I was glad my friend Mildred Marmur asked me to be her guest today for a meeting of the Publishers Lunch Club, held each month at the Yale Club near Grand Central Terminal, on Vanderbilt Ave, one of Manhattan’s shortest avenues. Today’s featured speaker was Nicholas Thompson, the editor of NewYorker.com. He took that job in 2012, after several years as an editor on the print side of The New Yorker. He spoke for about fifteen minutes on the evolution of Web culture at the magazine, followed by a Q&A of about the same duration. Covering what he wittily dubbed the ‘five stages’ in the evolution of the Web at the magazine, Thompson outlined a chronology that began before the magazine even had a website, when many there would rather have not bothered having one, to the point where they slowly began developing a site that didn’t have significant editorial or financial resources assigned to it, and which was publishing a different group of writers than the print side was—contributors who were freelance, not on staff, whose work was not at the same level as the print publication. However, like so much on the Internet, it has grown rapidly, to traffic of 10 million visitors a month, numbers even greater than the number of subscribers to the print magazine, with a budget appropriate to a full-fledged mission, generating lots of revenue for Conde Nast. Now they’re able to foster a unique space on the Web, retaining many of the virtues of the magazine—which still has stories that take many weeks, months, and years to write and edit—and more rapid-response coverage of events in the moment, in Internet posts that may take mere hours, days, and weeks to write and edit.
During the Q&A, I asked whether on NewYorker.com they choose to link out to the sites of other publications, something I do freely on my blogs, including in this post. Though not totally predominant on the Web, it is more common than not, in an environment where it often seems that generosity, or a willingness to share, is pretty much the default mode. Thompson explained that linking like this is being discussed at the magazine, but there is reticence due to the fact that The New Yorker‘s standards for fact-checking, both on the print and the Web, are more robust than at other outlets. This accounts for a constituency that believes, since they can’t vouch for the accuracy of the linked material, they should refrain from linking readers to it; moreover, readers who click on links like that do leave the host’s site, and may not return to it, at least for a while. Still, Thompson seemed convinced that NewYorker.com should link freely, saying that readers are not apt to blame The New Yorker for inferior vetting or copyediting of a story published elsewhere. He said at some point they will probably begin doing it, with an appetite for more dynamic SEO being a key reason. He added that now, after several years of The New Yorker publishing on the Web, readers on the site don’t know, and in a focus group that he described amusingly, couldn’t reliably say what started out as a print story, and migrated to NewYorker.com, and what was purely a Web original.
I piped up a second time, asking about what he reads on the Web when he’s not working on the magazine’s site. He immediately lamented the loss of Grantland, a favorite sports site that was shuttered over the weekend, just as the baseball season was ending with the Mets loss in the World Series, a double death for more than a few New York fans in the dining room. Thompson added he reads a lot on Politico, the Washington Post, New York Times, especially in politics and world affairs—subjects that describe a lot of the pieces he personally line-edits, also the subject area I concentrate in most—and about the war in Syria. He seeks out the Twitter hashtag #longreads, the books sub-Reddit, and Longform.
Midway through his talk, Thompson said he had to put in a plug for a new initiative at NewYorker.com—which in front of this book business group qualified as having buried the lede: The website will soon begin publishing book excerpts, this even though, he explained, the print magazine has long mostly eschewed running many of them. He even named the two editors there to whom publishers should submit their candidates for excerpting, so it’s a go, beginning soon. Upon leaving the Yale Club, I quickly put that info in to a tweet (found near the top of this post), as I know many book publicists will be excited about this development. Thompson also spoke briefly about The Atavist, an online-only magazine that publishes longform, interactive journalism, which he helped found. His initial reference to it was brief, so I prompted him to say more, since it’s a site I have enjoyed and recommended since their beginnings around five years ago. He explained that while a book imprint they had for a time was shuttered in 2014, when Barry Diller’s IAC, the main investor in it, pulled out of the venture, the magazine itself is going strong, continuing to publish about one story per month, while a CMS they created, similar to the one they use to publish their own articles, is widely licensed to other Web publishers.
As a writer and publisher of two Wordpress blogs of my own, I find the Web to be a fascinating domain to inhabit professionally. I’m glad I can be a book editor, and a Web editor, somewhat congruous with The New Yorker‘s evolution in to magazine and website. The New Yorker’s embrace of the Web, reluctant at first, but soon all-in, made for an excellent, thought-provoking discussion. Glad I could join many publishing colleagues there. I’ll continue keeping my eye on NewYorker.com, for enjoyment of good up-to-the-moment writing.
*I began The Great Gray Bridge: Spanning urban life, books, music, culture, current events in October 2011 and Honourary Canadian: Seeing Canada from Away in September 2013.