Nicholas Thompson on leaving ‘The New Yorker’ to run newyorker.com: ‘We’re making big investments’

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Nicholas Thompson. ()
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Since 2010, Nicholas Thompson has had a job that pretty much any magazine editor in New York City would kill to get, and keep till death.

He's been a senior editor at The New Yorker, and has been responsible for shaping the 10,000-word raw copy filed by writers like Ken Auletta, Ryan Lizza and Steve Coll into finished pieces.

So committed are some New York journalists to the magazine that they can spend the bulk of a career working for the fact-checking department, and still be esteemed to have the best job in a room full of their peers.

But Thompson is a unique case. He co-founded The Atavist, a digital journalism start-up with a focus on long-form writing and e-book publishing; and on the side, because he is recognizable to his elders at The New Yorker as their kind of material but also knows his way around an iPad, he's been given the responsibility for managing the content on the magazine's popular tablet applications.

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(His digital bona fides are perhaps bolstered by the five years he spent at parent company Conde Nast's premiere tech magazine, Wired.)

In other words, he's never been quite that sort of New Yorker "lifer." 

So the news today, first reported by Politico's Dylan Byers, that he was leaving his job editing features to run the magazine's website, a perennial managerial headache in-house if an apparently successful and pretty compelling product to readers on the outside, had a distinctly current ring to it.

We asked him about all that on the phone this afternoon.

"I come from Wired, so I have a technology background, and I've edited a lot of the magazine's tech stories," said Thompson, noting that "for the past year-and-a-half, I've been helping choose the extra content that goes onto the tablet app and have been very involved in the magazine's digital transformation.

"It wasn't, suddenly I've gone from all print to all web."

Nevertheless, that New Yorker editor David Remnick has pulled a player off his print rotation to dispatch him to the digital backfield seems to suggest that the magazine's website, newyorker.com, is becoming a real part of the title's overall strategy, something few would have said it ever was before.

That's not to say the site hasn't done well under outgoing editor Blake Eskin, who is reportedly departing "to pursue other opportunities." It finished January with about 1.86 million unique visitors, up from 1.54 million in January of 2011, according to comScore. And new web-only features like "The Daily Comment," in which the magazine's heavyweights sound off on the issues of the day (today, it's Jeffrey Toobin on Republican Presidential candidates and the Supreme Court), have generated buzz and helped bring in eyeballs. The web editorial team now numbers about a dozen.

But rarely have magazine staffers, whose numbers dwarf those of their digital counterparts, jumped over to that other side of the operation. Thompson, in fact, is only the second senior editor to do so, following Amy Davidson, who made the switch a few years ago.

Does this mean The New Yorker is starting to take the web more seriously?

"The move was certainly not intended to send a signal," said Thompson. "They just needed a new editor, and for whatever reason, Remnick thought I'd do a good job at it."

At the same time, "I don't think there's any doubt that the website is becoming more important and that we're putting resources into it," he said. "It's clear we're making big investments."

Thompson wouldn't talk about his vision for the site or any changes he might make to it, saying it was still too early to discuss any of that. But he did say he would love to see more online newsbreaks and original reporting; the latter is already a mainstay within the magazine's stable of writers, but the former still feels new.

He also said the transition would not change his role as a consultant for The Atavist or his side projects as a contributor at CNN International and Bloomberg TV. Nor does he plan to give up the more traditional sort of editing he was doing before: He will be assigning original features for the site, too.

As for Thompson's old job, there is now a vacancy to be filled ("Send your resumes to David Remnick, c/o Rejection closet," Byers quipped), which will probably spark about a million new desperate dreams in journalism-land.