The New Republic’s Pendulum of Power Swings Back to the Beltway
The elimination of New York-based culture staff writer Jo Livingstone’s job comes as part of editor Michael Tomasky’s project to refocus the magazine on political affairs
For much of its tumultuous history, the struggle for the soul of The New Republic has been mapped by the migration of its headquarters between the cultural and commercial capital New York City and the nation’s political capital, Washington, D.C. The magazine’s mission, as defined by Herbert Croly when he launched the magazine in 1914 (in New York, as it happens), has straddled both realms: The New Republic, he said, “is to be a weekly review of current political and social events.” The magazine has mostly maintained offices in both cities, but after a decade of New York serving as the flagship, its leadership center is now shifting back to D.C. The return to Washington was telegraphed by last March’s appointment of Michael Tomasky, a longtime D.C. journalist, as the magazine’s current editor. In a meeting with the staff soon after he started, Tomasky laid out his intention to refocus the magazine on D.C. politics and initially said he’d move editorial operations back down the coast. But last Tuesday, February 1, that refocusing had its first tangible consequences for the magazine’s staff when Jo Livingstone, The New Republic’s only full-time culture staff writer, announced that it was their last day at the magazine. “After a little over five years, my job at @NewRepublic as culture staff writer is gone,” Livingstone tweeted. “I will watch TNR’s continuing pivot with interest.” Commiseration flowed in. Fellow staff writer Alex Shephard quote tweeted their announcement, writing, “The magazine will be worse off without them and the pivot away from culture writing is disappointing and unfortunate!!!”
It would not be the first time that a shift from New York to Washington would result in staff departures. In 1950, then publisher Daniel Mebane announced that The New Republic “is moving its principal editorial offices to Washington,” as The New York Times reported. Mebane told the paper that the magazine had been a “split” operation for some time but that the “36-year-old publication can best fulfill its functions of news presentation and current comment with a main office in the nation’s capital,” while “the editorial for departments such as theatre, radio and television will remain here.” The Times noted, “Three members of the editorial staff … have resigned rather than move to Washington.”
The New Republic became a creature of Washington in the decades following that relocation under owners Gilbert A. Harrison and Marty Peretz. When Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes bought the magazine from Peretz in 2012, most of the staff was based in D.C. with a small office in New York near Madison Square Park. In 2013, Hughes leased a larger office space near Union Square and downsized the D.C. office space. In 2014, he hired Gabriel Snyder (the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Fine Print) to be the magazine’s first New York-based editor-in-chief in decades. After Hughes sold the magazine in 2016 to Win McCormack, who lives in Portland, Oregon, its geographical center became somewhat unsettled even before the pandemic led to everyone working remotely.
Last Wednesday, Tomasky emailed the staff an announcement with the subject line “Staffing News.” “With regret, I must share that the Critical Mass staff writer position has been eliminated, and as a consequence, Jo Livingstone is leaving TNR,” he wrote. “Jo has been a distinctive part of TNR for upwards of five years, and it’s hard to do justice to the depth and breadth of their work for us — unfailingly wide-ranging, astute, morally engaged, and stylish. We look forward to reading the work they do going forward. Critical Mass will otherwise remain the same.” Tomasky didn’t connect the move with his broader move to push the magazine back to D.C., but he made the connection in a statement to The Fine Print. “I told the staff when I arrived that we’d be placing more emphasis on reporting on Washington, and that’s what we’re doing,” he wrote. “This move is no reflection on the quality of Jo’s work. The culture vertical, and culture coverage, will continue.”
Soon after Tomasky’s hire, The New Republic’s editorial staff union protested his early pronouncements of a shift to D.C. and began bargaining for protections. “TNR management has agreed that no employee currently working in New York will be asked to relocate and no one will lose their jobs relating to the company’s decision to increase its footprint in D.C.,” they wrote in a statement at the time. But there has been a notable shift on the masthead in the eleven months that have elapsed. Employees who have left their full-time positions in New York have been replaced by people in D.C. All three of the staff writers currently on the masthead who joined since Tomasky took over — Timothy Noah, Grace Segers, and Daniel Strauss — are based in D.C. And while management has largely spun Livingstone’s removal as a shift in strategy, Tomasky’s statement, echoing Mebane’s sentiments in 1950, relates it to the context of improving the magazine’s coverage of, and thus position in, Washington.
The redirection of resources to D.C. and more conventional beltway politics coverage has also raised questions about the future of the magazine’s culture coverage. Nobody who spoke with The Fine Print believes the magazine’s back-of-the-book literary reviews are going away — “it’s my favorite part of the print magazine,” Livingstone told us. Still, Livingstone’s departure leaves open questions about how much support that section can expect to receive in the future and what directions it may be forced to move in. Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor, who has been there longer than Livingstone, is now the only staff member exclusively focused on culture coverage. In an interview with The New York Review of Books, published four days after Livingstone’s departure, though scheduled weeks in advance, Marsh laid out how books coverage fits in at a magazine that has always had a political bent. “One of the things that drew me to The New Republic was that it’s inherently political,” she told The Review. “Editing the books section of a political magazine always created a fairly clear set of interests, as well as a lens that allows you to look at a pretty wide range of stuff from a distinctive point of view.”
Despite Tomasky’s D.C. push, The New Republic has yet to give up its foothold in Manhattan. Part of that might have to do with the realities of the real estate market during the pandemic. The magazine holds a ten-year lease, originally taken out by Hughes, on its spacious offices overlooking Union Square. It wouldn’t have been so hard to sublet the offices in the early years of McCormack’s ownership, but the market for Manhattan office space collapsed when work from home became widespread in early 2020. So they’re stuck paying for this office space, as well as its office in D.C. The next major flashpoint in the geographical transition is likely to come at the end of 2023 when both the New York lease and the union’s collective bargaining agreement expire. Because of a two-year right to recall clause in the union’s contract, the magazine would be required to offer Livingstone their job back if it were to revive a position with a similar job description covering digital culture. In the meantime, the next steps in the transition are anybody’s guess. “What is next for the magazine?” Livingstone asked The Fine Print before giving their two cents: “I have no idea.”