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The Mr. Magazine™ interview: “I have great alarm about this war against fact," says The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick

“I find words, and I understand why they’re used all of the time, but sometimes I bridle a little bit at words like content or products or platform, they seem a little cold. They seem a little remote and cold-blooded, because I think of The New Yorker as something much more warm-blooded or hot-blooded, which is alive. I don’t think of it as a can of soup or any of the other household products or a status symbol. I think of it as something, and I don’t care if it’s digital or on paper, I think of it as something that can reach your heart and mind in a unique way; in a surprising way. There aren’t too many household items or products that can do that.” David Remnick (on defining content in today’s digital age)…

 

Mr. Magazine Interview ()

 

“But here’s the thing, and this is the important thing; my job and our job in this moment in time is to get all of the technological things right, but never to lose sight of, or the feel for, what The New Yorker is or should be. That if we only concentrate on these questions of technology and business and all the rest, and lose sight of the soul of the place, of the purpose of the place, of the integrity of the place, all knowing that we’re going to make mistakes along the way, that if we lose sight of that then it’s not worth it.” David Remnick…

In this age of propaganda phrases like “fake news,” and “alternative facts,” The New Yorker brings forth a true journalism that many today are turning to for answers. In an article that Forbes.com ran this past February entitled, “10 journalism brands where you find real facts rather than alternative facts,” The New Yorker’s non-fiction content was deservedly touted as: long-form reports on politics, culture, business and other topics (that) often take months to report, write and fact check. The result is deep reporting and analysis each week that is hard to find elsewhere.

For over 92 years, The New Yorker has been providing its readers with excellence in journalism, whether it’s the brand’s commentary, fiction, satire, cartoons, poetry, or long-form stories that always give us food for thought and the information that we need to understand the issue at hand. For 19 years of that almost-century, David Remnick has been the editor and guiding force behind the award-winning publication. And while David himself is very quick to point out that The New Yorker is not, nor ever will be, a one-man show, he has left an indelible mark on the brand with his own strong beliefs in honesty, accuracy, fairness, and total teamwork.

I spoke with David recently and we talked about the status of true journalism in this age of internet hoaxes, fake news, and alternative facts. It was an enlightening discussion with a man who lives in reality, recognising that the dark powers of the internet and the charlatans do exist, but also has the deep-seated integrity of his brand buried deep within his own chest, and believes that true reporting and accurate facts can be presented in both ink on paper and pixels on a screen.

 

David Remnick The New Yorker ()

 

So, I hope that you enjoy this very inspiring and delightful conversation with a man who began his reporting career at the Washington Post and has never forgotten the stalwart rules of good and true journalism, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Remnick, editor, The New Yorker.

But first the sound-bites:

On his feelings that today The New Yorker is the place to go for news, politics and humour, almost taking the place of newsweeklies: Well, I’m thrilled to hear it. I don’t think of The New Yorker at all as what we used to refer to as a newsweekly, like the old Time or Newsweek, or anything like that. The only parts of the print magazine that you could probably predict to some extent that we’re going to have something about that is in the cultural pages, in fact; reviews of this movie or that play. Beyond that, it’s open season. There’s a large measure of unpredictability in The New Yorker.

On where he thinks journalism is heading in 2018; is it the best of times, is it the worst of times for the profession: I think Dickens probably had it right. On the one hand, we live in an age in which the President of the United States and other leaders around the world have tried to muddy the waters about the difference between what is real and what is not real. What’s real and what’s fake. This phrase “fake news” is a weapon in the hands of, unfortunately, some very powerful people and their followers. On the other hand, I think a lot of people, many millions of people, reacted to this unfortunate turn by looking to what is best in journalism, what’s true. And that has been true at The New Yorker.

On The New Yorker’s revenues being 50/50 from print and digital: Well, obviously, print advertising everywhere is not a growth industry. And we also live in the reality that Facebook and Google own some enormous percentages of digital advertising as well. That’s just a reality. And we will go on battling for what part of the market we can get. And I think our advertisers will and should recognise that readers who seek out quality in their editorial matter are also great potential customers, but I leave those decisions to them.

On The New Yorker having a cult following and being almost a status symbol: I don’t mind the idea that readership of The New Yorker is somehow a club or an association or a marker, but I hope and pray that it’s something more serious than that. That it’s more joyful than that. That it’s not merely a status symbol, but something that people read and read deeply. And that it complicates and enlightens and brings joy to their lives. The idea that we can do that, with some very strange mixes, short fiction, journalism, humour, arts, and all the other ingredients that make up The New Yorker, that’s a very uplifting thing to know that you’re doing as a living.

On how he would define content today: I find words, and I understand why they’re used all of the time, but sometimes I bridle a little bit at words like content or products or platform, they seem a little cold. They seem a little remote and cold-blooded, because I think of The New Yorker as something much more warm-blooded or hot-blooded, which is alive. I don’t think of it as a can of soup or any of the other household products or a status symbol. I think of it as something, and I don’t care if it’s digital or on paper, I think of it as something that can reach your heart and mind in a unique way; in a surprising way. There aren’t too many household items or products that can do that.

On what The New Yorker is doing to ensure that true and factual journalism will always have a place in the industry: I can only speak with any authority about The New Yorker, I can’t speak for anybody else. And all I can tell you is that we have, at any one time, 17 or 18 fact-checkers working full-time, making sure the veracity of what we publish is as best as it can possibly be. We have all kinds of editors of enormous skill working with writers to make sure these pieces are clear, fair and rigorous. And at the same time, we don’t back away from a point of view, if that point of view can be substantiated and made clear.

On the voting down of Net Neutrality: If you ask me about Net Neutrality, I think that’s a shame. I think the Trump policy on Net Neutrality that really undermines the initial early idea of the Internet itself and gives great advantage to the biggest commercial companies, is an enormous step backward, if that’s what you’re asking.

 

The New Yorker ()

 

On whether there is anything that traditional media companies can do about the recent vote: As an editor, all I can do is have The New Yorker voice its opinion and we’ve done that. And we’ve done it very clearly. Recently, on The New Yorker Radio Hour, one of my guests was Nicholas Thompson, who’s the editor of Wired, and I interviewed him and he was extremely forceful, and I agree with him. He was extremely forceful in his denunciation of the Trump policy rolling back New Neutrality.

On whether he can recall one moment in time of the 19 years he’s been the editor in chief of The New Yorker where he was thankful to be in that position or one moment where he said, oh my gosh, what am I doing here: (Laughs) That’s a good question. The feeling of “oh my gosh, what am I doing here” is what I first felt, because I’d never been the editor of anything and then suddenly, one second you aren’t and one second you are. One moment you’re not in that room, and then you’re in the room, and suddenly these decisions are yours to make. Or at least, you have to learn how to make them. So, I admit looking back in some early sense of panic that you can’t let show. But I’ve been grateful ever since.

On what’s next for The New Yorker: When you ask the question what’s next: I think in the last year especially, we’re living in this incredibly… I don’t know how to describe it. I have no clue what will happen from moment to moment. Dorothy Parker used to say, “What fresh hell is this?” And there is this feeling of what fresh hell will today bring, mainly from Washington, but not only. These are tough times.

On whether he feels that journalism as a whole is failing its audience, or that a few are managing to succeed: Well, I hope not. I’m not running around and patting myself on the back, and I don’t think that Dean Baquet is or Marty Baron, or any other editor worth his or her salt. I don’t think, at the same time, that we should hang our heads low just because the President is screaming fake news, just the opposite. You just have to redouble your efforts, because that’s the job. It’s not personal; it’s not a sense of personal defiance. It’s a sense of that’s the job.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: My boys are in their twenties and unfortunately they’re out of the house, happily for them, but unfortunately for nostalgic old me, but they’re well-launched. And I have an 18-year-old daughter who is at home and has autism, so it’s a personal challenge that will always be with us. So, that’s a large thing in my life and in my wife’s life. My wife is Esther Fein, who for many years was a reporter and editor at The New York Times. What do we do to relax? We try to spend some time together. And it’s not out of the question to watch the news on TV or even better, some show. But there’s a lot of reading to be done. It’s very hard to read in the office, and that means reading pieces that are actually going to go in the magazine or online, but also pieces that aren’t, that people send in and deserve an answer. Or reading galleys of books that may find their way into The New Yorker in some ways. And the reading never stops, but again I want to say that this is not by any stretch a one-person operation. It’s a very complicated, and ultimately team-oriented thing.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I don’t know about me individually, but I want this place to be ruled by a sense of kindness, without swagger. I want there to be a sense of overall decency about The New Yorker. But again, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have disagreements, arguments, or bad days, or all the rest. But I want that sense of decency between and among us to prevail.

On what keeps him up at night: There’s no end to it; there’s no end to it. (Laughs) But that’s my problem, not yours; don’t worry about it.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Remnick, editor, The New Yorker.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, The New Yorker has become the place to go if you’re interested in news, politics and humour. It seems with most everyone I talk with, in and out of journalism schools, you have taken the place of a newsweekly on a daily basis.

Well, I’m thrilled to hear it. I don’t think of The New Yorker at all as what we used to refer to as a newsweekly, like the old Time or Newsweek, or anything like that. The only parts of the print magazine that you could probably predict to some extent that we’re going to have something about that is in the cultural pages, in fact; reviews of this movie or that play. Beyond that, it’s open season. There’s a large measure of unpredictability in The New Yorker.

Now online, there are more pieces that are reactive to the news, whether it’s political news or cultural news. But I think a lot of our readers are reading both at once. It’s not important to me particularly whether they’re reading on a screen or a phone or on paper, but I think a lot of people are reading all of what we do, which is to say, everything that’s coming out of The New Yorker.com, whether it’s the daily pieces or the long-form ones; in order for The New Yorker to be The New Yorker there has to be a huge measure of serendipity, unpredictability, surprise, delight; as well as depth, seriousness and accuracy. It’s a complicated piece of business, The New Yorker. It’s hard to define in a few words. Louis Armstrong was once asked the definition of jazz and he said: if you can’t hear it, I can’t explain it to you. (Laughs)

And the funny thing about The New Yorker is that it’s evolving, obviously. What we used to do, not so many years ago, was publish a dozen things, once a week, with some cartoons, very little of graphic interest. No photographs, just cartoons. And now we’re something much, much more and more varied, that exists both in the longer term and in the shorter term. It’s visual and also a deep-reading experience. I hope our soul is much the same; our DNA is much the same, but we’ve evolved quite a lot.

Through that evolvement, and considering the current status of journalism, where do you think journalism is heading in 2018? Is it in a better place today? Or can we paraphrase Charles Dickens and say, “These are the best of times, these are the worst of times?”

I think Dickens probably had it right. On the one hand, we live in an age in which the President of the United States and other leaders around the world have tried to muddy the waters about the difference between what is real and what is not real. What’s real and what’s fake. This phrase “fake news” is a weapon in the hands of, unfortunately, some very powerful people and their followers.

On the other hand, I think a lot of people, many millions of people, reacted to this unfortunate turn by looking to what is best in journalism, what’s true. And that has been true at The New Yorker. I think my brothers and sisters at The New York Times and the Washington Post and other publications have also felt this in very concrete terms. In terms of more readers wanting what we do. And it becomes not less important to them in a noisy, complicated world, but more important.

So, I have great alarm about this war against fact; this profusion of lying in high places. But I also stake my claim with a journalism that tries to do the best it can. And do an honest job. Whether it’s traditional media or new media, that doesn’t matter, it’s a true media. It’s a media that seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff; the true from the false. So, it is a very mixed picture and Dickens had it right, but where he was talking about the French Revolution, we’re talking about the 21st century.

 

The New Yorker ()

 

Chris Mitchell (The New Yorker’s chief business officer) told me that the revenues of The New Yorker now are like 50/50 from digital and print.

Well, obviously, print advertising everywhere is not a growth industry. And we also live in the reality that Facebook and Google own some enormous percentages of digital advertising as well. That’s just a reality. And we will go on battling for what part of the market we can get. And I think our advertisers will and should recognise that readers who seek out quality in their editorial matter are also great potential customers, but I leave those decisions to them.

The other part of the picture is that the ever-increasing net percentage of our revenue comes from consumer revenue, as opposed to ad revenue. And that’s a reflection of readers wanting what we do, and they’re willing to pay for it. And that’s incredibly encouraging about the future.

When I first came to America, I had a professor at Missouri who talked about The New Yorker, saying that it had those cult-like worshippers, readers, who just had to get the magazine every single week. It was a status symbol.

I don’t mind the idea that readership of The New Yorker is somehow a club or an association or a marker, but I hope and pray that it’s something more serious than that. That it’s more joyful than that. That it’s not merely a status symbol, but something that people read and read deeply. And that it complicates and enlightens and brings joy to their lives. The idea that we can do that, with some very strange mixes, short fiction, journalism, humour, arts, and all the other ingredients that make up The New Yorker, that’s a very uplifting thing to know that you’re doing as a living.

And that mix; is that your definition of content today? If someone were to ask you, David, how do you define content today?

I find words, and I understand why they’re used all of the time, but sometimes I bridle a little bit at words like content or products or platform, they seem a little cold. They seem a little remote and cold-blooded, because I think of The New Yorker as something much more warm-blooded or hot-blooded, which is alive. I don’t think of it as a can of soup or any of the other household products or a status symbol. I think of it as something, and I don’t care if it’s digital or on paper, I think of it as something that can reach your heart and mind in a unique way; in a surprising way. There aren’t too many household items or products that can do that.

I think of it in different terms. I don’t want to get all spiritual and gooey on you, but I think of it as something on a very emotional level as well. And I think what’s important is people’s attachment to it is very heartfelt and very emotional. I get letters and emails reflecting that all of the time.

There are more so-called journalism outlets today than ever before. What are you doing to ensure that the true voice of journalism, the factual rather than the fake journalism, still has a place in the industry?

I can only speak with any authority about The New Yorker, I can’t speak for anybody else. And all I can tell you is that we have, at any one time, 17 or 18 fact-checkers working full-time, making sure the veracity of what we publish is as best as it can possibly be. We have all kinds of editors of enormous skill working with writers to make sure these pieces are clear, fair and rigorous. And at the same time, we don’t back away from a point of view, if that point of view can be substantiated and made clear.

What we’re against is sloppiness, fakery, and inaccuracy. I totally understand that we’re going to make mistakes; I just want to keep them to an absolute minimum. And keep good faith with the reader.

As those readers are searching for the truth and hungry for the truth in this sea of chaos that exists out there, what do you think The New Yorker’s role, in both print and digital, should play in this time of the darker side of the internet? I’m sure you’ve heard that they voted down Net Neutrality; so, where do you think we’re heading?

If you ask me about Net Neutrality, I think that’s a shame. I think the Trump policy on Net Neutrality that really undermines the initial early idea of the Internet itself and gives great advantage to the biggest commercial companies, is an enormous step backward, if that’s what you’re asking.

Now that the vote is in, is there anything that traditional media companies can do about this?

As an editor, all I can do is have The New Yorker voice its opinion and we’ve done that. And we’ve done it very clearly. Recently, on The New Yorker Radio Hour, one of my guests was Nicholas Thompson, who’s the editor of Wired, and I interviewed him and he was extremely forceful, and I agree with him. He was extremely forceful in his denunciation of the Trump policy rolling back New Neutrality.

We have different platforms that The New Yorker can exploit. Again, the weekly magazine, the website, which is coming at you, not just every day, but every hour of a moment, a radio program, which is on I think 230 or 240 public radio stations around the country, and obviously podcasts. We had a television show with Amazon at one point, what I would call a noble experiment (Laughs). And we have all kinds of events, the biggest of which is The New Yorker Festival. And I look for more, but always with the idea toward the highest quality. Whatever we do; whatever new initiative we have has to be, if not right away, then soon, at the level of quality that we take pride in.

 

The New Yorker ()

 

During the 19 years of your tenure as editor of The New Yorker, can you look back on one moment that made you so thankful that you’re the editor of The New Yorker, or one moment that made you think: oh my gosh, what am I doing here?

(Laughs) That’s a good question. The feeling of “oh my gosh, what am I doing here” is what I first felt, because I’d never been the editor of anything and then suddenly, one second you aren’t and one second you are. One moment you’re not in that room, and then you’re in the room, and suddenly these decisions are yours to make. Or at least, you have to learn how to make them. So, I admit looking back in some early sense of panic that you can’t let show. But I’ve been grateful ever since.

Some stories we published are extremely painful or tough, but I feel great gratitude, not only to be the editor of The New Yorker, but to live in a place where we can do that without fear of favour, whether it’s the Harvey Weinstein material or the recent piece on opioids, written by Patrick Keefe, or Jane Mayer’s extraordinary political coverage, most recently her profile of Mike Pence; Evan Osnos’s work has been remarkable, and here I’m just talking about political stories. It’s a bounty.

And I’m extremely grateful to our editors, people like Daniel Zalewski or Henry Finder, Dorothy Wickenden, Susan Morrison; and these are people who have been around for quite a while, editing these pieces and making them better and working with writers. Pam McCarthy is the deputy editor and does about a million things, and Michael Luo who is the web editor and has been so effective.

And I mention these people, not just to throw bouquets in various people’s direction, because there are many more, but also because I don’t believe in this business of the imperial editor. I don’t believe that one person has enough creativity or enough ideas or intellectual versatility to be capable of singlehandedly putting out something like The New Yorker. It requires a team. A team that argues; a team that gets along; a team that treats each other decently; a team that gets annoyed with each other once in a blue moon, like in any good team or family or whatever. It’s hard work, but it’s not the work of one person. And if you publish anything; I would appreciate you publishing that, because I think it’s true. And I’m not mentioning nearly enough people, I know that.

What’s next for The New Yorker?

In terms of next week or in terms of six months from now or forever?

When you ask the question what’s next; I think in the last year especially, we’re living in this incredibly… I don’t know how to describe it. I have no clue what will happen from moment to moment. Dorothy Parker used to say, “What fresh hell is this?”

And there is this feeling of what fresh hell will today bring, mainly from Washington, but not only. These are tough times. We have existential crises that range from the global environment to the threat of a nuclear war with North Korea, to a renewed and very dangerous political rivalry with Russia, an ascendant China, which we seem to be mishandling spectacularly.

And it’s only incidentally that we see a story, you can barely breathe on the streets of New Delhi. There are real existential crises going on and we are, at the same time, obsessed with a million other things that are smaller and sucking the wind out of us. It’s very hard to live, it seems at times.

We just had a political race where we’re relieved and delighted that an accused sex offender and racist barely lost. This is what constitutes relief. These are tough times. And so it’s a big sense of responsibility.

I remember the morning after Trump won and talking with the staff about essential responsibility, about the need for rigour and covering the story in all its many directions with real boundless energy, and it’s tough. It takes a toll; it tires people out. But we can’t afford to be worn out by this; we have to be alert and on it.

Do you feel that collectively, journalism as a whole is failing its audience, or that a few are managing to succeed?

Well, I hope not. I’m not running around and patting myself on the back, and I don’t think that Dean Baquet is or Marty Baron, or any other editor worth his or her salt. I don’t think, at the same time, that we should hang our heads low just because the President is screaming fake news, just the opposite. You just have to redouble your efforts, because that’s the job. It’s not personal; it’s not a sense of personal defiance. It’s a sense of that’s the job.

If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

It could be any of those things. My boys are in their twenties and unfortunately they’re out of the house, happily for them, but unfortunately for nostalgic old me, but they’re well-launched. And I have an 18-year-old daughter who is at home and has autism, so it’s a personal challenge that will always be with us. So, that’s a large thing in my life and in my wife’s life. My wife is Esther Fein, who for many years was a reporter and editor at The New York Times.

What do we do to relax? We try to spend some time together. And it’s not out of the question to watch the news on TV or even better, some show. But there’s a lot of reading to be done. It’s very hard to read in the office, and that means reading pieces that are actually going to go in the magazine or online, but also pieces that aren’t, that people send in and deserve an answer. Or reading galleys of books that may find their way into The New Yorker in some ways. And the reading never stops, but again I want to say that this is not by any stretch a one-person operation. It’s a very complicated, and ultimately team-oriented thing.

And the editors that I mentioned before, whom I hope you will mention; it’s only the start of it. I didn’t even mention the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, who is remarkable and is publishing a story a week, and just published a story that went incredibly viral.

We’re in an innovative stage at The New Yorker. For years, because of the nature of technology and for commercial reasons, 90 per cent of the task or more was putting out this print magazine of enormous quality. And I’m sure nobody thought that was easy. But now we do that and we do much else, and we also have to figure out all kinds of technological questions to make sure that 19-year-old readers and 25-year-old readers will find The New Yorker something that’s not only fascinating and enriching, but also convenient, easy to access, and modern in the best sense. And we’re experimenting with different ways of telling stories on film, or presenting stories online that are different from the way we were doing it two years ago or last week.

But here’s the thing, and this is the important thing; my job and our job in this moment in time is to get all of the technological things right, but never to lose sight of, or the feel for, what The New Yorker is or should be. That if we only concentrate on these questions of technology and business and all the rest, and lose sight of the soul of the place, of the purpose of the place, of the integrity of the place, all knowing that we’re going to make mistakes along the way, that if we lose sight of that then it’s not worth it. But if I can help us, along with all of my colleagues, by all means, modernise The New Yorker, but make it The New Yorker that we want it to be, that we’re proud of, that deeply values accuracy, fairness, rigor and clarity, and originality in writing, and soul, then we will have accomplished something great.

That’s a long answer to a question that really wanted to know if I have a glass of wine; the answer is I usually have a beer.

If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

I don’t know about me individually, but I want this place to be ruled by a sense of kindness, without swagger. I want there to be a sense of overall decency about The New Yorker. But again, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have disagreements, arguments, or bad days, or all the rest. But I want that sense of decency between and among us to prevail.

My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

There’s no end to it; there’s no end to it. (Laughs) But that’s my problem, not yours; don’t worry about it.

Thank you.

FIPP have partnered with Samir "Mr. Magazine™" Husni to bring you his interviews with industry leaders and influencers. This interview first appeared on his blog, here

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