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12 September 2014
'Trying to thread four needles at once'

'Trying to thread four needles at once'

Wyatt Mitchell doesn’t have a cup of coffee when he gets into work. He doesn’t drink coffee full-stop. But if he did, he’d have his coffee at home before he gets to work. “When I come in, I begin immediately,” said Mitchell, The New Yorker magazine’s creative director. “I prep myself at home, so when I put my bag down and someone asks me a question, I’m ready to go.”

Arriving at the magazine’s offices on Times Square (not for much longer though; it moves with its publisher Conde Nast to the new World Trade Center building in November), Mitchell checks with each of his team and most days holds a 10am meeting to run through what’s pressing. Occasionally, if there’s not an immediate demand on his time, he’ll open eight to ten tabs in his web browser; his own title, obviously, but also The New York Times, New York magazine, Fast Company, CNN and others.

“Just checking the landscape; see what’s going on,” he explained.

Mitchell’s editor, David Remnick – who famously had just one job, as a reporter and Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, before he was appointed to the prestigious post in 1998 – is never far from his shoulder: “Oh yeah, a great deal of time. We see each other every half an hour or so! He’s a brilliant man and very much involved with every aspect including design and illustration and photography – so he’s very much present with everything I do.”

Remnick, Mitchell and their magazine – which started as a weekly in 1925 and has featured the work of JD Salinger, John Updike and Truman Capote, among many other great writers, as well as breaking major stories, such as US military torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq – made headlines of their own over the summer.

After a redesign of the print magazine by Mitchell in 2013, its website got an overhaul. “On a desktop, on a tablet, on a phone, the site has become, we believe, much easier to navigate and read, much richer in its offerings, and a great deal more attractive,” said a note ‘By the Editors’.

They joked that for months “our editorial and tech teams have been sardined into a boiler room, subsisting only on stale cheese sandwiches and a rationed supply of tap water, working without complaint on intricate questions of design, functionality, access, and what is so clinically called ‘the user experience.’”

The print version of The New Yorker, they insisted, was still a fine technology: “Try rolling up your iPad; and don’t drop it too often!” But, they acknowledged, more advanced technology has some distinct advantages: “Publishing beyond the printed page allows us to present the gift of greater immediacy, the ability to respond to events when we have something to say; the site offers podcasts, video, interactive graphics, and slide shows of photographs and cartoons. The new design also allows us to reach back and highlight work from our archives more easily.”

To mark the occasion, the magazine took down its paywall, which it had long felt was confusing; some content was free, some – perhaps at the whim of a particular editor – required a subscription. They called it a “summer-long free-for-all”, in which everything could be accessed, prompting lists of classic must-read New Yorker pieces down the decades to appear.

Now autumn has arrived, however, the second phase of the magazine’s online strategy begins, “an easier-to-use, logical, metered paywall. Subscribers will continue to have access to everything; non-subscribers will be able to read a limited number of pieces—and then it’s up to them to subscribe”.

Mitchell was in Scotland earlier this month to speak at Magfest, the annual conference run by PPA Scotland. He spoke about his ‘three-stage’ career, at Vibe, Wired and The New Yorker; in essence, he said three studies in design. Vibe was fun and fast, he said; each spread a few hours thinking and 20 minutes to execute. Wired was “four years of pain”, which taught him to be painstaking and to challenge convention. The New Yorker? The biggest challenge of them all, said Mitchell; a 90-year-old publication whose readers stay loyal from age 25 to their death.

So Mitchell and his 13-strong team took their inspiration from the past; as observed at the time: “Although an issue of The New Yorker today still looks almost identical to the first issue published by Harold Ross back on February 21, 1925 – every cover is still a full-bleed illustration with a single band of colour running down the spine, and the contents look largely the same, too – many of the idiosyncratic splashes of whimsy and personality that peppered the design in its early years have been dropped over time.”

Mitchell’s conclusion: “Looking at the magazine’s historical routes, we saw some design touches in its first issues that we wanted to bring back.” The result, said Remnick, was that if the magazine fell on the floor and was three feet away, it would still be identifiable to long-time readers: “We’ve kept the DNA and added some modern elements,” he told The New York Times. Next came the website, which The Guardian said “still looks like The New Yorker, but it looks like The New Yorker with more room to breathe on the subway car”.

In an audio interview on the Magfest website to preview the conference, Mitchell pondered on the evolution of digital: “It has a metabolism of its own. And for a brand like The New Yorker, it is vital for it to be accessed in any format on any device in any medium that we can get on. Unlike some other brands here at Conde – it’s hard to imagine what Wired would like on a ‘phone because it’s so design intensive – there isn’t a platform or a medium where The New Yorker wouldn’t fit nicely.

“The driving force behind that is making sure that we are nimble enough and fresh enough to live on any platform, to synch in with any metabolism, whether it’s checking your phone every five minutes or waiting weekly to read your magazine. In order to do that it requires some changes within the brand.

“I’ve often said that trying to redesign a magazine is like trying to thread a needle. But trying to do that for the web, the tablet and the phone is like trying to thread four needles all at once. One change on one platform can have a ripple effect that goes across all the other platforms so trying to think far enough ahead and intelligently enough to devise anything from a font to an illustration, how will this thing live, can this thing live at 8 and a half by 11 and can it also live at 100 pixels by 100 pixels?

“We’re still finding our way. Obviously [for The New Yorker] print is still king, yet the web and the mobile and the tablet are growing and have a different metabolism. I haven’t quite yet figured out how to do it once that works for all and, probably when I’m honest about it, they aren’t exactly the same things; they are variations. We know what The New Yorker is in a weekly print execution; what we are trying to figure out is what The New Yorker on the web is.”

Bottom line: the spirit of the magazine does not change. As the editors pointed out in their note earlier this year: “Publishing the best work possible remains our aim. Advances in design and technology are tools in that effort. In all forms—digital and paper—we intend to publish in the same spirit of freedom, ambition, and accuracy as Harold Ross [The New Yorker’s founder] did when he prowled the halls nearly ninety years ago, the latest model of pencil stuck behind his prominent left ear.”

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