The New Republic’s executive editor Greg Veis talks the health of political writing, listicles, and why online publishers are good for everyone.
As a 21-year-old fresh out of Duke University, Greg Veis had an epiphany about his budding writing career. “I realized I loved the idea of putting an entire publication together, rather than getting deep into one topic for weeks or months.” His resume backs up this desire. Veis landed an editorial internship at Esquire before he held positions at heavy hitters like GQ, The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. In 2012, he returned to The New Republic for a second stint to help guide the magazine through a revamp under new leadership. Veis chatted with Zinio over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, New York. This interview has been condensed and edited.
In late January, the magazine underwent a redesign with a new creative director. Was the change purely cosmetic, or did the writing style change as well?
It’s been much more than a cosmetic change. We brought in Dirk Barnett to be our new creative director, and he and his team have made the magazine look so much better. But the magazine reads a whole lot different now, too. We hired new staff writers, we’re working with new freelancers, we tackle topics that we wouldn’t have before. We just wanted to create a magazine that reflected a broader range of interests, that felt accessible to more people.
In an interview with Duke University’s alumni newsletter you said, “Politics will remain at the heart of the magazine, but you’ll be seeing more stories about tech, crime, sports and Hollywood.” Is this a product of the information age we are in, or do you think younger generations care less about politics and political writing?
Let’s be honest: The thirst for political writing has never been huge. More people will pick up US Weekly than TNR at the airport—just like more people probably picked up Confidential at the newsstand in the ’50s. That’s just the way it goes. And I don’t want to be some sad-sack nostalgic and bemoan the fact that kids these days care less about politics or political writing than they did. If you look around, you can see it: There’s a definite appetite for political coverage—and we hope to provide some of the best. That we’re trying to branch out beyond politics just has more to do with what it means to be a culturally engaged person now. You’ve got to know a lot about a lot, and we’re going to go where the good stories are.
One difference between The New Republic and other publications is that, with each piece, we try to find a bigger issue to explore. For instance, Alec MacGillis wrote a story on Paul Ryan for us last fall, and rather than its just being a straight profile of the guy, it was a story about how Washington had made itself susceptible to doe-eye young men brandishing graphs. It exposed something not just about Ryan, but about the changing culture of DC. That’s what we think of when we conceive a TNR story. There’s always got to be that extra wrinkle
In the same interview with Duke’s alumni newsletter you say that The New Republic, “make arguments more forcibly than our competitors do.” Do you have any other concrete examples of widespread stories where you felt your angle, or the way that you presented it, was better than what other people did?
I don’t want to say our approach is better or worse than anyone else’s, though I’m certainly partial. It’s just a different mentality in the story conception phase. There’s been a punchiness, a feistiness, to The New Republic since its birth almost 100 years ago. We value debate more than other places. It’s at the very heart of who we are. I love The New Yorker as much as anyone, but they’ve got more of a wry and detached vibe than we do. We’ll take stronger positions. And we’ll lay waste to more cows that are sacred—not just for the sake of cow-killing, but because we think the stories we write about are important enough to merit that level of scrutiny.
Chris Hughes purchased The New Republic over a year ago. More recently, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. From the outside looking in, people saw this as either equating dollar signs with journalism, or just wealthy folks looking for their next venture. Do you have any insight into this trend?
I seriously doubt either one got into the journalism business to make gigantic sums of money. I can’t speak to Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post, but I can say that Chris loves journalists and journalism. He saw this 98-year-old magazine, and thought that he could make it better. And I think he has.
Digital is a competitive landscape. On one hand, there are new online platforms like Politico and BuzzFeed tackling the daily news cycle. On the other hand, it gives traditional offline newspapers a new platform to explore denser long-form storytelling. For example, The New York Times won two Pulitzers for “The iEconomy” series by Charles Duhigg and the interactive story “Snow Fall,” by John Branch. Are magazines like The New Republic fighting a two front war?
Sure, we’ve got to be fast and slow. We have separate teams, a web-editing staff and a print editing staff, with unique goals. There’s a lot that unites us, and there are a lot of differences in our jobs. What unites us is that each story has to be a TNR story, no matter where it shows up. I love listicles with cute pandas, but TNR isn’t going to start running those in the quest for clicks.
In any magazine that has both a website and a print component there will be fights over resources. It’s a constant battle to figure out the best use of our very talented writers’ times. We need to stay on top of the news when it happens, and we need to produce wonderful magazine features. That’s not always easy to do with a staff our size. But think about the way you read: you want the quick stuff to help you understand what’s going on at a given moment, and you want the really engrossing long stories, the ones that stick.
Does the online content and the print material get the same level of critique and care?
No, it just can’t. We recently ran a piece on Doug Band, who was Bill Clinton’s right hand man for most of his post-presidency, and from our initial conversations with the writer to the time it was published, almost a full year passed. A web piece may need to be up within five minutes. Of course it’s a different ballgame.
There are a lot of new publishers like Medium, Atavist and Byliner for writers to publish a story of their own length and vision with less oversight. Do you fear you’ll ever have trouble selling the prestige of a byline in The New Republic to attract writers?
That there are new places for great stories to live is excellent news for the writing community, TNR included. It encourages more talented people to come into the field.
Do I worry that we won’t be able to attract certain writers to The New Republic? Absolutely not. They know they’ll get a certain degree of editorial care here—in terms of our talking the story through with them in the beginning; our sweating over the drafts; the great presentation that Dirk, our creative director, is able to give each story. That team experience is one of the wonderful things about magazine-making. People aren’t going to stop wanting that. And it may sound old-fashioned, but I still think that brands matter. You just approach pieces with a different mentality when you know that it has the stamp of a certain organization on it. This, by the way, is by no means a knock on any of the publishers you mentioned. They’re doing awesome work.
You’ve worked at a variety of places including, The New York Times Magazine, GQ and The New Republic. All those publications have different tones and objectives. Do you have tried and true editor tools, or do you have to wear three different hats to get the copy clean?
You definitely have to keep your audience in mind. But no, in general, what I’ve done at my desk everyday has pretty much been the same thing. I just try to work on stories that I think are good, because I have this perhaps deluded notion that if I like a story, then other people will, too. It’s a trust-your-gut thing. Does that make me sound like George W. Bush? It does, doesn’t it?
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