Can The New Yorker keep itself new?
That bastion of refined wit and in-depth reporting celebrates its 75th anniversary.
NEW YORK — With some magazines, the way to find out what's on the editor's mind is to read his or her column. With The New Yorker, which has no such feature, the way to find out what's on the editor's mind is to go to Times Square and ask him.
In an orderly corner office overlooking Manhattan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick talks about why he thinks his magazine, 75 years old this month, will outlive today's hyper-publishing, Internet environment.
"To bet against the hunger for writing is like betting against the hunger for food. I insist that a sizable audience always yearns for the wit and the depth and the intelligence that The New Yorker strives for."
Mr. Remnick says he is not oblivious to modern pulls on the public's attention (he is the first New Yorker editor to have a computer in his office), but he is unswayed in his view of the staying power of the publication.
Editing The New Yorker is "an impossible job, and it's the most prestigious job in the business," says Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation magazine.
In the last decade, New Yorker circulation has increased from 615,000 in 1991 to 830,000. Even so, it is reportedly losing money, something the privately held publication won't discuss.
It will talk about what it's apparently doing right:Advertising pages are up 5 percent, and its renewal rate is 77 percent, higher than any other magazine.
Despite its contemporary nature - Steve Martin is a regular contributor, Internet coverage is common - The New Yorker does not have a content-based Web site to attract new readers. To extend its reach, it is turning to other venues, like TV. Last month, the editor and his writers began appearing regularly on Charlie Rose's PBS talk show to discuss each week's issue on Monday nights.
Remnick, who is polite but guarded, says they don't have a certain person in mind when planning what to cover. "We're not niche marketing. I don't sit there and think, 'This will satisfy the 28-year-old graduate student or young professional, and this piece is perfectly slated for the retiree in Stockbridge....' Editing a magazine here is about doing the things that we love, and hoping that you will, too," he says.
The TV appearances are an approach worthy of, but less flashy than, Remnick's predecessor Tina Brown. Her 1992-98 tenure featured growing circulation and solid reporting (often provided by Remnick), but it was frequently overshadowed by gimmicks - a story about a dominatrix, a photo spread of topless showgirls.
Observers say Ms. Brown was reactive, always looking for what was hot, while Remnick's approach is more journalistic. His roots suggest as much: He spent 10 years as a Washington Post reporter before joining The New Yorker in 1992. He won a Pulitzer for his first book, "Lenin's Tomb," in 1994.
Brown hired Remnick, and he is still loyal to her: "I like her. We got along fine. We still do," he says.
But when it was his turn, he chose to emphasize different things. "I wanted to see the city more vividly." And, he adds with a laugh, "It's entirely conceivable that I'm more interested in sports than Tina ever was."
Running a leading, much-beloved institution, however, is not always as easy as deciding its content. The politics of his job color everything Remnick says, causing him to answer seemingly innocuous questions off the record.
He operates under a burden that didn't exist for early New Yorker editors - being part of a communications conglomerate, notes Mr. Navasky, who is also the Delacorte professor of magazines at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
The New Yorker was absorbed into the Cond Nast empire (including Vanity Fair and Vogue) in 1985, losing the independence it had long prided itself on, Navasky says. That loss was punctuated recently when the magazine moved into the new Cond Nast building in Times Square.
Remnick says he doesn't aim to cause a "ruckus for the sake of a ruckus" - something he finds "vulgar" - but his tenure has not been devoid of controversy. Police picketed the building last year after The New Yorker ran a cover depicting a policeman in a shooting gallery taking aim at targets that looked like civilians. It commented on a case where officers shot and killed an unarmed African man, Amadou Diallo, in the Bronx. The officers' trial, which began last week, was moved to Albany, partly because of pre-trial publicity, including The New Yorker cover.
Today, Remnick is focused on the 75th anniversary. The Feb. 21 edition will feature a mix of historical pieces and some by contemporary writers like Woody Allen, who
hasn't been in the magazine since 1978. Remnick says change at The New Yorker has been constant, but "the underlying sensibility and principles are the same."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society