The New Republic's makeover

Peter Kilander peterk at
Mon Mar 22 17:15:52 PST 1999

The New York Times: Business Day Section March 22, 1999

The New Republic Looks to a Redesign to Stay Afloat by Alex Kuczynski

When does an 85-year-old need a face lift? When it is The New Republic, a weekly opinion magazine facing stagnant circulation, flat advertising revenue, an editorial merry-go-round, a scandal or two in the ranks of its reporters and the smorgasbord of opinion that the major newsweekly magazines and television news programs serve to their audiences.

The liberal opinion magazine, which is owned by Martin Peretz, has not been redesigned for so long that no one there can remember the last time anyone changed anything, except maybe the masthead.

It was founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, a politically active author, when the notion of a weekly magazine offering opinion was still new. The New Republic's mission, Croly wrote at the time, was to "throw a few firecrackers under the skirts of the old women on the bench and in other high places."

But these days everyone seems to be throwing firecrackers, said Charles Lane, the magazine's editor since September 1997.

"The opinion market is flooded," Lane said. "It's not just a couple of magazines anymore. It's the Internet, it's everybody on television, and it's that newspapers that used to eschew point-of-view writing but now incorporate it more and more into what is ostensibly news coverage. So the competition is that much more intense."

The bandages come off in the issue dated April 12, courtesy of Roger Black, the designer who has jazzed up magazines from Foreign Affairs and Reader's Digest to Harper's Bazaar and Premiere. The approximately 100,000 New Republic readers, accustomed to arid-as-tundra pages dense with three-column type leavened only sporadically by a line drawing, will now get a magazine with internal color, bold graphics, photographs, more illustrations and bigger type.

The intent of the redesign, Lane said, was to stimulate newsstand sales and differentiate The New Republic from the ever-growing stable of weekly opinion magazines, a group that includes The Nation, The National Review and The Weekly Standard, as well as smaller fish like National Journal, once a journal of research that now offers opinion to 7,000 Washington readers. There are, too, online magazines like Slate and Salon.

Will Lippincott, The New Republic's publisher, predicted that the new design would bolster advertising revenue, ad pages and circulation, which have all been flat for several years.

"It's going to be fresh and frisky," Lippincott added. "The goal is to get us in front of advertisers."

The frisky redesign, however, will also burnish the image of a magazine that has had plenty of turbulence recently.

"We had a period of editorial instability, and that certainly registered," Peretz said, referring to his search for an editor after he dismissed Michael Kelly, who went to National Journal in 1996. "It was very problematic for our readers."

Peretz said the magazine, which is now losing close to $500,000 a year, was briefly in the black in the early 1990s. "But it was the kind of in-the-black that, if I had taken the staff out to a spaghetti dinner, we would have been in the red again," he said.

The New Republic's masthead was in flux from 1989 to 1996 as it lost editors in rapid sequence, due in part to Peretz's often-mercurial administrative style as editor in chief: first Michael Kinsley, then Hendrik Hertzberg, Andrew Sullivan and Kelly. The magazine then underwent a period of almost a year when it was steered by a troika of acting editors. Lane, eventually named to the top spot, had been a senior editor at the magazine.

The political atmosphere has also presented some problems for the magazine. Peretz's decades-long friendship with Vice President Al Gore has led some in Washington circles to question his objectivity.

Peretz and Kelly clashed over coverage of President Clinton and Gore; when Kelly was dismissed, Peretz called him "an obsessive right-winger."

"I made a disastrous mistake hiring him," Peretz said then.

But he defends his objectivity, pointing to a recent editorial touting the virtues of Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, as a presidential candidate.

The magazine's search for a fresh identity was also stalled last year when an associate editor, Stephen Glass, admitted to having fabricated part or all of 24 articles. And The New Republic has retained three public relations firms in the last year, finally settling on Rubenstein Associates.

But the magazine hopes its redesign will keep it above the waves churned up by other political outlets now drawing attention.

Even the country's oldest weekly magazine, The Nation, has spiffed itself up recently and now puts together ocean cruises for subscribers.

And while The New Republic is not sponsoring voyages around the Caribbean, it is offering the chance to win a trip to Washington. The winner of a new-subscriber sweepstakes will attend a New Republic editorial meeting and be given two seats at a White House Correspondents Dinner.

William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, which is owned by News Corp., said that all political opinion magazines must always struggle to answer a central question.

"In the 1980s, The New Republic had a clear question," Kristol said. "They were the anticommunist liberals. Under Mike Kelly, they were going to be liberals who weren't compromised by Bill Clinton. The Nation, for example, is always addressing the question of how to revitalize progressive politics. I am not sure now what question it is The New Republic is grappling with."

Lane said that the magazine had always been concerned with liberalism and its discontents. "What does liberalism mean in the 21st century?" he said. "We answer it a lot of different ways, but that is what we are obsessed with. We answer it prescriptively and descriptively, through attitude and point of view, and through definitions of what liberalism isn't.

"The Weekly Standard is a pamphlet. The New Republic is a set of arguments, ideas and questions. It is not something you read to reconfirm what you thought before you opened it."

Kinsley, now the editor of Slate, the online magazine published by Microsoft Corp., said he had no comment on The New Republic now on the newsstands, but that he was looking forward to the new design and the sweepstakes: "If you win the contest, can you write an editorial about Al Gore?" he asked. "I guess I'll have to enter it."


I hate the New Republic and will throw a party if it goes under. Having said that, way back, in the early '90s when I went to college with a Michelle Cottle whom the New Republic recently hired as a senior editor. Pleasant, very cute, very smart, and very quiet; she never spoke unless rebuffing my efforts to get her phone number. She's very good at making fun of the "family values" nonsense and I saw a good piece by her on pork at the Pentagon in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Not that anyone cares.

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