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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

A Friend Writes   

Why we all have a vested interest in the survival of The New Yorker.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Assuming his head has stopped swimming by now, the estimable David Remnick is settling in as the fifth editor of The New Yorker. Remnick, a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton, has none of the bombast of the magazine's founding editor, high school dropout Harold Ross. Chances are he hasn't indulged in a decades-long shadow marriage, as did the second editor, William Shawn. He might seem to have more in common with the third, the cerebral Robert Gottlieb, although probably not the latter's kitsch interest in plastic purses. And if he has any of the party-animal pizazz of the fourth editor, Tina Brown, he's certainly managed to keep it under wraps till now.

All of which suggests Remnick will maintain a low enough profile that we'll be forced to pay attention to The New Yorker itself rather than to the people who run it. That's just as well, because this fledgling editor has an intimidating job ahead of him, and his success or failure will ripple far beyond the magazine's famously finicky readers. Those of us in the print business have an especially keen stake in the outcome of this New Yorker short story.

Emphasis on short: Remnick doesn't have much time. The New Yorker has been hemorrhaging red ink for a decade. It admits to losing $11 million in 1997, and that was a good year. With discounted subscriptions, television advertising, dynamite promotion--and, it shouldn't be forgotten, some terrific content--Tina Brown's New Yorker did manage to muscle its circulation past 800,000. Advertisers, however, have been a much tougher sell, which means all those extra subscribers are more of a drag on the operation than cause for celebration.

Where money is concerned, it was Brown's lavish spending that got tongues to clucking. But her New Yorker did try to stem the losses. The plethora of themed issues--on fashion, women, Hollywood and Europe, to name but a few--were crafted as advertising draws. And by creating so many double issues, Brown got the nation's most influential "weekly" down to 46 appearances a year. She was much less sanguine about a cost-cutting measure forced on her: The New Yorker, heretofore kept autonomous from S.I. Newhouse's less exalted magazines, next year moves into the Condé Nast orbit--and into its new building on Times Square.

So the clock ticks, and don't kid yourself: If they can forsake Yankee Stadium, they can close The New Yorker. Si Newhouse says the losses don't bother him, which is surely untrue. He says also that Remnick shouldn't worry about it, that the bottom line is not his responsibility--which is perhaps even more disingenuous. For all Brown's emphasis on the "buzz"--the idea that it's at least as important for The New Yorker to be talked about as it is to be read--in the end, a magazine can only sell its content. And that will be up to David Remnick.

A reporter of dazzling range and interests, Remnick now occupies what many consider the best magazine job there is. Alas, he may find, as did Tina Brown, that it is essentially undoable, given The New Yorker's peculiar place in our history and culture. An editor dare not tinker with the icon so much that it is unrecognizable to its longtime readers, and yet if the magazine is to exist as anything but a museum piece, it must somehow galvanize a new young audience, not to mention advertisers. The savvy Brown gave it her best shot, but as we have seen, this is a recipe for schizophrenia: Eustace Tilley and Paul Theroux's leather-clad dominatrix lashed together in unholy matrimony.

Still, it's The New Yorker's enduring stature, especially in the writing world, that gives its future outsize significance.

Those who have come late to The New Yorker--say, since Newhouse bought it in 1985, or especially since Brown's arrival six years ago--may find that urgent sentiment mystifying. These are readers who cannot imagine the influence this single publication exerted for a generation. On the other hand, those of a certain age know it and will cherish the memory of it.

The New Yorker demonstrated that important ideas could be transmitted to a mass audience in a clear, literate and entertaining fashion. Born in 1925, when sophistication was still pretty much a European province, the magazine fostered in Americans a kind of cultural confidence. Its wit and intelligence helped them endure the Depression. Then, with World War II and its aftermath, The New Yorker helped give them a global view and a social conscience. The New Yorker conceived John Hersey's "Hiroshima," and only The New Yorker could have published it as the ultimate cautionary tale it was. Indeed, this postwar era perhaps marked the zenith of the magazine's influence. President Truman used to buy his own copy until Harold Ross found out about it and made him the magazine's first honorary subscriber.

The New Yorker remained essential after William Shawn took over in 1952. Shawn, whose mousy demeanor masked a steely will, shaped the magazine into one in tune with the Cold War times. His New Yorker was less frivolous, more thoughtful, relentlessly literary. More than ever it became the home of ideas, managing the trick of being intellectual without being intimidating. It took on McCarthyism (admittedly late), raised seminal concerns about the environment (publishing Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring"), offered conspicuous opposition to Vietnam. Shawn even confronted his almost exclusively white, largely establishment readers on race. James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" originally appeared in The New Yorker, in the early '60s, as a "Letter from a Region in My Mind." The magazine remained the publication writers aspired to above all others. And it carried so much advertising that, week in and week out, it looked like a phone book.

But editors, like athletes and politicians, can overstay their welcome. As Shawn moved into a fourth decade at the magazine's helm, The New Yorker began to ossify into something approaching self-parody. Its long factual pieces became overlong, its cartoons were more opaque than funny, and its timelessness--once part of its charm--morphed into a perverse disdain for anything of the moment.

In 1987, Robert Gottlieb, a top book editor who prized writers and The New Yorker's literary tradition, took over when Shawn was pushed out. Since he was not Shawn, even Gottlieb's token attempts at change provoked outrage. He was the unlucky, Gorbachevian figure in the magazine's transition; after five rocky years he made way for what at the time may have seemed shocking but in retrospect was inevitable--the reign of Tina Brown.

Just 38, the Oxford-educated Briton arrived fresh from her triumphant resurrection of Newhouse's Vanity Fair. As it happened, just months prior to Brown's appointment in the summer of 1992, I had begun work on a biography of Harold Ross--a book signed up, in a surreal coincidence, by Brown's husband, Harry Evans, then president of Random House. As part of my research I wanted to interview her about what it was like to run The New Yorker, and subsequently I would do a little business with her. I edited some of Ross's letters for publication in the magazine, and with The New Yorker's help I'm publishing a collection of those letters. I like and admire Brown, and I have followed her tenure with more than passing curiosity.

She was still new to the job in that first conversation. While speaking of her abiding respect for the magazine, the onetime editor of Britain's Tatler made it clear she would be throwing open the windows on West 43rd Street. "I felt that the magazine had lost its place in American culture," she said, "that it had lost its footing, that it was losing its power." A magazine must be a coming-together of the best talents and best ideas with the times, she said. Her intentions? To reconnect with readers, new and old. And to do that, she would make The New Yorker more timely and visual, quicker to read, quirkier and, tellingly, "a part of the debate of our times."

She was as good as her word. Right away Brown imported such big talents as Henry Louis Gates, critic Anthony Lane and Remnick himself, who was as comfortable writing about boxing as he was writing about Yiddish newspapers or Solzhenitsyn in winter. She planted Comment, the magazine's weekly editorial, at the front of the book. Fiction, regrettably, took a back seat, but The New Yorker continued to produce some of the strongest reportage in America: Mark Danner on a Salvadoran massacre; Richard Preston's microbial nightmare "The Hot Zone"; Connie Bruck's vivisection of Newt Gingrich; William Finnegan's anatomy of a jury verdict. Brown recuited John Lahr to handle theater, and she made the delightful Adam Gopnik a free man in Paris. And while she infused the magazine with color, it was, ironically, the edgy black and white portraiture of Richard Avedon that became the visual signature of Brown's New Yorker.

On the other side of the ledger, many readers, including me, found Brown's émigré fascination with Hollywood and Wall Street--with celebrity in general--cloying, even dispiriting. What she saw as glitz others saw as crassness; foul language that she considered hip others called plain vulgar. Most offensive to me were the deliberate provocations, such as a handful of Art Spiegelman's cover illustrations (Hassidic Jew kissing black woman; Easter bunny being crucified) or Susan Faludi's obnoxious, book-length take on the porn-film industry. And Avedon's 27-page fashion spread that featured a skeleton about did me in. This was stick-in-the-eye stuff, just to see if anyone was still paying attention.

For all that, Brown was trying, pedaling as fast as she could, consumed with making The New Yorker contemporary without betraying its legacy. She got the magazine talked about, yes, and often for the right reasons. And still it lost money, no small factor in her decision to decamp to Miramax and its pastures of synergy.

The New Yorker can never regain the hold it had on the culture a half century ago; in this media-saturated atmosphere no single periodical can, much less one that has spent nearly 75 years looking at things through a monocle. The fact is, you couldn't get The New Yorker started today, any more than you could erect a new Statue of Liberty or a Grand Central Terminal. But like those other monuments, we still have The New Yorker with us, and the trick for David Remnick is to keep it relevant, useful, visited.

This is more than an exercise in nostalgia. The New Yorker represents the quaint notion that ideas and issues elegantly put across on ink and paper still matter, that we haven't capitulated completely to abbreviated attention spans and ubiquitous graphics. (The New Yorker is so retro, God bless it, that it still doesn't have a Web site.) This is not to make the magazine the canary in the coal mine. But if The New Yorker, which still publishes many of the best, most thoughtful writers we have, cannot make it, how much comfort can the rest of us take in the future of serious reading? How long before our intellectual life is confined to small-circulation journals and numberless, oh-so-hip zines on the Web? With so many voices, who, really, is being heard?

Harold Ross once said that The New Yorker was not a magazine but a movement. Throughout the years its staff has taken that to heart, believing against all odds that a periodical can have a more noble purpose than pulling in 20 more pages of Tommy Hilfiger ads. So there was much trepidation about New-house's choice to replace Brown, because it would be the proprietor's clearest signal yet about The New Yorker's future. Remnick's selection was greeted with equal parts glee and relief. Said Roger Angell, a longtime writer and editor at the magazine, "He's good-looking and scholarly--it's almost unbearable... Plus, he's a good guy. This is highly suspect."

Remnick is all those things. James Thurber used to call the various behind-the-scenes figures who kept The New Yorker aloft "miracle men," and maybe Remnick will turn out to be one of those, too. Let's hope so.