David Remnick has been the editor in chief of The New Yorker since 1998. Prior to The New Yorker, he spent 10 years at The Washington Post as a reporter and then, later, as the paper’s Moscow correspondent. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire,” as well as the George Polk Award for excellence in journalism.
WWD: The New Yorker Festival starts Friday. How does the agenda reflect the magazine today? What are you excited about?
DAVID REMNICK: I’m excited about damn near everything, not least because it’s our 90th anniversary. The idea was to really intensify the quality of it as much as humanly possible. We have Neil Young and Larry David and Stephen Sondheim and Mindy Kaling. Most exciting of all is that it “three-dimensionalizes” — if that’s a word — the magazine. Just about every concern that we get to in the magazine in the course of a year is touched on, whether it’s serious things — we’re going to be talking to Edward Snowden and Ai Weiwei — or pop-culture things, with Randy Newman, or more political things or literary things.
This story first appeared in the October 10, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It’s not just a bunch of dull panel discussions under a rubric of a publication. It’s an extension of the magazine, but it stands on its own terms.
WWD: Many in the media are looking for extensions. You’ve been quoted as saying you’re uncomfortable with the idea of the magazine as a brand. Do you stand by that?
D.R.: The only reason the word “brand” gets a little tiresome is that something that is complex and wonderful and deep begins to sound like a can of tomato soup. I recoil at that, but I’m used to it. I know what it means: It means that The New Yorker is not merely the magazine that comes out in print once a week. It’s the Web site, it’s the festival, it’s our mobile application — all these things — and what they stand for and what they mean.
If you want to use the word “brand,” I can live with that — not that I have a choice.
WWD: What are your views of native advertising? Do you run them on your site?
D.R.: We run all kinds of ads, as long as they are clearly marked as advertising when there’s ever a question. I think advertising is advertising. If it’s 100 percent clear what it is, then, with certain exceptions, I can live with that.
What I object to is tricking the reader and blurring the lines so that unsuspecting readers, thinking that they are getting something that is assigned and edited by the editorial side, are getting something quite different. They are getting an advertisement.
WWD: Time Inc. has editors that will work on editorial and advertising content. Is that a no-no in your book?
D.R.: Call Time Inc. That’s not what I got into journalism to do. I got in journalism for any number of reasons, not least because it’s so much fun. Journalism should be in the business of putting pressure on power, finding out the truth, of shining a light on injustice, of, when appropriate, being amusing and entertaining — it’s a complicated and varied beast, journalism.
WWD: The role of an editor is much broader today. Is there anything you feel uncomfortable doing, or is there anything you’re doing that you hadn’t expected to enjoy?
D.R.: I enjoy all of it to one degree or another. There are days when you might enjoy it a little less, due to one crisis or another. It is absolutely vital, to me, in a period of technological evolution and sometimes financial stress that I and my colleagues not only put out a fantastic magazine and Web site and all the rest, but also that we are smart enough about what we are doing in all ways and lucky enough so that X years from now, when I’m a physical wreck and it’s time to hand this ship off to another person and staff, that it’s in healthy shape. I don’t just mean financial shape. I also mean [that], ethically and morally, it’s what we want it to be.
It’s a complicated job, but the last impression I’d want anybody to have is that it’s onerous. It’s a joy — a complicated joy, but a joy. The reason it is, is because the people who own the joint and the people who run Condé Nast want The New Yorker to be the best possible version of itself that it can be. I don’t say that in a namby-pamby way.
WWD: Has the culture changed at Condé Nast since the recent executive shifts and last year’s appointment of Anna Wintour as artistic director?
D.R.: Regarding the shifts over the summer, it’s a little soon to tell. My relationship with Anna is very good and even close. She has been nothing but supportive of what we do. If I need advice, I know that I have an extremely smart magazine person [whom] I can rely on, and she has been nothing but supportive of The New Yorker doing what it should be doing.
WWD: What are your thoughts on mobile?
D.R.: Mobile is great for us. I think, even though the size of the screen doesn’t give everything The New Yorker has to offer, people are spending a lot of time reading — and reading seriously — on the phone.
Our circulation has gone up, not down, for print. But I want you to read what we are publishing — how you want to read it is up to you. We’re in a revolutionary, transitional moment. The change is going to come at us in different ways. Where The New Yorker is concerned, it is equally important, if not more so, to be alive to the fact that you have to be yourself. It is not worth undermining The New Yorker in order to catch up to some perceived outside need. The only reason to be in business is to be great. That’s it.
WWD: How do you view the industry-wide push toward video?
D.R.: We are much further along when it comes to the digital presentation of the magazine itself than we are with video. Part of that is — let’s face it — there are how many television stations and cable stations…to say nothing of Netflix and iTunes, et cetera, et cetera, who are doing original programming, and they are spending all day long doing that. That’s what they do for a living. Doing things with your left hand or left pinky and branding it “The New Yorker,” I’m hesitant to do. If we can do it in a smart way and make it worthy of the writing in The New Yorker, then I’m all for that. We’re doing a pilot with Amazon, and I hope it works out. They’ve got some extremely talented people, [such as] Jonathan Demme, working on it, and I hope for the best. But I just don’t want to do video for the sake of doing video and have it be crap under the rubric of The New Yorker. It’s just not worth it. It makes no sense for The New Yorker, and nobody wants it, least of all me.
WWD: Do you get to have input on what’s produced?
WWD: What about videos produced by Condé Nast Entertainment? Those are controlled by CNE, not Condé’s magazine editors.
D.R.: We haven’t done that.
WWD: You’re not going to do it?
D.R.: So far, the plan is possibly to look at a documentary series, but it’s in a very early stage of discussion. I think CNE’s energy has been where those short videos are concerned, mainly with other magazines.
WWD: Could going biweekly be in the cards for the magazine?
D.R.: I think the combination of a weekly print magazine and a daily Web site is perfect for us now. I think if you go to a biweekly, you lose your seat at the table of what’s going on in the world a little bit. Long, long ago, when I first started, this subject came up. The magazine was losing a lot of money, and we’d save money not printing every week. I did not think that was a good idea.
We are profitable [today], and we have been for over a decade. I think since 2001, 2002.
WWD: Do you use social media?
D.R.: I use it every day. I don’t have a Twitter account, [but] not because I’m a dinosaur about it. I have enough of a platform here. People in my position who do it tend to use it in a promotional way or in a hamstrung way. I look at Twitter all the time as a news tool or for cultural conversation. I’ve used it in my reporting. It’s very useful.
WWD: How about Instagram and Facebook?
D.R.: Instagram — yeah, it’s fun, but Facebook, no, [just] here and there. I use Instagram as a kick, like when somebody tells me to check out so-and-so’s Instagram account to check out their French toast or a trip to Tanzania. But I don’t have an account.
WWD: Is there anyone, living or dead, you haven’t interviewed that you would like to if you could? Why?
D.R.: From a personal point of view, I’d like to interview my great-grandparents because I barely knew them, and I know next to nothing about my family beyond 100 years. That’s the selfish, involuted point of view. Alive? I’ve failed miserably to interview Bob Dylan. I met him once, but I never interviewed him. I wouldn’t mind a few hours with Abe Lincoln. That wouldn’t be bad.
WWD: Do you ever get nervous when you interview people?
D.R.: I don’t. I really don’t. It’s very strange. Being nervous, first of all, puts you at a distinct disadvantage, and if you’ve really prepared and if you’ve really thought through how to start the conversation, things start to fall into place. There are other things I get nervous about, but not that.
WWD: Such as?
D.R.: Nothing journalistic — usually medical.
WWD: Is long-form journalism still alive and well?
D.R.: I think it’s absolutely alive and well. I was interested in the Web from the get-go. I used to get invited to digital events, knowing I was being invited as a Brontosaurus editor from an old media outlet, The New Yorker. I would go to these sessions with really smart people, usually in there 20s, and, at the time, I was in my 40s. There were evangelical tenets to what was true and what was not true, and one of the things that was thought to be 100 percent true was that no one would read anything long on the Internet. That turned out to be absolute nonsense. Some of the most widely read things for The New Yorker on the Web are [around] 10,000 or 25,000 words long. When I think about our future, it’s an encouraging thing to know that this is what we’ve been trying to be great at for a very long time.
WWD: What are you reading or watching for fun?
D.R.: “Daniel Deronda,” which is known as George Eliot’s other great book that is not “Middlemarch,” and I’m reading Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin.
I watch all sorts of things. Outside of the usual “Homeland”-“Breaking Bad” nexus that I watch, I just watched the crappiest series movie the last few nights. It was so up my street that I couldn’t turn the thing off. It was called “The Assets,” which sounds vaguely like a soft-core porn movie, but, in fact, it was a seven-part TV series on the Aldrich Ames spy case from the Eighties. Those were my salad days as a reporter on Russia. It was so terrible. The acting was so bad, it was like a high school production of “The Corn Is Green,” and, of course, I didn’t turn it off. I just watched the new season of “Girls.”
WWD: You watch “Girls”?
D.R.: Yeah, I like that a lot. I think what resonates about her [Lena Dunham] is the sort of absolute nakedness, literal and figurative. And the business of a person writing about a more selfish and immature and more unselfaware version of herself is very interesting. There’s an appeal about what she’s doing in “Girls” the same way when you were reading Salinger. This business of becoming yourself, growing up — every generation has some version of growing-up stories, and “Girls,” for a lot of people, nails that. It ain’t my generation. It’s my kids’ generation. I have two sons who are 20 and 24. I’m not watching it for voyeuristic reasons — I mean, voyeuristic where my sons are concerned, not Lena’s backside.
WWD: Do you consider yourself a celebrity editor like an Anna Wintour or a Graydon Carter?
D.R.: No, I don’t. It’s a very pleasant thing to get stopped in the subway or the gym or the grocery store and have someone say something nice about the magazine. That is wonderful. It happens quite a lot. It’s nice.
WWD: It must be weird for someone who got into the game to write about others.
D.R.: I think “weird” only begins to describe it. For Anna, the way she projects herself to the world is enormously effective for Vogue. It just is, but I don’t doubt that it is also some form of work. I find the small degree to which I’m known here and there is almost uniformly an encounter with someone who wants to say something pleasant about the magazine, and that’s more than enough for me. I’m happy about it.
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