Note to the caption: New Yorker editor David Remnick, a fan of the blogosphere, says the magazine will upgrade its Web presence. Chronicle photo by Lance Iversen
Note to the caption: David Remnick: on the road to promote "Reporting," a 484-page collection of profiles he has written since joining the New Yorker in 1992. Chronicle photo by Lance Iversen
New Yorker editor sees digital days ahead for magazine
Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
Just because David Remnick edits the New Yorker, home to meticulously reported 15,000-word essays and profiles, doesn't mean he never traipses through the blogosphere, domain of the no-caps, 50-word rant. His online meanderings reflect the same curiosity the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has nurtured while steering the magazine into profitability and increased political relevance during his eight years as its editor.
After perusing the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun, which land daily on the doorstep of the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife and three children, Remnick ventures online into what he calls the "infinite supermarket of voices and experimentation." He checks out the left-leaning TalkingPointsMemo.com, then peeks at the conservative National Review Online. Salon and Slate get stop-bys, as do the Web sites of papers like the New York Post, the Washington Post, and The Chronicle. He'll follow the day's top story through the blogosphere, looking for story leads.
And he has his guilty pleasures.
"I have a very bad Bob Dylan jones, so I look at Expecting Rain (a Dylan site) like a 14-year-old who reads a set list from last night's concert," Remnick says over an espresso in the Four Seasons bar in San Francisco. He is on tour to promote "Reporting," a 484-page collection of profiles he has written since joining the New Yorker in 1992.
Remnick promises that by year's end, the 81-year-old New Yorker, which didn't regularly run full-page photographs until 1992, will dramatically upgrade its Web presence. More video, more audio, more flash media, more reader interaction. The publication is about to hire its first Web editor this month, and Remnick understands new media well enough not to drop Web-only 15,000-word anvils on the site.
"Where the New Yorker is concerned, (the magazine) is a highly different animal," Remnick says. "So far, the best technology for reading magazines is magazines -- especially magazines that run pieces that are not tiny.
"On the other hand, I think we have to be there as the technology is
changing so rapidly. For the New Yorker to throw its Eustace Tilley nose in the air and smell the butterflies is foolish," he says,referring to the iconic, fictional dandy who graced the magazine's first cover in 1925 and regularly turns up in its pages.
Not that Remnick has time to blog. Several profiles in "Reporting" were written while putting together the weekly magazine. How is that humanly possible? Remnick developed his writing speed as a newspaper reporter, starting in the business on its lowest wrung, covering crime on a 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift for the Washington Post. He is "very selective" in the pieces he chooses to write now, completing much of the reporting for his profiles in advance from New York. Once he gains access to a profile subject, Remnick parachutes into their life and wrings every moment of face time with them into his notebook.
For his 2004 profile of Al Gore, he said he was on the ground reporting in Tennessee with Gore for only about 13 hours. He also accompanied Gore on a trip to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 and made another short trip with the former vice president to Washington, D.C. He also interviewed dozens of others, read books and devoured reams of Gore clips.Tall and refined with dark eyes and a forward-combed wiry brush of black hair and perfect, son-of-a-dentist teeth, Remnick is gracious, self-effacing and offers no sign of the pretension that would be easy for a man at the top of his profession.
At 47, he has found himself in a deserved and enviable place. The New Yorker has been consistently setting the investigative agenda for a somnambulant and shackled Washington press corps by breaking stories around the Iraq war.
While the magazine has always done hard-hitting political and social pieces -- it published John Hersey's "Hiroshima" shortly after World War II -- "It has become much more important in Washington," says Dante Chinni, a researcher at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, "at a time when the national magazines like Time and Newsweek are doing less and less national and international reporting."
Business is also good. Circulation increased 4 percent in 2005 to 1.05 million, and revenue is "up significantly" over this time last quarter, says publisher Louis Cona. New Yorker readers are a demographic gold mine: They're more loyal than a beagle (its 86 percent renewal rate is roughly twice of most mags), highly educated and boast an average income of $80,957, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism -- about $13,000 more than what Newsweek readers earn. And New Yorker readers are plentiful in the Bay Area; 7.8 percent of the magazine's subscribers live here, more than any other area outside of New York.
According to Cona, the reason for this rare example of financial and journalistic success in print journalism is simple: The New Yorker has an A-list staff and "David is f -- brilliant.
"Really, under David's helm, the magazine has experienced its golden age," Cona says.
In the course of an hour, Remnick references ex-Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, the 1956 World Series perfect game thrown by Yankees pitcher Don Larsen, Jimi Hendrix and HBO's "The Sopranos." On his nightstand is "The Israelis: Founders and Sons," a 1971 book by Amos Elon, yet he confesses to "watching too much baseball." He cops to reading People magazine, and describes New Yorker staffer and "Blink" author Malcolm Gladwell as "totally sui generis."
Remnick wriggles out of compliments as if from an itchy wool sweater, several times redirecting the conversation to list the contributions of at least 10 New Yorker staff writers and editors, reciting their names like a lineup of high-priced baseball free agents, print journalism's New York Yankees.
In 2004, the New Yorker endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president, the first presidential endorsement in the magazine's history. Remnick has only one regret.
"In retrospect, I wish we had convinced more people," he says, adding he expects political endorsements to continue. "I have no regrets about that whatsoever. Not only do I think we were right (to make an endorsement), I also thought it was overly decorous of the New Yorker in the comments section to engage every issue on the face of the earth but not have anything to say on the presidential election."
Some wish that the New Yorker had taken a bolder stance in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. A June 2003 essay published in the Nation said, "Just as (the New Yorker) helped middle class opinion to coalesce against U.S. intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East."
Remnick shakes his head and furrows his brows at mention of the Nation essay. True, he believed the same faulty intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that most other journalists did, though he was ambivalent about the invasion. But he defended the New Yorker's coverage of the war.
"I thought (the Nation essay) was a foolish piece and a dishonest piece," Remnick says. "The idea that the New Yorker as a magazine was pro-war is preposterous."
For the past several years, much of the magazine's most critical political coverage has come from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, whose reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison story led to several criminal investigations. Last month, Hersh wrote that the United States is intensifying plans for an attack on Iran. President Bush responded by calling the story "wild speculation."
While other editors stay awake nights worrying about running the type of no-named-sources stories that Hersh specializes in, Remnick says he knows "every source in the piece." By name?
"Absolutely. So does the checker, and we call them. Sometimes, we say, 'Sy, does this have to be as vague as it is?' And he'll answer yes or no."
"Look, we don't want unnamed sources," Remnick adds. "But as anybody knows who is in this area, you will get zero stories for the most part if you refuse to do any unnamed sources."
It's hard to find critics of the New Yorker among other journalists. Columbia Journalism Review executive editor Mike Hoyt is typically praiseworthy, but when pressed offers one suggestion: "I wish they would do more stories about the red states. Get out in the heartland more."
Remnick nods slowly, considering the point. "He's probably right."
That's why Remnick forces himself to get out of his "own tortoise shell," as he puts it, and see the world. "William Shawn never went anywhere, but his mind went everywhere," says Remnick, referring to the longtime New Yorker editor. "That's the way he worked. I'm a different animal. I'm just stupider. I need to actually be shown things."
-- To hear a podcast of David Remnick talking about
the New Yorker, go to sfgate.com/blogs/podcasts.
E-mail Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org.