Over the past two years, it seemed to me that The New Republic had built a pretty good digital media company. There was experimentation. Their website underwent a number of changes that (as a web developer and former online journalist) I found really interesting. Their social media presence was significant, and they seemed to be as effective as anybody at writing tweets and engaging with their audience.
Apparently these efforts were not being rewarded with hockey-stick traffic or revenue growth, but that would never have been a realistic goal. TNR should have been able to build a healthy publication and a self-sustaining business without that.
Using Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post as a yardstick for TNR's success in 2014 is as silly as comparing its circulation to Time's or The New York Post's in the 1980s. All of the aforementioned publications are legitimate, but there are important differences in their value propositions. Customers hire them for very different "jobs to be done." TNR was never a mass-market publication. Its business model was always to cultivate a community of subscribers that would never be as large as Time's, but that would be far more deeply engaged. This is central to its brand and its value proposition. Monetizing this deep engagement was obviously a challenge from the beginning, but there's no question that its relatively small audience is deeply engaged.
What's crazy is that the internet is practically purpose-built for this kind of business. Everything that's happening to make content available instantly to more people makes it easier for a niche publication or product to find a sustainable audience, geography be damned. Deep engagement is a lot more scalable than it used to be.
I won't claim that anybody has completely figured out the business model that would guarantee a profitable TNR next year, but I am sure of this: TNR's existing value proposition showed a lot more potential in 2014 than at any other point in its 100-year history. That's the saddest part of this whole story for me.