The New Republic Makes an Uneasy Peace With Staff Over D.C. Move
Staffers say they're still worried about the magazine's future.
Last week, staffers at The New Republic had their first meeting with incoming editor Michael Tomasky soon after they found out simultaneously via an email and a New York Times story that Tomasky would be replacing their current top editor Chris Lehmann and the magazine would move its headquarters back to D.C.
As far as meetings with your new boss go, this wasn't exactly a happy one, with one current staffer describing it as "a minor key kind of thing," as many staffers felt ambushed by the abrupt switch and immediately threatened by the prospect of being forced to relocate to D.C.
But after public pressure from the magazine's NewsGuild-affiliated union and a Defector story outlining the staff's displeasure with the announcement, management informed employees this week that Tomasky and owner/editor-in-chief Win McCormack are abruptly dropping their plans to force New York staffers to relocate to D.C., as the New Republic Union announced on Thursday.
According to multiple sources, management has said that while the company will continue its plans to expand its D.C. operation, staffers in New York, where the magazine has been based since 2014 , won't be required to move to D.C. to keep their jobs. The new plan, sources said, is to slowly shift operations to D.C. as people leave the company naturally. The union was informed of the change in plans on Monday.
McCormack, Tomasky, and the rest of TNR's management quickly backpedaled in order to "lower the temperature" of the negotiations with staff, one source said. Management met with TNR's union several times earlier this week, which sources characterized as positive.
"It does seem that they realized that they had to make a concession, because Tomasky didn't get the welcome mat that they expected," one current TNR staffer told Discourse Blog. (Discourse Blog granted staffers anonymity so they could discuss the behind-the-scenes issues without fear of reprisal.)
The decision to abandon the wholesale move to D.C. came after the union lambasted the magazine's leadership for a lack of transparency or notice regarding the intent to move. "While we are still in communication with management, it's clear that the implications of this move have been barely thought out," the union said in a statement last Friday. "This is unacceptable, particularly from an ostensibly progressive, pro-union publication."
Some staffers are still uneasy, however. Tomasky is planning on having one-on-ones with every staffer at the magazine over the coming weeks and months—he officially starts his new job on April 19—and there have been concerns that some staffers might be effectively re-interviewing for their job, sources said.
"Having some reassurance is big but there’s still so much uncertainty about where we’re going," another current TNR staffer told Discourse Blog. "I don’t know what it is Tomasky wants exactly. We didn’t get a lot of clarity about what he wants."
Tomasky represents a shift from the operation built by Lehmann, the former Baffler editor who, since taking the helm of TNR in 2019, helped transform what was once a stuffy mainstay of neoliberalism with a legacy of overt racism into an outlet with a diversity of voices and perspectives spanning the width of the contemporary left. McCormack announced last week that Lehmann would become an editor-at-large and "retain an association with the magazine," but the impression staffers got was that Lehmann had been forced out of the top job.
"That hasn’t been clarified either," one staffer said. "Chris is pretty popular and people were pretty happy with what he built. It doesn’t mean TNR was perfect, but people were sad and taken aback."
Lehmann declined to comment for this story. TNR's management did not respond to a request for comment; nor did Tomasky.
Tomasky is the editor-in-chief of the liberal quarterly journal Democracy, which was founded by former Clinton and Obama White House staffers Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny. (He plans to remain in that post.) Tomasky also vocally opposed the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016, though he told the staff last week that he's since warmed up to Sanders and the left, Defector reported. “I think implicitly, the idea is we’re gonna bring back TNR the way it used to be, minus the racism,” one staffer told Defector last week.
Members of the editorial staff, many of whom are based in New York, feared that the geographic shift would hasten an ideological squeeze of the site's newer, openly-left wing writers, in favor of returning to the access-driven, Beltway-centric liberal journalism that earned TNR the derisive title of "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One."
"I sort of suspected that the effort to move operations, to centralize them in D.C., did seem like it was also a way to pick off some political divisions," a TNR staffer said. "If you don't agree with someone in New York, you can just say, 'it's not because you're a lefty, it's because you won't move to D.C.'"
Now, it's unclear how soon or in what form Tomasky's new vision for the magazine will be applied. With the scrapping of the mandatory exodus to D.C.—and with staffers continuing to work remotely for the foreseeable future—TNR is in a kind of suspended animation. "I think from a practical perspective that's still going to be rather strange," a TNR staffer said. "It kind of blows up their whole plan of planting their flag in DC."
After a contentious few days, both sides seem to be willing to take their foot off the gas, after the union's quick action to check management appears to have prompted some actual recalcitrance. But staffers are wary of the future; multiple sources said Tomasky expressed no intentions of leaving the job, and he will presumably strive to impose his vision on the magazine in one way or another. That vision is flatly at odds with the TNR that Lehmann was building; one could even say that Lehmann's TNR was animated by a desire to criticize power and the ways it was covered by publications exactly like the one Tomasky apparently wants to make.
For now, it appears that management is content to let these two visions co-exist uneasily. How long that lasts is anyone's guess.