Rea! Genius Loves Company

092506 article world Rea! Genius Loves Company“We are a subscriber-based publication; we don’t worry about losing advertising,” Rea Hederman, the publisher of The New York Review of Books, said. “Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case … but it’s not something that we have to have in the back of our minds when deciding whether to do a story or not. That’s critically important.”

Mr. Hederman, 61, was seated in his office conference room in midtown Manhattan on Sept. 18, speaking about the idea of editorial independence—both from advertising and business pressure as well as from overreaching newspaper owners—which is something that he values highly. Why? “Because I don’t think there’s much of it any more,” he said.

Mr. Hederman’s pledge not to meddle with editors Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers formed the basis of his purchase of the Review in 1984, for approximately $5 million, and he is widely admired for having kept to his word. Twenty years later, print-media folk are running screaming for the bomb shelters and newspaper conglomerates are gutting their properties, but The New York Review of Books has hewed closely to its original mission of publishing provocative long-form reportage and criticism that caters to the smartest readers rather than the dumbest ones. The magazine still publishes many of the most highly regarded writers in the world. Visually, the publication is almost unchanged from its slightly dorky, text-heavy design, first introduced in 1963. And, perhaps most remarkably, it continues to make money.

“[Mr. Hederman] made what to me was quite an extraordinary statement, which I think is a model,” said the former Nation publisher Victor Navasky, who invited Mr. Hederman to speak at a workshop at Harvard’s Kennedy School. One of the students asked Mr. Hederman what his goal was as a publisher. “He said that it was to make more money so that Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein would have more resources at their disposal to put towards their writers.

“That to me is so beautiful and so clear,” Mr. Navasky continued, “it’s so spot-on and it’s so unusual, that it’s a model. It’s extraordinary. And it helps explain the success of their enterprise.”

Indeed, Mr. Hederman was so self-effacing that he didn’t put his name on the Review’s masthead for three or four years after he became the owner, “just to show that there was no change in the publication, that the publication was going to go on” as it was.

“I was very sensitive in the purchase of the magazine,” said Mr. Hederman, who is 6-foot-5 and slender, with watery blue eyes and a hesitant manner of speaking that impels one to lean across the table in order to catch what he’s saying. “The purchase got a lot of media coverage at the time, and there were of course worries …. ”

Mr. Hederman goes into the office nearly every day, where the Review is now edited alone by Mr. Silvers, 76. Co-editor Ms. Epstein died this past June, and the matter of editorial succession is one of several that will demand Mr. Hederman’s attention sometime in the future. But the most interesting question about the Review at the moment might be how, in the current publishing environment, it continues to prosper: a look at Mr. Hederman’s business plan serves as a crash course in the art of survival.

“What we’re doing is just constantly trying to find new ways to expand our reach and to make things work for the Review,” said Mr. Hederman. “They’re just little things … and if you don’t have a personal interest in it, you might not do it.”

THE POWERFUL ATTACHMENTS OF ADULTHOOD can often be traced to the indignities of youth, and Mr. Hederman’s played out in the Deep South during the civil-rights era. It was then, as a young editor, that Mr. Hederman learned about the dangers of editorial interference from above.

He was born into a longstanding newspaper family that owned the daily Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss, among others. His relatives, and by consequence their newspapers, were pro-segregation and rabidly racist (as well as journalistically inept)—all of which mortified young Rea, even as he joined the family business.

“Growing up in Mississippi, I went to an all-white school, and segregation was in full force, and I think at some point you just feel like … you have to make a decision,” Mr. Hederman said of his ideological split from those he grew up with. (Even some of his five offspring veered rightward, with one of his grown sons now ensconced at the Heritage Foundation.)

Mr. Hederman eventually became an editor at the Clarion-Ledger, where he proceeded to infuriate many of his family members by beefing up the news staff and by hiring, and covering, black people. His muckraking tendencies were unleashed on corrupt local figures—and sometimes on friends or members of the Hederman clan itself. Mr. Hederman described the period as “very rough,” among other things: “I mean, the number of death threats I had, and reporters who worked for me had, was enormous. This was through 1982! It was way past the initial integration of public schools.”

The newspaper’s turnaround was widely praised and won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. But all the while, Mr. Hederman had to wage daily battles with an extended network of relatives who felt that they had the right to decide what went into the paper; the affair makes Wendy McCaw and her recent Santa Barbara News-Press shenanigans seem like amateur hour. His family eventually fired him. (The paper was later sold to Gannett.)

The whole experience led to Mr. Hederman’s lifelong horror of editorial meddling, and his ready eagerness not to do so at the Review.

“The thing that informed me mostly was that they were always trying to interfere in stories that we were publishing,” Mr. Hederman said. “It just drove me crazy. You have to have editorial independence. Otherwise your life is misery.”

Despite his struggles working within the confines of the family empire, Mr. Hederman said that private ownership of a magazine like the Review was greatly preferable to the vagaries of the capital markets, which just this past week prompted Time Inc.’s decision to put 18 of its magazines on the chopping block.

“Private owners have more invested,” Mr. Hederman said. “They’re dealing with it because they like the publication, because they want the publication to succeed.”

THE REVIEW IS SAID TO HAVE MADE MONEY from its inception, through a combination of low per-issue costs—it is tabloid-sized and printed on newsprint, on a newspaper press—a small staff, and a strong beachhead in advertising from book publishers and academic presses. When Mr. Hederman took over from A. Whitney Ellsworth (the Review’s previous publisher and founding partner with Mr. Silvers, Ms. Epstein and Ms. Epstein’s husband at the time, Jason Epstein), the circulation was around 80,000, and his hopes were to grow and seek out new readers.

“I thought the magazine deserved that. And with more circulation, we’d be able to pay the contributors better,” Mr. Hederman said. A third goal was “to keep the magazine healthy. If you own a publication and the publication doesn’t make money, and it’s not surviving on its own, I think that has some effect on the publication itself.”

He focused on expanding into Europe: The magazine is available in 30 countries, with the U.K. having the largest presence (around 10,000 subscribers); there is also an Italian edition with several thousand subscribers. Mr. Hederman also funded broader direct-mail campaigns.

The Review is decidedly “not mass-market,” Mr. Hederman said, so subscribers must be hunted down “in little bits and pieces around the country and around the world.” He described the readers as slightly older, consisting of academics and professionals, people on Wall Street and in banking, a “very diverse audience” that skews more male than female, with above-average income. While younger people seem to be reading it more online, the profile has basically stayed the same for “years and years.”

The Review’s circulation is now around 130,000, which is the highest they’ve ever had, according to Mr. Hederman; the conversion rate (subscribers who respond to direct mailings and then choose to renew) is around 40 percent, and the straight renewal rate is 90 percent.

An annual subscription of 20 issues costs $66, and many new subscribers reach them through the Web site, which the Review has been operating since 1997. The site consists mostly of a paid archive of every article the Review has ever published (the company had them all digitized in India). This past summer, they also started selling ads on the Web for the first time.

The company also operates a small book-publishing arm, which produces around 45 titles per year—slim volumes of essays that have appeared in the Review, as well as classics that have fallen out of print (and into the public domain) and elegantly illustrated children’s stories. Many are put out in hardback and typically break even once they’ve sold 2,700 or so copies (which most of them do).

Mr. Hederman said that he came up with the trick when he was at the Clarion-Ledger in the 1970’s. His extended family tried to starve his newsroom of funding as a way of influencing its press coverage. Mr. Hederman started commissioning books that complemented the newspaper content—collections of Southern recipes or football calendars—all of which brought in some badly needed extra cash.

The Review consists of about 40 employees, with the largest chunk of 10 or 12 in editorial, which is lean but hardly cash-starved. All of the magazine’s content is written by outside contributors, who are said to be paid decently but not spectacularly—several thousand dollars per article, according to someone familiar with the fees. (Mr. Hederman declined to name the figure, but said that it was “competitive.”) Other than that, there is Mr. Silvers and his mini-army of assistants. Mr. Hederman said that they speak daily, as he and Ms. Epstein also did, and that he often shares his opinions with his editor.

“Sometimes I have suggestions, and they can take them or not,” Mr. Hederman said. “That’s purely up to them.”

Fretting about what will happen post-Silvers is a common extracurricular activity within the extended circle of Review-watchers, but it’s practically forbidden around the magazine’s fluorescent-lit offices. Mr. Silvers, for one, refuses to acknowledge the question at all and will typically respond to it with an abrupt change of subject. Mr. Hederman would say only that he expects Mr. Silvers to be around “for quite a while,” although he did allow that he expects the Review to persist, regardless of who’s editing it.

“I do think it would continue to go on,” he said, his hands clasped tightly under his chin. “I think it would be a terrible thing if it didn’t.”