After co-founding the social network, Chris Hughes directed Barack Obama’s digital campaign for president. So why has he switched to old media?
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 without their knowledge 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 full scholarship. It was Phillips that led to Harvard and to Facebook.
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..