Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't like the owners of your magazine? Buy the thing off them.

Stories here, there and everywhere about turmoil at venerable American magazine The New Republic. Like all magazines described as venerable, The New Republic has been sustained for years by backers prepared to pump in money to make up for its losses. A couple of years ago The New Republic was bought by one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes. This meant it was now backed by a billionaire. All seemed hunky dory for a while. The young billionaire said that the future was in tablets, which proved he was no more or less naive than people who'd been in the business for years. Then it turned out that the billionaire wanted to change a few things about his new toy: fire some people, change some headlines and, most shockingly of all, stem the magazine's losses.

I don't know whether any of these moves were sensible. They were definitely predictable. And yet, as I read one hand-wringing piece after another about the loss of a leading liberal voice in American affairs and the impossibility of proper journalism in this new dispensation, it appears the only people for whom this came as a surprise were journalists.

Journalists ought to think how their trade is financed or, as is often the case, subsidised. Most of them don't. As long as somebody's signing off the payroll they don't give that person or body much thought. Now more than ever, they should.

Print assets used to be owned by people who wanted to own them for profit. Even if they owned them for influence, they were generally people, like Murdoch, who liked and understood the trade. This latest lot of owners, many of whom made their money in the dotcom boom, don't understand the trade at all but have an oddly sentimental belief in the value of legacy assets. I'm thinking of Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Washington Post. But just as these people bought assets on a whim they could get rid of them just as quickly.

I hope the staff at the New Republic have approached the unsatisfactory Chris Hughes and offered to buy the magazine from him. He'll be prepared to take a bath on whatever he paid for it just to get it out of his life. All the new owners will have to do is guarantee to underwrite the magazine's losses in the future. They will have a clear idea of the size of that loss. Most of it will be their pay cheques.

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