A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker 2

This explains the panic that many New Yorker writers and editors felt when the magazine was purchased by S. I. Newhouse in 1985, and that some of them expressed rather hysterically when New¬house replaced Shawn with Gottlieb two years later. For two gener¬ations the Fleischmann family had run the New Yorker almost wholly benignly. (They were not, strictly speaking, the magazine’s sole owners, for the New Yorker was a publicly traded company.) The reason for the benignity—as Gigi Mahon’s business history of the magazine, The Last Days of the “New Yorker” (1988), makes clear—had less to do with an enlightened respect for art and litera¬ture than with a lackadaisical attitude toward business affairs that drove some of the other major stockholders on the magazine’s board of directors to distraction. Newhouse’s attitude toward business affairs is not lackadaisical, and the Condé Nast magazines, which are the chief magazine properties in his publishing empire, are un¬ashamedly great, fat books of advertising: Vogue, HG, Vanity Fair, GQ, Mademoiselle, Allure, Traveler, and the rest. When ad revenues threaten to fall off at those magazines, editorial content is shaken up—and so, frequently, are mastheads. It must have sent a long, ap¬prehensive shiver through New Yorker writers when they saw a pic¬ture of Ralph Lauren on the cover of Vanity Fair, a magazine once touted as Condé Nast’s answer to the New Yorker.
The New Yorker was not immediately joined to the Condé Nast group, though; it was run as a “stand-alone” entity. It was rumored to be losing money after Newhouse acquired it (Newhouse’s Ad¬vance Publications is a private company, and its finances are not made public), though some reports suggested (inaccurately, as it turned out) that the magazine had started to turn a profit again. Nor was there any sign that, under Gottlieb, editorial content was being shaped with a view to improving commerce. Some people criticized the magazine for that, but there were just as many people who would have criticized the magazine if it looked as though content were being shaped with an eye to commerce. There were some new bylines; there was some unaggressive editorial tinkering; there were a few minor design changes. (It cannot have been pleasant to be an editor who had only to make a tiny adjustment in the layout of the table of contents to wake up the next morning and find a story about it in the New York Times.) But things at the New Yorker seemed, from the outside at any rate, to be running pretty much as they al¬ways had.
With one intangible difference: the mystique had evaporated. This could only have been liberating to the people who worked there; but if you looked back over the magazine’s history, you had to wonder about two things. The first was whether the magazine would ever again be the magnificent cash cow it once was; and the second was whether the place in American culture that the New Yorker once occupied still existed.

These two questions are actually the same question. For the New Yorker, too, was once a great, fat book of advertising, and the notion that the magazine’s editorial matter had nothing to do with the spec¬tacular forest of ads that grew up around it over the years is, of course, pure myth. The New Yorker was invented by Ross, who had a concept so precocious that it took the rest of the general-interest magazine industry forty years to catch up to it. The concept was tar¬geting. Why should, say, Bonwit Teller or Tiffany’s spend money to advertise in magazines edited to reach the greatest possible number of readers, the majority of whom would never visit New York City, and, even if they did, could not afford the stuff that Bonwit’s and Tiffany’s were selling? Ross proposed a vehicle custom-designed for those advertisers: a general-interest magazine aimed specifically at people who did shop in New York City, and who could pay what Tiffany’s was charging. When Ross wrote the famous line in the prospectus for his new magazine—“The New Yorker will be the mag¬azine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque”—he wasn’t talking to his readers (for surely the ladies of Dubuque appreciate clarity and accuracy and have a horror of prurience—values as central to Ross’s editorial policy as they would later be to Shawn’s). He was talking to his advertisers. Ross pestered potential backers for years with this harebrained notion of a magazine designed to squeeze a bigger profit out of a smaller circulation. In 1924, Raoul Fleischmann, a poker companion bored by his job running the fam¬ily bakery, took the bait—whether because he grasped the genius of Ross’s scheme or because he simply found the idea of owning a magazine charming is hard to know. The first issue appeared in Feb¬ruary 1925.
The New Yorker started as a hectic book of gossip, cartoons, and facetiae. It wooed “upscale” readers with courtship techniques that magazines of the 1980s later made familiar. It pelted them with celebrities—with vignettes about actors, actresses, club owners, the idle rich, even the editors of more successful magazines. And it boasted repeatedly of its refusal to take anything seriously, a form of self-promotion in journalism that generally means nothing more scandalous than being irreverent about other people’s self¬promotions. John Held, Jr., an old friend of Ross’s, did not actually draw a New Yorker cover, though he contributed some art for the in¬side; but there were many Held-like covers in the early years: loud, flat stylizations of city nightlife. (Some were by Rea Irvin, the artist who created both the monocled dandy who appears on the cover of the anniversary issue, and the New Yorkers signature typeface.) The idea, apparently, was that urbane chat about New York high life was the way to reach the well-to-do, that it flattered those readers’ sense of themselves as chic insiders. It didn’t work. By summertime, cir¬culation, which had started at fifteen thousand, had dropped below four thousand. Ads were down to three or four pages an issue. Fleischmann threw in the towel, but was persuaded to change his mind and throw in more money instead.

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