Lunch with the FT

Last updated: February 9, 2013 4:07 pm

Lunch with the FT: Chris Hughes

After co-founding Facebook, Chris Hughes directed Barack Obama’s digital campaign for president. So why has he switched to old media?
Illustration by Luke Waller of Chris Hughes©Luke Waller

Anyone wanting to feel good about their achievements in life should probably not have lunch with Chris Hughes. With still nine months until he turns 30, he has a net worth of at least $600m and has been involved with two of the most successful start-ups of recent years: Facebook and Barack Obama’s 2008 digital campaign for president. Now he is spending his time and some money trying to reinvent a century-old liberal political magazine, The New Republic, which relaunched last month to considerable fanfare.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” Hughes says with a disarming mix of modesty and confidence. We sit down at a discreet corner table in Tamarind, a fashionable Indian restaurant with minimalist décor in New York’s Flatiron district, not far from where Hughes recently opened a Manhattan office for The New Republic. Hughes, who is a regular here and always sits at the same table, immediately orders a Diet Coke.

Dressed in a dark-blue striped shirt, a grey round-necked sweater, a suit jacket and dark jeans, Hughes, with his blond hair and fresh-faced good looks, appears like an advertisement for the preppy lifestyle. “To have been part of one of the biggest companies of the past 10 years,” he says, “to have been part of Obama’s world, and to have the opportunity now to reinvigorate this 100-year-old magazine, I feel incredibly fortunate.”

Of course, Hughes has been lucky. It was lucky that as a literature and history student at Harvard, he became friends with Mark Zuckerberg and they arranged to share a dorm room in their second year, the very year that the computer science and psychology student began to develop a social networking site he called “TheFacebook”.

But it is also clear that Hughes has worked hard for that luck. Born and brought up in Hickory, North Carolina, the only child of a paper salesman and maths teacher, he was told that he could do anything he wanted. At the age of 15, taking his parents at their word, he applied to some of the US’s best high schools, before announcing that he had been accepted to Phillips Academy in Andover – a school attended by both Presidents Bush – with a scholarship. It was Phillips that led to Harvard and to Facebook.

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Lunch with the FT

It is time to order our lunch. Declaring, “I love everything here”, Hughes chooses tandoori chicken, and a cauliflower dish (which never arrives), while I order spicy eggplant and lentils. We agree to share.

Turning to his new challenge, Hughes tells me about his plans for The New Republic, of which he has appointed himself editor-in-chief. “We’re going to move away from political opinion, which is what the magazine has done a lot of historically, and towards doing reported, substantive journalism,” he explains.

When I suggest this is a territory already well-covered by The New Yorker, Hughes says there is scope for another magazine in this space. Certainly, the first relaunched edition, featuring an Oval Office interview with Hughes’ old boss, Obama, has been well-received, although some eyebrows were raised that Hughes, rather than a seasoned political journalist, conducted the interview, along with the magazine’s editor Franklin Foer.

The New Republic, founded in 1914 as a weekly publication (it is now bi-weekly), was once the natural habitat for liberals and counted John F Kennedy and Jimmy Carter among its readers, and George Orwell and Philip Roth among its writers. But Hughes says he does not want the magazine to be known as a liberal publication any more, saying he will focus more on reportage. “We’re still going to have criticism of the fine arts, but alongside an opera review you’ll see a review of [Lena Dunham’s hit TV show] Girls,” says Hughes.

“The thing that is staying constant is this focus on an educated, influential demographic. It’s not a tonne of people, it’s a few million – people who are curious about what’s going on in the world.”

Warming to his theme, he continues: “I want us to have a staff of people who have viewpoints and who don’t hide their points of view – this idea that writers don’t have opinions is anachronistic – but I don’t want us to be the voice of any particular ideology. The coverage needs to be unbiased.”

Unsurprisingly, Hughes is a tech addict and carries his iPad mini everywhere, including to our lunch. His overhaul of The New Republic includes new web and tablet apps to make the magazine easier to read online and on iPads, creating “a curated, paginated experience”. I cannot help but wonder how he plans to avoid the fate of Newsweek, which, despite being one of the most internationally recognised magazine brands of the past 80 years, recently ceased publishing a print edition.

“Newsweek still has an iPad edition,” he reminds me, and insists that he has bought The New Republic as a business proposition.

“I think that era of significant profits in the media industry in the 20th century is largely over. But we’ve done a lot of market research and there is a real feeling that people are barraged by facts all day long, that they’re overwhelmed, and that they want one or two sources that they can go to for depth and context and analysis.”

Although he says he has no plans to stop publishing the print edition of the magazine, he clearly sees a migration to digital form as inevitable. “Four or five years from now I think we’ll be at the point where moving from print to the iPad doesn’t seem like the death of anything; it will just seem like a natural progression,” he says. Still, he jokes, the magazine is unlikely to become “the next Facebook”.

. . .

Articulate, outgoing and boyishly attractive, Hughes was Facebook’s natural salesman while the guys in the hoodies got on with the programming. They called him “the Empath”; it was a role that earned him a 1 per cent stake in the company. But then in 2007, just as the site was really taking off, Hughes left Facebook to work for a relatively little-known presidential hopeful, becoming the director of Obama’s new-media operation for the duration of the Democratic primary and presidential campaigns.

He approached the task like the Facebook alumnus he was: by creating an online community that made people feel connected with one another. My.BarackObama.com became the go-to site for organising supporters around the country, helping them canvass and email voters and raising more than $30m for the campaign.

However, not everything Hughes touches turns to gold. After the Obama campaign, he started a social network site for charities and non-profit organisations called Jumo. The venture flopped and was absorbed into the progressive media site Good within a year.

Then almost a year ago, Hughes moved on to The New Republic and took a majority stake for an undisclosed amount. Like many other magazines, it was haemorrhaging readers, owners, editors and money. Its circulation had fallen to 34,000 from a peak of more than 100,000 two decades ago.

In an age when it can seem that journalism is increasingly conducted in 140 characters, it seemed like a counter-cultural step: here was a new-media sensation moving to a traditional magazine committed to publishing 10,000-word essays on paper and delivered to readers by post.

While admitting that Zuckerberg “absolutely” thinks it’s weird that he’s moving into old media, Hughes argues that people of his age in this Twitter era are still readers. “A Pew [Research Center] report recently found that people under 30 are reading more books than they were 10 years ago – not much more, but more – and are as likely to have read them on their phone as in print,” he says. “It’s crazy.”

He should know. He admits that he has read whole chapters of War and Peace on his iPhone, although he also read parts on old-fashioned paper. (Over Christmas, he tells me, he read DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and he is now reading George Saunders’ new collection of short stories on his iPad.)

The New Republic’s circulation has been on the way up, now topping 44,000, but it hasn’t all been smooth. He fired the magazine’s editor, Richard Just, who also happened to be the person who had approached Hughes about taking over the publication. Just reportedly thought he was gaining an investor, but Hughes turned out to be much more hands-on, and the pair locked horns over how the magazine should be run. Hughes also went on a hiring spree, bringing back Foer as editor and recruiting novelist and essayist Walter Kirn. However, he reportedly tried and failed to lure big-name writers such as Ryan Lizza and Dexter Filkins from The New Yorker.

As Hughes daintily eats his chicken, I ask him whether he found it strange to be meeting the president not as supporter but as a journalist. (Hughes and his husband, Sean Eldridge, an investor and political activist, also attended Obama’s inaugural ball last month with the latter posting photos of them in matching suits on Twitter.) He laughs. “It’s been four or five years since I worked for him and a lot has changed. I’ve adapted pretty quickly to this role of being in the press and on the outside,” he says.

“It’s no secret that I supported him or a lot of other candidates and causes but we asked good challenging questions to get him to articulate how he has changed and the country has changed in the last four years and what his agenda is for the next four.”

Even in his incarnation as journalist, Hughes remains diplomatic in answering how he feels about the president today. While he praises the “incredibly ambitious agenda” that Obama laid out in his second inaugural address, a speech that was catnip to liberals, he says only that it is “interesting” that he has set such high expectations for his second term.

I suggest that this may have been a big reason for the liberal disillusionment with Obama over the past four years – impossibly high expectations he could never live up to – and Hughes nods, while also giving the impression he doesn’t completely agree.

. . .

I am busy scooping up dhal with the naan bread he ordered for us to share but Hughes has hardly made a dent in his food. He and Eldridge split their time between a huge loft in SoHo, Manhattan, and an 80-acre country estate in the Hudson Valley. Together they have made a name for themselves as influential Democratic fundraisers on the New York political scene.

Eldridge, who at 26 is even more good-looking than Hughes, was actively promoting the same-sex marriage bill that New York state passed in 2011, paving the way for their marriage, and is now pushing for campaign finance reform. He also runs a venture capital firm focused on the Hudson Valley.

“He loves this,” Hughes says, becoming more animated. “The work that he’s done on public policy – he’s had so much more of an impact than I could have hoped [to have myself] on marriage equality in New York state and then his work on campaign finance reform.” This week, Eldridge also filed the paperwork to run for the US Congress in next year’s election, representing the district in which their country house is located.

The couple were introduced by a friend of Elridge’s at a brunch in Harvard Square, Cambridge, in late 2005. The next week, Eldridge asked Hughes out on a date. They were married at their estate in the Hudson Valley last year; guests at their wedding reception, at the chichi Cipriani restaurant on Wall Street, included big-name Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, as well as Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, the Facebook investor.

Last year they held fundraisers in their SoHo loft for New York governor Andrew Cuomo and senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as for numerous marriage equality efforts. Although there have been substantial strides in recognising gay relationships in recent years, Hughes says there is still a great deal of work to be done. “The federal government thinks my husband and I are roommates, and in the eyes of the law it treats us as roommates. There are now nine states that have marriage equality, which is wonderful, but there are still 41 that don’t,” he says.

The issue is on the agenda this year, with the Supreme Court due to hear two controversial same-sex marriage cases next month. It also has political traction. Gay-rights activists were overjoyed that Obama referred to Stonewall, the clashes between police and members of the gay community, in his inauguration speech last month.

Hughes plans to continue holding fundraisers for this cause and also for campaign finance reform – dismissing my suggestion that it is somewhat ironic to be fighting against money in politics while holding swanky parties for candidates and issues he supports.

“Seeing the role of money in politics has made us all the more passionate to decrease its role,” he says, batting away any suggestion of hypocrisy, adding that for every dollar the couple gives to candidates, they give a dollar to campaign finance reform causes. “Right now, the system is what it is. If you want to win elections, what makes a difference is the television ads and the direct mail.”

Then he brings the subject to a close, saying: “I absolutely believe in this issue but I’m 100 per cent on The New Republic. Sean is the one who’s really involved in this; I just get to hear about it over dinner at night.”

As our lunch draws to an end and the clock ticks down to Hughes’ next meeting, I say it must be annoying when people tell him he looks 12 years old. “I get it all the time,” he laughs. “When I was younger I got more upset about it, like when you’re 21 and you get ID’ed. But now that I’m 29, I’ve already switched into the ‘thank-you-very-much’ phase.”

So, I ask, after a decade like this, what do his 30s hold? “The work I’m doing at The New Republic now in a lot of ways feels like home. It touches all my interests – my political interests, my technological interests, my journalistic passions. It’s challenging and that’s why it’s easy to imagine that five years or 10 years from now, there will be new technology and new ways of reading.”

Anna Fifield is the FT’s US political correspondent

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Tamarind

41-43 East 22nd Street, New York

Tandoori chicken half $14.00

Dal Makhni $13.50

Baghare Baingan $19.00

Naan $4.75

Basmati rice $5.50

Diet Coke $3.00

Sparkling water $8.00

Total (incl service) $88.76

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