How The New Yorker brought the soul of the magazine to the web
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 digitized 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 colonized platforms like podcasts, YouTube, mobile applications, 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.
"So we started hiring more people," Thompson said. "We started working harder to get the magazine staff writers to blog, we redesigned the site."
One of the journalists who came aboard during this period was Jelani Cobb, who joined The New Yorker after meeting David Remnick at an event nearly five years ago. Shortly after Trayvon Martin was killed, Cobb wrote a piece for NewYorker.com titled "Trayvon Martin and the Parameters of Hope," his first article for the website. Cobb eventually joined a newer contingent of writers who write primarily for NewYorker.com with occasional detours into the print magazine.
For Cobb, that has occasionally meant searching for something eloquent to say in the midst of traumatic news. On the night Dylann Roof murdered nine people in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Cobb was awake and working on something completely different. His Twitter feed lit up with the news, and he got to work pulling together context.
"That was at maybe 3 o'clock in the morning," Cobb said. "So around 5 a.m., when I started getting emails from people at the publication, I said, 'There's already a post in your inbox about this.'"
A story in the print magazine, by contrast, takes more time. When he closed a major magazine feature about the shuttering of Jamaica High School in Queens, Cobb went through an all-day fact-checking and copy editing marathon. Digital editing, by contrast, is "almost always over the phone," along with a few quick email exchanges back and forth, Cobb said.
Nonetheless, The New Yorker's approach to digital news is different from the boilerplate who-what-where of traditional journalism, Cobb said. Since he's a historian, he tries to view breaking news like Charleston through the lens of history, imparting centuries of context in the process.
"The digital side is doing a really high-wire act," Cobb said. "Because the New Yorker print side is built on a very deliberative, intellectual and insightful perfection in writing. That's what people go to The New Yorker for — literary journalism. And unlike lots of other outlets, which just try to be on top of the events of the day, The New Yorker's digital side has to replicate a deliberative voice in a very fast-paced digital environment."
The New Yorker's digital renaissance has given those who normally work behind the scenes a chance to shine alongside the magazine's writers. For more than 20 years, Mary Norris has been a page OK-er at The New Yorker, one of about five prose polishers charged with defending the magazine from errors and minding its persnickety house style. But two years ago, Norris took on a different title: Comma Queen.
Norris' reign officially began in February 2015, when the magazine published an excerpt from her book, "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen." The article, chock full of delightful, over-the-hedge gossip about Pauline Kael's writing idiosyncrasies, helped propel the book to best-seller status.
Norris' colleagues liked it so much that they asked her to star in a series of videos bearing her new title of nobility. Thus, "The Comma Queen" was born.
The videos, which cover everything from diaeresis (those little dots that appear over vowels) to restrictive clauses (just watch the video) feature Norris imparting copy editing advice in decidedly whimsical fashion — at the beach, wearing a pair of shades and draped in Christmas lights, just to cite a few.
Norris says the magazine's writers have become slightly leery of her since she began appearing in the videos, but that's a small price to pay for the bump in book sales accompanied by the increased visibility.
"And I do like getting out of the office," Norris said. "I got recognized once on the ferry from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Portland, Maine. Someone recognized me, of all things, by my voice."
As is the case elsewhere in the industry, The New Yorker's digital side is becoming increasingly important to its business. In July 2014, the magazine introduced its new website by taking down its paywall and allowing readers to access its archives for free. When the paywall came back up, traffic to The New Yorker increased 30 percent year-over-year, and new subscription sign-ups were 85 percent higher than the previous January.
That trend has continued. When Thompson took over in 2012, The New Yorker averaged about 4 million unique visitors per month. In November, the site drew 30.3 million unique visitors, a 155 percent increase over November 2015. The New Yorker also caught the wave of post-election subscriptions that a few other publications enjoyed: In November, the magazine sold a record 75,000 subscriptions, up 469 percent compared to the same month last year.
The investment in the website is central to the future of the magazine, which will likely be increasingly supported by readers, Thompson said. The strategy, as with other news organizations, is to draw in subscribers gradually by getting them to sample New Yorker journalism with a metered paywall.
"How do you get people who read two stories to read four?" Thompson asked, rhetorically. "And then to six? How do you get people to move down that funnel? What kind of content are they looking at? What kind of stories are they reading? What kinds of stories are most likely to get them to subscribe?"
Some of those efforts, of course, have nothing to do with The New Yorker's website. Platforms like Snapchat and Instagram don't drive subscriptions directly, but they do serve as ambassadors for the magazine's work on other platforms. For the most part, Thompson said, The New Yorker opts to publish on platforms that draw in subscribers. That's why they don't yet have a chatbot and haven't hired a huge team dedicated to Snapchat Discover.
Another effort that's underway is "The New Yorker Radio Hour," a show on WNYC that's also served up in podcast form weekly. Remnick hosts (he jokes it's his exit strategy — "because really, what I want to do is have an all-night call-in show") and brings in journalists, writers, humorists and newsmakers for on-air interviews. It really does feel like an auditory edition of the magazine.
For all its efforts on various platforms, though, The New Yorker hasn't really cultivated "a culture of the web," Remnick said. The culture of the magazine is more concerned with its journalism than with its technological infrastructure.
"This is not a tech company," Remnick said. "We don't wake up in the morning thinking about tech. We're thinking about the wine in the bottle, not the bottle itself. We want the bottle to be beautiful. And we want it to work, and to be what readers expect in terms of standards. But first and foremost is what goes on those screens."
So, what's next for The New Yorker? Remnick jokes that perhaps the magazine will get into snack food next ("really finely edited popcorn"). He recalls how radically different the magazine was when it first debuted — light on the kind of in-depth reporting, comedy and serious fiction that's now its hallmark.
"That takes time to evolve and to deepen and mature," Remnick said. "You've got to experiment. You can't assume that month one of the web, or month one of a radio program, or anything else, is going to be what you hope it's going to be a year later."
"We're dancing as fast as we can," he added, "with a smile on our lips."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the size of The New Yorker's web staff. It is about 40 people, not 25.