But one day it kicked up on the schedule. So I was able to call the woman in London and say that the piece that you sold twenty years ago is going to press tomorrow or something. In the meantime she had gotten married. She’d had a child. The child had grown up and the child had gotten married and divorced—so long was this piece in house. And it was really a delightful piece, and though perhaps for her not worth the wait, she didn’t miss a beat when I called her.
So that was the old New Yorker. The biggest difference between David Remnick’s New Yorker today and the Shawn New Yorker is timeliness. During the Shawn years, book reviews ran months, even years out of sync with publication dates. Writers wrote about major issues without any concern for news pegs or what was going on in the outside world. That was the way people thought, and it was really the way the whole editorial staff was tuned.
All this changed when Tina Brown arrived. Whereas before, editorial schedules were predictable for weeks or a month in advance, under Tina we began getting 8,000-, 10,000-, 12,000-word pieces in on a Thursday that were to close the following Wednesday. But something else changed in a way that is more important. Prior to Tina, the magazine really had been writer-driven, and I think this is why they gave the writers so much liberty. They wanted the writers to develop their own, often eccentric, interests.
Under Tina, writing concepts began to originate in editors’ meetings, and assignments were given out to writers who were essentially told what to write. And a lot of what the editors wanted was designed to be timely and of the moment and tended to change from day to day. So the result was that we were working on pieces that were really much more controversial and much less well-formulated than anything we had dealt with previously, and often we would put teams of checkers to work on these pieces and checking and editing could go on all night.
When the new, remade The New Yorker of the last decade was gearing up and we started getting all these late-breaking stories, issues such as logic and fairness and balance—which previously had been the responsibility of the editors—began to fall on the checkers. This wasn’t by anybody’s design. It was because the editors were really busy putting these stories together and they wanted us to look at things from the outside and see how they were framed, and look at them from the inside and look at the logic and the way they were reported and the way quotes were used and many other such things.
That responsibility came to us not in the way of anybody saying suddenly, “You’re doing that.” It just became that when a problem arose, they would come to us and say, “Why didn’t you warn us?” And so it just became clear that there was this gap between editing and checking that had opened up under the pressure of later-breaking stories, and it just seemed logical that we should fill it. It made our job more challenging, and more fun.
Another change that took place in The New Yorker fact-checking during this same period came about in the mid-’90s as the result of the fallout from what was known as the Janet Malcolm case. Janet Malcolm is a New Yorker writer of great distinction. In 1983, she wrote a profile of a psychoanalyst named Jeffrey Masson, who subsequently sued her and the magazine for libel (it was an unfavorable story).