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Media Meltdowns

Incoming TNR Editor Lays Out Boring Vision For Magazine In “Depressing” Meeting With Staff

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In a meeting with staffers yesterday, the newly announced editor of The New Republic, current Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky, laid out his vision for the magazine. It is everything the formerly new TNR was not.

According to two TNR staffers who were in the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity given the uncertainty of the situation, Tomasky proposed what amounts to a restoration of a previous iteration of the 107-year-old magazine, when, during the Clinton years, it was known as the inflight magazine of Air Force One. Tomasky, hired by TNR owner and mini media mogul Win McCormack, wants to make the publication a D.C. magazine again, moving editorial operations from New York to D.C. and shifting its journalistic focus to process reporting, profiles, and politician interviews, with the aim of making it influential among “all the parts of the Democratic coalition,” the staffers said. For example, Tomasky offered as an idea that instead of having law professor and author Zephyr Teachout write about monopolies and anti-trust enforcement, a TNR staffer could interview Democratic representatives about it. While one staffer told Defector that Tomasky was upfront about the fact that he still had a lot to figure out before he starts the job on April 19, two things are clear: Tomasky has a new (old) vision for TNR, and that vision does not include all current TNR writers. According to the staffers who spoke to Defector, Tomasky said there will be a “deliberative process” and one-on-one conversations about which staffers fit with his vision for the magazine, but that he’s not going to go in “with a chainsaw” immediately. Instead of reassuring staffers, the announcement that employees could be de-facto re-interviewing for their jobs caused anxiety.

Tomasky—a longtime liberal commentator who has worked at a number of news organizations including New York magazine, The Prospect, the Guardian US, and the quarterly political journal Democracy (which he has said he will continue to edit while in the top job at TNR)—has spent the better part of the last decade writing wonky political analysis and largely conventional liberal wisdom at The Daily Beast. His hiring and his vision represent an abrupt shift from The New Republic of recent years. After editor Chris Lehmann took the helm at TNR in 2019, the magazine became a destination for incisive analysis of politics and political movements from a clear-eyed leftist perspective. (Lehmann had previously been an editor at the left-wing magazine, The Baffler, which is run by McCormack’s son, Noah McCormack.) Under Lehmann, TNR developed a voice, and that voice attracted a loyal and growing audience. Tomasky, staffers told Defector, wants to reach a new audience of politicians and congressional aides.

“I think implicitly, the idea is we’re gonna bring back TNR the way it used to be, minus the racism,” one staffer said.

In the TNR glory days, though, the D.C. media landscape was a lot less crowded, and competition for the kinds of insidery scoops that catch the eye of the capitol’s political mavens didn’t include places like Politico and Axios. In the past two years, TNR has managed to carve out a spot in this landscape nonetheless with smart reporting and analysis of not only politics, but media, culture, Native issues, gender and inequality, and climate; as of now it’s unclear how much of that will be relegated to the backseat, or tossed out entirely, in order to mold TNR into something more conventional. What the ideal for this new version of the magazine would look like is still unclear. When Tomasky was asked in the meeting who his dream hire would be, he dodged, saying he had spoken to two people about editor jobs but that he couldn’t say who due to privacy reasons, a staffer said.

Tomasky’s hire is a mismatch of personal politics as well. “He self-identified as a Warren Democrat, whatever that means,” a staffer said. The other staffer said that Tomasky, who was vocally against Bernie Sanders’s campaign in 2016, allowed that he has more respect for Sanders and the left than he used to, but thinks the left and liberals have to work together. “Reading between the lines, the suggestion I think is that we’re too critical critical of Democrats,” the first person said.

The TNR staffers told Defector that Tomasky seemed aware that staffers were upset with how the news of his hire and the plan to move editorial operations to D.C. had been sprung on them. “He also seemed pretty downbeat about the way everything was going down. It wasn’t a Pattonesque ‘Listen up, this is how things are going to be’ deal,” one staffer said. The other staffer allowed that it’s possible Tomasky could end up being a good fit in some ways—”I’ve heard decent things about him as an editor and a guy in a newsroom”—but that the impression he left from the meeting was one of an incoming manager who didn’t have a good handle on the existing staff and who, as a result, ended up being “condescending.”

In all the tone of the meeting was more resigned than anything. “No fireworks,” one of the staffers said. “It was just depressing.”

More than anything, Tomasky’s hire is bad news for the readers of The New Republic. The four years that the country spent under the Trump administration inarguably changed liberal media, and often for the worse. But while other outlets gave themselves over to feverish coverage of Russian conspiracies and disinformation, useless safaris into the minds of Trump voters, and cloying Resistance Journalism, TNR stood out as an example of a legacy publication that got noticeably better over the last four years. That the plan now seems to be to halt that progress, and to return the magazine to a cozy position near the halls of power, is a great loss for anyone interested in reading a magazine that aims to do more than help re-establish power and influence within the centrist faction of the Democratic party.

Tomasky did not respond to Defector’s request for comment.

Update (March 27, 12:21 p.m. ET): The union has released a statement.