2: Tradition works--but to a point

By Published on .

The year 2000 was very good to The New Yorker.

So good that a celestially aligned confluence of factors-a top-notch edit product, fanatical reader loyalty, a sharpened marketing focus and a zooming economy-rocketed the nation's pre-eminent general-interest weekly to two rate base increases, double-digit ad growth and ... another unprofitable year.

But it was a year in which The New Yorker managed the high-wire play of self-reinvention while remaining rooted in its storied past.


Under the indulgent watch of owner Conde Nast Publications, The New Yorker remains an extraordinarily text-dense title. There's never a hot babe on the cover, and while the pumped-up celebrity emphasis of former Editor Tina Brown is not wholly absent, it's been noticeably toned down. There's nothing in the way of service or advice, and it's not a news magazine.

Yet readers and advertisers responded to it with a fervor unseen for years, and their response makes The New Yorker second only to O, the Oprah Magazine among Advertising Age's Best Magazines of 2000.

"It was the first year we had over $100 million in [Publishers Information Bureau] revenue," says new Publisher David Kahn. According to PIB, ad revenues were $106.5 million, up 29.6% over 1999. It was "better than any year from Tina Brown's reign," Mr. Kahn says.

One source of strength, not surprisingly, is the magazine's traditional one.

In his second full year at the helm, Editor David Remnick oversaw a consistent string of excellent issues, packed with a passel of only-in-The New Yorker pieces up there with anything published in recent memory: John Cassidy on sodden, semiliterate tabloid legend Steve Dunleavy; literary editor Bill Buford puncturing rural Southern mythology and his own writerly misconceptions while profiling songwriter Lucinda Williams; Malcolm Gladwell on Ronco's all-star TV pitchman Ron Popeil; state-of-the-art short fiction from Ann Beattie to Akhil Sharma.

To cite an example, take Mr. Cassidy's description of his former co-worker Mr. Dunleavy: "His pallor was that of a rotting cod. His silver pompadour, which makes him resemble an aging Elvis impersonator, shot from his crown in glorious defiance of taste and gravity."


Capping a focus on leveraging one of the magazine industry's top-shelf brands, The New Yorker migrated from the newsstands. The big event was last May's first-ever New Yorker Festival, which drew more than 15,000 attendees. On a smaller scale, though no less important, was its "Fiction Live" series, sponsored in local markets and featuring screen stars reading works published in the magazine. Last fall the magazine sponsored The New Yorker Film Series at Lincoln Center, curated by critic David Denby.

The cumulative effect? "Quite a resurgence-clients are asking for it more," says Jessica Pell, a principal in media agency Five Communications, New York. "That was a lot rarer in days of yore."


It was just a matter of marketing jiujitsu, selling as its attributes what may seem like millstones in a hyperspeed media world-the long breaths of column-length paragraphs, a resolute refusal to profile celebs hawking current product, the ineffability of being a general-interest magazine.

The self-consciously dowdy highbrow, slightly eccentric weekly of its past was neatly transformed, via its marketers, into the premier destination for the thought leaders of tomorrow.

Even if the product itself hasn't changed all that much.

Former Publisher David Carey left in January to become president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's Business Information Group (See story on Page S-20). He borrows a metaphor from star writer Mr. Gladwell to illustrate.

" `The Tipping Point' is synonymous with the magazine," says Mr. Carey, referring to Mr. Gladwell's book and attendant thesis. "The role of a small group of people who set trends in the world."

But a publisher's words mean little if the message doesn't resonate.

"We use The New Yorker because it reaches a thought-leader audience," says Caleb Wines, media director at TBWA/Chiat/Day, New

York, who's placed ads for Apple Computer and Earth-link in the title. "We definitely cater more to an intelligent consumer than your average PC buyer, and The New Yorker reflects that attitude."


Editor Remnick talks quietly, and his corner office overlooking Times Square's visual blare is hushed and softly lit. An early winter dusk is dropping over Manhattan, while Mr. Remnick, tieless in a sharp dark suit, occasionally splays his hands on the table before him to underscore a point.

"Say a billionaire was presented with two ideas for a magazine" with an eye toward investing in one, says Mr. Remnick. "One idea is to have a very, very popular TV host and movie star be on the cover every month, and be the putative editor."

At the other magazine, he continues, "artists are given the cover for their own imagination. They publish fiction and really ambitious reporting and humor and cartoons juxtaposed with serious criticism. All this phantasmagorical jumble." Of the two, Mr. Remnick says, "I don't know which one would get the investment. But I could guess."

But, he concludes, "here we are 76 years later" and his magazine-the second one, of course-"thrives." (Of course, the first magazine-a thinly veiled allusion to O, the Oprah Magazine-hasn't fared too shabbily either.)

It's not Mr. Remnick's proprietary pride talking. The New Yorker's subscription renewal rate rose again last year to a powerful 77.3%, and advertisers sound just as jazzed.

"Out of the blue, everyone was talking about and advertising in The New Yorker," says John Frierson, president of Frierson, Mee & Partners, New York, who adds his advertisers "got a really great response rate" from New Yorker readers.

New advertisers in 2000 included Giorgio Armani, BMW of North America and Sun Micro-systems. Among newcomers thus far in 2001 are Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo Cars of North America and Kraft Foods' Altoids.

In addition to its consumer-aimed events like The New Yorker Festival, the magazine also enlisted-somewhat unusually-its writers to aid in pitching the ad community. Messrs. Gladwell and Kahn, then associate publisher and the architect of this event, went on the tongue-in-cheekily titled Tipping Point World Tour to audiences composed primarily of advertisers in six cities, and Adam Gopnik gave tours of the Whitney Biennial art exhibit.

The capper of the tour with Mr. Gladwell, Mr. Kahn recalls, was a private meeting with Microsoft Corp. President-CEO Steve Ballmer on the company's Redmond, Wash., campus: "It was such a moment of how the magazine had arrived."

So has Mr. Kahn-into an office that still bears the garish, zebra-striped chairs his predecessor, Mr. Carey, made famous. Mr. Carey installed them to symbolize it wasn't business at usual at the New Yorker anymore-this was around the time New Yorker adopted Conde Nast's no-advertising-discount policy, when he took the helm in summer of 1998.

And speaking of symbols, there's the foosball table.

Last December, Mr. Carey's staff bought a foosball table for his office, and he gleefully circulated photos of it to media reporters.

Why? Well, when Mr. Carey published Hearst Magazines and Dow Jones & Co. co-venture SmartMoney, he bought a foosball table to celebrate that title hitting profitability.

Neither Mr. Carey nor Mr. Kahn will discuss New Yorker finances, but those with knowledge of the situation say the title turned a slim profit last year before factoring in corporate overhead associated with the two floors it occupies in Conde Nast's Times Square headquarters.

Profitable? No. Vital? More than ever.

Meanwhile, Messrs. Carey and Kahn readjust their relationship from colleagues to friendly rivals (judging from the trip to spring training with their kids they just returned from). Mr. Kahn says Mr. Carey failed in attempts to poach New Yorker staffers. Mr. Carey only owns up to one attempt. Above the fray, Mr. Remnick remains respectful of both.

"David Carey and now David Kahn have done a fantastic job not only selling the magazine, but selling it on what it truly is. It's not Time. It's not a business magazine," the editor says. "It is what it is. And for some people, it's not even easy to explain in six words."

So what is it?

"Foremost, quality. Rather than a particular subject."

Seven words. Close enough.

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