A case of Changes at The New Yorker

The New Yorker has been read by middle to upper middle class people all over the world and has been relied upon since 1925 to provide a weekly listing of current happenings – concerts, musicals, theatrical events, and guest appearances. It has been renowned for its satirical wit, thoughtful editorials, and cunning cartoons. By the later 1880s, though the beloved magazine found itself in need of a face lift. The New Yorker lost its edge, asserted Jann Wenner founding editor of Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal. Even the cartoons lost their edge. Dubbed as the “old man’s magazine” by publishers of competitors’ magazines, The New Yorker had an aging audience. Readership and subscriptions had slipped and the number of ad pages had fallen dangerously low. This once-proud prince of upper scale publications was on the verge of becoming a pauper.

Then came Tina Brown who stepped in to resuscitate the dying artifact of days gone by. As editor in chief of Vanity Fair, Brown was the one responsible for displaying a nude and pregnant Demi Moore on its 1991 cover. When she took the helm at the New Yorker, fear of excessive change and innovation rocked the publishing industry, there was skepticism and concern about the sort of creative marks Brown would leave.

The New Yorker while keeping the most important things intact, her alterations have encompassed a wide range of areas. For example she immediately added color and photography to enhance the magazine’s visual aesthetic appeal. In addition she has contracted with Richard Avedon for proactive portraits of people such as Audrey Hepburn, Rudolf Nureyev, Alger Hiss, and Edward Gorey. Bylines now appear at the start of stories instead of at the end, and departments have been moved, removed and created. The magazine is now printed on heavier paper, and the print is larger and easier to read. Moreover, Brown has added a new Letters to The New Yorker column. It was the one area she thought was untenable in the magazine’s tradition. Brown remarked. In today’s world, a place where people can respond to, can complain to, and take issue with the magazine is very, very important. If readers feel they have not got that they become angry and feel that we are arrogant.

According to Brown, the challenge lay in bringing change to the magazine, without losing the qualities that made it The New Yorker. The challenge was to modernize, said Brown while keeping the franchise and not losing the flavor and value of what made it a great magazine. In addition, it was important to bring the magazine up to date. It had gone from being detached to being aloof which is different. In the 80’s, The New Yorker didn’t do Milken, didn’t do Boesky, it kind of ignored the incredible world of the 80’s that was there to be written about and where it could have done something to help puncture some of those balloons. Writers were pursing their own arcane interest to the point here it was really kind of arrogant.

Publisher Si New-house, owner of the magazine and the person responsible for bringing Brown on board, has placed his complete faith in her. He said that every magazine has to evolve the connected readers change, times change, interests change. There is no such thing as a static magazine. As for how it should evolve, it is going to be up to Tina. He has no specific agenda as to how to define that evolution.

Change at such a venerable institution as The New Yorker has posed a potential threat to everything – staff, readership advertising. During the first six months of Brown’s reign, however circulation climbed 20.8% to 758,976 and news stand sales always the most important barometer of success, more than doubled, from 20,006 to 40, 427. In addition ad pages have jumped 16.7%. And the number of people who read a single copy has risen by 13 percent to more than million.

A central goal has been to change demographics, to hit a more enduring audience and that is exactly what Brown is achieving the average of the magazine’s reader has already dropped from 47.7 years in 1992 to 46.1 in 1993, and median household income has risen 13 percent to $61,515.

Behind the scenes, The New Yorker has, for the most part, remained intact. Although the production department now uses Macintosh desktop publishing equipment to do its layout the offices still reflect the traditional New Yorker culture. Brass portraits of Tilley still adorn the main doors, and office numbers are still stenciled on the white walls in the classic New Yorker “Rea Irvin” typeface. Most staffers have stayed on, with the exception of about 16, including Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew Pop critic Elizabeth Wurtzel and writers Stan Sesser and Ray Bonner.

According to Brown, the transition has gone smoothly. But it has not been without conflict. “I left because I love The New Yorker and because she is the wrong person to edit it”, asserted Garrison Keillor. “I didn’t want to be on the premises to watch it suffer under her hand”.

Today, Brown’s New Yorker is in many ways more relaxed. Standards have been loosened to enable the magazine to reach new heights. According to Eleanor Gould, the 78 year old grammarian and copy editor and long time New Yorker staff member, the most obvious change has been in language. Before Brown, obscenity and even slang were extremely rare on The New Yorker pages.

One change Brown is not going to make is the addition of a masthead to credit the approximately 140 people who comprise the magazine’s staff. That is one tradition she is happy to be without she asserted. This magazine is sort of a mare’s-nest of strong hierarchies yet it is non hierarchical. Once you do a masthead you put one ever another who never saw himself as over or under another. It is too complex, too weird. It would be a nightmare. It would only encourage the management to halve the staff but she prefers not to do it.