Tina Brown, editor of the sassy and hugely successful Vanity Fair magazine, seems an unlikely choice to head the staid but venerable New Yorker -- so unlikely that one observer suggested her appointment was a bit like choosing Madonna to direct the New York City Ballet.
Yet Ms. Brown's talent for combining glamour, gossip and good writing in a stylish package is not so far afield from the magazine's traditions. Founder Harold Ross, who edited the 67-year-old magazine until his death in 1951, shaped a periodical that was never boring. He recruited brilliant writers and artists and let them shine. His New Yorker was a product of the Jazz Age, and it showed.
William Shawn, who took over in 1951, gave it a gentler tone. The sassiness of the Jazz Age was hard to sustain in an era trying to come to terms with the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Mr. Shawn's New Yorker retained its reputation as the country's most respected literary magazine. It was, after all, the place where readers first encountered such influential works as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," John Hersey's "Hiroshima" and James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time."
Reflecting a more serious age, the magazine's biting humor became more whimsical. But over the years its formidable reputation for factual correctness and detailed writing contributed to an aura in which a writer for The New Yorker could be described as "not afraid to be boring." Even its classic liberalism began to strike some readers as turgid.
Five years ago, when Robert Gottlieb replaced Mr. Shawn, outraged reaction among the staff and longtime contributors included public letters of protest. Yet Mr. Gottlieb made few substantive changes, kept the staff virtually intact and continued its tradition of in-depth reporting.
No one expects The New Yorker to remain unchanged under Ms. Brown. Circulation and revenues have suffered, and it needs to attract a younger audience to replace its aging readers. Moreover, Tina Brown is unlikely to produce a magazine that would allow any writer, however respected, to be boring. But don't expect her to turn The New Yorker into another Vanity Fair. Not when this Oxford-educated editor has the opportunity to create a distinctive new era in American literary journalism with a magazine that may echo more of the old Harold Ross days, but one that will certainly continue to draw readers, attention and respect.