The Point: Is the new New Republic published in Chicago? | Bleader

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Point: Is the new New Republic published in Chicago?

Posted By on 02.24.15 at 12:30 PM

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A torch has been passed. Or maybe a bird has been flipped.

The epic walkout of the staff of the 100-year-old New Republic last December created a legion of bummed editors, writers, and readers—and also an opportunity. The Point, a six-year-old Chicago journal that publishes twice a year, has taken it.

Much has been written about chaos at TNR, but the Point's editors believed it misses the mark. What was being lost wasn't simply TNR's smartly written long-form political journalism. The same writers will show up somewhere else, reasons Jonathan Baskin, one of the Point's founders and editors. But TNR had also been a forum for "the kinds of conversations about culture and literature that could always be found there." Conversations aren't easily uprooted and transplanted.

It was a couple of junior Point staffers, managing editor Rachel Wiseman and business manager Harry Backlund, who came up with the idea of telling the world that the conversations silenced at the New Republic could still be found in the Point. The editors sent former TNR literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who'd led the walkout, a box of back issues and a request: Would he say a nice word or two about a publication that still cared about literature in the old-fashioned way?

Wieseltier would. He wrote back a long letter praising the Point as "handsome" and "defiantly classical." And for the editors to use as they wished, he wrote this: "The Point should lift every sagging humanist spirit. It is intellectually serious, independent, far-reaching, spirited, and elegant—a stirring act of resistance against the shrinkage of intellectual life in our culture of takeaways and metrics. This is what a journal of ideas should look like. It emboldens me to think that the torch may indeed be passed."

This sentiment is everything the Point could have wished for. It also sticks it to the New Republic, which just about everybody abandoned after editor Franklin Foer was forced out and a new CEO, Guy Vidra [from Yahoo], started talking about "improved products across all platforms" of a "vertically integrated digital media company." This Silicon Valley-speak might as well have been tongues.

Wieseltier's testimonial now kicks off an offer being made on the Point website that’s headlined

RIP TNR BOOKS

Long live ideas!

First comes Wieseltier's tribute and then the pitch.

The Point declares that when it launched in 2009 the only model for the kind of "challenging, accessible and intellectually engaging writing we wanted to publish" was the Books section of the New Republic. "Here the latest fashionable trend—scientific determinism, cultural relativism, technological 'disruption'—was examined and evaluated, rather than merely being capitulated to. Here literature and ideas were treated as serious enough things to really argue over."

Alas, two years after Chris Hughes [a Facebook founder], bought the magazine and pledged that TNR "would remain the place to go for 'intellectual discourse,' the Books section as we knew it is dead. Because we take ideas as seriously as Hughes says he takes them, we don't want to see the conversations that were carried on there die with it. That's why, for the rest of this month, we're offering a free copy of our Winter 2015 issue—a full 200 pages of essays, criticism and reviews—to anyone who asks."

How's the offer going? I asked Baskin, who's someone I've known all his life (I'm friends with his parents).

Good, he said. Three weeks into February the Point had gotten some 240 requests for free issues. Aside from shipping costs the promo was close to expense-free, as most of the magazines "would have just ended sitting in my parents' basement."

The idea of the promo was to get readers to think "of what we're doing as being continuous with what TNR Books was doing." On that front there'd been "very positive feedback” from the public, and also from TNR editors thanking the Point, asking for copies, and even tweeting.

To an e-mail, Baskin attached a list of 28 editors and contributors who followed Wieseltier and Foer out the door, singling out the ones he "identified most with the Books section as I knew and loved it." Then there was former contributing editor Sean Wilentz, who wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education that inspired the Point's campaign.

Wilentz explained that TNR was founded "not strictly as a journal of political opinion but as a home for strenuous cultural and literary criticism," and that at times the back of the book "carried as much intellectual weight and prestige, and sometimes considerably more, than the front." The Wieseltier years, he wrote, were one of those times. TNR was launched "to sustain enlightenment and complexity" and its "demise"—Wilentz had no doubt TNR was as good as dead—"signals that its old mission has come round once again." Alas, the audience "is probably scattered forever."

I’m a little less sure than Wilentz is about the irreversibility of the devastation wreaked when the TNR staff bailed out. This skepticism might come from watching something similar happen at the Tribune, where many of Chicago's finest and most experienced journalists resigned when Sam Zell took over and yet after the door clicked shut behind them the paper chugged on and today is in some respects better than ever. We are all more indispensable to our own lives than to anyone or anything else, and the premise of the Point's current pitch is that what the older guard was doing at the New Republic can be carried on by a newer generation of young intellectuals in Chicago. Maybe Chris Hughes will find a new generation of his own.

But Baskin has seen the results so far and isn't impressed. He calls the new Books section "trend pieces," which is what the old New Republic disdained.

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