It's particularly painful for me to watch these storied organizations flounder because both are part of a diminishing number of smart outlets for provocative opinion and investigative journalism. Harsh lessons are being learned by all involved about how precious a commodity a publication's brand is and how carefully it must be managed to preserve it. Not an easy mission in the digital age, when the blueprint for editorial quality and bottom-line success is still a work in progress.
At the heart of why both news organizations got in trouble is a tale of following the money. Rolling Stone has significantly trimmed its editorial staff over the last several years, and the fees it pays its contributors, with rare exceptions, have been at best stagnant. Meanwhile, the pressure to produce stories that will reverberate well beyond the magazine's pages, draw digital traffic, and promote the brand to the media at large, has never been greater. The potential for brand disaster is built into such a budgetary and marketing mindset.
The New Republic imbroglio is also story of money and a convulsive digital ecosystem. When the publication was purchased by the 31-year-old Hughes, he was viewed by the Eastern Establishment chattering class as a savior. He brought popular Franklin Foer back to the top editorial post. Like his predecessor, Martin Peretz, Hughes was rich enough to run a trophy publication that people talked about at Washington dinner parties, but left a long trail of red ink. He moved TNR to posh new office space in the nation's capital, where he built a library for the magazine's legendary literary editor, Leon Wieseltier.
Two years into his rein, however, Hughes wanted more digital snap in TNR, and also aimed to stem the loss of millions every year. He hired Guy Vidra, who rankled the TNR gray beards by suggesting they integrate clickbait a la BuzzFeed and Vox into the mix and become “a vertically integrated digital media company.” That move brought cries of heresy from TNR's editorial leadership, followed by mass resignations. Hughes was forced to suspend publication until February.
From the outside looking in, it seems that the new and old guard at TNR could have found a middle ground like The Atlantic has done, adapted to digital marketplace realities and emerged a bastion of quality news and opinion. Maybe with new editor Gabriel Snyder in place, and Hughes' deep pockets, there's still a chance to pull TNR back from the brink and bring new luster.
As for Rolling Stone, the franchise will take a while for its brand bruises to heal. Contributors have been feeling the fallout, hearing from sources on totally unrelated stories who fear if they talk they won't be protected, their stories won't be fairly told and their lives upended. Still, the magazine is doing the right thing in admitting its errors and putting safeguards in place to avoid other investigative pieces going south. More importantly, owner Jann Wenner, who founded Rolling Stone 47 years ago, remains committed to funding tough investigative pieces most other news organizations shy away from. Witness the latest issue's story on how Afghanistan has become a “narco state” by Matthieu Aikins, who is making the rounds talking about the piece on such blue-chip platforms as Terry Gross' “Fresh Air” on NPR.
Clearly, the solution for an editorial brand tarnished by scandal is to address the issues head-on, looking clearly at why things blew up and doubling down with dollars on its commitment to what made it stand apart from the crowd.