks very carefully about issues because it lacks the instruments for doing so? Years ago, Philip Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, observed that journalism is the first rough draft of history. After that rough draft come the conflicting perspectives from other accounts, essays in magazines, position papers and, ultimately, the books. Who is going to write them in the world of Hughes and Vidra? Today Hughes and Vidra would rather go climb a "vertically integrated digital media" and then fly to the moon or wherever the next trendy obsession is going to take them. The Web's chief value is speed and not much else. The laugh is on all of us.