Primary Colors

 
This was The New Republic’s year in lights, some of them hotter than others. Last year, TNR promoted the energetic young editor Franklin Foer, then 31, to its top post; circulation had been dropping, and many left-leaning subscribers had been rebelling against the magazine’s hawkish take on the Iraq war. More recently, the magazine had a public confrontation with The Weekly Standard about alleged discrepancies in the reporting of its serviceman-columnist “Baghdad Diarist.” Two staffers also made high-profile moves to The New Yorker.

In March, Foer and longtime art director Joe Heroun launched the first major redesign of the magazine since Roger Black’s overhaul in 1999, and the magazine shifted from a weekly to a biweekly schedule. Eight months later, the design is making a strong statement: TNR is a new magazine, courting a redefined, outside-the-Beltway demographic that will be younger, hipper, and more liberal.

Those new readers just might be hard-core magazine fans, too. Foer is hopelessly, and unabashedly, in love with print. “If you’re going to publish a magazine on paper, you have to make it worth people’s while to read it on paper,” he says. “If it’s a beautiful, visually interesting magazine, you’re taking advantage of the virtues of dead trees.”

That meant TNR couldn’t remain the text-centric, austere treatise it had been since 1914. “I’m not sure how much fun Joe actually had before the redesign,” Foer jokes. “He had one opportunity to make a statement, and it was the cover.” Heroun agrees: “The magazine, known for its elegant writing and counterintuitive ideas, assumed its readers to be sophisticated and enlightened. That premise was flipped in terms of the visual language, which often veered toward the pedantic, out of concern that readers would not understand something if not spoon-fed. The editorial voice under Frank Foer has changed
all that, and reflects his view that the art in the magazine [should] stand on its own merits and be as engaging as the words.” In other words, the art is now mandatory.

TNR’s new covers, printed with a superslippery liquid-laminate UV coating, range from Jill Greenberg photographs to stately but expressive oil paintings. Keen to break paradigms all over the book, Heroun and Foer are hiring poster, graffiti, and fine artists like Todd Slater and James Victore. The redesign’s first cover—an elegant, earth-toned portrait of Barack Obama by the young New York painter Dana Schutz—made the fresh emphasis clear. “We got her to come down to actually sketch Obama in person,” Foer says.

Inside, the paper stock is thicker, and production values have improved overall. Visually, the feature well is also more organized. Where there used to be a mixed two- and three-column grid, there are now three columns throughout; where, previously, there was a combination of Hoefler Titling and Knockout family fonts for display and Times Roman for text (“completely safe and innocuous,” Heroun says), now the whole issue—including the logotype—shares the stylish, highly readable Adobe font Warnock Pro. The Books & the Arts section varies slightly, with headlines and poems set in the mildly authoritarian sans-serif Nobel, and section titles are set in Talisman. Elegant red drop caps unite the body copy throughout.

In keeping with the magazine’s new habit of responding directly to controversy, the editors announced the redesign in a web forum after the debut. TNR habitués, never shy about expressing their opinions, debated whether the type size was too small, what the new logotype signified, and whether going biweekly signaled loss of strength. It’s the web that enables this new dedication to making TNR “more like a magazine,” as Foer has phrased it. As some periodicals try to stanch subscription hemorrhages by chopping print content, TNR’s print edition is keeping the focus on in-depth commentary; tnr.com can handle quick takes and late-breaking stories.

To illustrate and complement those deeply reported print stories, Foer and Heroun are together assigning genuinely experimental photo explorations, along with lush, stand-alone photo essays accompanied by photographers’ own commentary. For Foer, the visual strategy is entwined in a new way with the editorial content. “You hope you’re producing pieces that stand out because
they took time to produce,” he says.

But in keeping with Foer’s deepest loyalties, the magazine has also moved back in time. “When it came to the actual aesthetic, Joe and I both loved the old New Republic,” he says. “We felt that we were drawing on a really rich aesthetic tradition; magazines used to know how to make type look beautiful. We spent one afternoon looking through bound copies of old New Republics, back to the beginning—1914—looking for things that we wanted to borrow or revive. We’d never had photography, we’d never had a lot of design elements, but historically it looked really beautiful.”

The new logotype also gestures toward the magazine’s earlier ideology, Heroun says. “Reviving the original logo was also a sign of the larger objective to get the magazine back to its roots, after it seemed to have lost its way in recent years.”

Their archival research also resulted in elements like a page-one editorial before the table of contents. The Mall—an entirely new section for shorter takes—and Books & the Arts open with filigreed illustrations; now, throughout, a single artist draws spot illustrations with complete creative control. Yielding the wonkier debates to its online forum, TNR appears to be allowing its print edition to be a much more voice-driven showcase for writers and artists alike.

There’s room for visual satire, too; an April issue, for example, included an irreverent collage parody of Vanity Fair’s Africa issue, and the editors are giving a confident reinforcement to the venerable but suffering art of the political cartoon with “White House Watch”—a column that’s traditionally been written, but is now being drawn by Drew Friedman, whose subversive caricatures were a Spy signature.

In fact, there’s no shortage of homages here: Aside from various decades of TNR, there’s some New Yorker (squiggly rules), a touch of New York and Spy (floating heads), and a whole lot of The Atlantic Monthly (over-size photo illustrations). At times, this confluence of graphics, old- and new-style, feels unfocused; oddly placed captions and sterile text boxes for poems and short pieces can make for ungainly compositions. If the editors want TNR to stand on the design pedestal with the magazines they’re emulating, past and present, they’ll have to figure out how to let the new brand breathe on its own a little more.

Yet the paper-based direction of all this energy will surely be heartening to any print-magazine aficionado. Online, Foer and Heroun have built the requisite oasis around which Washington wonks can argue to their heart’s content. Meanwhile, they want the magazine to be appreciated and cherished for its beauty as well as its writing. The phrases both editor and art director invoke most frequently have a telling contrast: “visual surprises,” “history,” “emotion,” “roots.” If they continue in this direction—and if TNR’s current ideological inconsistencies slip off its glossy cover altogether—this will be not only a magazine to read, but one to keep.

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