Has Michael Kinsley gone nuts? That was the prevailing sentiment in New York media circles late Monday morning. The Slate editor was evidently a top choice to edit The New Yorker. He then committed the unforgivable sin of disqualifying himself, publicly and forever–or, as Kinsley said to the Voice Monday, “as long as Newhouse owns it.”
A quirky e-mail from Kinsley whizzed its way into electronic mailboxes nationwide all day Monday. The e-mail–released at just the right moment to undermine one of the happiest days of new editor David Remnick’s life–is a breezy account of how Kinsley flew from Seattle to New York for the weekend, and almost got the New Yorker prize. According to Kinsley, Newhouse offered him the post on Saturday.
“I liked him in our dealings,” Kinsley told the Voice. “The money was fine, and I was ready to take the job.” Kinsley says Newhouse had told him the only difficulty was going to be convincing Remnick to stay on as a writer. Newhouse scheduled a meeting for 10 a.m. Monday–with Kinsley, Brown, and Remnick–at which, Kinsley expected, “we were going to beg [Remnick] not to leave.”
Kinsley told the Voice Newhouse gave him the impression that he and Remnick were the only candidates considered for the job (which isn’t true: the Voice has confirmed that Newhouse discussed the position with two other well-known editors).
A day later, however, Newhouse apparently rescinded the offer, leaving Kinsley more than a little miffed.
The question is: why would Kinsley–whose name frequently comes up to head the nation’s premiere magazines–burn his Condé Nast bridge so publicly? Another editor who interviewed for The New Yorker job was dumbstruck by Kinsley’s letter, telling the Voice: “It’s fucking unbelievable. Was it jet lag?”
Kinsley, however, has no regrets. “It was an amusing story, and I thought I was going to have to tell it to a lot of friends,” Kinsley said. “So I decided to put it in an e-mail.” Then, through the miracle of electronic forwarding, the e-mail went everywhere, and “I discovered I had a lot of friends,” Kinsley cracked.
For those who didn’t get it, here is the letter in its entirety:
“Friday about 11:00 am pdt. We are about to have a SLATE staff meeting and ‘morale lunch.’ I get a message to call Si Newhouse. I call him. He wants to see me the next day. I race home and to the airport for a 12:45 plane to NY. So much for the morale lunch. Also for the weekend hike I was dressed for.
“Saturday 11 am edt. I meet Si at his apartment. We talk there for a couple hours and at lunch at a nearby restaurant for another hour or so, and then he says, ‘How would you react if I offered you X?’ I say, Are you offering me the job? He says yes. I say I will tell him yes or no w/in 48 hours. He is unhappy with that, so I say we’ll settle this by first thing Monday morning. (He wants to announce something Monday.) He then invites me to dinner with his brother and family. I say I would make a counterproposal at that time.
“Sunday. We talk by phone and I send him a fax about various things. He says come by the apartment before dinner at 6:30. I come by, present my counterproposal, he counters back, I say that sounds fine, I probably accept, but I promised Pete Higgins (Microsoft VP) I’d check with him before definitely accepting and I needed a night to sleep it over. He says fine.
“We go to dinner with his wife, son, brother, brother’s wife and son. Talk virtually no business. Parting at the restaurant door, I say, I’ll call you first thing tomorrow morning. What time do you get in? He says, I’m in by 6:00. I say, I’ll call you at 7:30. He says, fine.
“Maybe 15 minutes later I get back to the hotel room and there’s a message: Call Si Newhouse. I call and he says, You seem reluctant. I say, It’s a big decision, but if I do it I assure you I’ll be energetic and enthusiastic. He says, I’m starting to feel reluctant too. I think it would be better to call it off. No apology.
“After some stunned mumbling, I say, This is going to be embarrassing to both of us. He asks me to say that I had withdrawn my name. I say I’m not going to lie about it, but I’ll decline to discuss it. He mumbles something and I mumble something and we hang up.
“On reflection (about two minutes’ reflection), I decided I was not inclined to do him the favor of not discussing it.”
A publicist for The New Yorker said the magazine was aware of Kinsley’s e-mail and confirmed that Newhouse talked to Kinsley over the weekend, but declined to offer any comment.(For more on The New Yorker, see She, Tina by Tom Carson.)
Fortnightly? Yes, Fortnightly
New Yorker publisher David Carey denies it. Last Thursday, Si Newhouse told The New Yorker staff he wouldn’t let it happen.
But nearly everyone else in Condé Nast management is willing–at least on background–to utter the unthinkable: The New Yorker must go biweekly.
“I think they have to, no matter what David Remnick thinks,” a top Condé Nast editor told me Monday.
Behind Tina Brown’s defection to the picture biz is the haze at Condé Nast management, at least where The New Yorker is concerned. Simply getting all hands on deck has proven difficult for Newhouse; when magazine overseer James Truman was asked last week to cut short his vacation in Greece to help pick a new New Yorker editor, CN grapevine holds that he responded: “Are you kidding? I’ve got a dinner party for 30 in two days.”
As the widely cited July 20 Fortune article makes clear, The New Yorker‘s troubles run even deeper than that. The esteemed weekly has lost money every year since Newhouse purchased it in 1985–$175 million in all–making it “one of the greatest money pits in American magazine history,” to use Fortune‘s punishing phrase.
Explanations of those losses, however, have been elusive. Since Brown became editor in 1992, observers have been blinded by tales of editorial profligacy, notably in David Plotz’s exotic Slate feature last year.
It’s true that lavish photo shoots, personal perks, and absurdly glitzy parties haven’t helped The New Yorker‘s bottom line. But CN insiders have long understood that The New Yorker‘s losses come primarily from changes on the business, not the editorial, side. Newhouse tried to apply a tested Condé Nast formula to The New Yorker: balloon the circulation and charge advertisers more.
In 1985, The New Yorker‘s circulation was about 450,000; today it’s just over 800,000, a boost of nearly 80 per cent. And while circulation growth is usually considered to be good, it’s always expensive: it means vastly increased postage costs, huge bills for paper, and expanded efforts on direct mail and fulfillment (because reader turnover also rises). Discounted subscriptions to entice new readers–below $40 a year–only made matters worse.
As these costs began to dominate the ’90s, top CN managers searched for new strategies: raising the price ; deliberately lowering circulation (the pet, but rejected, tack of former New Yorker president Tom Florio); and putting the magazine out every other week.
The last tactic, CN sources say, is favored by Jonathan Newhouse–Si’s cousin, and the man who Tina Brown and others have said is the company’s “heir apparent.” Si Newhouse, according to all CN sources, is opposed to the idea. So was Brown, at least in her later years: she felt it would hamper her commitment to topicality.
The New Yorker has, in a sense, flirted with the every-other-week schedule by publishing “special” double issues; last year, the magazine put out six. Writers grumbled about them, because stories would get rushed into–then bumped out of–“special” issues, and lose their “timely” peg. But CN eyeshade types smiled at reduced postage and paper costs.
Two industry analysts told the Voice that The New Yorker could save $7 to $10 million by going biweekly; one added, “even more if that meant a large cut in the editorial budget.”
Fortnightly publications are uncommon in the U.S., but not unheard of: both Rolling Stone and National Review are published every other week. Granted, overcoming Si’s supposed objections to biweekliness will be formidable. But don’t take the promises that it won’t happen too literally. In November 1993, I wrote: “[A] source at [The New Yorker] reports water-cooler chat to the effect that the venerable weekly has lost $25 million in the year since Brown took over.” At the time, the magazine’s leaders refused to comment; privately, New Yorker officials insisted that publisher Steve Florio was laughing at the number I was asking them to confirm.
This month’s Fortune piece, however, shows The New Yorker‘s ’92 loss at $20.8 million, and the ’93 loss at $30.3 million–confirming my New Yorker source was right on the money. Condé Nast spokeswoman Andrea Kaplan told Fortune: “The company policy back then was to say, we’re not losing money.”
Exactly–and the company policy now is to say that The New Yorker won’t go biweekly.