Breach of Tradition : New Yorker Shake-up Is Talk of Town

Times Staff Writer

Looking back now, staff writers at The New Yorker can only imagine how their editor of 35 years, William Shawn, felt as he stared at the document handed to him on the morning of Jan. 12.

The New Yorker’s new owner, S. I. Newhouse Jr., that Monday gave Shawn a prepared statement, dated one day into the future, announcing Shawn’s retirement and his replacement by Robert Gottlieb, editor of Alfred A. Knopf, the book publishers.

“Recently, Mr. Shawn informed me he will retire on March 1,” began the notice signed by Newhouse. “During 35 years as editor . . . this remarkable man invented and maintained a standard for The New Yorker that is unparalled in the world of journalism.”


Caused Great Distress

Those two sentences alone, some of the writers speculated, must have caused Shawn great distress.

He and his magazine are renowned for allegiance to accuracy of fact and precision of language. Yet this document began with what Shawn considered to be a misstatement--he insisted he hadn’t said he was retiring--and proceeded to a misspelling.

It is not known whether Shawn felt impelled to tell Newhouse that the word unparalleled requires two more letters than he had employed. It is known that he expressed his more general dismay over Newhouse’s decision.

After all, in its storied 62 years as a standard-bearer in the world of journalism and literature, The New Yorker has had only two editors, Shawn and the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross. Never has an owner removed an editor. Never has an owner installed an editor from outside the magazine.

Letter of Protest

This breach of tradition alarmed the staff as much as it did Shawn. Some 120 New Yorker writers, editors and artists gathered the next day in the 18th-floor hallway at the magazine’s offices here on 43rd Street. By 5 p.m., a letter of protest had been drafted and signed by 154, including such admired names in the world of letters as John McPhee, Roger Angell, Calvin Trillin, Anne Beattie and even the hermitic J. D. Salinger.

The letter, addressed not to Newhouse but to Gottlieb, asked the newly appointed editor to turn down the job offer. Twenty-four hours later, Gottlieb politely declined to do so.


For those watching The New Yorker from afar, this series of events was seen as nothing less than astounding. All manner of reaction followed.

The cables, phone calls and letters of support that poured in from around the world were to be expected. So were the gossip and speculation that saturated literary and journalism circles here. The widespread, venomous sniping at New Yorker staff was more surprising.

More than a few critics, in conversation and in print, began to suggest that Newhouse’s move was not so terrible. They compared the staff’s protest to everything from a 1960s-type student rally to nursery-schoolers heaving porridge at the teacher. It was time the “tender buttons” faced the real world after two decades of being “indulged and coddled.” The New Yorker’s stately image, they suggested, masks an inordinate number of long-winded, impenetrable and boring articles. No wonder the magazine’s ad pages have slid and circulation stagnated in recent years. The blood had run thin. It was time for a change.

In this fashion, what began as a protest against The New Yorker’s management has evolved into a debate over the magazine’s very nature. Beneath the furor over the immediate events lies a more fundamental question.

Does The New Yorker need an editorial and marketing tuneup--or is it a dying breed? Can a serious magazine of letters be commercially successful in an arena dominated by marketing specialists with two eyes on the readers’ demographics? How much must it adjust and cater to changing reader interests in order to survive?

May Need Subsidization

“That’s the large, important question here,” said Spencer Klaw, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a former New Yorker writer for the Talk of the Town pages. “It isn’t clear that you can have a serious magazine survive without being subsidized.”

That is not, however, the type of question most often examined inside or outside The New Yorker in recent days. It has been more fun to trade stories about the uprising. The image of a protest rally in an institution known for restrained understatement and reclusive writers is enough to fuel conversations for weeks.

Some of the more colorful tales of misanthropic writers evading each other in The New Yorker hallways undoubtedly are exaggerated. Certainly times have changed from the era when Brendan Gill, now the magazine’s theater critic, found that the custom was “to speak as little as possible, and then as dourly as possible. . . . Everyone I passed in the corridors seemed to be feeling sick. Later, I learned that many of them were sick, with hangovers of varying degrees of acuteness. They glowered, they sulked, they passed one another in silence, or with an inarticulate snarl.”

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the gathering in the 18th-floor hallway Jan. 13 was a singular event in the magazine’s history.

The 18th-floor hallway at The New Yorker widens in the area of an interior stairway that leads upstairs to the editors’ offices. As those steps bend and begin to rise, they are interrupted by a small landing. There Shawn stood, his manner as muted and reticent as ever.

Named Successor

He had decided back in November, he said, that Charles (Chip) McGrath, 39, the magazine’s managing editor for fiction, would take over on July 1. This he had told Newhouse. He thought Newhouse had agreed.

“To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he misunderstood,” Shawn said.

When Newhouse presented him with the notice about Gottlieb, Shawn said, he had invited the owner to meet with staff members who did not think the appointment of an outsider was a good idea. After all, in the contract by which Newhouse bought The New Yorker--from the founding Fleischmann family and assorted investors--for $168 million in March of 1985, there had been a clause about seeking “advice and approval” before naming a new editor.

Newhouse, Shawn said, had declined his offer.

The New Yorker staff did not, as it happens, respond to all this with unflinching solidarity. At least two camps emerged, described later by one writer as the “crazies and purists, “ who wanted to do something immediately, and the “moderates,” who wanted to do something but weren’t sure what it should be. Which camp you stood with became something of a heated issue. To one writer, the gathering recalled a student meeting in Tehran where everyone was yelling “more purity, more purity.”

Several Prospects

Those who found themselves in the moderate camp could not avoid the thought that Shawn had brought much of the trouble on himself. Approaching his 80th birthday, he had failed to develop a suitable successor, at least not one who had time to build a sufficiently secure base. Over the years, there had been several prospects from within the staff seemingly anointed, then passed over. In the last 18 months alone, three different names had emerged. McGrath’s was simply the latest.

There were also those who allowed that Newhouse, having paid $168 million for the magazine, had the right to name Shawn’s successor. Bob Gottlieb, they observed, was far from the worst choice possible. In fact, he seemed a terrific choice but for his status as an outsider. Many at the magazine knew and admired him. He, in turn, apparently admired them. As head of Knopf, a publisher of the highest integrity and prestige, he has published in book form many of The New Yorker writers’ long series.

Finally, though, everyone agreed that Newhouse had handled Shawn’s removal badly, even brutally. Something had to be done, if only as a gesture of honor to Shawn. Spurred on by the exhortations of the redoubtable Lillian Ross, the idea for the letter to Gottlieb took root. Voices from the crowd shouted out names of particular writers they thought would be best suited to draft the document.

Calvin Trillin. Roger Angell. Janet Malcolm. Philip Hamburger. Lawrence Wechsler. Bill McKibbin. Mark Singer.

This group retreated to a private office.

‘Expression of Sadness’

“Dear Mr. Gottlieb,” the letter began. “At a spontaneous meeting this afternoon on one of the editorial floors of this magazine, there was a powerful and apparently unanimous expression of sadness and outrage over the manner in which a new editor has been imposed on us. . . . It is our strange and powerfully held conviction that only an editor who has been a longstanding member of the staff will have a reasonable chance of assuring our continuity, cohesion and independence.”

After assuring Gottlieb that none of their feelings were directed personally at him, the writers urged him to “withdraw your acceptance of the post that has been offered to you.”

Even in this heated moment, The New Yorker writers could not resist indulging their passion for proper use of language. They concluded their letter with “sincerely and hopefully.”

“We wanted the word hopefully to be used right for once,” Trillin explained.

Talking of the letter, Trillin also said: “I’m glad we did something, even if it was cockamamie. It made the Willy Loman statement. Attention must be paid.”

Planned to Take Job

One day later, over lunch with Shawn at the editor’s traditional booth in the Algonquin Hotel dining room, Gottlieb handed over his brief response. He understood and sympathized with the staff, he wrote, “but I do plan to take up this new job.”

There were many at The New Yorker who assumed this closed the book on the matter. But in the world of letters--particularly the literary and journalistic circles here in New York--such unusual events were just too compelling to ignore or contemplate only briefly.

Virtually every major newspaper and magazine served up some form of report and commentary. The articles tended to employ terms such as “self-indulgent” and “crybabies” when speaking of The New Yorker staff, and terms such as “convoluted” and “interminable” when speaking of their writing. The tone of these articles approached glee. The New Yorker aristocrats were being yanked back to earth.

As it happens, a number of New Yorker writers found much merit in this criticism. Some articles, they allowed, were too long and convoluted, and some topics too boring. There was perhaps too much focus on the clarity and shape of the sentences instead of the articles. Shawn, they said, had at times fallen victim to his gracious concern for writers, buying pieces simply because the writer needed money, or had spent so many months on a project, or could not bear the psychological insult of rejection.

Argument Over Length

Said one writer: “There’s plenty of argument in the bathroom over some of the long pieces. I don’t know if I needed to read three parts about wheat. I don’t know if I need to read another series about Ved Mehta’s childhood.”

Yet The New Yorker writers still felt puzzled and stung by the venom of the commentary about them. Did not these critics understand that the issue was editorial independence? Should not fellow writers feel a sympathy, even a brotherhood?

That the critics did not feel this way, it gradually occurred to a few at The New Yorker, was a telling sign of the magazine’s unique nature, and of how set apart they were from most other journalists.

To begin with, they pointed out, their degree of editorial independence from the owners was of a different dimension from other publications, even those that do enjoy great distance from the business side.

Steve Florio, the publisher Newhouse installed at The New Yorker, caused a stir one day simply by appearing on an editorial floor. He triggered even greater dismay one morning when he ventured to tell Shawn that he liked a story the magazine had recently run.

Retreated Into Silence

Shawn responded with a look of alarm. The editor retreated into silence, staring down at his desk. Florio asked what was wrong.

“I’m glad you liked the article,” Shawn said carefully, “but I would prefer that you did not tell me. If you’re comfortable telling me that, you will also be comfortable telling me when you don’t like an article.”

It was this type of independence, some of the writers believed, that Newhouse shattered when he handed Shawn his announcement.

“That Monday, the news traveled from the business side to editorial,” Singer said. “Never before had that happened. It was a symbolic death.”

Yet there was something else, the magazine’s writers suggested, that set The New Yorker apart.

New Yorker articles, they said, were unique not because they invariably were superior to efforts elsewhere, but because they were of a distinctly different type. The form of literary journalism provided by The New Yorker, they argued, has almost no parallel in American letters.

This was an observation difficult to deny, even by those not enamored of the magazine’s distinctive nature.

No Special Graphics

It is fair to say that The New Yorker, unlike most publications, does not labor to attract or hold readers--in fact, articles’ topics sometimes are not apparent until the piece is well under way. The magazine offers no bold headlines, no special graphics, no photos, no alluring covers, no boxes of enlarged text to summarize and promote articles.

Much is made of the extraordinary respect and freedom the magazine’s writers get from the editors. But the writers’ greater and more unusual luxury may be a readership that enjoys sitting and reading, at length. To retain this luxury, the magazine does not try to appeal to the widest possible audience. When the magazine’s circulation topped 300,000 for the first time, the founding editor, Ross, reportedly said: “Too many people. We must be doing something wrong.”

New Yorker articles do not justify themselves by claiming they are dealing with important or universal topics. Trillin once proposed writing about a particular woman politician in South Africa, simply because he found her interesting. Shawn readily agreed. Elsewhere, Trillin observed, an editor might have required a wider examination of the country--what Trillin calls a “whither Africa” article or an “airport series,” researched by a whirlwind tour of cities and visits with government officials.

Provides Forum for Writers

Unlike virtually all other magazines, which often are guided by marketing polls, The New Yorker holds no editorial meetings to decide what the magazine should be writing about, or what the reader wants, or even who the reader is. The magazine, rather, provides a forum for individual writers.

“We edit The New Yorker as a magazine for readers, not as an advertising medium,” Shawn wrote in an anonymous Talk of the Town essay soon after Newhouse bought the magazine. “We regard our readers as readers, not as consumers or as a ‘market’. . . . We have never published anything in order to sell magazines . . . (or) to be ‘successful.’ We have published only what we thought had merit of one kind or another.”

This approach often leads to unhurried meditations on topics not likely to receive such extended examination elsewhere. A profile of an art lecturer will follow a look at an annual musical gathering in a small Kentucky county, or a contemplation of the orange. Some find these fascinating, others find them unbearable. Yet this approach also yields seminal works on major topics, such as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country.”

“The New Yorker is a letter from a group of friends talking about what is important to them that week,” said George J. Green, executive vice president and group publications director of Hearst Magazines. Green previously was The New Yorker’s president for 10 years, until the sale to Newhouse.

‘A Weird Machine’

Trillin calls the magazine “a weird machine.” It does, he allowed, need some cleaning up. “But this should be done without making it like other magazines,” he said. “The point is, this is a valuable thing and you have to be careful with it.”

In interviews, the new publisher Florio has insisted he will be careful. He has said Gottlieb will have as much independence as did Shawn, and he has said The New Yorker would never try to “target” certain types of readers, as do most other magazines. Gottlieb, in interviews, has said nothing to suggest anything other than allegiance to The New Yorker’s nature.

But Florio also talks of appealing to a readership that is younger and “more upscale.” He has commissioned the type of marketing surveys and readership profiles that The New Yorker had always disdained. This is, he told one interviewer, “a video generation. People don’t read as much as they used to.”

There are those who see nothing alarming in all this. There are those who suggest The New Yorker staff’s concerns have more to do with the prospect of being freshly judged on their merits than on defending the fate of the magazine. But New Yorker staffers believe there are other reasons for why they are feeling threatened.

“We know change is not only possible, but a good thing,” said Roger Angell, the magazine’s senior fiction editor and much admired writer on baseball. “People forget that The New Yorker has changed often--in the 1930s, during the war, after the war, again in the ‘60s. But there is considerable suspicion of the notion that we must do this with demographics. We’ve made money by doing what we want to do, for readers like us. . . . If readers are seen as having a short attention span, then we need a whole set of new editors. They might put out a product that makes money, but it won’t be The New Yorker.”

Reported Mussolini Death

Philip Hamburger, 72, has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for 48 years, arriving when Ross was still the editor and Shawn a young Talk of the Town reporter. In April of 1945, he happened to find himself at a Milan hotel the morning that Benito Mussolini’s body was discovered hanging upside down, dangling by the heels from a rusty beam in front of a gas station. He rushed his report to Ross with great speed. In due course, the dramatic account found its way into the magazine, labeled, in typically discreet New Yorker fashion, a “Letter from Rome.”

Hamburger knows this deliberate understatement drives some to distraction, yet he relishes it and fears its loss.

“Now I see where they’re happy because the median subscriber’s age went down from 42.6 to 40. Our reader now is 2.6 years younger,” he said one day recently, sitting in his narrow cubbyhole of an office at The New Yorker

He threw up his arms and cleared his throat.

“That is a lot of bull. How do you adjust who you write to? Do you write to the 48-year-old who’s catching the 8:32 train into town? What if he missed the 8:32? Or what if he got the 8:32 but then missed his cab? Or what if he has a birthday? Do you have to change your editorial again? We are in never-never land.”

Circulation Stagnated

Yet many believe something must be done at The New Yorker. They have their reasons. The magazine’s circulation stagnated at about 500,000 years ago. There was a time when the magazine carried almost 7,000 pages of advertising a year. By 1981, that was down to 4,308. By 1985, the year Newhouse bought the magazine, ad pages had slid to 2,990.

The problem, some believe, is not with what’s happened at The New Yorker, but with what has developed elsewhere in the magazine world. In recent years, a number of newer publications have sprung up that appeal to the same advertising market as does The New Yorker, publications that are usually described in advertising circles as “glitzier” and “hotter” than The New Yorker. Some of the younger figures at advertising agencies, when asked, explain that they do not “relate” to The New Yorker as much as they do to these newer publications.

The shorter, breezier editorial content of Vanity Fair, Travel & Leisure, Gourmet, Signature, Connoisseur and Architectural Digest may not compete with The New Yorker, but their advertising salesmen surely do. These magazines are perceived as attracting the same type of affluent, sophisticated reader as does The New Yorker, without the burden of requiring much extended or laborious reading.

Ad Pages Decline 37%

Since 1980, The New Yorker’s ad pages have declined by 37%. Meanwhile, Connoisseur has increased by 47%, Gourmet by 69%, Signature by 63%, Travel & Leisure by almost 24%.

“The same advertising dollars that once went just to one or two magazines now get spread thinner,” Green said.

So when Florio arrived as publisher in the spring of 1985, it occurred to him that what The New Yorker suffered from was a marketing and promotion problem. From a 36-year-old New York University graduate in marketing, fresh from doubling circulation and more than quadrupling ad revenue at another Newhouse magazine, GQ, this seemed an understandable observation. Florio’s view grew stronger when he took a look around his new surroundings.

Until Newhouse’s takeover, The New Yorker had never been particularly inclined to woo subscribers, certainly not in a heavy-handed manner. The magazine had not conducted a mail solicitation drive since 1971.

“When I asked the circulation director for their direct mail plan, he said we don’t do that here,” Florio recalled recently. “I thought he was kidding.”

Fired Dozen on Staff

Florio soon fired about a dozen members of the advertising and marketing staff. Then he began to introduce a number of innovations. The most visible involved The New Yorker’s advertising and promotion policies.

Florio began running television commercials for The New Yorker involving re-created dramatizations of the magazine’s articles. He launched a 2-million-piece direct mail solicitation that included the advice, “When life glooms over . . . there’s a magazine that can cheer you.” He began accepting advertising that Shawn had always felt would offend readers or disrupt the magazine’s distinctive design--insert cards, anything approaching the racy, half-page horizontal ads, and “advertorials,” special advertising sections made up to look like editorial material.

Reaction to the changes has been mixed. The New Yorker staff, although not particularly appreciative, takes comfort in noting that Florio at least has not touched the editorial side. In the world of magazine publishing, some applaud Florio for instituting what are, after all, standard procedures elsewhere. Others wonder whether the changes are diluting The New Yorker’s unique image and appeal.

How people eventually regard Florio’s moves most likely will be colored by whether they work. So far, the jury is still out.

80,000 New Subscribers

Florio’s mail solicitation drive has netted some 80,000 new subscribers, bringing circulation up to 560,000. But aggressive promotions, magazine publishers know, often attract less than devoted readers, who are not as likely to renew. If The New Yorker’s remarkable 75% renewal rate falls, the cost of operating the magazine will climb dramatically.

It is advertising pages, not circulation totals, that decide the profits of a magazine. The New Yorker’s ad pages fell again in 1986, the first full year of operation under Newhouse and Florio, from 2,990 to 2,644.

To some, such figures suggest The New Yorker’s problems go beyond marketing and promotion. The magazine, they say, may be of a dying breed.

After all, other magazines of a serious nature have also been suffering. Since 1980, Harpers’ ad pages have fallen by more than 23%, and the magazine survives only through support of foundations. The New York Times Sunday Magazine has declined by 6%. The Atlantic during this period rose 17.6%, but this was mainly due to a brief surge in the early 1980s, after multimillionaire Mortimer Zuckerman bought the magazine and pumped in fresh cash. From a high of 591 pages in 1984, the Atlantic fell to 457 last year, and is said to be losing money.

‘Little Chance in This Era’

“I think the magazine that’s only serious and literary has little chance in this era,” said Green, the Hearst magazine executive and former New Yorker president. “Who has the time to read long articles? People have so many options. Where 20 years ago the talk at dinner parties might be about what was in The New Yorker that week, now it’s about TV and movies.”

The New Yorker staff and its supporters do not agree. Articles need not be shortened or targeted, they say. They just need to be good. When “Hiroshima” or “Coming Into the Country” or “Funny Money” ran, no one complained of length.

“I think we can go on without being compromised,” Angell said. “Many in the literary world find us precious and quaint and smug. Probably we are all that. But I think there also is much envy in this. Many readers love us. I get letters from so many telling how deeply we affect them. That same question--what’s the matter with The New Yorker lately--I’ve been hearing that for 40 years.”

In talking about a viable path for The New Yorker, a good number from within and without the magazine offered the same thought. Their idea was as simple as it was unorthodox. The New Yorker could survive, they said, if its owner just did not need to reap a large and ever-expanding profit.

They proposed that the magazine aim to be the best at what it does, rather than the richest or the fastest growing. There is nothing wrong, they said, with a magazine with 3,000 ad pages and 500,000 subscribers.

Profit of $5 Million

In 1984, the last year before Newhouse took over, The New Yorker earned a net profit of some $5 million. Florio said it is still making money.

“Maybe we just have to have Newhouse not expect to make huge amounts of money,” Hamburger said. “He could expect just to break even or make a small profit. The owner has the right to do what he wants, but sometimes there is a different type of reward. We live in543236215are living in a country that has no values.”

There are those, of course, who point out that this is a particularly naive notion to come from the corridors of a magazine noted for its urbane sophistication. After all, Newhouse’s investment in the magazine now totals $200 million. He is not likely to feel satisfied with a publication that breaks even. Nor is his energetic publisher.

Florio identifies his three-year goals as 3,500 ad pages annually and somewhere over 600,000 in circulation. He also has plans on the drawing board to launch new “quality” magazines, using the talents of The New Yorker staff.

“I want us to be a force in publishing,” Florio said one morning recently. “Si Newhouse did not buy The New Yorker for prestige. He bought it because it was a good business investment.”