AJR  Columns :     ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   April/May 2007

Eighty-Two and Counting   

The continuing excellence 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.     

I'll tell you right off that this veers into Too Much Information, but I'm a soaker. I love a long, hot, prune-skin-inducing bath, and I'm fortunate to have a deep tub that lends itself to such indolence. The tub is sunk into a platform that has little ledges on three sides. They are covered with magazines.

Because when I do my serious soaking, I do my serious magazine reading. Forget multimedia; this is true synergy.

No doubt like many of you, I'm a magazine junkie. I wrote a book about one. I ran one. And I nominally run this one, although I just do what Rem tells me to do. But mostly I am an avid consumer. I once started totting up all the magazines we subscribe to, and halfway through I was balled up in a corner, sobbing. With four kids who were involved in subscription fundraisers of their own, not to mention those of their friends and cousins, we've taken everything from Consumer Reports to Cosmo.

When I see the postal carrier stooped over, I know it's Vanity Fair day. The March issue arrived (around February 6; can someone tell the magazine industry we've dropped the Julian calendar?) and it was fat as the Spiegel Catalog 500 pages, big enough to injure small pets if you're careless where you toss it.

You've got to love a magazine where the departments are as meaty as other magazines' features, and the feature well is chockablock full of department-size confections and guilty pleasures, typically well-groomed people behaving badly. And in my next life I surely want to be Dominick Dunne.

But Vanity Fair is irritating, too. The biggest problem with it is simple navigation. There are so many advertisements..and no page numbers. Well, not no page numbers, exactly, just uselessly few. When did page numbers become optional? In the current issue, for instance, 308 of the 500 pages are unnumbered, including 140 of the first ad-laden 150. Trying to find the contents pages of Vanity Fair is like trying to locate Barry Bonds' conscience.

Then arrived a sister publication of VF, The New Yorker.

It was the magazine's anniversary issue, with our old friend Eustace Tilley on the cover, still examining that spotted butterfly through an 82-year-old monocle.

As I often do, I plunged right into the issue, not knowing what to expect except that there would be pleasant surprises. And so there were: Peter Boyer on pizza billionaire Tom Monaghan's efforts to build a Catholic community in Florida; James B. Stewart's fascinating, behind-the-scenes tale of the fall of Hewlett-Packard head Patricia Dunn; and another quirky reminiscence from David Sedaris, who in just over two hilarious pages goes from getting a wildflower bouquet from his gay lover in Normandy to sitting in on a drug deal with trailer trash in North Carolina.

Then, deeper inside, to mark the anniversary, the brilliant comic artist Bruce McCall had produced a two-page illustration titled "First-Ever Guided Tour of The New Yorker." Few other magazines can and do engage so readily in self-reference. But New Yorker readers are less an audience than a tribe. So when McCall's whimsical illustration details the "Mr. E.B. White Memorial Belfry" and a "Fact Checking" room where the writer being fact-checked is shackled to a wall, we get the joke.

In eight decades, The New Yorker has had but five editors. Currently the job is held by David Remnick, one of those maddening people who apparently is brilliant at everything he does, whether covering the Soviet Union for the Washington Post or writing a best-selling biography of Muhammad Ali. Besides being a superior editor, Remnick makes a priority of continuing to report, among his recent contributions an insightful profile of a very restless Bill Clinton.

But it is Remnick's stewardship of the magazine that will be his legacy, and that record grows stronger by the year. During the Iraq war alone, John Lee Anderson has provided vivid, harrowing reportage from Baghdad while, back home, Sy Hersh breaks big story after big story from inside the national security establishment, and Comment writer Hendrik Hertzberg hangs the Bush administration with its own words and deeds.

More than most any other mass medium, a magazine is an extension of one person. In the case of The New Yorker, for a quarter century that was the persona of its fabulously eccentric founding editor, Harold Ross. For more than three decades after that, The New Yorker unquestionably was a reflection of William Shawn and his bristling social conscience.

I can't speak for Shawn, but having written a book about Ross I feel I know him pretty well. And were he alive today, he would recognize today's New Yorker instantly as his own creation, but he would also see, and I'm sure respect, the stamp that Remnick has put upon it. Except for a wince here and there at the profanity and the spectacle of one man presenting another with wildflowers, Ross would be delighted.

I'm delighted too. The anniversary issue is still on that ledge next to the tub, waiting for tomorrow's bath.