A peek under the New Yorker’s kimono

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For many sophisticated people, heaven is “an uninterrupted day or five to go through my … pile of The New Yorker magazines.” The publication has a special cachet: very different from–though no greater or less than–The Economist‘s, and indeed highly complementary. (We know from research that many coffee tables in many homes have both the New Yorker and The Economist on it.)

So I found myself fascinated by a rare lifting of the New Yorker’s kimono, as Dan Baum, a writer who got fired from the magazine, told his tale. (Thanks to Jag for pointing me to it.)

The first thing of interest is that Baum did this on Twitter. Yes, he tweeted his story in 140-character increments. If I may say so (redoubling my skepticism about Twitter), that part did not work. Twitter may be a great medium for some things, but not for storytelling. But Baum then consolidated the tweets here.

And what a very different culture the New Yorker‘s is from the one I live in at The Economist. First of all, the writers do not make a good living:

you’re not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet.

Why do they put up with it? Apparently, because they are all convinced that

writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs.

This it may be. Certainly, the New Yorker’s writers can expect to rise to fame with their bylines and become stars, selling books and going on lecture tours. We at The Economist, of course, have no bylines. As a result, we ‘don’t do’ the star thing.

Another contrast: The offices of the New Yorker, according to Baum, are an eerie place where

Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles.

That is not how I would describe the merrily eccentric and light-flooded Tower that serves as our head office in London. Is it the time the science correspondent came into the editorial meeting in drag, with nobody even batting an eyelid, that springs to mind? Or the time I had to duck as I passed a senior editor’s office to evade a flying object, dispatched with a scream that made the windows vibrate, only to hear the same editor invite me in with a cheerful and jovial demeanor, since he had just loosened up a bit and now felt envigorated?

The whole way they pitch stories at the New Yorker is one I do not recognize. They apparently write elaborate treatises just for the pitch, then wait to have it rejected or accepted. Baum even puts his successful and failed pitches up on his site. We on the other hand might casually mention or email a half-formed and tongue-in-cheek phrase (something that I might shout through a closing Tube door), and off we go. The other day I was skyping with my editor and said two words (“whither [name]”) under my breath. I just saw it on the official planning list.

But the most subtle and interesting bit in Baum’s account was the psychological tension between him and his editor, which he blames for his firing. They were discussing story ideas, and the writer knew more about his subject than the editor (which is inevitable). Baum thinks he made a mistake, because

I made him feel uninformed.

Granted: Baum got fired and is looking for reasons to apportion blame. But he is not slinging mud. This is the closest he gets to it.

In my twelve years, I cannot remember a single conversation at The Economist where one party felt threatened if the other ‘knew more’ about something. We thrive on talking to people who know more. How boring the obverse tends to be.

I am a fan of The New Yorker. It is a special place. So are we.

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My magazine vs. all magazines

Play with this interactive barometer of ad pages inside the major magazines.

The overall picture is grim, grim, grim. Fortunately, we at The Economist are still going strong. (I wonder how we do that. ;))

But lest you hypothesize about a “flight to quality”, note that the New Yorker is also down, really down. Breaks my heart.

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I’m crushed: Only 3 out of 5

As you know by now, I’m a humor snob. So I’m gutted to discover, after taking the New Yorker‘s test for advanced readers, that I only scored three out of five. Being a Yoga snob as well, the last one threw me off. But even with that allowance, I’d only be four out of five. And so my Friday morning begins with a crisis.


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