The New Yorker Is Ad Age's Magazine of the Year 2016
David Remnick welcomes me into his office on the 38th floor of
I was visiting with him 16 years ago for the same reason I was joining him in 2016; to interview Advertising Age's Editor of the Year winner. Then, he was only 18 months into his tenure. "When we met 16 years ago," he says, "there was an internet, but it wasn't at the same stage of technological development. It was nine years before the economic crisis. It was two years before 9/11. Politically and technologically and in so many ways, it seemed like a long time ago. And indeed it was."
The view out the windows is stunning, but Mr. Remnick doesn't direct my attention to it. Instead, he points to a large picture of founding editor Harold Ross sitting on a shelf behind several Ellies, the Alexander Calder-designed trophies given out to winners of National Magazine Awards. That is just one shelf of Ellies; the room is lined with shelves that are crowded with them. (Over the years, The New Yorker has won 64 National Magazine Awards, 41 of those during Mr. Remnick's time.) He notes the neatness of Mr. Ross' hair, and says it is probably the only time it was so, that usually it stuck straight up, a nod to the stress potential of editing this storied weekly.
The New Yorker is a 91-year-old weekly print publication with 1.1 million subscribers and it is now delivered digitally to tablets and smartphones to another 820,000 readers. The New Yorker is a website with just over 17 million monthly uniques and it is a weekly radio show and podcast with 1.6 million listeners. The New Yorker is also an annual three-day festival with 20,000 attendees. Today, you can find content from The New Yorker on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. You can download The New Yorker Today app, or read it in an e-reader, or subscribe to an email newsletter that will deliver New Yorker stories right to your inbox. In other words, this is not your Harold Ross' New Yorker.
But then again, it kind of still is.
Thomas Kunkel wrote in his 1995 biography of Harold Ross, "Genius in Disguise," that "Ross spoke constantly, almost mantralike, of hitting on the right 'formula' -- that magical mix of words, pictures and attitude that gives a magazine its identity." From nearly its first issue in February 1925, The New Yorker "formula" meant a mix of topical, witty short pieces known as The Talk of the Town, followed by several deeply reported stories on topics both current and obscure, literary and cultural reviews, fiction and humor. What stitched it all together was a commitment to delivering writing of the highest quality.
That New Yorker-ness is what Mr. Remnick still strives to maintain, no matter what new platform or delivery system The New Yorker is found on these days. He is aware that a piece of writing that goes out under The New Yorker banner has to be "on the same level of accuracy and depth and insight that you associate with the best New Yorker writing of the days of Harold Ross, or Bob Gottlieb or Tina Brown," naming three former New Yorker editors.
"I don't think [former editor] William Shawn, if presented with the idea of Snapchat, or even the internet in general, would have taken to it like a trout to a stream right away. But we live in a very different time. And you have to meet people where they are. But without sacrificing the quality of what you aspire to or the soul of the place. You can slap a rubric or a logo on anything. You can slap The New Yorker logo on this chair that I'm sitting in -- does that make it a New Yorker chair? So if you slap that logo on a piece of writing that's not very good, what have you done? You've probably diminished its neighbors rather than raised up that writing."
For raising up New Yorker content across a multitude of new platforms, for increasing web and video advertising by 31%, for increasing overall profit by 2% and for its savvy consumer marketing and successful paywall strategy, Advertising Age chose The New Yorker as its Magazine of the Year, Lisa Hughes as Publisher of the Year and David Remnick as Editor of the Year.
It's no small feat for a publication a mere decade shy of a century to still be operating. Every year shrinks the pool of storied media brands. When S.I. Newhouse acquired The New Yorker in 1985, the magazine world watched to see if the old girl would make it. When Tina Brown moved from editing Vanity Fair to The New Yorker in 1992, there was plenty of pearl-clutching as she introduced photography into its pages and didn't shy away from celebrity profiles or more topical articles that required rather large amounts of money. It became a New York City parlor game in media circles to guess if and when the weekly would once again become profitable, and plenty believed it would only operate as long as S.I. Newhouse wanted to keep funding it.
In 1998, Mr. Remnick was named editor. And a few years later, the magazine's P&L statement finally moved into the black. The staff gathered for a celebration that included black T-shirts and cupcakes with black icing. Since then, the weekly has steadily added new revenue streams.
Both Chief Revenue Officer Lisa Hughes and Mr. Remnick give kudos to Monica Ray, exec VP-consumer marketing, who spearheaded the paywall policy introduced in November 2014 for the digital platforms and is credited with the 12% rise in consumer revenue this year. (The New Yorker has also experienced a serious postelection surge in subscriptions following Donald Trump's electoral win -- 75,000 in November alone.) Ms. Hughes notes that whenever there is an opportunity for a new ad placement, Ms. Ray is consulted to be sure the reader experience stays true to The New Yorker brand. "We are all about the long luxurious read, and we don't want to get in the way of that," Ms. Hughes says.
"We liked the idea of bringing AR to print, but we were also well aware that, by doing it on our own, we would have never been able to generate the right level of scale we needed. Doing this with The New Yorker was an obvious choice to us, especially knowing how notorious and unique their covers are," said Daniele Kohen, managing director, [email protected] West, who works on the Qualcomm account. Once the idea was raised, The New Yorker team "immediately embraced our vision and worked really hard to get editors and everyone internally on board."
"The New Yorker Radio Hour," a partnership with WYNC, began in October 2015 and is currently on more than 175 public-radio stations (and in podcast form). The partners split the sponsorship revenue, and Mr. Remnick acts as host. Recent episodes had his interview with Bruce Springsteen from the New Yorker Festival and the final interview with another legendary singer, Leonard Cohen. Building on the New Yorker Festival, created in 1999, this year the team added a one-day conference, TechFest, featuring interviews with Netflix's Reed Hastings and Slack's Stewart Butterfield.
Underpinning all of the new activity is the commitment to the writing. The magazine won a National Magazine Award for "The Really Big One," Kathryn Schulz's look at when a major earthquake is likely to hit the West Coast. Sarah Stillman won a 2016 MacArthur "genius" grant for her long-form investigative journalism, which has included stories on civil forfeiture, Mexico's drug cartels and human trafficking on U.S. military bases. The magazine also won two Pulitzers for its writing this year, thanks to Ms. Schulz and critic Emily Nussbaum. Throughout our conversation, Mr. Remnick went out of his way to not only name-check his star writers, but the team of ace editors behind him -- including Deputy Editor Pamela McCarthy, Executive Editor Dorothy Wickenden, Editorial Director Henry Finder, Editor Daniel Zalewski, Editor Susan Morrison, Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman and NewYorker.com Editor Nicholas Thompson.
This year also included influential and strongly reported stories on the election such as Evan Osnos' September piece, "President Trump," anticipating what his first 100 days could look like; Jane Mayer's profile of Donald Trump's ghostwriter, "Trump's Boswell Speaks"; and George Packer's "The Unconnected" in October and "Trump Days" in July. Mr. Remnick's column, "An American Tragedy," which was written after 9 p.m. on election night and published the next day online, was widely circulated, read by 6.5 million unique visitors and shared through 5.5 million social referrals.
And now with President-elect Donald Trump filling his Twitter feed daily, those who do "media" for a living find themselves painted as "crooked" and "liars" with a biased agenda. What's the editor at what is arguably one of the elitist of elite publications to do? As he told his staff the day after the election, after they watched Hillary Clinton's concession speech, they have a job to do, and they will do it.
"We have a particular role in this society and in this democracy and it's to be fair, and pursue the truth energetically and, above all, fearlessly. And the biggest job that a democracy provides the press -- and you are not always loved for doing it -- is to put pressure on power," he says. "I know a lot of people read The New Yorker hoping for diversion, for relief, for fun, for comedy, and that won't stop. I'm not turning the magazine into something it was not before. But when it comes to these central issues, we just have to redouble our efforts to be as tireless and fearless as we hope ourselves to be."