'The New Yorker' - A Conde Nast Publication (1987 - present) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'The New Yorker' - A Conde Nast Publication (1987 - present)

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The New Yorker
A Guided Tour Through The New Yorker | Ross's Little Magazine (1925 - 1951) | Mr Shawn's New Yorker (1951 - 1987) | A Condé Nast Publication (1987 - present) | Harold Ross - The History | Harold Ross - The Man | Katherine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor

On 17 February, 1987, the New Yorker's old regime ended when Robert 'call me Bob' Gottlieb moved into Shawn's office, hung a kitschy wreath made of tennis balls and electric lights on his door and got to work.

Bob the Conservator

Gottlieb grew up in the fashionable Upper East Side of Manhattan, attended Columbia and Cambridge and rocketed through the ranks of Simon & Schuster from editorial assistant to editor-in-chief in only ten years. He'd become editor-in-chief and president of Knopf by the time Newhouse handpicked him for the New Yorker job. Throughout this career, he'd always read The New Yorker, liked it and dreamed of editing it. 'I'm a conservator,' he explained of his position at the magazine. 'I...make it a better or stronger version of what it already is.'

The grand revolution so many New Yorker writers predicted never happened: only three staff members walked out. Where could they go? No other magazine printed 40,000-word articles about torture in Brazil.

They did have some legitimate issues with Gottlieb, the first being his arrogance. Before he'd even set foot in the office, Renata Adler recalls having to reassure him that people at The New Yorker 'thought well of him'. Shawn complained that when he tried to show Gottlieb how the magazine worked, he wasn't interested — he just wanted to talk about himself. While going over art with James Geraghty early into his tenure, Gottlieb bragged that someone had written in that the art was fresher and the cartoons funnier already. When Geraghty pointed out that Shawn had chosen the art for the previous issue, Gottlieb moved on to other subjects. He hadn't been on the job very long before Chip McGrath suggested he try a Zen exercise: go an entire hour without saying the word 'I'.

At the other end of the spectrum, many staff members found him bewildering because he was so straightforward. When he said something, he actually meant it, and he was not afraid to say 'no' up-front and bluntly. He didn't hint — he told. Those who had known only Shawn required some time to acclimatise. Mark Singer wrote that Gottlieb 'takes the view that writers are children who are not to be indulged; Shawn thought they were children who ought to be indulged.'

Gottlieb was also informal by any standards, let alone in comparison to Shawn. He wore tennis shoes and casual shirts and unlike 'Mr Shawn', he liked to be called 'Bob'. He tore down the partitions, met staffers with his office door open, was open to discussion about everything and delegated freely to those who were able. Before long, McGrath was rollerblading down the formerly hushed halls of the office. Gottlieb changed the magazine's confounding contract payment system to a salaried one. He brought in new writers covering a global beat. And in New Yorker tradition, he didn't fire anyone, no matter how unproductive they were, feeling it 'wasn't his place'. Many have rushed to point out that Gottlieb was a perfect next-in-the-line of eccentric New Yorker editors: he collects plastic handbags and his hobbies include crocheting Afghans and needlepoint.

In spite of a lamentable propensity towards kitsch — nobody will ever let him forget the article about a convention for collectors of Scottish terrier memorabilia — Gottlieb didn't ruin the magazine. He insisted on shorter articles, he added illustrations to the Goings-on section, he allowed mention of physical functions and he demanded aesthetic articles instead of the chock-full-o'-facts pieces that often ran under Shawn. Devoted readers noted no offensive changes, and as usual, renewed their subscriptions.

The New Yorker has always been able to brag that it has the highest renewal rate in the industry, mostly thanks to what Ross or Shawn would call 'not seeking an unnatural audience'. But since SI Newhouse put Steve Florio in charge of the business side, that was just what the magazine had been doing. Ads showing seductive Indian women would air during Miami Vice, drawing readers who were disappointed to discover that the article represented was about the politics of marriage in outlying villages. Circulation rose gradually, but subscription turnover rose as well and advertising plummeted. Leonard Lauder, president of the makeup company Estée Lauder, explained that The New Yorker tarnished its image with the indiscriminate ads it ran in its own pages. Advertisers also felt roughly handled, particularly when Florio wouldn't show up at meetings he'd promised to attend.

Tina the Celebrity

The result was that though the magazine improved editorially under Gottlieb, revenue plunged, losses totalling around $5million a year. Five years after he hung his wreath on his office door, Gottlieb was asked to leave. His replacement was Tina Brown, the young Englishwoman who made Vanity Fair an uproarious success, with gossip, celebrity, scandal, money and power. Unlike the old-style New Yorker editors, who fought tooth and nail with the business side of the magazine, Brown was the business-side dream, participating in any and all promotional schtick.

By now, most staff writers just sat dumbly, hoping they'd keep their jobs. Only Garrison Keillor stormed off the day Tina Brown was announced, describing it as an American turning the London Spectator into In Your Face: A Magazine of Mucus. Within the course of the next few years, no less than eight writers followed suit, for reasons that ranged from 'excessive coverage of the OJ Simpson trial' to protest over 'vulgarity and coarseness'. At least a dozen other writers left as well — because they were fired.

Tina, as she was known to all, liked to be something of a celebrity herself, and considered her editorship to be a great selling point of The New Yorker. She changed the hierarchy of the magazine to officially include a layer of sub-editors who assigned stories to reporters (rare in the past) and sent them back for rewriting (unheard of). Rumour had it that she rejected any article that couldn't keep her attention on the Stairmaster. And she printed anything that would shock. A relatively tame anniversary issue cover depicted Eustace Tilly as a punk with bad skin. Tina denied that she was putting the magazine in competition with Vanity Fair; she said she was trying to bring the magazine back to its Rossian incarnation — as a lively, exciting, 'with it' magazine. Her idea of 'with it' — glossy, denuded and frequently copulating — might have startled Ross, who had always insisted that his was to be a clean, family magazine. It certainly startled the New Yorker's loyal subscribers.

Tina did make some neutral-to-positive changes. Photography and colour found their way into the pages for the first time. The Irvin font was updated. A Letters to the Editor department debuted, as did a page of contributors' biographies, bylines for Talk (at the end) and bylines for articles (at the beginning). She added subheaders that led the reader by the hand, telling them what they would be reading and why they should read it. Then again, articles were slashed for the sake of being slashed. Unlike Shawn, who despised 'scoops', Tina wouldn't print anything that wasn't a scoop. An issue might be torn up at the last minute to fit in a 'hot' new story. A million-dollar publicity department arranged for 'hot-list' delivery of advanced copies to notables around the country. The entire magazine was calculated to sell, sell, sell.

It both did and didn't. Many old subscribers took this opportunity to halt their subscriptions. Others hung on, hoping the nightmare would end soon. Circulation actually rose in the first few years of Tina's tenure, but topped off and sank after 1996. In 1993, the magazine's losses were around $30million; between 1994 (when Florio was replaced) and 1998, the total deficit was around $60.6million.

David the Journalist

The nightmare ended in 1998, when Tina Brown resigned to launch a movie magazine. A New Yorker reporter named David Remnick was asked to take her place.

Remnick was something of a wonderboy, an ambitious, efficient and goal-oriented Princeton graduate who landed his first job on the Washington Post. There, he had the unique distinction of once authoring three front-page articles for a single issue. After he won a Pulitzer for his book, Lenin's Tomb, the New Yorker hired him. Under Tina, he'd been terrifyingly prolific, printing over 100 pieces in six years.

Remnick slowly gave the magazine its dignity back. The contributor page stayed and the photos of the contributors went. Celebrity profiles and unnecessary four-letter words melted away. Photographs stayed, but they were few and unobtrusive. The covers lost their 'edge' and became simply artistic. Articles never reached 40,000 words: 9,000 is closer to average. But Remnick kept the magazine news-oriented. 'We live in suddenly serious times,' he explained. 'People have an appetite for intelligent, thoughtful explanation of consequential topics.'

By the end of 1998, the magazine was still losing money. In 1999, in a vague effort to save some money, The New Yorker was brought into the Condé Nast building in Times Square, something Newhouse promised in the merger agreement would never happen. Whether it was the salubrious air of Times Square or the gentle guidance of a new editor, things began to look up. Currently (2007), circulation is around one million, and news-stands in New York are usually sold out of New Yorkers by Thursday noon. While no statistics are available because Condé Nast is privately owned, profit is rumoured to be almost $10million. Perhaps, after some struggle, The New Yorker has finally redefined itself for a new century.

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