Shortly before the first issue of The New Republic went on sale a little over a century ago, our founding editor Herbert Croly outlined his vision to a reporter from The New York Times: “The magazine, which is to be a weekly review of current political and social events and a discussion of the theories they involve, is to represent progressive principles, but it is to be independent of any party, or individual in politics.”
From that mild-seeming statement of purpose has emerged perhaps America’s most argumentative publication—a journal brimming with strong opinions beautifully elaborated (as well as a few duds). Croly’s vision is durable (perhaps because it's vague), giving his inheritors wide latitude to both adhere to his principles and fight over the specifics.
It is an old and maybe foolish gambit, to reach back for guidance to some figure of the past, whom we imagine to be wiser and less corrupt than the people of the present. And yet, I see nothing in Croly's original statement of purpose that is not worth sticking to. This magazine most certainly should espouse progressive views while keeping itself beyond the embrace of any party or politician who is lately up in the polls. He also had specific ideas worth revisiting, like his promise that The New Republic would “devote a good deal of attention to the feminist movement, in general.”
But if our founders sat down today to settle on the best way to achieve this mission, they would not have picked a weekly printed magazine and ignored a vast array of digital publishing possibilities. And just like any publication with hopes of success in the world of 2014, they would want The New Republic to be better at welcoming into our fold readers, writers, and editors who reflect the American experience as it exists today.
I started reading The New Republic when I was a high school kid in Nashville, Tennessee. I worked in a chain bookstore (since razed) on Harding Pike and found myself pulled into these pages during my breaks from stocking shelves. Being named editor-in-chief of The New Republic is that kid's dream, but during another one of our periods of tumult, it is also a humbling responsibility.
The New Republic has always been both in love and at war with its prior self. The magazine’s early decades were marked by abrupt ownership changes, unceremonious dismissals of editors, shifting policy positions, and uprooted headquarters, all accompanied by masthead upheavals.
In 1974, Martin Peretz, a 35-year-old social studies lecturer at Harvard College, bought The New Republic. He pledged to leave things as they were and to keep then-editor Gilbert Harrison “for a minimum of three years,” as Harrison told the Times. Sooner than that, however, Peretz installed himself as editor, resignations followed, and much of the staff was replaced by his former students. They would go on to dominate the masthead for the rest of the century.
A decade into Peretz’s tenure, Michael Straight, the owner-editor after World War II and son of the magazine’s first financial backer, wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books announcing “the spirit which Croly created and which Gilbert Harrison maintained in recent years was shattered.” Peretz, who stood accused of endorsing Israel’s 1985 bombing of Beirut, rightly ridiculed this appeal to constancy. “What spirit of The New Republic exactly would they be violating?” he replied to the letters page. “The magazine has had a long and complicated history.” Last year Peretz was the one complaining, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the current owner, Chris Hughes, is “not from the world of Herbert Croly.” A survey of the many deaths and rebirths of The New Republic shows, if anything, that its most important survival skill has been to attract new champions from beyond its inner sanctum.
The best way for any new editor of this magazine to respect the spirit of the institution is to first recognize its defining characteristic is a habit of reinvention. The task before us is to ask what The New Republic should be one hundred years after its founding. We set out with many advantages: first, an owner who has committed to investing in quality journalism and who has granted his editorial staff the creative freedom to find a new path. We have an impressive editorial team that has demonstrated exceptional mettle and we will be adding to their ranks. And we have the heritage of sustaining a continuous conversation about America's promise.
As we revive one proud legacy of The New Republic—the launching of new voices and experts—those new voices and experts will be diverse in race, gender, and background. As we build our editorial staff, we will reach out to talented journalists who might have previously felt unwelcome at The New Republic. If this publication is to be influential, and not merely survive, it can no longer afford to represent the views of one privileged class, nor appeal solely to a small demographic of political elites.
As it always has, The New Republic will be a home for ambitious journalism, trenchant argument, provocative ideas, and innovative storytelling. What will change is that our biggest stories will be the beginning of our efforts, not their finale: they will be commitments for change, set the agenda for our daily coverage, and shape the conversations we have on social media. In the final years of the Obama presidency, during which big-hearted idealism withered in front of cynicism about the present and pessimism about the future, we must be pragmatic, forward-looking, and tireless pursuers of solutions, not only the bearers of problems.
“Summed up,” Croly said, “the new publication is to be radically progressive.” He would bill his debut issue as “A Journal of Opinion which Seeks to Meet the Challenge of a New Time,” and, a century on, I am astonished by the durability of the thinking that gave birth to this place. But it’s the thinking that matters, not the form in which it is conveyed. The challenges of our new time seek a new New Republic.