Why Is The New Yorker’s Staff Feeling a Little Seasick?

There are real icebergs like the one that ripped a hole in the side of the Titanic , and then there are metaphorical icebergs like the one that has Tina Brown’s New Yorker taking on red ink. Now, coming to the aid of the financially foundering magazine in its latest scheme to return to profitability, are seven writers and editors who have agreed to don sailor suits and start bailing.

As part of an advertising deal cut with Los Angeles-based cruise ship operator Crystal Cruises, former fiction editor and baseball bard Roger Angell, theater critic John Lahr, cartoon editor Robert Mankoff, columnist Kurt Andersen and staff writers Susan Orlean, Malcolm Gladwell and Lillian Ross will each shove off for their own week of shuffleboard and the occasional lecture aboard the cruise ship Symphony on its 1999 world cruise. To market the 99-day voyage, Crystal Cruises has dubbed it ” The New Yorker Lecture Series.” In return, the cruise company will buy six full pages of advertising space in the magazine in 1998 for an undisclosed sum.

News of the deal prompted a round of plank-walking jokes among New Yorker staff and gave others a queasy feeling. One editor complained that by providing its writers as ad fodder, ” The New Yorker is supplying content” for the cruise. Behind the scenes, the unusual arrangement gave way to sometimes contentious negotiations between advertising sales staff eager to close the deal and editors who feared that using New Yorker writers to promote a cruise line–or any product–demeaned the magazine. The story of the Crystal Cruises account gives a glimpse of the peculiar pressures faced by editor Tina Brown and magazine president Thomas A. Florio and the desperate gimmicks they sometimes have to employ to bring in ads and make money.

Over the last year and a half, the most distinct changes in The New Yorker ‘s format have been implemented with advertisers in mind. The Book Currents column in the Goings On About Town section helped the magazine land Barnes & Noble Inc. as an ad client after a courtship of nearly three years. Similarly, the crossword puzzle helped bring in ads for Mont Blanc pens. Staff members say Ms. Brown’s decision to include a contributors page–well known as ad magnets in the industry–was also a selling point for the ad department. Ms. Brown has also increased the number of advertiser-friendly double issues to eight a year.

Through her spokesman, Maurie Perl, Ms. Brown took strong exception to the idea that the Book Currents column, the crossword puzzle or the contributors page were ploys to lure advertisers. “Tom’s the president and he makes the business decisions and Tina is the editor and makes the editorial decisions, and they work together,” Ms. Perl said. “[Tina’s] first and foremost decision is from an editorial standpoint.” Mr. Florio was equally adamant. “Nothing at The New Yorker editorially is advertising-driven,” he insisted. “Nothing.”

Despite all those changes, ad pages at the magazine have been relatively flat, up just 2.4 percent from last year through March 1998. And New Yorker staff members estimate the magazine continues to lose between $8 million and $10 million a year.

That unpleasant reality has led to recriminations between the magazine’s business and editorial departments, staff members said, with the conflict usually lining up this way: The editorial department polices and occasionally vetoes the sales department’s “cockamamie schemes,” as one staff member put it, “for reasons of vulgarity.” The sales department, on the other hand, complains that editorial has an antiquated view of the business. In an atmosphere in which magazines are expected to offer their advertisers elaborate “value-added” packages–promotional deals that affix the advertiser’s name to everything from the magazine’s parties to its marketing surveys–sales staff members said they can’t compete without what one knowledgeable business-side source called “big ideas.” The battle between editorial and business is usually fought over the desk of deputy editor Pamela Maffei McCarthy, who runs interference for Ms. Brown in her dealings with Mr. Florio. “Tina usually doesn’t find out until the late stages,” said an editorial staff member. “Pam’s job is to say No.”

One such big idea was the Crystal Cruises New Yorker voyage. Mr. Florio told Off the Record the big idea originated with the cruise company and spoke of the deal in the latest marketing lingo. “They asked us if we’d like to be involved in an opportunity to do advertising and to get our writers out there to talk about The New Yorker and to, in a sense, brand The New Yorker ,” Mr. Florio said. “I think that the writers are some of the best P.R. for the magazine.” The way Crystal Cruises conceptualized the round-the-world voyage, each segment would have a name–e.g. “Cartoons and Cartooning”–and feature a New Yorker staff member who would lecture on his or her field of knowledge.

Crystal Cruises wanted to use the writers’ names in its advertisements, and a sample ad was drawn up and submitted to Ms. McCarthy. Sources at the magazine say Ms. McCarthy was none too pleased with the notion of a “Lillian Ross Week” aboard the Symphony . So she pulled out a favorite editorial strategy known in the office as “the A.S.M.E. defense.” The American Society of Magazine Editors has issued strict advertising guidelines for its members, and when the editorial department needs to squelch a problematic business-side gimmick, they call for a review. In this case, the A.S.M.E. guidelines were clear: “The editors’ names and titles should not appear on, or be associated with, special advertising sections, nor should the names and titles of any other editorial staff members of the publication or regular contributors.… The publication’s name or logo should not appear as any part of the headlines or text of such sections.”

Mr. Florio, however, played his trump card: Bon Appétit had recently promoted a “food cruise” with Crystal Cruises, and A.S.M.E. hadn’t objected. Sources familiar with the discussions say A.S.M.E.’s executive director, Marlene Kahan, approved the ad for Crystal Cruises’ New Yorker cruise on the condition that the writers’ names be removed. Counter to A.S.M.E. guidelines, however, the name of the magazine appears in the ad: ” The New Yorker goes to sea.”

As Mr. Florio and Ms. McCarthy were haggling over revisions to the ad, a New Yorker staff member named Rhonda Sherman had the pleasant task of asking writers if they’d like to take a friend or spouse on an all-expenses-paid cruise in exchange for three short shipboard lectures–a value of nearly $11,000 for paying passengers. (A full-fare ticket for the trip runs $42,235.) The response: Hell yes!

Despite some initial misgivings over the decorum of the junket, one writer said, “I decided it would be very easy to live with myself.… In terms of the trade-offs anyone makes in life, this seemed like a fairly inconsequential one.” But soon word trickled down that the contributors would be required to sign some “silly lawyer stuff,” according to one contributor, including a contract agreeing, among other things, to adhere to the ship’s dress code of no jeans and no tank tops. “I’m afraid I’ll get drunk, go back to my room, and put on jeans and a tank top,” grumbled one participant. “Then I’ll probably get keelhauled.” (Lawyers for The New Yorker have since amended the contract to exempt their staff members from the dress code regulations.)

In the end, the first Crystal Cruises ad ran–without the writers’ names–in the recent special issue on Europe. But a Crystal Cruises press release–”the wit, wisdom and style of The New Yorker magazine will be showcased aboard Crystal Cruises”–includes the names, and has prompted further grumbling from those on the editorial side who say that use of the names violates A.S.M.E. guidelines.

A quick poll of editors at other publications found them either wary or not too concerned. “I don’t see anything majorly wrong with it,” said Time managing editor Walter Isaacson. “We’ve let some writers go on cruises in which they speak as long as they don’t accept money. As usual with The New Yorker , it seems bigger and grander than what we’ve done.” Said Rolling Stone managing editor Robert Love: “I would want to be careful. If the thing is a prerequisite for advertising, it’s something I don’t want to get into.”

Ms. Brown declined to comment on the ads, and when asked to address those who might find the ads objectionable, Mr. Florio said, “I would say, What is it you find objectionable? I would want you to know there was no quid pro quo.” As for his relations with his editorial colleagues, Mr. Florio slipped back into his slick lingo mode. “There was no friction,” he said. “There was a process.”

As The Observer was going to press, word arrived out of Los Angeles that the style magazine Buzz had folded. At about 2 P.M. West Coast time, according to Buzz publisher Eden Collingsworth, the magazine’s majority owner, Sharon Chadha, called a general staff meeting and broke the news. A staff member at the meeting told Off the Record, “It’s come as a total shock to us.”

Ms. Chadha told staff members that Buzz was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the assets of the magazine would be purchased by its dreaded crosstown rival, the Walt Disney Company-owned Los Angeles Magazine . The last issue of Buzz will appear in June.

The writing was, perhaps, on the wall. Some freelance writers and photographers hadn’t been getting paid lately, and at least one–an imp who goes by the clever code name John Doe–took matters into his own hands. Angry that the financially challenged magazine hadn’t paid his fee, Mr. Doe, a photographer, decided to get his satisfaction another way, using Buzz ‘s corporate Federal Express number. Loading three boxes with cinder blocks, Mr. Doe addressed them to Buzz photo editor Betsy Horowitz, and called the Fed Ex man. The concrete blocks made it to Buzz ‘s offices in West Los Angeles, along with a bill for over $100.

The magazine had recently folded its weekly listings section, Buzz Weekly, and staff members had hoped that would stop the hemorrhaging. Industry sources said Buzz investors have been hunting for potential buyers in Manhattan in recent months, apparently without luck. Buzz publisher Eden Collingsworth told Off the Record, “I certainly can confirm receipt of three boxes of concrete blocks.”

The winner of the big Tom Wolfe first serial rights auction was–surprise!–Jann Wenner. Rolling Stone will publish three excerpts of the novel, and Men’s Journal will publish a single excerpt as well. According to Roger Straus, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the serial rights sold for “a comfortable six figures.” Sources familiar with the deal said the publisher got close to $150,000. Vanity Fair actually outbid Mr. Wenner by “a nugatory amount,” according to Mr. Wolfe’s editor Jonathan Galassi. But a package that included ad space and several parties won over the author, his agent Lynn Nesbit and Mr. Straus. Mr. Wolfe has come up with yet another title, which his editor said will be his last: A Man in Full . The book will be out in November, not, as Off the Record had previously reported, in September.

Why Is The New Yorker’s Staff Feeling a Little Seasick?