One of our far-flung correspondents, recently returned from a visit to the Manhattan offices of the New Yorker, filed this report:
For years, the New Yorker has been as staid and quiet as its strait-laced perennial cover-boy, Eustace Tilley. But lately, this tony magazine has been the talk of the town.
Scandal enveloped the magazine when the Wall Street Journal reported a few months back that a frequent New Yorker writer, Alastair Reid, had played fast and loose with the facts in a couple of stories. The incident marred the magazine's reputation for veracity -- it employs one of journalism's most revered fact-checking departments -- and even as the magazine scrambled to downplay the reports, one cartoonist drew Eustace Tilley with a long Pinocchio nose.
But that was nothing compared with the two cracks that appeared in the old guard of the magazine's leadership. In October, longtime editor William Shawn, at the age of 77, finally appointed two assistants who may one day ascend, together, to Shawn's post. If so, they would be only the third and fourth editors in the magazine's six decades of existence.
Shawn named Charles McGrath managing editor for fiction and John B. Bennet managing editor for non-fiction (a title that struck many observers as a wry touch after L'Affaire Reid).
A couple of weeks later, Advance Publications Inc., the descendant of the old Newhouse newspapers empire, bought 17 percent of the company that owns the New Yorker, bringing a hint of Wall Street wheeling and dealing to a company so conservative that it eschews flashy annual reports in favor of slim volumes of results printed on creamy white bond.
Advance's chairman, S. I. Newhouse, is no Rupert Murdoch. But people wonder when he will make his play for the entire company, adding the New Yorker to a stable of magazines that includes Vogue and Vanity Fair. And if that happens, would it uproot the New Yorker's starched tradition as a compendium of fact and (clearly labeled) fiction and drawings (never call them cartoons) that 480,000 subscribers dote on each week?
Although Newhouse has said he does not plan to seek control of the company and has not so much as asked for a seat on the New Yorker's board, many magazine industry observers believe that Newhouse may be positioning his company to purchase the rest of the magazine upon the death of elderly publisher Peter F. Fleischmann.
"You're not going to get any better than the New Yorker," said an industry consultant. "I know any number of people who would leap at a chance to buy the New Yorker."
Such expectations may explain the tumult within the publishing business that followed the Advance stock purchase -- it even rated a well-displayed write-up on the front of the New York Times business section, not bad for a company with only $74.7 million in annual revenue.
The magazine's hierarchy, however, professes to be unconcerned about Advance's advances. There is no outward sign of alarm at the New Yorker's offices, a warren of thin corridors and small cubbyholes not far from Times Square that hardly reflects the elegance of the magazine itself.
"The managers of the corporation really have no say over its ownership," said J. Kennard Bosee, recently named president of the The New Yorker Magazine Inc. The company's holdings include not only the magazine but also interests in Cook's and Horticulture magazines, small pieces of a couple of newspaper and book-publishing companies, a printing company and about one-quarter of the company that makes Teleram portable computer terminals.
Advance purchased about two-thirds of its stock from a longtime New Yorker shareholder and director, Philip Messinger, and the rest from the Paine Webber brokerage house, which had taken a small position in the New Yorker as an investment. Advance paid $180 a share for the stock, $50 above the then-current market rate for the lightly traded shares.
Advance's 17 percent stake makes it the second-largest holder of New Yorker stock, after the founding Fleischmann family, which owns a 32 percent block. Much of the rest of the stock is held by New Yorker employes through an employe stock ownership plan.
It is pure speculation, of course, whether any potential change in ownership could bring change to the New Yorker's orderly three-column pages. Some observers worry that the New Yorker, shorn of its independence and folded into a large publishing conglomerate, just wouldn't be the same. Others, however, say it would be difficult to make changes in the magazine without offending tradition and thousands of readers. "You could have your head handed to you in a second," said one magazine-industry expert.
Indeed, the editors of the magazine have brooked no interference over the years from the magazine company's ownership or advertising department. The separation between the business and editorial sides of the magazine has traditionally been about the widest in the publishing industry -- so much so that until recently, the editorial and business staffs did not even share a common main phone number. "Anything we think goes on in the editing system is pure conjecture," said Hoyt Spelman, a company spokesman.
To this end, Bosee claimed ignorance of Shawn's plans for his new deputies. "We in the business department found the two new managing editors very interesting," he said. "We are delighted that Mr. Shawn is finding a way to lighten his load."
Shawn himself was vague when asked about the roles for the two new managing editors -- in keeping, perhaps, with the magazine's longtime disdain for formal editorial organization. "They're breaking in at this point, and learning," he said.
Shawn said it is possible that he will be succeeded by the co-editors. Then again, he may not. "That's one of the possibilities, that they could end up succeeding me as co-editors, but it's not a certainty," he said. Besides, that would assume Shawn plans to step aside, which he seems unwilling to do. "I have no particular plans or timetable," he said.
Even so, Shawn said a change in editors would make little difference in the magazine's contents. "Our changes are really evolutionary, and not the result ordinarily of decisions to change," he said. "In other words, they just come about gradually, as the contributors change."
In spite of the stated gulf between the magazine's editorial and business departments, they seem to be watching each other fairly closely these days. Of Newhouse's involvement in the company, Shawn said, "I don't know what the developments might be in the future. I am certainly keeping an eye on everything."
Similarly, Bosee warmed to the subject of Reid's factual transgressions. "It is not the company's intent that we carry anything inaccurate," he said. "The individual incidents that were cited as proof of our having an Achilles heel were minor. . . . As far as we know, there's been no difference in the way the New Yorker is edited, where absolute accuracy is an absolute watchword."
But on most other subjects, the men who run the New Yorker seem fairly phlegmatic. They are gently trying to diversify the company, following an unplanned, eclectic philosophy that, in many senses, reflects the magazine itself. "There are no preconceived notions upfront that we won't do this or that," Bosee said.
It's not that the company that owns the New Yorker should be worried about having all its eggs in one basket: The magazine is solidly profitable, with a stable of upscale advertisers that is the envy of the rest of the industry. And despite losses in some of its other investments, the company turned a tidy $5.3 million profit in 1983. "We're just trying to get along," Bosee said. Still, he added, "The business of publishing a weekly magazine is a fairly chancy business, and it's a good idea to have other sources of revenue."
Many other companies would like to be in businesses so chancy. Even with the flurry of news around the New Yorker in the past few months, the organization remains an oasis of calm in a busy world, just as the magazine is to many of its readers. Here at the New Yorker, the most exciting thing to happen since the Newhouse stock purchase, according to Spelman, was Christmas.