The news that 38-year-old Tina Brown will soon be put in charge of this peculiar institution shocked the New York publishing world to its socks on Tuesday morning. Her success in turning around Vanity Fair, a foundering enterprise when she took over in 1984 and now the most talked-about and imitated magazine in America, was thanks largely to splashy photojournalism, kinky true-crime stories, profiles of Hollywood celebrities and European royalty, and a fawning regard for advertisers - pretty much everything the New Yorker has always stood against.
Although rumours of Ms Brown's accession had circulated for years, the fact surprised nearly everyone and seemed to indicate the unique sensibility and traditions of the New Yorker are now, if not threatened with extinction, then due for an overhaul. Robert Gottlieb, removed this week as editor after five years, had fine-tuned with tiny screwdrivers and the magazine continued to lose money. Ms Brown seems to have been given a mandate by her boss, the publishing mogul S I Newhouse Jnr, who owns both magazines, to make wholesale changes that Mr Gottlieb was unable, or unwilling, to oversee.
Innovation at the New Yorker is usually measured in aeons. During its first 62 years, it changed editors once. The editorial floors of the original building, vacated two years ago, had the air of a small agricultural college during the Depression. Employees tended not to leave once accepted into the cosy, exclusive family.
But the sale of the magazine in May 1985 for dollars 168m ( pounds 88m) to Mr Newhouse, who runs Advance Communications (Conde Nast magazines, Random House and a string of local newspapers), put an end to its independence. In 1987 Mr Newhouse forced out William Shawn, the editor for 35 years, and replaced him with Bob Gottlieb, editor- in-chief of the book publisher Alfred A Knopf, another Newhouse property.
On Tuesday, Mr Newhouse addressed the staff in the New Yorker's new offices at a gathering described by one staff member as 'pained' rather than hostile. The shy billionaire called Mr Gottlieb's departure necessary for the 'evolution' of the magazine but could not say what this might mean.
Steve Cohn, of the Media Industry Newsletter, says no weekly magazine in America lost more ad pages (1,769) between 1979 and 1989 than the New Yorker. Last year was the worst ever, with a fall-off of almost 20 per cent. Circulation has been slipping.
The magazine suffers from an ageing readership (average age 43.6) and even older writership. Three of its outstanding critics - Pauline Kael (film), Andrew Porter (music) and Arlene Croce (dance) - have either retired or gone on extended leave. A generation of young humorists to replace S J Perelman and Woody Allen is nowhere in sight. Stalwart contributors John Updike, George Steiner, Whitney Balliett and John McPhee are in their sixties. The long excerpts last year from John Cheever's journals seem ever more like an elegy for the kind of magazine the New Yorker may soon cease to be.
A graph of Vanity Fair during the last five years shows a robust upswing and a much younger readership (average age 33.6). Between 1987 and 1990 advertising swelled from 860 to 1,471 pages. Last year it held its own and this year is up 10 per cent. Ms Brown deserves much of the credit. Her successor, G Graydon Carter, a founder of the satirical magazine Spy, inherits a gleaming commercial machine. If it continues to race along, credit will reflect on her; if it lags, he will be the scapegoat.
The mood among the staff at the New Yorker on Tuesday was one of shock, sadness and resignation. The last time Mr Newhouse imposed an editor it was Mr Gottlieb, and they threatened mass resignations. No such act was considered this time. 'We did that before and it didn't mean anything,' said a writer.
They can take consolation from the fact that Mr Newhouse does not need another Vanity Fair and that the New Yorker can use an infusion of energy. That Ms Brown chose to remain in print journalism rather than listen to the sirens of Hollywood, where movie and television companies had wooed her, shows where her heart is. To revive Vanity Fair is one sort of honour; to save the New Yorker without cheapening its subtly modulated tone will be an act of heroism of another order.
There is little doubt that she knows how to produce a smart, immensely readable magazine. She has handled Vanity Fair like a weekly, ripping it apart at the final hour to squeeze in timely political and business pieces. She has beaten the pants off the other monthlies. What her husband, Harold Evans, has called her 'ratlike cunning' has given the magazine access enjoyed by few others. She has, however, paid scant attention to literary fiction, lengthy pieces of criticism, or untopical and unsensational non-fiction - areas in which the New Yorker is unrivalled.
Her journalistic metabolism, attention span and clout with advertisers may be just what the doctor ordered. But will anyone recognise the patient once she has completed her makeover? Ms Brown has been unusually reticent about her plans but the staff cannot have been reassured by her quotes in the papers. 'I hope to maintain the intellectual and literary standards of the magazine,' she told the Wall Street Journal. 'But I want to increase its relevance, address a younger audience.' Had she only said 'will' instead of 'hope']
There has been no small amount of Schadenfreude among rival publications as the New Yorker has been forced to mud-wrestle for its share of readers. For years the publisher has been coyly touting the product in a series of television commercials as 'maybe the best magazine in the world, maybe the best magazine that ever was'. This sure sign of insecurity - no maybes about it - signalled clearly that the rules of the game had changed.
But bad news at the New Yorker isn't good news for anyone. Time and Newsweek have remade themselves in desperate attempts to reach out to young readers and its busier, older mainstays. Nothing indicates this strategy is working. The ugly truth is that Americans don't read with the same dedication of 20 years ago. The unique qualities of the New Yorker - its broad, literate appeal and chaste traditions - at one time gave it a clear advantage over other weeklies. These same qualities appear now to have doomed it, at least in its present form. Should the New Yorker survive or thrive under Tina Brown - and no one here is betting against her - a certain kind of unhurried prose will no longer have a home. Her appointment marks the end of Newhouse's tinkering. To paraphrase a legendary American colonel in Vietnam, she will now have to destroy the village to save it.
Sandra Barwick will be back next week.
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