Friday, June 01, 2007

The mark of a great editor

In his book Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe describes the birth of a new, soon to be famous magazine. In 1963 Wolfe was working at the New York Herald-Tribune and was a part-time writer for its Sunday supplement, Today's Living. The new magazine began with an impertinent question by its editor:

Look… we're coming out once a week, right? And The New Yorker comes out once a week, right? And we start the week the same way they do, with blank paper and a supply of ink. Is there any reason why we can't be as good as The New Yorker? Or better? They're so damned dull.
The supplement changed its name to New York. While it may not have challenged The New Yorker for prestige, it was a remarkable success. It survived as a stand-alone magazine after the newspaper folded. It ran some memorable pieces including Wolfe's masterful "Radical Chic". It certainly was not dull. (The New Yorker tacitly recognized New York's advantage on that score when it made Tina Brown its editor.)

Felker, then, succeeded and his success grew from his willingness to ask an impertinent question.

It is a lesson G.B. Shaw understood very well:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
All progress depends on the unreasonable man. Sometimes I think that one of the key problems for the MSM is that the top editors and executives are exceedingly reasonable men and women. They recognize the hard realities of declining readership and flat revenues. They have accommodated the bean counters and recognize that resources are scarce. Most importantly, as all reasonable people know, fewer resources mean lowered ambitions.

Only an outrageously unreasonable editor like Felker would dare challenge The New Yorker on a shoe string budget. Of course, only an outrageously unreasonable editor could create a new, successful magazine out of the ashes of a dying newspaper.

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