On February 23, the 93-year-old New Republic announced it would shift from weekly to biweekly publication and that CanWest–Canada’s largest media conglomerate–would henceforth own a majority share and would expect the magazine to turn a profit.
Reaction was swift. Commentators, well-wishers and ill-wishers alike focused on the watershed moment of America’s second-oldest weekly going biweekly. The Internet, the argument goes, has changed the game; what role, if any, venerable print institutions like The New Republic will play in the future is an open question. The magazine assured readers it has a plan; the glossy new biweekly will be twice the size of the old weekly, and the website will be enhanced to keep the magazine in the daily news cycle.
While the new strategy may make business sense, its new ownership structure raises critical questions for the public sphere, questions that grew more acute when CanWest announced just four days later that it was instead buying the whole magazine. Independence has long been an important condition for journals of opinion dedicated to making a contribution to the national dialogue. It’s no accident that of the four main such US journals, three (The Nation, National Review and TNR) were independently owned; only the late comer, Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, is not–and so far he’s allowed the magazine to run at a loss.
Ownership of an opinion journal has always been something like a trusteeship, and it remains to be seen if CanWest feels that way or regards the purchase as just another acquisition. Whatever CanWest’s intentions, over time conglomerates have a way of working their will, of flattening and homogenizing opinion. That’s certainly CanWest’s track record.
Like most journals of opinion, The New Republic has almost always run at a loss, surviving with the help of wealthy benefactors. The magazine’s editor in chief, Marty Peretz–famously married to a Singer sewing machine heiress–has bankrolled the publication since he purchased it for $380,000 in 1974.
So why is the magazine being sold now? After some bad investments, Peretz sought additional backing for the magazine, and in 2002 he brought in two New York financiers, who implied they would support the magazine to the tune of several million dollars a year. One, Michael Steinhardt, decided he was too conservative for the magazine and by the second half of 2006 wanted out, according to J.J. Goldberg, who maintains ties to Steinhardt’s circle, and whose paper, The Forward, was also once supported by the retired hedge fund manager. Peretz didn’t have to look far for a new backer. In January 2006 CanWest had purchased a 30 percent stake in the magazine for $2.3 million. Now, they are the sole owners, although Peretz retains his title.
CanWest’s road to The New Republic begins in 1975, when Israel “Izzy” Asper started a single television station in his hometown of Winnipeg. When Asper died in 2003, he left behind a global media empire that includes film production, newspapers and broadcasting stations on four continents. Leonard Asper, who succeeded his father, has said he wants CanWest, a family-controlled but publicly traded company with about $2.9 billion (Canadian) in revenues, to become one of the world’s five-largest media conglomerates.