Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Slow Metabolism of a Great Magazine

The former and unlamented editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines, said on several occasions that among his chief goals was to increase the "competitive metabolism" of the paper. That came as something of a shock not only to members of his staff, most of whom thought they were already working about as hard and as fast as humanly possible, but also to competitors and especially to readers of the paper. While there will always be some naysayers, the consensus nonetheless among both of those latter categories of Times-watchers was and is that our leading newspaper is operating at a pretty high metabolism already. Even now, the paper is struggling with how to merge its 24-hour news desk, driven by the web, into its traditional newsgathering operation, geared to daily rather than hourly or minute-by-minute deadlines. It's increasingly being forced to work at the speed of a wire service, only better, deeper and with more personality.

Magazines are a different story, though. With the general increase in the velocity of the news cycle and of life in general, monthlies in recent years have had to recast themselves to remain relevant. Weeklies have perhaps an even tougher challenge: they appear frequently enough to try to remain timely, though they can easily be overwhelmed by rapidly moving events. They're mostly stuck in the middle, where it's easy to become road kill.

written before about why the New Yorker remains our best magazine, even in the face of formidable competition from Vanity Fair and The Atlantic Monthly. In part, that's because British-expat Tina Brown took a then-dusty old relic and sped up its metabolism in the '90s. It wasn't pretty, and I was as angry about some of her more outrageous stunts (including, famously, asking the boorish Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue devoted to women) as anyone. But when she left in a cloud of buzz to pursue loftier ambitions during the boom years of the late '90s, owner S.I. Newhouse did something as startling and wonderful as it was unexpected: he turned the editorship over to the sublimely gifted writer David Remnick. Besides producing a lifetime of remarkable writing himself, he will be remembered (and he's still a young guy) for taking the best of the magazine's old and new elements and blending it all into something even better, richer and more meaningful, forever disproving the conventional wisdom that writers can't really be good editors. The current New Yorker may be better than it has ever been in its long and storied history. He's even presided over turning it into a modestly profitable enterprise after decades of red ink.
After a famously late start, the magazine has even become an innovator on the web. The latest overhaul/enhancement of its website is said to be due in February.

The latest reminder of his wonderful balancing act between old and new arrived in the mailbox only a couple of weeks ago, with the last edition of November. There, buried among the more timely pieces on various subjects was the traditional annual Roger Angell wrap-up of the World Series, delivered up more than a month after the last game was played, at a time when even hardened baseball nuts had mostly begun to forget about it. But this gentlemanly craftsman, now in his 80s, and with a half century of service under his belt, works at his own pace. And he gets the benefit of the doubt, since not only is he a fine writer with a wide following, but also an important link to the magazine's past (his stepfather was E.B. White, still the most illustrious name in the history of a magazine full of illustrious names). And so we have the charming World Series wrap-up, weeks late.

No real fan of the magazine, I think, would have it any other way.


At 3:37 PM, Anonymous Tom Corrigan said...

John, You are so right about Roger Angell being worth waiting for and I especially love the "let's call it spiritual" link between baseball, E.B. White, and this wonderful fan of the game. He just plain writes about it better than anyone else.
I have not forgotten my promise to get together with you, but it has been a crazy winter/fall. The New Year will deliver my performance on the promise. All the best of blessings and grace for Christmas to you and yours.

At 4:50 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wonderful of you to leave a comment, and a great one at that. I thought of you only the other day when the spiffy new edition of the Cleveland Public Library newsletter hit my mailbox. I know how busy life gets, and will gladly wait for that long-awaited get-together. Meanwhile, have a blessed holiday with the extended Corrigan/Davis/Woidke/Hopkins (and others I don't even know about) clan, and please give a special hello to your sassy sister.


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