The New Yorker’s David Remnick: Readers don’t want a ‘cheaper, dumber version’

When David Remnick became editor-in-chief of The New Yorker in 1998, it was just a weekly print magazine. Initially slow to fully embrace the web, it has since gone all-in on digital, growing its site, social media and video presence. A year ago, it launched a radio show, “The New Yorker Radio Hour.” On the eve of The New Yorker Festival, which kicks off its 17th year Oct. 7, Remnick talked about the publication’s need to experiment without cutting corners, how BuzzFeed is like The New Yorker and what’s hard about radio. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited.

What’s special about this year’s festival?
I’m a little bit terrified. I’m supposed to interview Bruce Springsteen. And it sold out in six seconds. I had no idea I’d be so successful.

Are you going to jam with him [as he did with Patti Smith at last year’s festival]?
No, God forbid. That could go wrong in so many ways.

What else is notable this year?
It’s particularly strong in comedy and politics this time. In order to get through Nov. 8, there needed to be a little laughter.

On to more pleasant topics. “Legacy” used to have negative connotation. How does being at a legacy publication look to you these days?
We’re around 90 years old. We have longstanding values and that’s never going to change. At the same time, I live in the contemporary world and am completely alive to the possibility and complications of change. When I began as the editor of the magazine, there was a weekly print publication that came out Monday. What’s changed is the ability to deliver The New Yorker on the internet. The possibility of working with public radio and television. Our business has changed. But as I’ve said, my job in this extended historical moment is to get us across a tech revolution with our souls intact. And be who we want to be and not just turn us into a cheapened version of ourselves. Our readers don’t want a lesser, cheaper, dumber version.

What surprised you about working in radio?
Everything. How to form a story, what length to work at, how does street reporting work differently from working in the office. What things serve as models and what things do we want to do different. So you’re experimenting and thinking long term, but at the same time you have the day-to-day thing bearing down on you. And if you’re not alive to it and not experimenting, you’re going to be dead. It’s innately different. We work very hard at it. But I think it’ll be better in the second year. We’re rookies at radio.

What’s surprised you about how the staff has adapted to all this change?
Young spirits are more flexible, but it’s independent of age. There are people who are writing a lot for the internet who are in their 20s, but there’s a piece on the Mets by Roger Angell. He’s going to be 96 on Monday. He’s alive to the new, and he found a new outlet. It’s not an age question. It’s who has an elasticity in their view of media.

How about translating The New Yorker’s long features to the web?
In the beginning of the internet revolution, I’d go to meetings and people would say, “No one will read anything long on the internet.” That turned out to be complete bullshit. That’s our bread and butter. It’s born out by the traffic on our website. I think people are hungry for depth and excellent writing.

Any areas The New Yorker’s not that you want to be, like Snapchat Discover?
It might be a little young for our demographic. I’m not sure it works for us. Nobody’s looking down their nose at anything. Today I needed someone for a meeting but they couldn’t come because they were doing Facebook Live. We do a couple a week.

What do you think when you see a BuzzFeed go into foreign news?
I’m interested. So I get it; there’s tons of listicles, there’s light things. But they’re hiring very interesting people, from poets to journalists. They have an investigative unit that’s interesting. I think they’re doing a lot of things all at once. For me, their identity, it’s hard to pin down. But I’m interested to see what they’ll make of it. It’s like being The New Yorker in 1925.

Feelings on ending publication?
I don’t think it’s good news when billionaires go lawsuit-hunting. It was alarming to see just two weeks ago that the same lawyer involved in the Gawker case was hinting at coming after Gabe Sherman and New York magazine for their reporting on Roger Ailes.

The other day there was another report on how trust in the media is at a new low. Maybe that doesn’t apply to individual outlets like The New Yorker, but does it matter anyway?
The media is a many-headed beast. I can’t speak for people’s trust in Fox News or the Wall Street Journal or L.A. Times. All I can do is speak for us. All we can do is gain the readers’ trust for what we do. I try to answer every email I get with a sense of courtesy and if I disagree, I’ll tell them.

Image: Brigitte Lacombe

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