A relaunch for The New Yorker, with high stakes

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David Remnick. (Photo illustration; Remnick image AP Photo/Mel Evans, File.)
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Nicole Levy

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The New Yorker will debut its long awaited, revamped website today, about which you’ll see plenty of commentary and criticism.

But to understand what the imperatives of the new website mean for The New Yorker in 2014, it’s not a bad idea to step back in time just a little.

At around 2:30 on the afternoon of May 14, an email bulletin from The New York Times announcing that Dean Baquet would replace Jill Abramson as the paper’s executive editor hit the inbox of Ken Auletta, the magazine’s writer of the annals of the media business.

Auletta does not blog for the website as often as some of his colleagues, like John Cassidy, but he had written an extensive and nuanced profile of Abramson in late October of 2011, several weeks after she started on the job and more than four months after her accession to the newspaper’s throne was announced.

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Her hiring was big news, and attracted the usual scrum of media reporting on other candidates, how she was chosen, what it meant. But Auletta, and The New Yorker, told its own story, on its own timeline, infinitely more detailed and finespun than anyone else had produced or likely ever will produce, unless Auletta himself writes a book about it.

In May of 2014 her firing was too opportune a moment for the magazine to ignore. NewYorker.com executive editor Amy Davidson wrote to him five minutes after the news broke: “Ken, quite a surprise—can you possibly write something???”

He agreed to nose around. Through calls to two of Abramson’s intimates, Auletta reported the core of a post, and submitted a draft at 4:10 p.m. “Why Jill Abramson was Fired” went live about two hours later, after an edit from Davidson; sacrificed to achieve the turnaround was a run through the magazine’s famous army of fact checkers, the “most astute goons” of any publication in the country as H.L. Mencken once put it.

“It was an unusually large reaction, compared to old fogey print,” Auletta told Capital recently.

Privately, many on the media beat familiar with Auletta’s work expressed some shock that a magazine like The New Yorker would push out, on the authority of a small number of anonymous sources, a controversial account of one of the biggest news events on its writer’s beat. It was not so much a matter of sour grapes—it was entirely possible that Auletta is the only reporter on the beat who could have gotten that account of Abramson’s firing, that day or a month or several months later (and time has borne out the truth in his reports). It was just something that seemed out of character for The New Yorker and one of its marquee writers.

And the minutiae: Several post-publication copy-polishing moves were required, and some small corrections. For example, Auletta quoted a source referring to former managing editor of news operations John Geddes, unnamed, as the former deputy managing editor.

“In the magazine, my mistake would have been caught by a fact checker,” Auletta said. On the rest of the web, such a correction is a trivial matter (and like any quality web-news organization, the changes were handled with a view to transparency to the reader). But for The New Yorker?

The New Yorker has managed to retain more of its ancient folkways than possibly any other magazine or newspaper in print, largely due to its success as a business, which in itself is regarded widely as a function of its superlative quality. Call it New Yorker exceptionalism. It is impossible to be so good that you can survive the transformation of media brought on by the internet just by being a good publication—except for The New Yorker.

And yet, The New Yorker is but one among a raft of titles published by a large media company that has staked itself on thriving in a post-print universe. Auletta’s piece was, by any other publisher’s standards, a runaway success.

The post, with its revelations of a gender-pay disparity, drew more than 1 million unique visitors, making it the most-read item on the website that month. Auletta received calls and emails from empathetic female readers.

It was also a boon to the magazine’s business department. The site had just begun participating in a Condé Nast accelerator program that uses an algorithm to predict when a story is about to go viral, and automatically places advertising from companies that have signed on to appear on those articles. HSBC benefitted from Auletta’s post, publisher Lisa Hughes said. This program will expand with the new web relaunch.

And so it was a moment that tested the magazine’s identity. This is a magazine that did not carry any of the headlines of its inside stories on its cover, until it made a minor concession to that universal practice by adding an awkward half-sheet wrapper stapled to its cover, on newsstand editions. It’s a magazine that presents its stories with minimal embellishment—sometimes, not even any photography at all. It still runs poetry inline with the article text, its famous cartoons dotting the magazine without any easily discernible rhyme or reason.

The chief reason The New Yorker has never been punished for its lack of salesmanship is its reputation. It is still possible to see many young people on any subway car in Brooklyn or Manhattan each morning reading the print edition of the magazine—pulling them out of their satchels already folded open to wherever they last left it. Unlike the web, the experience of reading the print New Yorker is one of being guided through it, by the editors and designers, from start to finish; it’s an intentional relinquishing of authority. Everything in the magazine, it is thought, is perfect of its kind and worth reading—whatever the topic, whatever the approach—because if it were not, its editors wouldn’t have put it there. The name on the front, The New Yorker, serves as the guarantor.

From that point of view, timeliness—another watchword in the rest of magazine publishing—was historically of little interest to The New Yorker. Its brand had been such that it could be an authority and a newsmaker anywhere it chose to dispatch its writers, by virtue of the time and scope they are given to report and write, and at any time. Another weekly magazine that published its article about the ascension of Jill Abramson weeks after her tenure began and months after it had been announced would have been punished. The New Yorker was not—because the piece was worth the wait.

The last two editors have craved greater timeliness, and the magazine itself has slowly transitioned toward it, becoming more engaged with popular culture under Tina Brown and with politics, business and global affairs under Remnick.

To reach the warp speed of the web, and retain its authority and identity, is the new problem.

“We’re clearly deep into a transitional phase that is prolonged and complicated,” New Yorker editor David Remnick admitted to Capital in an interview at the magazine’s offices last week. “Here’s the bottom line, and it seems simple: the way for us to succeed is to publish a great New Yorker, no matter how the letters and drawings are being transmitted, digitally or ink on paper. If we do that I’m absolutely confident that we will succeed because people want what we do.”

“To figure out how to deal with the speed of the Web, even if you’re taking every measure to get things right, as opposed to the amount of time to have what you’re used to, takes some doing,” Remnick said. “And discussion and debate, all well intended, and disagreement and compromise and all things that should happen in an institution that takes itself seriously.”

Online editor Nicholas Thompson, who is spearheading today’s relaunch, put the challenge succinctly:

“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is to make a website that is to the Internet what the magazine is to all other magazines.”

AULETTA’S ABRAMSON POSTINGS WERE NOT WITHOUT precedent at The New Yorker, which launched its first website in 2001 as a companion site to the magazine, offering little original online content. The website has recently published an average of 15 original stories a day, and its traffic has grown from 3.1 million monthly unique visitors in the first six months of 2011 to 10.1 million in the same period in 2014, according to an internal traffic measure from Omniture.

With growth came an awkward phase, as editors of the literary magazine n+1 noted in November 2012: “It’s hard to say what exactly The New Yorker does on the Internet,” the critics wrote. “They do not post their best pieces, except when they do. They do not have their best writers blogging, except when they do. Really, what The New Yorker has done online is remain totally unembarrassed by everything they have done online.”

Thompson had been named online editor just a few months before, after serving for a couple of years as a senior editor for the print magazine. Traffic has nearly tripled under his watch.

A good deal of that traffic can be credited to Andy Borowitz—the satirist and “Shouts & Murmurs” contributor whom The New Yorker hired in 2012 to anchor its newly introduced humor blog, and whose Boomer-liberal brand of humor regularly produces groans from younger, more web-native corners. According to Thompson, “The Borowitz Report” was responsible for six percent of all of NewYorker.com’s traffic last year.

Under Thompson, the site has also increased the amount of original content it produces. Those 15 posts per day are spread across more than dozen blogs. About 60 to 70 percent of the posts come from freelancers, Thompson said, though he expects that this percentage will decrease over time. The rest are written by full-time staffers—which could mean heavy hitters from the print magazine, a handful of blog editors, and a few full-time web writers.

The majority of staff writers for the print magazine, Thompson said, have contributed at least one piece to the site.

“Maybe there are a few who held out, but basically everyone has blogged at some point or other. Some blog relentlessly,” he said. “My favorite example is Roger Angell, the man who’s 93 years old and he still blogs regularly. He writes wonderfully about what it means to blog. They’re not all there full-time, but there’s a lot of them contributing a lot of content.”

As Thompson sees it, NewYorker.com offers a place for the magazine’s staff writers to expound at length upon things they do not have the opportunity to write about for the magazine.

He offered staff writer Kelefa Sanneh as an example.

“He writes these terrific, long stories for the magazine, one every two to three months, But then he also is our online boxing correspondent, who writes beautifully about the sport of boxing whenever he’s inspired to,” Thompson said. “These are things that we wouldn’t run in the magazine. We’re not going to run a feature on boxing every time there’s a big fight, but he can do that online.”

The matter of cajoling magazine staff writers to write for the web is top of mind to Remnick, now that the website has relaunched.

“How can I get George Packer, who’s known for writing five big pieces a year, to not utterly transform his writing life, but transform it just enough so that he’s also being involved in the Web and writing ‘Daily Comments,’ or whatever floats his boat?” Remnick asked rhetorically. “And he’s done that, and a lot of people have done it. And more and more do it with time.”

Magazine staff writers’ expertise, such as Auletta’s familiarity with the Times, can link the publication’s heritage of thorough reporting and its aspiration to intersect with the news cycle: “There are moments where a news story plays into some strength that we might have,” said Remnick, whose experience as a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post informed the post he wrote painting a volatile political frenzy in Russia and eastern Ukraine that could erupt soon after the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines flight 17.

While The New Yorker originally provided magazine writers— who sign a contract each year promising a salary in exchange for the delivery of a certain word count—no extra compensation for blogging, doing it instead as a sort of favor to previous web editors like Avi Zenilman or to Remnick, it has recently paid about $250 per post, sources told Capital.

That payment structure is currently under renovation, Remnick said. “I think people should be paid fairly for their efforts and their concentration and their talents and their efforts. How to calibrate that, how exactly to pay for that is something we’ve talked about endlessly and tried to figure out ways to be fair. And so this is being reflected now in the way we do contracts with people. We try to get people to do both.”

Asked whether this effort entailed writing a blog post quota into every staffer’s contract, Remnick said, “Absolutely.”

THE NEW SITE IS THE LARGEST OVERHAUL OF NEWYORKER.COM IN YEARS, Thompson said. The last redesign, Thompson said, occurred before he switched from the print side to the web, and was little more than a “fairly minor reskinning.”

The current relaunch has been in the works for about a year, Thompson said, and it’s been in intensive development since the magazine brought on Michael Donohoe as Director of Product Engineering in January. Donohoe, who was hired from Atlantic Media’s Quartz, has been working full-time on the new site for the past seven months, Thompson said.

Every post, in Thompson’s opinion, should apply the magazine’s superlative sensibilities at Internet publishing speeds. “We want it to feel like the best-written story you’re going to read,” he said.

Still, the speed of the Internet necessitates some sacrifice. Overall, posts on NewYorker.com are subjected to a less rigorous editing process than magazine articles are.

While The New Yorker employs about 15 fact checkers, only one is assigned to the website at a given time, for a stretch of two weeks. (At this point, most New Yorker employees have both print and web duties: including fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who records a podcast, and the print editors, who write web headlines for their stories.)

That fact checker typically examines online posts by new contributors and those that are “big and thorny,” deputy editor Pamela McCarthy said, “because you can’t [fact check them all] and have a site that exists in the world of other sites.”

“And not to be defensive, but that’s one more fact-checker than probably anyone else has,” Remnick added. On average, a 10,000-word piece in the print magazine takes a fact-checker a week or two to confirm names, dates and facts, he said.

Thompson said that, generally, a post will be edited by one of the site’s web editors, given a second read by a top-editor, and then sent to the site’s copy desk. More time-sensitive posts go through an abbreviated chain of command, to one editor and then a copy editor.

It’s understandable that Remnick would want his star talent writing online with the coming metered paywall. In December, Condé Nast hired Charl Porter to draw from his experience working on The Financial Times’ own locktight paywall. When The New Yorker flips the switch on its wall in three months, it will restrict access to both magazine articles and blog posts.

“One of the reasons we’re moving to this paywall is a sense that the website is creating content that people would be willing to … subscribe to The New Yorker to read,” Thompson said.

Previously, editors would select a couple of magazine stories to make available for all online readers, in addition to online-only content. Any articles that the editors did not make available to all readers were accessible to subscribers only through a special “archives” website that displayed them as PDF copies of original print issues.

These archives—an artifact of an earlier attempt to digitize The New Yorker’s archives and put them on CDs—were a stopgap measure until The New Yorker could build the infrastructure to support a paywall. The experience of reading long features on them—which required constantly zooming in to pages, zooming out, and clicking for the next page—was frustrating, to say the least. On the new site, all articles published since 2007 are formatted as easily readable web pages.

But if NewYorker.com is a place for the magazine’s stars to write whatever they want, it is also a place to nurture new talent. A number of the magazine’s young fact-checkers and copy editors—such as Sarah Larson and Hannah Goldfield—have contributed pieces to the site, and some have gone on to write front of the book pieces for the print magazine.

Thompson said that his goal is for NewYorker.com to bring the magazine’s sensibility to the internet. Partly, this means allowing writers to quickly comment on current events, instead of waiting months to produce a magazine story about them.

It also means focusing New Yorker-style cultural criticism on internet culture. In 2012, for instance, Goldfield wrote a post about the cultural significance of emoji. Today, the site launched a blog, Cultural Comment, intended to let staff writers weigh in on whatever cultural trend is sweeping the internet each day.

In the three months before the paywall goes up on, all of the new content The New Yorker publishes, as well as all it has published since 2007, will be unlocked to all readers and available in an easy-to-read HTML format.

The website also launches two “collections” today sampling older pieces, some pre-dating 2007. One is a selection of profiles, the other of fictional love stories. One or two collections of stories from the archives, grouped thematically, will debut every Monday through October.

“It's a way of introducing a wider audience to the magazine and the thing that we do,” McCarthy said. “I think there are a lot of people who have great interest in the magazine, and looking backwards aren't quite sure where to start, so this gives them a point of entry.”

THIS DRIVE TO INCREASE ITS AUDIENCE, TO FIND new readers unaccustomed to the magazine, means producing more stories, and presenting them, perhaps, in a different way.

“We think we’re putting out really great stories,” Thompson said. “We want to make it as easy as possible to read; it’s in our economic interest to make it as easy as possible to read because then people will read them and share them.”

The New Yorker pieces on NewYorker.com now look and feel akin to their digital brethren on nytimes.com or Medium—with plenty of white space, large pictures, and single-screen scrolling without page breaks. The whole site reflects a similar design aesthetic, focused on clean lines and lots of white space.

“A lot of the web is getting more cluttered; I think this is much cleaner,” Thompson said.

And one thing The New Yorker has that few other titles can claim is the freedom to form a digital identity on their own timeline. The total paid circulation for the print magazine in the last six months of 2013, according to the publisher’s statement, was about 1.1 million.

“We’re still in the stage, and I’m happy to stay in that stage indefinitely, where our print subscriptions are very, very high,” Remnick noted. “And you would think if you’re seeing this curve in unique visitors digitally, that you would see the opposite curve [in print]. That’s not the case...I think a lot of people are reading in conjunction,” paying $69.99 for a print-and-digital subscription. “So they’re reading it at home and then don’t bring the magazine and they have their phone and they continue reading X article on the subway.”

Above all, New Yorker’s print readers are steadfast, said Ben Yagoda, a historian of the magazine and a contributor to its site.

New Yorker subscribers are the most loyal and traditionally have by far the highest renewal rate for their subscriptions,” he said. “The New Yorker feels, and rightfully so, that it has that kind of readership who really identify with the publication and really want it,” Yagoda said.

Thompson hopes that the site’s cleaner design and readability will lead more readers to visit the site, read articles from the print magazine and the blogs, and—eventually—subscribe.

When Remnick convened a rare all-hands meeting of The New Yorker in the Condé Nast auditorium in June, he told the title’s full staff that he wanted to merge its print magazine and website more closely together, Auletta recalled. The new paywall, which will guard access to both print and online-only content this fall, promises to be the great equalizer of the two in the Remnick era, and, finally, test the proposition of unity internally.

“Publishing the best work possible remains our aim,” the editors’ note for the relaunch said. “In all forms—digital and paper—we intend to publish in the same spirit of freedom, ambition, and accuracy as [founding editor] Harold Ross did when he prowled the halls nearly ninety years ago, the latest model of pencil stuck behind his prominent left ear.”

CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article named David Remnick as the author of the editors' introductory note on The New Yorker's redesign; it was written by the editors, not by Remnick alone.

Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article misquoted Nicholas Thompson talking about Roger Angell. The phrase Thompson used was that he "writes wonderfully about what it means to blog." Originally we had it as "might wonder about what it means to blog."