Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s co-founders, took a majority stake in The New Republic in March. The brand, at a circulation of just under 40,000, has ricocheted between owners over the last few years and has been unable to turn a profit. Hughes is investing his own capital to relaunch its entire platform—print, mobile and web—all at once in the next couple months.
While he was purposefully vague about plans or timeframe details, there are a couple developments to keep an eye out for. While TNR is being built across print, digital, mobile and tablet platforms, he says other products are in the offing. And during the discussion, a “membership” concept was mentioned as a pricing model for readers. Again, Hughes was unspecific, but he’s clearly thinking about “access” to The New Republic’s entire product platform and the relationship that readers have with the brand.
Through it all, however, will be a primary focus on digital—which Hughes is banking on as the long-term focus. In The New Republic’s relaunch strategy, print will be a game of diminishing returns.
Interestingly, he’s not hiring in-house developers to rebuild TNR’s product platform—a decision he admits makes the ongoing iterative process of enhancing the products post relaunch more challenging—and is instead outsourcing development.
FOLIO: Talk about what the new product mix will look like going forward with print and digital.
Hughes: We’re redesigning all of our core products—the print magazine, the website, mobile and tablet—all within the next couple months. We started the process across the board on all of those and I don’t have a specific date for you yet, but we’ll announce one very soon.
The idea is not to just redesign the magazine from an aesthetic perspective but to rethink how the content is created, developed and then most importantly from a digital perspective, delivered. Investing in a single delivery mechanism would be like saying that the only thing I need is an iPhone.
We have to reinvent all of these products and build them so they’re completely integrated with one another—so that it’s possible for a single user to have a consistent brand experience wherever he or she may be engaging.
But I don’t think integration is enough. We also have to be creative and thoughtful about the ways that people are finding the content and experiencing it. There will be several things that we release with our redesigned product in the next few months, which we can’t yet talk about because they’re under development. But the value is around being as practical and thoughtful as possible about how people experience the news. That’s a vague answer, but I don’t want to show our hand too much.
FOLIO: With all this integration, can you explain how you’re applying your resources to the print product?
Hughes: I’m a big believer in print in the near term. I don’t buy the argument that it’s just some leftover nostalgia for an era gone by. But it’s hard for me to imagine a future ten years from now where print still has the same penetration and the same reach that it does today. We’re definitely investing in print, we just hired the creative director from Newsweek, who is leading our print redesign process, which is going to be a significant one.
So the print redesign is incredibly important. The newsstand is also important, you’ll see us in the next few months being much more prominent on the newsstand than we’ve been historically.
FOLIO: So you’ll be increasing your distribution into more stores?
Hughes: Absolutely. Print is a very important piece of the puzzle, but I do think that from a strategic view we have to be laser-focused on getting the digital implementation of our product right. Because even if print is important now, in the next few years digital is going to be even more important.
FOLIO: You’ve talked about how you want to invest in your content and editorial, can you address the business side? What are your plans for sales and marketing?
Hughes: On both the content and the business side we start with our readers. Those are our core customers and the people we want to serve as best as we can. So the goal is to build a brand that smart, intelligent and politically curious people want to be a part of. It’s my belief that subscriptions in 2012 and moving forward are really more about membership models than they are about the ability to get a piece of paper. It’s a statement that you like a brand and the brand says something about who you are and what you want to read.
And to finish the point, that translates to advertising dollars as well. As we grow our base of readers who fit this description of highly intelligent, influential, culturally engaged folks, that’s highly attractive to advertisers. Everywhere I turn that’s the group of people that a lot of advertisers are willing to pay a lot of money to reach.
FOLIO: Is there anything more to that membership concept in terms of how you’ll be structuring the way customers will access the product?
Hughes: We’re evaluating our options and we’re in the process of making some decisions about our subscription and membership options, but we don’t have anything to announce yet.
FOLIO: Clearly you’re at the point here where you’ve got a lot to prove, grow your customer base and show its value to advertisers, are there any specific plans to grow that base?
Hughes: Absolutely. Because we’re making significant changes to all of our core products it’s been our approach to take the resources that we have and focus them around the relaunch of all those products at once. The web, mobile and print products that we have now are probably more in line with our historical position in the market place than our future products will be, so from a marketing perspective we’re going to make an enormous push around our relaunch to tell the story of the ‘new’ New Republic.
FOLIO: How long do you want to give this before you feel like TNR is on solid footing?
Hughes: It’s going to take some time. I want to build a profitable business. The New Republic can absolutely be a profitable business.
There’s no way to get there without investing serious resources in the business. We’re doing that this year and we’ll do it next year.
FOLIO: Can you quantify that? How much capital are you putting into the operation?
Hughes: We’re putting enough capital in so that we can reinvent all the core products and also tell our story as aggressively as we want to, but it would be silly to come into an industry which is being disrupted as dramatically as this one is, reinvent a magazine in the process from a digital perspective and think that’s going to happen in a year or two. It’s going to take time.
FOLIO: Aside from your own investments in the company, are you raising outside capital as well?
Hughes: No, The New Republic is my baby.
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