Tina's mortal synergy The New Yorker will withstand its editor's departure. But can the rest of journalism survive her new venture?

July 12, 1998|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOKS EDITOR Ann Hornaday and Stephen Proctor contributed to this report.

And so, Tina Brown has abandoned the editorial helm of the New Yorker, indisputably the premier vehicle of serious journalism and literary fiction in the United States for two and more generations.

Should real people care? Only if the event and its consequences are perceived to affect their lives. It's difficult to see how they will.

This has not stilled the cacophony. Brown jilted S.I. Newhouse - owner, with his family, of the New Yorker - to run away with Mickey Mouse. A wailing sigh emanated from earnest souls and throats:

"Will the Synergy Monster swallow up the exalted journalism we'd like to believe exists?!"

This added excruciating burdens to those who immediately worried what, indeed, will be the future of the New Yorker. In the past six years, Brown's editorship had - in her own press release-disseminated words - "brought the sleeping beauty back life."

It was not precisely Mickey with whom Brown eloped from the paragon of American serial publishing, but rather a Walt Disney satellite company: Miramax Films, which is under the joint chairmanship of founding brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Of Brown, Brother Harvey was reported by the New York Times to have said: "She creates the most interesting magazines, finds the hottest journalists and has her hand on the cultural Zeitgeist."

The deal: Brown gets chairmanship and a 25 percent profit share of a multimedia enterprise that will include a magazine she promises to launch by September 1999, plus television, movie, book and possibly other related enterprises. All these, it is suggested, will synergize like a nest of voraciously cooperative vipers.

That Hollywood is bereft of Zeitgeist savvy is not news. Nor is it new.

Half the legendary novelists of the 1920s and '30s were sucked into Hollywood on lucrative writing contracts. Few produced anything more memorable than piles of empty liquor bottles cluttering up the Garden of Allah. Wouldn't Truth, Justice and the American Way have better been served if F. Scott Fitzgerald had continued writing the likes of "The Great Gatsby" rather than screenplays that were second-rate at best?

But Brother Harvey's praise notwithstanding, Brown has not been widely known as a Zeitgeist kneader. Rather, she is virtually universally regarded as a Buzz-maker. Not a Buzzer, mark you. Those are the people around her. The breathless press reports of Brown's departure all buzzed with "buzz." The word appeared three times in single sentences.

Buzzterm No. 1 in publishing circles these days is "synergy." Synergy, the ghost of Noah Webster dictates, is "combined action or operation, as of muscles, nerves, etc." in which the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In corporate Buzztalk, it also implies something along the lines of selling every part of the pig, including the squeal.

Thus the enterprise promised by the synergizing Godzilla/Queen Kong team created last week has the chatterers fearful it will divert the soul of the best of American journalism.

By having this new idea factory focused primarily on pop entertainment concepts, this argument goes, many of the most sought-after writers in America will be drawn to contriving articles that may make good thrillers, chillers or weepers, but have little time, energy or interest left for the good stuff.

The critics fear that spineless scriveners, eager to kowtow to the Brown-Weinstein team, and more eager still to see their names on big screens and bigger checks, will synthesize stories, fudge facts and contrive characters to feed this insatiable Moloch of synergy.

Whatever else there may be in such arguments, the whole deal does deeply underscore the idea-bankruptcy of the movie business.

But lurking at the core of the anxiety: Will anybody read the new magazine? It appears that won't matter much to its conceivers - so long as it generates broadcast and big-screen properties.

Harold Wallace Ross, upon founding the New Yorker in 1925, famously declared that the magazine "will not be edited for the old lady from Dubuque" - and then even more famously insisted that every article that crossed his desk be clearly comprehensible to that lady and anybody else, from whatever education or background.

With such an institution to ponder, there was much speculation about Brown's successor, though Best-Placed-Mentioners reported that S.I. Newhouse had been caught entirely off guard by her resignation at about 9 a.m. last Wednesday - believing up to that moment that she would sign a multimillion-dollar, five-year contract he had proffered. Highest among All The Usual Suspects rose the name of Michael Kinsley, editor of a sputtering online something or other called Slate and former editor of the New Republic.

Now it is not unlikely that Newhouse, no fool and never predictable, has radical change in mind - including the possibility of heavily cutting costs and putting the New Yorker up for sale.

Another possible course that amateur bean-counters contemplated was to turn the New Yorker into a biweekly. Would that help staunch the $11 million-a-year cash hemorrhage that Brown could do little, if anything, to reduce in her tenure? No one could really say: Lost circulation revenues, greater concentration advertising, other considerations well might offset the saving.

It would, however, cure or dramatically relieve what, in some minds, is the gravest psychological agony besetting America's reading public: New Yorker Guilt - that chronic phenomenon, leading often to sleeplessness and devotion to unhealthy chemicals, caused by the ceaseless growth of piles of unread copies of the magazine.

Every tempest brings some good.

! Pub Date: 7/12/98

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