The disaster at The New Republic should concern all who love the arts and humanities, or who aspire to share scholarship with a general public. The abrupt resignations last week of the editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier roiled the world of journalism. More than 20 of the magazine’s contributing editors also resigned, including the academics Alan Taylor, Helen Vendler, Sean Wilentz, Anthony Grafton, and John McWhorter.
Journalists aren’t tenured. Editors come and editors go, but the publications they helm tend to endure. The New Republic will probably continue to cover arts and culture, but the mass exodus suggests that the remade New Republic will no longer play a prominent role in American letters. More worryingly still, it calls into question the economic viability of other publications with similar ambitions.
The New Republic is best known for its political and policy reporting, and in more recent years, for the contrarian and thought-provoking essays that filled its front pages. The other half of the magazine, though, fostered a very different sort of conversation. The back of the book, helmed by Wieseltier, ran reviews of art, music, and film, and essays on literature, philosophy, and history.
These reviews coursed with conviction. Other publications might gently point to flaws, or damn with faint praise. The New Republic spared no feelings. Its reviews paid the works they examined the ultimate compliment—insisting that the ideas they contained were too important to mince words. The first issue of The New Republic featured Rebecca West’s essay, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” an obligation the magazine honored to a fault. “Even when they were wrong, or widely considered wrong,” the Baylor professor Alan Jacobs recalls, these reviews “were confident, expansive, audacious in the scope of their claims.”
When I first discovered these reviews in high school, they were revelatory. The ferocity of their arguments set them apart, but then so did their length and attention to detail. An academic book that might be lucky to garner a 1,000-word review in a flagship journal could receive a 10,000-word essay in The New Republic, written by a leading scholar in the field. Such reviews conveyed the consuming drive of research, the excitement of discovery, and the honest anger of genuine disagreement. They made clear the stakes of scholarship, rendering its joys and frustrations accessible to a general public.
The New Republic staked its appeal to the belief that politics could not be understood in the absence of arts and culture, and conversely that humanistic inquiry was strengthened, not diluted, when placed in conversation with unfolding policy debates. Its collapse is so alarming precisely because it highlights the difficulty of garnering popular audiences for serious work, including academic scholarship.
The difficulty of making serious work profitable may have grown more pronounced (the magazine was said to be losing $5-million a year), but they are hardly novel. In fact, The New Republic was created in 1914 rejecting the claim that “if a periodical is to be popular it must first of all be entertaining, or that if it is to be serious, it must be detached and select.” Instead, its founding statement continued, the magazine would bridge that divide, producing stories that would achieve both goals simultaneously. In practice, that often meant bundling the relatively accessible political stories in the front of the magazine together with cultural coverage in the back of the book.
That model, using the appeal of policy-oriented stories to subsidize lengthy review essays, is increasingly difficult to sustain. In print, popular and entertaining stories can drive subscriptions and newsstand sales, putting the entire issue in the hands of readers, and making them more likely to read its other content. Online, magazines are unbundled. Instead of reading from front to back, or browsing a table of contents, the majority of readers enter websites through the side door, to read a particular story shared by their friends. (That is most likely how you found your way to this article.)
There are thousands of paywalled academic journals with few readers, and no shortage of profitable, thriving websites, like Vox or Buzzfeed, serving up engaging summaries of academic work. Readers in search of reviews that engage with scholarship at greater length can turn to enduring outlets like The New York Review of Books and Harper’s. Few magazines, however, still run reviews as long, or as ambitious, as those that The New Republic featured, and those that remain share its challenges, and perhaps its fate.
But if new technologies are challenging old models for magazines, they are simultaneously creating new opportunities for scholars. Monographs are expensive, lecture audiences limited, and printed journals largely confined to research libraries. Review essays served a crucial role, in part, because they brought scholarship to those who could not otherwise gain access to it.
The Internet makes it possible to put scholarship directly into the hands of the public. We can publish work in open-access journals, post free copies of our articles on our own sites, or write for websites with broad audiences. Digital publication has also severed the link between length and cost. Academics are free to experiment with new forms and formats, from blog posts to e-singles to digital monographs that incorporate the data, sources, or media on which they are built.
There is, moreover, a demonstrated appetite for such work. JSTOR turns away around 150 million attempts to reach its articles each year. Serious, scholarly writing published without paywalls can now reach audiences larger by several orders of magnitude than can print magazines. Some digital publications succeed in bridging the gap, but with fewer established outlets, academics now shoulder more of the burden—and the delight—of sharing our work ourselves. We need not rely on sympathetic critics. We need only make our work both rigorous and engaging.
When they created The New Republic, its founders declared that “if we are unable to achieve … success under the conditions essential to sound and disinterested thinking, we shall discontinue our experiment and make way for better men.” If that is what happened last week, then our alarm should be tempered by a degree of optimism.
Scholars can emulate the breadth of The New Republic’s ambition, sense of moral purpose, and fierce dedication to putting important ideas before public audiences, while displaying a greater array of voices and perspectives than the magazine (or any magazine) manages to fit between its covers. If we cannot wholly fill the real void left by its departure, then at least we can carry on its experiment, working to make serious work accessible to our publics.
Yoni Appelbaum is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.