Jonathan Shainin on returning to ‘The New Yorker’
The fact-checking desk at The New Yorker is known for producing some of the industry's most prominent writers, editors and journalists. But often not for The New Yorker.
Ben McGrath and Raffi Khatchadourian made the leap, and so did Amy Davidson. But most leave the magazine after a few years.
And then, sometimes, they come back.
That's the case with former fact-checker Jonathan Shainin, who took a not-so-quick detour from The New Yorker via a daily newspaper in Abu Dhabi and a monthly magazine in Delhi.
Back in 2007, Shainin left his fact-checking post when the capital city of the United Arab Emirates' was launching an ambitious newspaper called The National and they wanted him to edit a weekly supplement focusing on long-form reportage and cultural commentary.
There, Shainin was able to flex his muscles as an editor. And he even got to assign freelance pieces to some of his former employer's biggest stars, like George Packer and Steve Coll.
As The National began going downhill in 2010, however, Shainin headed for India, where he took a job as a senior editor at a Delhi-based current-affairs magazine called The Caravan, which is basically the closest thing the subcontinent has to The New Yorker.
But The New Yorker is precisely where Shainin will be working again come next Monday. He has been named news editor of newyorker.com, as first reported on Fishbowl NY earlier today, replacing Alex Koppelman, who recently left for The Guardian's U.S. operation.
Shainin will report to Nick Thompson, who's been expanding The New Yorker's online footprint since he was named web editor in March 2012. He was "surrounded by half-packed suitcases and boxes" in his apartment in south Delhi's Sarvodaya Enclave when Capital caught up with him via email. Here's how our conversation went:
What time is it where you are, anyway? Are you looking forward to getting back on EST?
It's 12:23 a.m. here. I think I'm going to be up all night, because I've got a lot of packing to do. I don't know about getting back on EST, but I'm looking forward to having a more normal schedule, and hoping that I won't ever sleep at my office again.
So tell me about the scope of what you will be responsible for as the news editor of newyorker.com?
As I understand it, I'll be editing and commissioning pieces about domestic news and politics, as well as foreign coverage—working with [senior online editor] Amy Davidson, who I adore.
It sounds like you'll have a freelance budget that will let you really dip into your Rolodex. This would seem to reflect an expansion of web-exclusive reportage and commentary on newyorker.com.
Yes, but I think that's a process that's already underway—there's obviously been a big push there in the last few years to commission original stuff for the web and develop something that stands on its own as a complement to the print magazine, rather than just an online appendage of the mothership. I do think I'll be able to work on commissioning more foreign pieces, which is something I'm particularly looking forward to.
If we were to take a look at the current news cycle, what are some such foreign topics that might catch your eye as potential feature material?
My sense is that the mission is to do more of what the website has done very well already—pieces that are connected to the news cycle (including breaking stories like the shootings in Nairobi, which James Verini did two great pieces about), but with a little more depth and nuance and narrative than straight foreign news dispatches.
Care to mention any writers/reporters you're excited to work with?
Too many to name.
Up until now, your editing jobs have been in print, where you can really take time to develop and polish beautiful features on a weekly or monthly basis. What sold you on getting into the fast and furious business of daily online news content?
I think as I started to contemplate coming back to America, I had a sense that this was the direction that a lot of places were moving—that at a place like The New Yorker, the web was the fastest-growing part of the institution. And I suppose I thought it would be nice not to labor for 100 hours over a 10,000 word piece, and to try my hand at doing shorter, quicker stuff. But I think I've got a lot to learn, and fast, about how to do that well.
The fastest-growing part of the institution, you say? Tell me more.
I can't speak for the magazine, of course. But my sense, from the conversations I had with David [Remnick, The New Yorker's editor-in-chief], Amy and Nick, was that there's a serious emphasis on developing the website further, and I think if you look at where the resources have been allotted in the last year or so, most of the growth in terms of hiring has come on the web side. Obviously the print magazine is still the main event, but there seems to be a real commitment to making the web a major component of the institution.
Does that mean you'll also be concentrating on audience growth? Will David Remnick be knocking on your door for traffic stats?
I'm new at this web business, but my understanding is that increasing the audience is always the goal. I don't think that's the main thing driving editorial decisions by any means, but obviously the upshot to doing more pieces and covering more things is ideally going to be more readers.
The New Yorker is many a journalist's dream job. You started there as a fact-checker, which can be a thankless job. How does it feel to be coming back to the magazine in a role where you can actually work on shaping content and developing ideas?
This is going to sound cloying, but I really loved being a fact-checker. I just think it's the sort of job that you can't do for too long, so I was happy to have the chance to move on from checking and work as an editor in Abu Dhabi and then in India. In terms of going back, it's tremendously exciting, for precisely the reasons you suggested. I think the website has been doing fantastic stuff under Nick and Amy, and there's a lot of opportunities there to try new things—to do pieces that are different in form and shape than what the magazine publishes, but still identifiably "New Yorker" in their approach and content.
Is there anything you've learned working as an editor in the Middle East and India that you'll take with you back to New York?
I think the main thing was that being in an unfamiliar environment, where I had to learn everything from the ground up, forced me to think much harder about how I did my job—about the basics of editing and commissioning and putting together a magazine. When you're not in a place you're already comfortable with, you have to rethink the foundations of what you do, and try to understand from scratch what works here and what's missing from the existing media landscape. That was an incredibly useful experience to have had. The other thing, I suppose, is that working in Abu Dhabi and then in India—two places that are not generally covered very well by the Western media—I think I've developed a certain sense of what rings false in a lot of foreign coverage, especially in the eyes of the people who are its subjects.