The New Republic: a prime example of “patronage journalism”

By Christopher B. Daly

The New Republic is 100 years old. Yay!

Three cheers for TNR.

One cheer for surviving for a century. (More about that in a minute.)JPNEWREPUBLIC5-master495

One cheer for incubating the careers of many great journalists.

One cheer for being willing to go out on limbs and (sometimes) provoke the audience.

The venerable magazine threw a big party for itself this week in Washington and invited a couple of hundred bold-face names. Just to keep up its intellectual cred, the magazine also celebrated by posting the thoughts of “100 Thinkers” who have appeared in its pages over the last century. But then, in an anti-intellectual move that is just the kind of thing that TNR does to exasperate its readers, the magazine’s editors decided to rank those 100 thinkers rather than link to the best thing those thinkers ever contributed to TNR.

In any case, this seems like an appropriate moment to notice another dimension of TNR’s staying power: it has almost never made money, but it has always enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy person or family willing to subsidize its losses. For the first 40 years or so, it was the couple Willard and Dorothy Straight, who covered an estimated $4 million in losses (back when a million bucks was a lot of money). He was a banker, and she was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. For decades after that, TNR was patronized by owner/editor Martin Peretz, who married an heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Now, the hole in TNR’s bucket is the problem of Chris Hughes, a zillionaire co-founder of Facebook.

Paranthetically, let me observe that based on my study of journalism history, the patronage model works. In fact, it works about as well as any other — and better than many. TNR has enjoyed the backing of wealthy individuals whose fortunes were based on natural resources, industrial products, and social media.

Here is a sketch of the founding of TNR that I wrote for my 2012 book Covering America. It is told from the perspective of journalist Walter Lippmann, who was one of the foundational hires at TNR and an ocasional contributor throughout his long career.

In the fall of 1913, Lippmann got an invitation to lunch from Herbert Croly, a prominent Progressive thinker and journalist, one whom Lippmann had somehow never managed to meet. Croly, who had been impressed by Lippmann’s debut book, A Preface to Politics, had a proposition: How would Lippmann like to join the staff of a new magazine Croly was

First issue: Nov. 7, 1914

First issue: Nov. 7, 1914

putting together? The magazine was to be smart, literate, and progressive. He could write and edit and make $60 a week. Lippmann jumped at the offer. It was another stroke of good fortune. The magazine, which still had no name, was eventually called the The New Republic, and it became one of the most important journals of opinion and analysis of the twentieth century. The venture had the financial backing of two of the greatest journalistic “angels” of all time, Willard and Dorothy Straight. Willard Straight was a banker in the House of Morgan, but his wife had even more money, as a Whitney and thus an heir to the great the Standard Oil fortune.[1] The Straights never interfered with the magazine’s editorial operations and steadfastly stood by as the New Republic lost money year after year. By one reckoning, they subsidized the magazine by an average of $100,000 a year over 40 years.[i]

Croly’s goal was to “be radical without being socialistic” and to advance the ideas he had propounded in his recent book, The Promise of American Life. In that book, Croly argued that the economic changes brought by industrialization called for a radically new approach. No longer could progressive politics be based on the agrarian ideals of Jefferson; Americans needed a new philosophy to match the times. They needed a program (sometimes called the New Nationalism) that brought the power of government into a new balance with the power of big business. The small, weak central government envisioned by Jefferson could not possibly deal with the challenges posed by companies like Standard Oil or the big meat-packing firms or the sugar trust. Instead, the country needed new agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission or the Food and Drug Administration, staffed by a new class of expert public servants, that would have the power to police and guide these huge private enterprises. Nostalgia was useless; even trust-busting would not do the job. What America needed was a professional cadre of able but disinterested administrators who could provide leadership in the public interest. This was just the outlook that Lippmann had been moving toward ever since he left Harvard, one that ultimately drove him away from the populists, socialists, and muckrakers of his youth. With his new job and his new views, Lippmann began drifting away from the radical, downtown crowd at Dodge’s salon and began meeting more and more members of the Establishment, including lawyers like Judge Learned Hand and Professor Louis D. Brandeis. He continued to admire his childhood hero, Teddy Roosevelt, even as he began looking for new exemplars of public leadership.

[1] Which was ironic, of course, since Standard Oil was the emblematic target of progressive reform.

[i] Steel, 62.

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Yes, the Times caters to rich readers — and that’s just fine

By Christopher B. Daly

In her latest column, NYTimes public editor Margaret Sullivan expressed a certain angst over the newspaper’s practice of accepting ads for high-end products. To me, this is a puzzling kind of problem for her to have. Who does she think pays her salary? And the salary of everyone else in the Times newsroom? Continue reading

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The Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

Let’s start the week with some required reading. From the Times:

–David Carr on I’m not sure what exactly. This sounds like a mash-up of several columns.

–Here’s a piece about some popular new conservative website, Independent Journal Review. (It’s always odd to see young conservatives. What’s left for them to grow up into?)

–Sleek and shiny Conde Nast gets a sleek and shiny new hq. Just don’t look down on your readers.

–The Times demurely reports its own quarterly earnings. I’d say this glass is half full. Yes, they lost a little money overall last quarter, but don’t bury the lead. Here it is, in grafs 6+7:

While the print business continued its steady decline, with advertising revenue dropping 5.3 percent, the company showed growth in its digital business. Digital-only subscribers — a number closely watched by analysts, some of whom suspect that growth may soon plateau — increased by 44,000 during the quarter, the best quarterly digital subscriber growth in nearly two years. The Times now has 875,000 digital-only subscribers.

Third-quarter digital advertising revenue was $38.2 million, a 16.5 percent increase compared with the third quarter of 2013. Mr. Thompson, the chief executive, said that the digital advertising growth came from a number of areas, including Paid Posts, the company’s push into so-called native advertising, in which ads resemble editorial content.

Just watch out for those “native ads,” and you’ll be fine in the digital future.

–At the new website First Look, zillionaire owner Pierre Omidyar is discovering that it’s not easy to lead a newsroom full of talented, difficult people. The e-Bay founder, who sank $250 million into this news venture, is learning something about how great Ben Bradlee really was.

Mr. Omidyar, according to people with knowledge of internal discussions at First Look who spoke on condition of anonymity, seemed not to realize what he had gotten into by hiring so many aggressive and competitive journalists and then trying to manage them largely from his home in Hawaii, with only sporadic visits to First Look’s offices.

Ouch.

–And from the op-ed page, Tom Friedman weighs in with this thought: what if they gave a war and no reporters showed up? Imagine what ISIS will do when they know that no one’s watching.

ELSEWHERE. . .

NPR’s “On the Media” is on target.

Robert Krulwich had a good show about the “War of the Worlds” on his RadioLab. (which is on death row)

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter went a few rounds with a founder of the Weather Channel (“… I am the founder” he lectured Brian) who is a self-proclaimed “climate change skeptic.” My question: who cares what this guy thinks? The planet is going to settle this argument for us.

The Boston Globe had an amusing piece in its improving Sunday “Ideas” section about the hidebound typographical practices of the esteemed Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Turns out, the SJC is stuck on Courier, a “monospaced” font, where all the letters take up the same space. This allows the court to enforce its ancient rules about the length of briefs by imposing limits based on page numbers. The court could readily update its practices by imposting a word count and allowing lawyers to use cooler fonts. No rush — it’s only the oldest continuously sitting court in the New World.

2typewriter-courier-658

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Abolish the NCAA: UNC edition

By Christopher B. Daly 

How much more evidence does anybody need that the NCAA is a deeply corrupting force on U.S. college campuses?

Especially among the big-time Division 1 schools, the NCAA tarnishes everything it touches. Lately, I have been avoiding/following the coverage of the most recent scandal at my beloved alma mater, The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (m.a., 1982). The proud flagship of the Carolina system, UNC-CH is a school with high ambitions — both academic and athletic. And that’s where the trouble starts.

In pursuit of the money and status associated with big-time televised college sports, UNC has chased ratings and championships for decades in men’s football, basketball, and lacrosse. Which raises the inevitable question: how can a college attract top-tier students who can also hack the academic requirements of a good school?

Which raises the inevitable answer: at least some of those athletes will manage it by getting a pass on their schoolwork. That, in turn, requires the active collaboration of coaches, deans, and professors who should know better. They are not serving those young athletic superstars by brooming them through school without actually learning anything. And they know it.

That’s the upshot of the scandal at UNC, which is detailed in a report by a former prosecutor, Kenneth L. Wainstein. Read the report here. It is a masterpiece of understatement.

Some of the coverage can be found here (an SI interview with the UNC athletic director, who is actually named “Bubba”)

and here (NYT)

and here (The Raleigh N&0)

If students want exercise, let them go run around on their own campuses.

If pro sports need farm systems to develop new pro athletes, let them pay for them (and pay the athletes).

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Remembering Ben Bradlee (1921-2014)

By Christopher B. Daly

Let us now praise Ben Bradlee. He has rightly been called the most courageous and consequential newspaper editor of the postwar period, and I would give him the whole 20th Century. During his 25+ years leading the Washington Post newsroom, Ben elevated the Post from the middle ranks of U.S. news institutions to the front ranks. He did it with nerve, imagination, and guts. If you think it’s easy to lead a couple hundred journalists, try it some time. Most days, you can’t get two or three to agree on anything, follow anyone, or admit that they couldn’t do any job better.

It should also be noted that Ben transformed the Post with Katharine Graham’s money. It takes nothing away from Ben to observe that he was lucky in the timing of his career. He said as much himself.

“I had a good seat,” he said to Alicia C. Shepard in a 1995 interview with The American Journalism Review. “I came along at the right time with the right job and I didn’t screw it up.”

 What made it the right time was that the Post was then gushing money, enjoying the heyday of all the big-city U.S. dailies that enjoyed a monopoly (or near monopoly). As I wrote in my book Covering America, the Post was poised for takeoff when Mrs. Graham took control of the Post in 1963.

Though terrified of what she was getting into and almost entirely unprepared to lead a large enterprise, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post Company in late 1963 and set about making her mark. In 1965 she brought Ben Bradlee over from Newsweek and made him managing editor of the Post. She helped him become a great editor, not only by supporting him professionally but also by presiding over a business that was practically printing money. These were boom years in Washington. Under Johnson, the Great Society programs were staffing up, bringing thousands of middle-class, white-collar jobs to the city and its increasingly far-flung suburbs. This was the target audience for the Post, and for every advertiser in the region. Money came rolling in. During the three years after Bradlee took over, the budget for the Post newsroom more than tripled, leaping from $2.25 million a year to almost $7.3 million. Bradlee got to add fifty new slots in the newsroom, and he went on a hiring spree. In the process, he transformed the paper, creating a star system (known famously at the Post as “creative tension”) in which reporters had to jockey for space in the paper and for favor in Bradlee’s inner circle.

Imagine that: 50 new hires! And those were good jobs with good salaries and benefits. All those newbies were beholden to Ben, so he had most of them in his pocket. Plus, he managed to rid the newsroom of some holdovers who did not fit with his plans. In the end, he was able to build a giant new team of people who mainly loved him.

Could he have been a great editor in another period? How would he have managed decline, cutbacks, and the diminished clout of the last 15 years at the Post? We’ll never know, of course. It’s entirely possible that he would have prevailed with his charm and his bravado. But without the budget to back it up, I have my doubts that even Ben could have made newspapering fun in the dreadful years.

I did not know him well, but he was my boss for more than two years when I worked at the Washington Post near the end of Ben’s 25-year-run. (I say “Ben,” because that’s what everyone called him; we all called his boss “Mrs. Graham,” but he was always Ben.) I was a tiny asteroid in his universe, but I remember my few encounters with him vividly. You could not be around him and not want to be closer to him. You wanted to know that he knew your name, and you treasured his “attaboy”s and any kind of attention. For most of my career as a journalist, I wanted my editors to leave me alone. Not with Ben.

Everyone has been telling Ben stories since his death on Tuesday, and I have been spending hours soaking them in. One good place to start is his own memoir, A Good Life – which is, as he might put it, a goddamn good book. It has many of Ben’s virtues: it’s unpretentious, it’s full of fun, and it doesn’t spend a moment feeling sorry for its subject.

Among other remembrances that I’ve enjoyed:

Here is a piece by Martha Sherrill, one of the many voices Ben promoted in the Post Style section that he invented (and which may be his second-largest legacy to U.S. journalism).

Here is a tribute from David Remnick, who, as usual, is right on target.

Here is BU Prof. David Carr’s smart, funny recollection.

Here is Ben in his own wonderful voice talking with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” saying that journalists should be fair and honest and not back down (which just about sums it up). He also observes that anybody would have to have been “lobotomized” not to have pursued the Watergate story.

Finally, here’s one photo of Ben (among so many — the man was ungodly handsome and photogenic) that I particularly enjoy. It shows him in August 1974 in the Post’s composing room, looking pensively at a “chase” of metal letters that newspapers still used in those days to create a negative image from which newspaper pages could be printed. That particular page says (in reverse) NIXON RESIGNS. I like this photo because it reveals another side of Ben Bradlee, one that not everyone knew about. In that summer of 1974, when Ben knew that the end was near for Nixon after the Watergate scandals, he sent the word out through the newsroom: there was to be no gloating, no spiking the football, no champagne. He enjoyed a fight, and I believe he loved being in the arena, but he had the virtue and sense of decency that demanded good sportsmanship in the game of life.

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

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Former NYT Editor Jill Abramson: Getting back into journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Is former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson getting back into journalism?

Yes, according to hints she dropped Monday night during a talk at Boston University. Abramson said she has been exploring the possibility of launching a new journalism start-up with veteran publisher and investigative reporter Steven Brill.

The proposed new operation would focus on a few large stories, and it would employ professional journalists at decent salaries, Abramson told a packed hall during a conversation with Times media columnist and B.U. professor David Carr.

After Carr teased her about making some news and challenged her to “show a little leg,” Abramson said, “Well. . .” Then she divulged that she and Brill have been conducting talks with investors who might back their proposed venture.

But she revealed little else, offering no details on how her journalism start-up would work financially or how it would stand out
professionally.

Since her departure from the Times, Abramson has given a series of i

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux. Photo by Ann Wang

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux.
Photo by Ann Wang

nterviews (mostly to female journalists), and she has been teaching a course in narrative non-fiction in the English Department at Harvard.

When Carr brought up the subject of her separation from the Times and seemed to be groping for a euphemism, Abramson abruptly corrected him, saying “I was fired.” She added that she has spent her career seeking the truth and telling it, so she saw no reason to sugar-coat her dismissal from the newspaper in May at the hands of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Abramson, 60, began her career in journalism by reporting for and editing a student publication at Harvard, the Independent, then went on to jobs at the American Lawyer, Legal Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times.

Her conversation with Carr was sponsored by Boston University’s NPR affiliate, WBUR-FM. It was to be broadcast Tuesday evening at 8 p.m..

[Full disclosure: Jill and I were classmates in college, and I have seen her sporadically since then. I enjoyed her book about her dog.]

Update: You can listen to the full conversation here on WBUR’s superb midday program “Here and Now.”

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Monday Rdp

By Christopher B. Daly 

Dear readers:

I have not been posting as often as I’d like lately — to many other pressing matters (articles due, classes to teach, meetings to try to avoid, etc. . .)

Here are some recent items I hope you don’t miss:

From the New York Times:

–BU Prof David Carr’s latest column.

–45,000 emails later, the Public Editor looks back at a year on the job. Among readers’ biggest concerns: anonymous sources and false balance in news stories.

–A conversation with journalist Richard Preston, author of the original Ebola scare, The Hot Zone.

–A depressing report from old media-land.

Elsewhere. . .

–Welcome home to my colleague Joe Bergantino, who was “detained” in Russia for the offense of giving a workshop in investigative journalism. Here’s his open letter to Vladimir Putin.

–Brian Stelter continues to outperform his predecessor at CNN’s Reliable Sources. Don’t miss his interview with James Risen, national security reporter who stands in the bulls-eye of the Obama team’s war on the press.

–As usual, NPR’s “On the Media” has some insightful, original stuff.

–And the Nieman Journalism Lab has a piece I want to read about Knight Foundation funding decisions, plus lots more.

Good luck keeping up. Send me any suggestions/omissions/objections.

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