On Tuesday, The New Yorker launched a science and technology page on its website, along with a companion blog called Elements. The new Science & Tech vertical, wedged prominently between Books and Business on the homepage, had been on NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson’s to-do list for a while, and in January he hired BuzzFeed’s Matt Buchanan to be deputy editor of the section and the blog. On Thursday, Thompson, who joined The New Yorker as a senior editor in 2010 after five years at Wired, and left print to manage the website in 2012, shared his thoughts on the foray into science and technology online.
Why did you decide to add a sci-tech page and blog?
It’s something I had wanted to do more or less since I took the job. Traditionally, content on The New Yorker’s site has been grouped into news and culture. A couple months after I started, we added a books category, and it seemed like science and tech was the natural next step. Even before I took over as editor of the site, I had been blogging a lot about technology. Sometimes it would run in News Desk and sometimes it would run in Culture Desk. Science and technology are things that The New Yorker has done really well for a long time, but we didn’t have a clear home for them online.
Are there any particular stories or issues that made sci-tech seem like the natural next step?
The question of how technology is changing the way we think, the way we relate to one another—that’s a huge question that requires in-depth coverage from all sorts of places, some of which we can provide.
You can look at our initial posts to see what we’re interested in. There’s Maria Bustillos, who had a big post about bitcoins and the global economy—how technology is changing finance, changing the way markets work. And Michael Specter had a post asking, “Can we patent life?” The patent system is one of the most inscrutable, but also most interesting, features of the American economy. How do you reform it? What should and shouldn’t be patentable? Who owns our genes? These are big topics, things that as a society we have to figure out the answers to, and we’re not going to figure them all out on a New Yorker blog, but they are conversations we want to contribute to.
Joshua Rothman had a great article, “Nine decades of science coverage in The New Yorker,” that described a longtime focus on technology—the things we create and how they shape our lives. Will that continue at NewYorker.com?
Absolutely. The principle is to take what we’ve always done in the magazine and expand it to this fast-moving world of the Internet as best we can. We want to take the things we’re good at, and try to cover of them at Web speed.
Josh’s post is a great example of how The New Yorker has covered science and tech, what we’ve done well, what has interested us, how we’ve written about it, how we’ve covered it. It appeared on the first day for two specific reasons: to remind people that this a magazine that has done this great work, and to serve as a set of guidelines for what we want to do, to help us determine what to cover and what not to cover.
So, in terms of approach, will that mean more newsy posts, or a lot of enterprising, feature-y kind of stuff?
We want there to be a mix. Facebook is announcing a new phone today, for example, and we’re certainly going to see if we have a good way to respond to what people are talking about. If we don’t have a way of saying something new, we won’t publish anything, but we’ll try to engage in that discussion. So, as best as possible, we’re going to be involved in the conversations of the moment.
But what’s the point of having a New Yorker blog about science and technology if you don’t also use it to really dig into stuff? Ideally, we’ll end up with a lot of pieces like the one about bitcoins. They’re in the news right now—everybody’s talking about them—but our article is about 4,000 words long, with history, in-depth interviews, and real reporting that involves actually going out and talking to people and finding out things.
You’ve recently published some great work by new writers like NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus. What other novelties can readers expect?