A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker 6

The second item of interest is a comment on an announcement by the Saturday Evening Post of its plan to reduce circulation from nearly seven million readers to three million: “The Post will focus on the prime markets, forget the rest,” the announcement said. The “Notes and Comment” writer has great, derisory fun with this con¬cept of limiting circulation to the desirable zip codes (“We found all this hypnotic, and immediately began to wonder about our personal zip code,” and so forth), and finishes up with a parodic acceptance of this crass new way of running a magazine: “There will be (as there always are) some people who will carp at these developments, and whine about the Media’s Responsibility to the Demographically Undesirable. . . . ” The point isn’t simply that the editorial side of the New Yorker had completely lost touch with the commercial reality of its own enterprise. It’s that the rest of the magazine world had finally caught on to the New Yorkers commercial secret, and the editors of the New Yorker seem to have had no idea what was happening.
But the magazine found a response. In January 1969, Shawn made a move to solve the problem with the magazine’s politics by assigning political “Notes and Comment” pieces to Jonathan Schell, who went on to produce over one hundred between 1969 and 1975. The magazine began providing serious, critical coverage of the Viet¬nam War, and it published the serial version of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America—the counterculture for Ivy Leaguers. It had been compelled, against every instinct, to choose sides. The New Yorkers choices were limited by its own tradition. It had never spon¬sored much more than a genteel (though global) antipolitics. White’s “Notes and Comment” pieces of the early forties were pri¬marily devoted to promoting the idea of world government. And the magazine’s great reportorial coups “Hiroshima” and “Silent Spring,” as politically influential as they proved to be, were the sort of pieces that appeal most to people whose distrust of—or indifference to— everyday politics is already fairly complete. The persona that pre¬tended to regard getting a taxi as a trial of sensibility naturally tended to view greater issues in an apocalyptic light. “They never dreamed that the world’s inelegance could become so dangerous,” is the way Robert Warshow characterized the magazine’s politics in 1947.
With Schell and Reich, the out-of-ordinary-politics tone became an above-ordinary-politics tone. The tone worked well for many readers when the issues of the day—Vietnam and Watergate— could be addressed by moral fervency alone. When the issues be¬came politically more complex later in the decade, the fervency, in pieces by Schell and others, began to seem like stridency—and the writing even acquired, most uncharacteristically, a partisan political rhetoric. But the real problem was that simply to choose any side was, from the point of view of the demographic position the maga¬zine commanded, to give up ground. “There was a change in the character of the readers” after 1969, J. Kenneth Bosee, the maga¬zine’s treasurer, told Gigi Mahon. “The numbers didn’t change, but where there were top executives at Fortune 500 companies, now they were replaced by a bunch of kids. The thrust was to a lower au¬dience. The demographics never went up again.”
Still, the roller-coaster ride bottomed out. The contents, after all, had remained strong. In that same summer of 1968, the maga¬zine ran (looking at July and August alone): Jane Kramer’s memorable two-part profile of Allen Ginsberg; long pieces on the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist Jim Garrison, by Edward Jay Ep¬stein, and The Graduate, by Jacob Brackman; a joint profile of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, by William Whitworth; a “European Diary,” by Lewis Mumford; stories by Saul Bellow (“Mosby’s Mem¬oirs”), Donald Barthelme, Woody Allen, Larry Woiwode, Isaac Ba¬bel. These are not only things you would have been happy to read in 1968; these are things you would be happy to read in any magazine today.
In the 1970s, thanks to some uncharacteristically aggressive leadership on the business side, circulation did pick up slightly, the magazine sold more ad pages each year, and, most significantly, overall revenues increased substantially. But all the time other general-interest magazines were trying and succeeding where the Saturday Evening Post had failed—in targeting the same slice of the demographic pie the New Yorker had largely had to itself for fifty years. The mass-circulation magazine was being replaced by the magazine edited with an upper-quintile household income firmly in mind. Life and Look were giving way to HG. As the prestige of the New Yorker began to suffer from competition and from the critical sniping competition generated, Shawn seems to have fallen back on the belief that since it was the disinterested pursuit of editorial per¬fection that had made the New Yorker a success in the first place, an even more fiercely disinterested pursuit of perfection was the only remedy for whatever ailed it now. So that at times during Shawn’s last years as editor, the magazine seemed like a parody of itself— running things like E. J. Kahn’s enormous multipart series on corn, soybeans, potatoes, and rice; publishing reviews of unnoticed books months or years after they had come out; letting topical reports from Washington and reviews of Hollywood movies of no special mo¬ment run to many thousands of words; serializing memoirs of the childhoods of New Yorker writers.
In the eighties the great upper-middle-class economic boom in¬spired dozens of magazines to reposition themselves at the top of the market in order to attract luxury advertising, effectively finishing off the trend that had begun in the late 1960s. When the New Yorker failed to respond to these pressures from the rest of the industry, some major stockholders on the magazine’s board of directors grew uneasy. When one of them decided to unload a sizable block of shares, Newhouse had his opportunity.

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