About a great magazine
Amrita Tripathi | 03 Dec, 2012
About a great magazine
The office feels like a bubble. There is an incredible hush here, the quiet starkly at odds with the bustle of Times Square, where The New Yorker office occupies two floors of the Condé Nast Building.
On the floor I visit, the only area that is not dead quiet is the magazine’s legendary fact-checkers department, where people are talking on the phone. The New Yorker is “a living thing”, the magazine’s editorial director Henry Finder tells me. “There’s a certain resistance to indirection,” he says in response to a question on the magazine’s style and possible friction with writers, “but we know that to be a real writer is to be concerned about not sounding like everybody else, and The New Yorker prides itself above all else on being a magazine of writing, not just information. We’re not just decanting knowledge, we’re purveying stories.” Finder says that indirection, according to the magazine founder and first editor Harold Ross, is the tendency to presuppose a fact that has not been established.
The New Yorker has been around since 1925, and has about 1.1 million subscribers now, Finder tells me. For much of its existence, it has been considered a well- respected magazine, a symbol of discernment, and its heft has only grown in recent times. Finder has been with The New Yorker since 1994, and took over as editorial director in 1997. That is a year before David Remnick took over from Tina Brown as editor of the magazine, and it is Finder that Remnick directs me to, when I ask who edits him.
Remnick and I first met earlier this year, on a small plane to Jaipur, and had a conversation ranging from the problems of Kingfisher Airlines to luck in careers to writing and fiction to the fall of communism in Russia and much else besides.
This time it is a more structured chat, but no less eclectic in range. I start by asking him what he makes of the grim prophecies about journalism. “We are all prone to, victim to, and sometimes joyously involved in our devices, both for good reasons and stupid reasons and in between, and find ourselves looking at and reading things that are maybe not the most edifying things in the world,” he says. “But the whole magazine is devoted to the proposition that there is a large number of people, thank God, who want depth and want deep reporting, or when it comes to fiction, deep emotional involvement, because human beings require it. We require more than soundbites and banalities and clichés and brevity and tweets and all the rest.”
“We need it,” he exclaims. “Because it helps us be human. And understand ourselves more thoroughly and operate at a higher plane. I mean, I’m an idealist about this,” he says, while acknowledging that business matters and day-to-day concerns running a magazine are far from idealistic.
By Remnick’s own admission, his job is mainly as an editor. “Ninety-nine per cent of my time is here, editing the magazine, that’s the most important thing I can do, and I hope to do it well,” he says. “But I still have that jones for writing. So I exercise it when I—instead of going to the beach, which bores the hell out of me—do that. Which sounds [like], you know that new word, a humble brag? It sounds like a humble brag, but I mean it, I really enjoy it.”
Remnick, who is 53 years old and married with three children (two in college, one still at home), also seems to enjoy his regular life, sounding mildly tired by ‘the subway question’. Unlike Tina Brown, his high-flying predecessor, Remnick likes taking the subway, which has got some press. “I couldn’t tell you [why people are surprised],” he says, “but you know some people take cars, I just think it’s ridiculous. The subway is fast, and it’s easy. I’m the editor of a magazine, I’m not…the head of General Electric. I’m more comfortable that way.”
He has done his time roughing it out too, fresh out of college in the early 1980s. He did the India trail back in 1982. “When I graduated from school, I spent a semester teaching English in Japan, then I strapped on a backpack and very cheaply spent many weeks in India and I loved it.” He went to Calcutta, Varanasi and Delhi, as well as some smaller places in between. His next trip to India was this year, 2012, and he laughs at how it was the other end of the spectrum from the $2-a-day hotels back in the day.
Remnick has been a celebrated American journalist for two decades. He became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1992, taking over as editor in 1998. Before joining the magazine, he was with The Washington Post, and was posted in Moscow at a very interesting time. “I became a Russophile, studied Russian, lived in Russia for four years,” he says. And it certainly paid off. His book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, won The Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1994. His biography of the US President, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, was published in 2010. And yet he doesn’t see himself as prolific at all.
The only time Remnick seems faintly bored by a question is not when we talk about censorship, his Russia experience, Salman Rushdie or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whom Remnick calls a “malevolent influence” and “disgusting about Rushdie” after a joint editors’ meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly), but when he is asked, possibly for the millionth time, how he packs it all in. “I’ve been editor of the magazine for 14 years, I wrote one book. I’m not sure I’d write that kind of book again. Because it’s too, y’know, well for one thing, long,” he says.
“So I write for the magazine, maybe I’ll write another book one day, I don’t know what it’ll be, but it won’t be 600 pages.” That gets a laugh from me, but he does take the trouble to explain further. “Look, I don’t try to do everything. I do this, I do home, I write a little bit. I don’t… I don’t breed dogs, I don’t go to the country, I don’t have a side interest in photography, I keep it simple.”
One of The New Yorker’s fact-checkers, Ruth Margalit, tells me an inside joke: “We keep talking about how he manages to do everything and someone told me we think he sneezes 10,000 words.”
So how does Remnick choose his pieces? A recent 17,000-word profile on Bruce Springsteen, he says, was for fun. “I mean, this magazine can’t be all about the war in Afghanistan, the housing crisis… We have a piece in the magazine this week about a hit man in Detroit… I mean, life is filled with tragedy and complication, but there’s got to be dessert too… And I served myself a little dessert.”
Dessert apart, Remnick usually does five or six short pieces and two long pieces a year, he says, based on his areas of expertise, including politics and Russia. “Normally I do write, insofar as I write, it’s a pretty rare thing… probably two largish pieces a year. They tend to be about politics, they tend to be about three places— somewhere in the United States, somewhere in the Middle East, or Russia. Because I’m familiar with them,” Remnick says, “For me to go to India, which I don’t know, by the time I know a little something, it’s time to go home. So just when it’s time to dig in and report and find out, it’s time to go home. Whereas Kate Boo or Steve Coll or these younger Indian writers, they know their way around. I want to learn from them.”
The younger Indian writers who have caught his eye? Samanth Subramanian, Basharat Peer (who has done a piece on the Hajj and one on Malala Yousafzai) and Aman Sethi. “So that trip [to the Jaipur festival] was helpful in finding some writers who might be appropriate for The New Yorker, but who are also immersed in India and know their subject pretty thoroughly. Their difficulty is that they have to learn how to write for us.”
That doesn’t sound like it’s going to be easy. “It’s tricky in the beginning. I came here from a newspaper, the length is a lot shorter,” Remnick says. “And then the writers think, ‘Thank God, I can write long’. But as soon as you’re writing past a certain point, you must have structure. It’s no longer a mud hut, it’s now a skyscraper and if you’ve built it without any structure, it’s going to fall down,” he says. “And the equivalent of falling down in a piece of writing is that people stop reading because they can’t tell why it’s boring or it’s wandery.”
And yet, Remnick does not think there is any one style at the magazine. “I don’t think there’s one way to do it, by any stretch. I don’t think there’s a New Yorker short story or a New Yorker way of doing non-fiction, otherwise you would say that Nabokov is the same as Naipaul who is the same as Alice Munro, which is just not true,” says Remnick. “But I think the ideals of clarity, fairness, factual accuracy, narrative structure, all these things are not easy to even do, much less master.”
What is Remnick like to work with? I ask Finder, who has been at The New Yorker since 1994, and has been editing Remnick for years. “At The New Yorker there’s a term we have for certain writers—self-cleaning ovens. And David Remnick is a self-cleaning oven. And that means that he is incredibly alert to any of the flaws in his drafts, and turns to them, and when he does his revisions, when he goes over, when he fine-tunes and tweaks, he is more likely than anybody to finger any fissures or faults that might remain. So he’s actually a breeze to work with,” Finder says, adding that Remnick is very self-critical and “the opposite of vain”.
Remnick insists on—and, to a “surprising degree”, gets away with—being treated like any other writer, says Margalit, who has been a ‘checker’ at The New Yorker for a little over a year.
“I think he’s really sort of one of the best, if not the best, writers I’ve worked with here. I’m not even talking about editing or managing people, just in terms of writing and reporting, like really so thorough. To think that’s what he does in his spare time,” she says, referring to the fact that Remnick’s role is chiefly as editor. “It seems to come very naturally. In terms of the reporting, you never get the sense he’s leaving stuff to the fact-checkers to tie up loose ends, he does everything. For us, it’s to read over everything, make sure it’s accurate, really.”
As an editor who also writes quite a lot for the magazine, Remnick says he is careful not to be in competition with other writers. “I think it cuts both ways sometimes. I don’t know. I think some times people might find there’s a little bit of understanding that’s helpful, but also I try to avoid the notion that I’m competing somehow with the writer.”
The hint of competition is an interesting point, and one any writer could identify with. “Some people find him a little intimidating because he’s not as anguished and agonised as many writers are. He’s rumoured to smile at the keyboard as he composes,” Henry Finder laughs. Remnick, you could say, is a writer’s editor, and that does help, because he knows “all the tricks of the trade”, Finder says. “Because he has a first-hand understanding of the whole process of writing and reporting and interviewing people, he’s very alert to omissions.”
Finder walks me through a brief history of The New Yorker under various editors when I ask him about the change in leadership from Tina Brown to David Remnick, back in 1998. He says the transition itself was “seamless”, in part because of the sense of responsibility Remnick has always had. “It’s important to recognise this magazine has always been a moulting and morphing organism. Because it’s alive, it still has the vibrancy and influence that it does,” Finder says, crediting Remnick with the magazine’s latest phase of transformation. It’s Remnick’s “sensibility and sense of a moral compass”, as well as “seriousness and ambitiousness of intent, that distinguished him and the magazine at a critical time,” says Finder, talking about 9/11. That was when the magazine went past one million subscribers. Finder talks about another “wonderful city magazine” (which he doesn’t name), saying that it “relinquished its claim to relevance for a period”, by choosing to come out with a special issue on interiors, instead of addressing 9/11.
“And at the same time The New Yorker came out with a magazine with that soon-to-be iconic black on black cover that Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly created. It had no cartoons for the first time in many decades. That was a decision David Remnick made. I wasn’t sure he was right at first, but he was right. It contained an enormous write-through, which was produced by the fastest and the most fluent writer on staff, namely David Remnick.” Finder then adds after a brief pause, “…but with submissions and contributions by every writer around.”
Contrast this with what would appear to be the complete antithesis to The New Yorker— judging by its own article this October, ‘Citizens Jain’ by Ken Auletta— The Times of India. The piece attempts to explain the Times of India phenomenon, its dominant position in the Indian newspaper market and its brand of journalism, or ‘unorthodox philosophy’, as Auletta puts it.
Remnick brings up this piece in conversation as we start talking about the importance of being factual and not being misquoted. “I have to say when you are on the other side of the microphone or notebook, it’s hit-and-miss… In India, it was hit-and-miss, when I was in Jaipur [for the LitFest]. I gave some interviews and sometimes what appeared the next morning was accurate, and then the Times of India covered a speech I gave about Obama and I said ‘x’ and they wrote ‘y’. It wasn’t just a little bit off, it wasn’t just a little inaccurate, it was the polar opposite of what I said. And I didn’t understand this because I had a foolish notion of what that was… Until, we just published a piece about the Jain brothers and how that paper works… It was shocking.”
Referring to one of the strongest statements made by the ToI managing editor, Vineet Jain, to Ken Auletta, Remnick says, “They said ‘We’re not in the news business, we’re in the advertising business’. And they make sure that the editors know it, and things are for sale in a certain way… It was a revelation to me, because I’m naive and ignorant. And now maybe a little less so.”
I ask how they thought of doing this piece on the Times of India phenomenon, thinking it might have something to do with that experience of being misquoted so badly.
“That one actually happened from me,” Remnick tells me. “Ken Auletta and I are always talking about how to expand our notion or understanding of the media… It was very obvious… there are very few places where the newspaper business is expanding, and nowhere more so than in India,” he says.
You can be sure The New Yorker takes its quotes seriously. Enter the legendary fact-checking department. It all started with a piece found to be “riddled with errors,” according to the head of the fact checking department, Peter Canby, who says he cannot divulge more of the story. Everything, from long pieces to cartoons to poetry… everything is checked. When it comes to a cartoon, there are details, like which side of a blazer the buttons are on, or in a poem, historical references. Wherever there is a fact, it can be checked.
The New Yorker has 16 fact checkers, including Canby, who started out working as a ‘checker’ part time. He split the job with someone, as they both also focused on their own writing. Canby’s book on Maya Indians, The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya was published in 1992. He started working at The New Yorker again in 1994 and says he does think being a writer helps him in this job. “I would say most people here, to some degree, aspire to be writers. Many of them are successful. Many of them have gone on to be editors at The New Yorker or elsewhere. So it’s a very talented group, with, for me, too much turnover.”
He looks for generalists, he says, highlighting the language expertise. “We have lots of languages here, we always have. To some degree we are kind of captive to our reputation. We have, I think, typically between seven and eight or nine languages spoken fluently to varying degrees, including French and Spanish. We have a German speaker now, also a Mandarin speaker and an Urdu speaker. That isn’t really strictly necessary for us, because we can hire translators for our foreign pieces, but it seems to be part of our sensibility,” he says.
“I also hire for other things. Naturally, people who want to be in this department typically have a literature background or history or something, but we also want people who know economics and science,” he says, emphasising that checkers have to be fast learners. “A lot of this magazine is put together on a very very tight schedule, and our schedules change at an almost frightening rate. We get very long and complicated pieces coming late one week and, say, closing the next Thursday, that are, say, 10,000 words or 12,000 word [pieces] and I’ll have to put two or three checkers on those.”
What they do on those pieces is not just look at the details, but also at the way arguments are constructed. “I’ve come to think of it as reporting in reverse. We kind of take the piece apart, take it down to its components and put it back together again.”
Doing that requires a thick skin. “It’s kind of an inherently annoying process, fact-checking,” Canby says, “It involves a lot of people getting angry at you, so people have to manage that carefully, I’m saying not inside the magazine, though that’s also sometimes true, but outside the magazine, because you’re calling, asking people these things they don’t want to hear about, and they may not be answering truthfully. It’s a complicated interaction, especially in more investigative pieces. And we have to do that very skilfully.”
The checkers have departmental meetings on Fridays, where Canby lists out the pieces he knows are coming up. Checkers volunteer for the pieces they want to work on, and some pieces are assigned because of their area of expertise (or language). Margalit, being from Israel, tends to work on the Middle East pieces. She breaks it down for me further.
“I get a piece and I sit with a red pen and I highlight every fact I need to check. Everyone has their own way they work, I use colour coding for the different sources, so that when I call them up, I know that red or blue is this woman and this… And then, we look at what the writer has sent us, all their notes, their contact lists, news clippings, any research they pulled from different sources. If there’s something we can’t find, we ask them, so where does this statistic come from? They send us very clear annotations. We read the notes, so we know what they’re saying and if they’re presented in a fair light. Then we call them up, and talk to everyone mentioned in the piece.”
“We never quote anything back to anyone so they can say ‘Take this word out’ or ‘Use this one’… We give them the context, so they know they were on record at the time this was said, so there’s no issues with their understanding with the writer,” says Margalit, explaining why they prefer phone to email. “Emails not so much, we try to do everything on the phone, because we don’t read quotes back to them word for word, we don’t want an email chain.”
Checkers sometimes ask the follow-up questions reporters may have missed, and sometimes call up experts in a given area, even if they’re not going to be quoted, just to make sure they’re on the right track. A checker might get two weeks, possibly three to work on a big piece, and at times there are two or three checkers working on those, especially given a tight deadline, as Canby also mentions.
So the checkers mark the changes, however small, and the clean proof is given to the editor working on the piece, who makes stylistic changes, moving things around. “After that it goes to the copy editor, and they do their whole copy, and then we read it again. And then at some point, after everyone says ‘okay’, I don’t have anything else, it goes to make-up where you see it on the page, the layout. After that, we have our final meeting. Everyone comes to the final meeting with that layout, and like, last comments,” Margalit tells me. This is the closing meeting for the big pieces “where the editors and fact-checkers and everyone who worked on the piece sit together and go column/ galley by galley. This usually happens in the end, when all the changes have been put in. It could be… a comma is missing, just small stuff, or it could be larger, someone suddenly saying this paragraph doesn’t really fit in with this section….”
The fact-checking process is “very efficacious”, Canby says, but can’t be 100 per cent. “It’s not as if we don’t make mistakes, we do, it’s almost impossible to not make mistakes on the kind of turnarounds we have. But it both sharpens the prose and sharpens the arguments, and I think in one way when I think about it, the effect it has on The New Yorker’s reporting, half of it is the fixes on the manuscripts and galleys and the other half is the expectation writers have that they’re going to have to go through the fact-checking process, so they themselves feel they have to be better reporters and more meticulous.”
All this is for the print magazine; things go online without the same rigorous filters, and online is where the Jonah Lehrer episode played out this year. His worst fault was not as a New Yorker writer, when he recycled material for his blogs from his own earlier pieces (for other publications). The axe fell after it came to light that he had made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan for his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Finder says they went back to double check everything Lehrer had written for them, and found no irregularities. “It’s obviously incredibly disconcerting when something like this comes up because there’s such a covenant of faith and credit, particularly in this age of the internet, when everyone feels they’re entitled not only to their own opinions but their own facts.”
Remnick told me, in an email, ‘The New Yorker’s writers, editors and fact-checkers have been making every attempt to be as accurate as humanly possible for as long as we’ve been around. We make mistakes, though we try like hell not to. But making up material is not a mere mistake; it’s a betrayal of the reader’s trust. I can’t help but have complicated feelings about Jonah, including personal sympathy, but, no matter what, I have to protect the magazine and its integrity, And so things came to an end.’
(Amrita Tripathi is special correspondent with CNN-IBN, and the author of Broken News)