How The New Yorker brought the soul of the magazine to the web
This article appeared originally in Poynter.org.
Nick Thompson was on his way to the subway when he got an email from his boss, New Yorker editor David Remnick.
The subject line? “Morning piece.” It was 8:17 a.m. on Sept. 8, and Remnick had just watched libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson ask “what is Aleppo?” live on national television.
“I wrote back and said, ‘great!'” said Thompson, the former digital editor at The New Yorker, now editor of Wired. Before long, Remnick’s piece — which skewered Johnson’s cluelessness of international affairs — was published on The New Yorker’s website. What began as a gaffe on “Morning Joe” morphed into a 1,000-word piece of criticism that was online by lunch.
It was a pretty simple formula, one most journalists won’t find revolutionary: pitch, draft, edit, publish. But the quick turnaround represents a radical departure from The New Yorker of a decade ago, whose website was basically a digitised version of the print magazine.
In those days, the print schedule reigned supreme, which meant that the magazine’s famously rigorous system of copy editing and fact-checking held sway over The New Yorker’s metabolism.
In the years since, The New Yorker has undergone a massive digital remaking. It’s established a separate web operation that’s unchained writers and editors from the time-intensive print edition. It’s colonised platforms like podcasts, YouTube, mobile apps, Instagram and Snapchat. And it’s built a digital staff of about 40 people, hiring several full-time journalists tasked with writing primarily for the website.
The north star for this transformation: Breathing the soul of the 92-year-old magazine onto the internet without compromising its essence.
“That’s why I come in every morning,” Remnick said. “That’s why everyone exerts the effort they do. The last thing I want is to have, running under the beautiful type of our banner, something that isn’t The New Yorker.”
So, what is The New Yorker? Founded in 1925, it’s evolved over the years from a chronicle of New York City into a ruminative magazine that took in the world’s cultural, political and otherwise noteworthy developments. It became a destination for America’s great fiction writers and published pioneering pieces of journalism, including John Hersey’s Hiroshima.
But a weekly magazine full of finely edited journalism does not a website make. A week on the internet is an eon, and the rise of fast-twitch digital news was antithetical to The New Yorker’s stately approach to editing.
Sometimes as many as 10 people read New Yorker stories before they’re published in the print magazine: the author, the story editor (works with the author to shape the piece), the copy editor, the query proofreader (a sort of editorial gadfly), the fact-checker, the page OK-er (a combination copy editor, query proofreader and line editor), the proofreader and the foundry reader (the last read before press). Plus, the editor in chief and deputy editors often weigh in.
That kind of editorial rigor produces sparkling prose, but it’s at odds with the pace of The New Yorker’s website, which now publishes about 15 stories per day, Thompson said. So, a different approach was required. In 2012, Remnick appointed Thompson digital editor and tasked him with transforming The New Yorker’s website from a repository of magazine stories to an ambitious entity of its own.
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