Don't cry for this New Yorker, which sold its soul to the devil

March 08, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- It is unseemly to take pleasure in the failures of others, but there is reason to do so in the news that the New Yorker magazine of Tina Brown and S. I. Newhouse Jr. is a failure.

It has been losing money ever since Mr. Newhouse bought the magazine 13 years ago, and now it is to be folded into the operations of Mr. Newhouse's other fashion and celebrity magazines.

The New Yorker was profitable when the Fleischmann family sold it in 1985. It had become somewhat predictable, and its circulation and profits were in slow decline, but it still was the country's best and most influential magazine.

Its decline, in my view (as a contributor from 1971 to 1985) was due chiefly to its having become an anachronism in an American society greatly changed not only from its 1925 founding, but also from the '40s and '50s when it had found a new voice and authority under the influence of William Shawn, who became editor after the magazine's creator, Harold Ross, died in 1951.

Magazines do have a natural life span, connected to the society in which they exist. The New Yorker was a product of a certain America, parochial in its way, but sure of its identity, which by the 1980s was dissolving under pressures of cultural ideology and social division in the country.

Today's is a television and entertainment age. The New Yorker was the creation of newspapermen at a time when Americans read. Ross had been an itinerant newspaperman, who was interested in everything, and wanted to learn.

This curiosity made the New Yorker into the most important and original magazine of factual reporting that probably ever existed. Its writers went out to learn about, and then write about, absolutely any subject that interested them.

'A comic paper'

The New Yorker, which Ross sometimes called a "comic paper," by publishing cartoons, humor, news of the racetrack and nightclubs, together with serious nonfiction, and fiction, poetry and literary and arts criticism, was simultaneously democratic and cosmopolitan.

The legacy of naturalism was responsible for the New Yorker short story, in which, supposedly, nothing happened. Of course, a very great deal happened, but the reader was expected to understand what it was without being told.

Katherine White, who went to work for Ross six months after the magazine began, was largely responsible for making it the most important influence of its time on American short fiction. She also pushed Ross to publish serious poetry, which, like fiction, has all but disappeared since 1992, when Ms. Brown became editor.

What happened to the magazine's fortunes under Mr. Newhouse has a commercial explanation. He purchased it believing that he could reverse its decline and increase its profits. To demonstrate his confidence, he raised circulation guarantees and advertising rates. To get the additional circulation, he bought it -- which is to say, he sold cheap subscriptions, which had to be renewed to become profitable.

He was too proud to back down, so when subscriptions were not renewed he kept buying circulation. It was up to a reported 800,000 last year (as against 500,000 under Shawn). But this still is a fickle readership, or the magazine would not have lost $11 zTC million last year -- and a reported $100 million since Mr. Newhouse bought it.

Ms. Brown, who is undoubtedly the most brilliant tabloid editor of her day, took the magazine down-market, making it a brilliant and vulgar celebrity, gossip and insider-dope politics magazine.

The New Yorker was created to succeed, but from the start, commercial and editorial functions were scrupulously separated. No one has ever satisfactorily explained why so fundamentally serious a magazine should have become an enormously successful and profitable consumer magazine. Ross, and then Shawn, simply wanted to do something very good, and did so by letting others do the best work they could do.

That is something very rare.

Since Mr. Newhouse and Ms. Brown have been in charge, when the only reason for publishing the magazine has been to make money, it has lost $100 million. The old New Yorker has its revenge.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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