New York magazines that matter

New York magazines that matter

New York magazines that matter

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 1 1998 2:15 PM

New York magazines that matter

Readers complain that Slate writes about "Tina" or "Si" as if non-journalists should know who on earth Slate is talking about. Here is Explainer's brass tacks briefing on the New York magazines and editors that matter.

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Within media circles, your magazine "matters" or has "buzz" when employees of other magazines spend a lot of time reading it and going to its parties. Magazines and editors that matter are mentioned in the pages of other magazines, the most desirable being a pink broadsheet called the New York Observer. Mattering fetches imitators, access to big-name writers, and a banquette at a New York restaurant named 44. "Mattering" is not the same thing as "turning a profit."

General interest weeklies:The New Yorker. The most important thing about New York's most important magazine is Tina Brown, editor. Brown has made a widely-read magazine out of a widely-respected one. The other important thing about the New Yorker is that it has lost money throughout Brown's editorship ($11 million last year). Once a source of pride, it is now a source of concern. The magazine's owners--S.I. "Si" Newhouse and his family--matter because they control Conde Nast, a vast media conglomerate that owns Vanity Fair, Vogue, Glamour,Conde Nast House & Garden, GQ, and other titles too numerous to mention, and recently acquired Wired. (Si also recently sold Random House, the premier American publishing house, to a German conglomerate named Bertelsmann A.G.) Latest big story: The New Yorker, long considered too swanky for the rest of the conglomerate, is moving into Conde Nast's new Times Square building. This will lower overhead costs but may bring an end to the famously insular New Yorker culture.

New York Times Magazine. Not strictly speaking a magazine but a section of the Sunday New York Times. The Magazine attracts top talent--e.g. William Safire's column on language--and gives off a stately buzz with its heavily reported features. The Magazine's recent effort to become more timely sometimes trips over the fact that it goes to the printer nine days before release--see its recent (June 21, 1998) piece about Big Tobacco's tobacco bill strategy, which closed before the tobacco bill failed. But since Wunderkind Adam Moss (he has worked at Rolling Stone and Esquire, and launched Seven Days) assumed the editorship at the beginning of this year, the Magazine has jumped a notch or two.

Time and Newsweek. Time, edited by Walter Isaacson, has more buzz at the moment, despite recent embarrassment over a poorly-sourced story about U.S. commandos nerve-gassing American deserters in Laos. Isaacson, considered the New York media's most accomplished networker, eats at New York's other main media eatery, Michael's. Newsweek boasts a circulation of 3.2 million versus Time's circulation of more than 4 million. Though Newsweek broke much of the Lewinsky news, it is not considered very hot just now.

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U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News (circulation 2.2 million) is considered dull by the smart set, hence the unkind nickname "Snooze." (Click here for a defense of Snooze.) Editor James Fallows was fired on June 29 after 22 months on the job. Fallows is a 1974 graduate of Charles Peter's Washington Monthly, a decidedly non-hot, small D.C. magazine about politics. He made his name writing books (National Defense, Breaking the News, More Like Us), serving as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and composing long magazine pieces for the Atlantic (see below). Many journalists hate Fallows for skewering them in his book Breaking the News, which criticized the press.

General interest monthlies:Vanity Fair (circulation 1.1 million) is infamous for celebrity profiles that, even compared to other celebrity profiles, seem like shameless tongue baths. Editor Graydon Carter, formerly of Spy and the New York Observer, is mentioned as possible successor to Tina Brown. The Atlantic (published in the New York suburb of Boston) is presided over by William Whitworth (formerly of The New Yorker), an editor with a penchant for long essays predicting apocalyptic doom. Harper's is edited by Lewis Lapham, a WASP fond of literary essays on subjects such as kissing. Both the Atlantic and Harper's are relatively small, with circulation of 450,000 and 200,000 respectively, and seem to matter less and less with every year. (Comparison: Teen People, all of seven months old, boasts a current circulation of more than 800,000).

Women's and Men's magazines: New York's most recognizable product may be its glossy women's mags (Elle, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue) and men's mags (GQ, Esquire, Men's Journal). The hottest "books"--as magazines are sometimes called--in this area are Vogue, because of eternally bespectacled editor Anna Wintour, and GQ. GQ owes much of its recent success to arch-rival Esquire's slide into immateriality. The battle between GQ and Esquire became more personal last year when David Granger left GQ to take over Esquire. GQ Editor Art Cooper was not pleased. Outside magazine, famous for publishing writer/mountaineer Jon Krakauer's account of disaster on Everest, matters in New York even though it is edited in Santa Fe. It has won the National Magazine Award for general excellence among magazines of its size for three years running. Men's and women's books that matter have circulation hovering around one million. Down-market books like Cosmopolitan, Ladies' Home Journal, and McCall's have circulation in the neighborhood of three to five million.

Other New York magazines that wish they mattered: New York also supports a slew of publications (Village Voice, Time Out New York, New York, various trade press outlets like Advertising Age, and consumer magazines) that serve as farm teams for the majors. Talented writers unearthed by smaller magazines often jump ship for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. On occasion, a small magazine with a distinctive feel can shake the industry. For instance, Spy magazine matters more in death than life--besides Graydon Carter, its alumni include Kurt Andersen (formerly editor of New York, now a contributor to The New Yorker); Susan Morrison (now of The New Yorker); Bruce Handy (now of Time), and many others.

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New York's intellectual press (New York Review of Books, Dissent, Commentary, Lingua Franca, New Leader) matters because it feeds writers to general interest publications. The New York Review of Books confers instant cultural legitimacy on its contributors, even though this coterie's insularity earns it the nickname "New York Review of Each Other's Books." Lingua Franca, only seven years old, has won a National Magazine Award for general excellence among similarly sized magazines. Dissent, Commentary, and the New Leader mattered a lot more during the bright old days of the public intellectual and the Cold War.

Political magazines (New Republic, The Nation, and the Weekly Standard) have circulation under 100,000 and, with the exception of The Nation, are published in Washington, D.C. They feed the New York magazine maw with fresh meat, and allow them to cover politics without maintaining expensive Washington bureaus. Young New Republic writers such as Ruth Shalit, Hanna Rosin (recently hired by the Washington Post), and Stephen Glass all found additional fame in the pages of New York magazines. Shalit and Glass may have found a little too much fame--they were brought down on charges of plagiarism and fraud, respectively.

A magazine can matter for an issue or two if it affixes itself to a hot story. This month's example: Brill's Content.

Explainer thanks J.P. Purswell for suggesting this topic.