In some ways, this is just a digitally enhanced version of an old-fashioned media pile-on. But social media amplify the financial incentive to join the herd. The results are highly derivative. Joshua Topolsky, a founder of The Verge, has bemoaned this creeping homogenization: “Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs.”
Donald Trump is the culmination of the era. He understood how, more than at any other moment in recent history, the media need to give the public the circus that it desires. Even if the media disdained Trump’s outrages, they built him up as a plausible candidate, at which point they had no choice but to cover him. Stories about Trump yielded the sort of traffic that pleased the data gods and benefited the bottom line. Trump began as Cecil the lion and ended up president of the United States.
Chris and I once sat at the breakfast table of an august Washington hotel, pondering the core qualities of the New Republic—the New Republic that we would re-create together. We didn’t say so explicitly, but we were searching for a piece of common ground, an adjective that could unite us. If there had been a whiteboard—and Chris loved whiteboards—it would have been filled with discarded terms. “We’re idealistic,” he said finally. “It ties together our storied past and our optimism about solutions.” Idealism was a word that melted my heart, and I felt uncontainable joy at the prospect of agreement. “Boom. That’s it.”
We were idealistic about our shared idealism. But my vision of the world was moralistic and romantic; his was essentially technocratic. He had faith in systems—rules, efficiencies, organizational charts, productivity tools. Around the second anniversary of Chris’s ownership, he shared a revised vision of the magazine’s future with me. As the months had slipped by, he had gotten antsy. Results, by which he meant greater web traffic and greater revenue, needed to come faster. “To save the magazine, we need to change the magazine,” he said. Engineers and marketers were going to begin playing a central role in the editorial process. They would give our journalism the cool, innovative features that would help it stand out in the marketplace. Of course, this required money, and that money would come from the budget that funded long-form journalism. We were now a technology company, he told me. (Hughes denies saying this.) To which I responded, “That doesn’t sound like the type of company that I’m qualified to run.” He assured me that I was.
Two months later, I learned from a colleague that Chris had hired my replacement—and that my replacement was lunching around New York, offering jobs at the New Republic. Before Chris had the chance to fire me, I resigned, and most members of the magazine’s editorial staff quit too. Their idealism dictated that they resist his idealism. They didn’t want to work for a publication whose ethos more clearly aligned with Silicon Valley than with journalism. They were willing to pay careful attention to Facebook, but they didn’t want their jobs defined by it. The bust-up received its fair share of attention and then the story faded—a bump on Silicon Valley’s route to engulfing journalism.