FROM HUNTED TO HUNTER: It used to be The New Republic fed up-and-coming talents to the big leagues.

Now it may be the other way around. With Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes at the helm, the newly flush Beltway journal is not just dipping into the talent pool of larger competitors but taking direct aim at some of their marquee reporters.

This story first appeared in the June 4, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Recently, the magazine has approached The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, New York Times Magazine contributor Robert Draper and The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, several sources familiar with the conversations confirmed. 

The overtures are a bold move for a magazine that has less than 50,000 readers. But Hughes is intent on telegraphing that his influential, if little read, magazine will be an aggressive competitor.

“They seem pretty damn serious about getting what they think of as great talents,” said a source involved in
the conversations.

The New Republic declined to comment. “We’re in a recruiting process,” is all a spokeswoman would say.
By going after seasoned investigative reporters, Hughes is also reaffirming his conviction to long-form journalism and indicating the magazine itself will shift directions toward more narrative-driven storytelling and intense reporting. While under Franklin Foer’s first tenure, from 2006 to 2010, the magazine featured deeply reported pieces, it’s long been dominated by commentary and analysis.   

“Everything before Chris should be thrown out as precedent. That was Marty Peretz’s thing,” said a source close to the magazine; Peretz is the magazine’s former longtime publisher.

Since taking a majority stake in the magazine three months ago, Hughes has kept a low-key profile, striking mainly a note of continuity.

He wooed back Foer as editor and paid tribute to the magazine’s roots in a letter to readers.

“When few people are investing in media institutions with such bold aims as ‘enlightenment to the problems of the nation,’” he wrote, quoting the magazine’s founders, “I believe we must.” He’s also said he would redesign the print magazine and the Web site.

Hughes had said he plans to double the magazine’s staff, now at 15. But the poaching expedition started in earnest after Foer’s return earlier this month. It was expected to reach New York sooner or later. Hughes has said in interviews he’s an admirer of The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. 

He intends to open an office in Manhattan, and New Republic alums are scattered at several publications.

Foer has informally reached out to friends and the magazine’s alums. For some former staffers, like Jonathan Chait, now a columnist at New York, an offer was implicit. “I let him know that I’m extremely happy at New York and just arrived nine months ago, so I wouldn’t consider an offer to leave,” Chait said over e-mail.

Leibovich said he was happy at the Times.

It’s not clear if conversations with Draper and Filkins are ongoing. Draper, who is in Libya on assignment for National Geographic, and Filkins both declined comment.

Even if these reporters don’t bite, it’s unlikely Hughes will back off from high-profile hires.

“They’re trying to make a big splash,” says a source at a rival magazine. “They want this to be a bigger magazine than just for the Beltway.”

Hughes also said in his letter to readers that he’s convinced that the growing influence of tablets and mobile devices has created an opportunity for long-form journalism and a market to support it.

To some, he has the savvy to take the journal out from the backwaters of the Potomac.

Evan Smith, Draper’s former editor at Texas Monthly and now the editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, reached out to Hughes after his editor’s letter was published in March and came away impressed with the budding publisher.

“I thought he demonstrated a greater facility with this world he was about to enter than what I would have anticipated,” Smith said. “I absolutely walked away believing that what he had written was what he felt.”

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