• U.S.

Press: Changing the Guard At 60

6 minute read
James Kelly

Its charm has always seemed to lie in its constancy: a neat and fixed formula of short stories, criticism, cartoons and articles, many of them serious, most of them current, all of them finely polished. Over the course of 60 years of independent proprietorship, The New Yorker won an enviably loyal audience along with an honored place on the country’s cultural mantel. The magazine proved an accommodating haven for stylish writers as disparate as James Thurber and Isaac Bashevis Singer, E.B. White and J.D. Salinger. To many observers, the elegant weekly seemed not only steeped in tradition but nearly immutable, from its stubborn tenancy of a warren of cramped offices on Manhattan’s 43rd Street to its whimsical insistence on printing its foppish inaugural cover every February: the high-necked Eustace Tilley espying a butterfly through an upraised monocle.

But last week The New Yorker proved that it was not inviolate after all. Its board of directors agreed to sell the magazine to Samuel I. Newhouse Jr., 57, head of a family owned publishing empire that includes 29 newspapers, the Conde Nast magazines (among them: Vogue, Vanity Fair and Gentlemen’s Quarterly) and Random House book publishers. Newhouse offered a generous $142 million–$200 a share for the publication’s more than 700,000 outstanding shares–and agreed to shelter the newly acquired property as a separate company under his corporate umbrella. Still, the announcement unsettled those who work for the magazine. “There is a great fear that a new boss would probably change the place so much that the character of the magazine would not be what it has been,” said a longtime staffer. “When one sees a huge corporate presence enter, it is hard to think The New Yorker is going to be the same.”

No one seemed quite as shaken as William Shawn, 77, the cloistered, elaborately polite man who has presided over the magazine since 1952, when he succeeded the sometimes choleric founding editor, Harold Ross. On Friday afternoon last week, “Mr. Shawn,” as he is invariably called, slowly walked down the staircase from his 19th-floor office to the 18th floor, where staffers had assembled to hear the melancholy news. Standing on a stairwell landing, his voice wobbly with emotion, Shawn read from a single sheet of paper. After announcing the board’s decision, he pointedly added that “the editorial staff was not a party to the negotiations . . . We were not asked for our approval, and we did not give our approval.” After promising to keep the staff informed of further developments, Shawn walked back upstairs.

Newhouse’s desire to acquire the magazine became known last November, when he bought 17% of The New Yorker’s stock for nearly $26 million. Last month Newhouse offered to buy out the company’s 800 or so other shareholders. No sale was possible, however, without the agreement of New Yorker Chairman Peter Fleischmann, 63, who holds 26% of the stock. Fleischmann, whose father, a yeast king, helped found the magazine, had always spurned such bids in the past, but his ill health apparently made him willing to consider the Newhouse proposal. What finally won over Fleischmann and the other directors was Newhouse’s assurance that The New Yorker would operate as a separate company, complete with its present officers and employees. The stockholders will formally vote on the proposal next month. Said a source close to the chairman: “Fleischmann feels that he’s doing the right thing for the stockholders and the employees.”

Some New Yorker staffers are not as sanguine. According to Frank Modell, a New Yorker cartoonist, an attorney who was advising Shawn during the negotiations felt that Newhouse’s promises to preserve the quality of the magazine lacked legal teeth. But when Shawn’s lawyer presented his own proposals to protect the magazine’s employees and operations, Fleischmann’s attorney rejected them as unnecessary. The confidence of staff members in the agreement was further eroded when they learned that the Associated Press carried a report of the board’s decision to sell the magazine before Shawn had been informed.

Many of the fears reflect the natural edginess of a somewhat secluded clan that has had only two chieftains in 60 years. “The New Yorker is an odd kind of institution,” says Calvin Trillin, a staff writer. “Any kind of change is bound to cause humbug.” Others fear that after Newhouse assumes control, he will not honor his hands-off pledge. “Once Newhouse acquires the magazine, it’s his,” says a writer. “He’ll do what he pleases with his possession.” Some contend that even minor tinkering, like stricter accounting methods, could destroy the magazine’s idiosyncratic procedures. “The New Yorker is kind of like the Venus’s-flytrap,” says one staffer. “It violates all kinds ! of horticultural laws. But if you go in and streamline it, you’ll kill the plant.”

What may best protect The New Yorker is its good health. Circulation (500,000) has held fairly steady for the past five years, and the magazine’s subscribers tend to be the sort of devoted, moneyed readers that advertisers court. Ad pages were down in 1984 from the previous year, but revenues rose 3.7%, to $49.3 million, while profits increased to $5.6 million from $5.3 million the previous year. “I doubt Mr. Newhouse has bought the goose that lays whatever kind of eggs it lays to kill the goose,” says Author John Updike, a New Yorker contributor.

Some long-admiring readers feel that the magazine would benefit from a fresh breeze or two riffling through its pages. New Yorker fiction is frequently obscure and small in ambition. The magazine’s profiles and political commentary are too often tests of reader endurance, while its “Talk of the Town” section sometimes manages to be both dull and arch.

Then there is the matter of Shawn’s successor. Shawn attempted to anoint one several years ago, but he dropped the idea. Now the matter will be in Newhouse’s hands. It seems plain that a succession of some kind will have to be devised, even though Shawn has displayed no desire to depart 43rd Street. How Newhouse handles Shawn, still very much a revered figure in the halls of The New Yorker, will go a long way toward determining how the New Yorker family feels about the new proprietor.

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