David ‘Mr. Paywall’ Remnick Defends His Turf

The New Yorker editor is emerging as a surprisingly outspoken Web critic

If you’re an editor these days, grab a soapbox and talk about a paywall.

Last month, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger hit New York and went on Charlie Rose to talk about what a tragedy it would be for editors to charge readers for content. “I think it is a very profound statement journalistically to want to put a universal barrier between you and the way the rest of the world is going to work,” he said.

Now New Yorker editor David Remnick is throwing himself into the fray. And he does not agree with Rusbridger.

“I was going to be damned if I was going to train 18-year-olds, 20-year-olds, 25-year-olds, that this is like water that comes out of the sink,” he said, about The New Yorker.

Remnick was speaking at a breakfast for advertisers and some reporters in the Condé Nast Executive Dining Room on the morning of May 25. He said that if you want expensive reporting, then you’ll have to pay for it. Let’s just say that Remnick probably isn’t going to get a lunch with Jeff Jarvis or Arianna Huffington anytime soon and talk Web religion.

“There have been many stages of Web evangelical thinking. You must do this! You have to do that! Or you are clueless,” Remnick clucked.

“Remember the days of information wants to be free?” he continued. “So therefore the only thing that anyone with any brains could do with a magazine like The New Yorker is to put the whole thing online and give it away. Give it away! And if you were against that in some way or you said, ‘Wait a minute,’ you were—wait for it—clueless.

“I opted for clueless,” he said.

Remnick spoke about the magazine’s digital edition (which is its own animal, accessible for a $39.95 fee for people who don’t subscribe to the print edition) and how some content is still free on the Web. He’s figuring it out, just like everyone else. He’s not in a rush. But when he does figure it out, you will be paying. Two weeks ago, Remnick told the London-based Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat that there are “millions” of people who will willingly pay for the news.

At the May 25 breakfast, Remnick continued on this point.

“Clearly, clearly, the endgame—insofar as there’s ever an endgame, it’s all a process—is for you to pay some fee, so you can have the whole magazine online, the archives online and God knows whatever else,” he said.

“If that meant being 2 mph slower than the press critic down the street wanted me to be, so be it,” he continued. “This is very complicated.”

He said that online opinion writing and blogs have their place. Even The New Yorker does it! But it also does much more, and that’s why you’ll wind up paying for the magazine. “Sometimes I look at other magazines and I’ve seen that they have become more like everything else—more like everything else online—and that diminishes the overall,” he said, without getting too specific. “That is something also that I did not want to do. In my mind, The New Yorker is a mission and a cause and has a very deep responsibility.”

But wait, he has another point! “One of the great Web orthodoxies was that no one would read anything of any length online. Bullshit!” Remnick said. “When we look at our most-often-read things, it’s very often not a blog post at all. It’s a long article about Jesus by Adam Gopnik!”

He said that he still has to figure out what to with this “unbelievably revolutionary thing” and how it can best serve deep reporting. But he wants something simple.

As for The New York Times paywall that will come out next January? “So far it seems confusing what the formula is,” Remnick said.

The key to everyone—The Times, The New Yorker, whoever does deep reporting—is that the answer must be simple. “Whatever formula we come up with, it has to be easily explained. You get this for that. You get this for that. And that’s it. It’s simple.”

And as for Condé Nast’s oft-maligned Web strategy, Remnick had a defense for that, too. Other companies made “extremely expensive mistakes.”

“There was a logic in the lateness,” he said. “It was not a cluelessness. It’s not as if it weren’t ever discussed.”

Suggested Next Read

‘This Is Insane, What We Do’

‘This Is Insane, What We Do’

Upon crossing the threshold at Crossfit Las Vegas, it’s obvious this isn’t a typical gym. There are no lines of elliptical machines or treadmills, no rows of Bowflex look-alikes. Instead, it’s a warehouse-size facility with high bars, weight stands and tons of floor space. Walls have whiteboards with names of people, exercises and times scribbled on them.