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Insider to Succeed Editor Tina Brown At New Yorker

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 1998

  Style Showcase

    David Remnick David Remnick was named the New Yorker's editor. (Gasper Tringale/The New Yorker)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick, a prolific and versatile journalist who has never held an editing job, was named editor of the New Yorker yesterday, taking the helm of the venerable weekly at a time of chronic financial trouble and fitful editorial verve.

The 39-year-old Remnick, a former Washington Post reporter who won the 1994 nonfiction Pulitzer as well as that year's prestigious George Polk Award for a book about the breakup of the Soviet Union, was the surprise choice of billionaire S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of the private media company that owns the magazine. Remnick, a staff writer for the magazine since 1992, replaces editor Tina Brown, who stunned Manhattan's glitterati six days ago by resigning to launch a Hollywood-backed multimedia company.

"I'm going to do what I can, first and foremost, to continue making this a great, witty and thrilling magazine, and do what I can to make it viable," Remnick said from the New Yorker's West 43rd Street offices in Manhattan, hours after Newhouse summoned him to the Conde Nast Publications Building a few blocks away and told him the job was his, effective immediately. "This is not the year zero, and we don't need to start all over again. But eventually the place comes to reflect the editor."

"He has a combination of experience as a writer and also dealing conceptually with the magazine," Newhouse said in an interview. "I think that was what made him my choice. The fact that he was an insider was also important."

Remnick's colleagues greeted him with cheers and a five-minute ovation when Newhouse announced him at the New Yorker offices as their new leader yesterday morning. They described the Hillsdale, N.J., native and dentist's son as a journalist of enormous talents, protean interests, keen intelligence and good taste – all attributes that they argued will compensate for his lack of experience as an editor and a manager.

"There's joy in Mudville," said New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg.

"I'm so pleased for David and for the New Yorker," said veteran writer John McPhee, who has known the new editor since Remnick took his "Literature of Fact" seminar during his senior year at Princeton in 1981. "When a person has as much range and talent as David does, it can't help but translate itself into the nature of the magazine."

"He has a combination of experience as a writer and also dealing conceptually with the magazine."

Longtime New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin expressed relief at the choice, saying: "I've admired David since he got here. . . . In positive and negative ways both, I had steeled myself for the possibility of some Conde Nast trend hound arriving with his black shirt buttoned up to the collar and telling us we needed to pay a little more attention to the club scene. It never occurred to me that anything this sensible would happen."

Brown pointed out that in recent years she has relied heavily on Remnick's editorial advice in shaping the magazine's tone and content.

"David was the key member of my dream team," she said, "and he grew to be really the most important single figure at the New Yorker, in terms of his embodiment of the spirit of the magazine."

When she took over in 1992, Brown radically altered the New Yorker from the journalistic gravitas and prim tone of William Shawn, the longest-serving editor, to an occasionally glitzy journal focusing on social and political trends, celebrities and controversies – the "buzz," in the parlance of the slick magazine world.

But she predicted that Remnick would find his own path. "I think he'll develop gradually. I'm sure he'll have a very different take on things, and I hope he does."

Robert Gottlieb, Brown's immediate predecessor, predicted that Remnick would attempt to return the magazine to the some of the literary and journalistic tradition celebrated by the legendary William Shawn, who was editor for 35 years until Gottlieb's arrival.

"Based on his background, I'm assuming that he'll try to restore the New Yorker's in-depth foreign journalism that Shawn developed so successfully," Gottlieb said. Privately, Gottlieb has told friends that taking the helm of the money-losing magazine in the highly charged political atmosphere of Conde Nast "would be like sticking your head in a pencil sharpener."

Remnick, who sent Newhouse a 3,000-word memo on the New Yorker late Sunday night, was deliberately vague about his plans yesterday, saying, "I don't think it would be fair of me to get into specifics. . . .

"Most magazines have peak moments," he said. "They live on, they do just okay, or they die. The New Yorker has had a very different kind of existence. The development of this magazine from this light and wonderful comic weekly under [founder Harold] Ross, and then gaining reportorial heft and intellectual seriousness under Shawn, and then not radical change under Gottlieb, but adding certain graphic elements at the margins, and then Tina coming in and opening up the thing in such a radical way. But it's still the same magazine. It has the same genetic material."

Remnick becomes the New Yorker's fifth editor since its founding more than six decades ago by the legendary Ross. He has been a star writer at the magazine, producing more than 100 articles on a dazzling array of subjects, discoursing with authority and literary flair about everything from Boris Yeltsin's political travails to Luciano Pavarotti's opera career and Mike Tyson's rise and fall.

In his decade at The Washington Post, Remnick was equally eclectic. Starting in 1982 as an intern in the Style section, he then worked the night police beat, covered tennis and pro basketball for the Sports section and worked in Style and The Washington Post Magazine before going to Moscow for a four-year tour in 1988. During a period of upheaval in the Soviet Union, which was soon to disappear as a national entity, Remnick chronicled the politics and personalities of an emerging democracy.

He wrote his prize-winning book, "Lenin's Tomb," based on his Post reporting, and has gone on to produce three other books, including "King of the World," a study of the young Muhammad Ali to be published this fall.

Newhouse, who, like Remnick, decined to discuss the terms of the position – which pays in the high six figures in salary, perks and other compensation – said Remnick is not under orders to reverse the New Yorker's financial fortunes. The magazine has lost an estimated $175 million since Newhouse bought it in 1985.

"He has no mandate and we never discussed the subject," Newhouse said. "I guess any editor is aware in general terms of the statistics of his magazine. But David's mandate, such as it is, has nothing to do with ad pages or revenue . . . I think he has got to discover his own magazine for himself."

Newhouse said Remnick met with him twice last week before he made his pick on Sunday about 10 p.m. Remnick was among four candidates considered for the job. In an unusual twist, Newhouse gave Remnick the nod mere hours after Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley provisionally accepted Newhouse's offer of the job Sunday evening and then went off with Newhouse to a celebratory dinner.

Kinsley recalls that Newhouse discussed with him how they would try to keep the sure-to-be disconsolate Remnick at the magazine after Newhouse gave him the bad news Monday morning. But 15 minutes after they parted company at the restaurant, according to Kinsley's e-mailed account that Newhouse doesn't dispute, the billionaire phoned Kinsley at his hotel and withdrew the offer.

"It was not pleasant at all," a drained and angry Kinsley said yesterday. "I'm glad I found out what this guy is like to work for before I took the job."

Of Remnick, Kinsley said: "He's a fantastic writer and an extremely intelligent thinker and a very nice guy. . . . He's never been an editor before and that's a big question mark. I'd like to think there is some value to the skill and experience of what I have spent most of my life doing. . . . But if there is some way I can wish David Remnick well without wishing Si Newhouse well, I would like to do that."

Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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