Why Is America’s Best Magazine So Bad At The Internet?

The New Yorker finally got serious about the web, and then Jonah Lehrer happened. “We’re proceeding with cautious intent,” says Thompson.

The editor of The New Yorker’s website said Tuesday that the embarassing resignation of a high-profile blogger won’t stop the publication from trying to fix a strange paradox: That America’s best magazine can’t seem to get the Internet right.

“We’re proceeding with cautious intent,” said Nicholas Thompson, the recently-installed editor of newyorker.com, who said he’d just left a meeting where they were discussing the upcoming launch of a new web feature. “We’re going to have good stuff, we’re going to have new stuff, and we’re going to have stuff that’s true to The New Yorker’s DNA.”

One of the most prestigious periodicals in the world, The New Yorker has lagged far behind its competitors in recent years in adapting to what is now a not-so-new medium. The causes are many: The magazine has been hobbled by Conde Nast’s notoriously clunky back-end and by scant resources; limited by contractual arrangement with writers; focused on a successful print product; and distracted by the easier revenues of a magazine-like tablet app. One former staffer blamed the editor, David Remnick, for focusing on a book project as the media landscape shifted dramatically. The outcome has been a website that offers clunky .pdfs, slow-to-update blogs, and a homepage that, for a long time, didn’t even bother to stay current to the day’s news.

The disgraced writer, Jonah Lehrer (whose fabricated quotes appeared in his book, not on the website), was supposed to be part of the solution, but has wound up deepening the problem.

New Yorker veterans recall that the magazine actually started out as a fairly nimble web presence for its time, posting Seymour Hersh’s bombshell investigative report exposing torture at Abu Ghraib to the internet before it published in the magazine.

But The New Yorker lost ground in the run-up to the 2008 election, insiders said, when Conde Nast executives — seeing no revenues online and eager to use the site primarily to sell subscriptions — decided to keep virtually all of its content behind a paywall. Other magazines, by contrast, began beefing up their online presence to compete for traffic in the aftermath of the blog-fueled 2008 election.

Shortly after election day, Remnick recognized the need to “raise the metabolism of the site” and hired Politico’s Avi Zenilman as a blogger to speed things up, said one former magazine staffer. But the move paled in comparison to the efforts of competitors like The Atlantic, which was adding dozens of web writers, editors, and bloggers to its ranks. Zenilman’s hire, while a start, wasn’t part of any apparent, overarching strategy to expand the The New Yorker’s web presence, said the staffer.

“It wasn’t a big priority for Remnick, who was busy writing an Obama book,” the staffer said. (Remnick didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The web also wasn’t a big priority for high-profile writers. Virtually all of the magazine’s big names are on contract, obliged to produce a number of stories or a number of words for the magazine — and with no monetary incentive to write for the web.

Remnick turned his focus to the digital side in 2009, just as tablet utopians were predicting the iPad would save the journalism industry — and The New Yorker, along with other Conde Nast publications, directed its digital strategy toward creating tablet editions. The approach has seen a measure of success, generating 50,000 new subscriptions on Kindles and iPads alone, but it also further delayed the formation of a serious web strategy.

Meanwhile, members of the website’s small team — headed by Blake Eskin — were lobbying management to devote serious resources to attracting web-native talent. Internal discussions focused on Andrew Sullivan, then at the Atlantic; Politico’s Ben Smith (now editor of BuzzFeed), and Jason Kottke, a pioneering blogger who had been interviewed years earlier as the potential editor of newyorker.com. The plans never came through, however, as the magazine’s top brass continued to signal little commitment to its website, said two former staffers.

Kottke said he “would have been horrible at running The New Yorker’s website,” and complimented Eskin, who was hired in 2006 to head the site instead of him. But he acknowledged that the site continues to struggle.

“I think it’s good but not great… I understand that there are a lot of competing interests at the magazine (editorial, technical, political bureaucratic, legal, etc.) but for a reader who just wants to pay to read the magazine’s fantastic material in a reasonable format, it can be a frustrating experience,” Kottke said.

The lack of resources resulted in a site that was too sluggish to keep up with the always-churning online conversation. One former staffer said that until last year, newyorker.com only updated its homepage twice a day — once overnight, and once in the afternoon — and the content management system made it all but impossible to update stories. There was also, for many years, a mandate to run every blog item through the magazine’s rigorous fact-checking process, which made it “impossible to get anything up in a timely manner,” said the staffer.

This didn’t just result in a lack of readers; it dis-incentivized writers from contributing to the site. Web editors already faced an uphill battle in getting the magazine’s prestigious writers to produce blog posts, since the vast majority of its roster was comprised of permalancers whose contracts didn’t require them to blog. But even for full-time staffers, the satisfaction of getting published in the magazine far superseded anything the website could offer — and writers spent much of their time pitching the print editors.

“People just care about what their boss seems to care about,” said one former staffer, who noted Remnick’s relative lack of interest in the website. “When I was at [another magazine], I legitimately didn’t care if my stuff ran online or in print. But I had one ‘Talk of the Town’ and it was thrilling. The New Yorker was just a very impressive print publication.”

Things began to change last year, according to two former staffers, when Remnick finally began signaling a readiness to adapt.

“I think something clicked,” said one former staffer. “He is a news man, he came from the Times… and he just got excited about the possibility of being both The New Yorker magazine and a real news entity.” (In fact, Remnick covered Moscow for The Washington Post.)

The website began updating its homepage much more frequently, adding commentary and reporting on the day’s events, and in March, Remnick displayed a real commitment, bringing Thompson — a star at Wired and an online entrepreneur — over from the print side to take the reigns of the website.

Thompson said the site is improving rapidly (and he’s quick to note the changes began a few months before he replaced Eskin.) This year, newyorker.com has added new blogs, like “Page-turner,” focused on literary criticism, and Andy Borowitz’s humor blog, though the latter has been met with a fair amount of online mockery. And they’ve gradually succeeded in getting the magazine’s most famous bylines onto the website, including Steve Coll, Roger Angell, and even Remnick, who recently contributed a series of blog posts to accompany his profile of Bruce Springsteen.

“He’s busy, but he loves blogging,” he said of Remnick.

Thompson said they’re expecting about 6.4 million unique users, a more-than 50 percent jump from this time last year. His leadership has prompted a series of articles in the tech press hailing his role as the savior of newyorker.com, but at least one former staffer who worked under Eskin said the ex-editor got a bum rap.

“I feel bad about where Blake fits into the narrative, because there’s this story that he drove the website into the ground and that Nick is just now dredging it out,” said the staffer, arguing that, in reality, the last editor never had the resources to make newyorker.com great.

In any case, Thompson may be facing his own set of challenges. It wasn’t long ago that he was touting Lehrer’s science blog among the new and exciting additions to the website. And while Lehrer’s resignation was tied to quotes he invented in his book, not in the magazine, The New Yorker may not be completely out of the woods. In order to keep up with the rest of the web, The New Yorker no longer applies the same fact-checking standards that it once did for its online content.

“With the magazine, we call every source, we read every document; with the pace of the web, the onus of the checking is on the editor and on the writer,” Thompson said. “There’s obviously more trust involved in that relationship.”

Asked whether Lehrer’s online stories were now being reviewed for potential plagiarism or fabrications, Thompson declined to comment.

“All the stuff that happened yesterday was about [Lehrer’s] book, but obviously it affects us,” he said.

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