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Episode XLIV: "How to survive online without losing your soul"

Published 12/23/15
In this installment, I speak with Bobby BairdTopics include keeping your style in the digital world, sponsored content, the editor-writer joust, who has the highest brow & more.

Today I’m with Bobby Baird, the Managing Editor at Harper’s Magazine, and former senior Web Editor at The New Yorker. Let’s start at the beginning: How did you end up in the sort of job English and journalism majors across the country dream of?

Easy: I majored in mechanical engineering.

And then ring ring, The New Yorker called?

Yeah, it's a weird little secret about the place. They're helpless when it comes to engineers…No, actually I took a long and winding path through my twenties that involved a doctorate, working at a literary magazine (Chicago Review!), and freelancing from Uganda. I got a job as a fact checker at TNY when I was already into my thirties.

And from there, you rose in the ranks. Is there a good deal of in-office promotion?

At The New Yorker? There's always been some, but I think the website was particularly good for making those moves possible. It used to be the only way out of the checking department was—except in the rarest of cases—out the front door.

What year did you start as Web Editor? I imagine that role has changed greatly since you started.

I moved over to the web in late 2013. The site was in the middle of a growth spurt when I arrived, and I think it's continued to expand since I left.

What do you owe that success to?

There are a lot of people at the magazine, starting with David Remnick, who want the website to succeed—they want it to be good and they want it to be read. It helps that the site has an editor, Nick Thompson, whose energy is apparently inexhaustible, and that the magazine has a deep bench of staff writers. I should say that it's been more than a year since I left, so all of this information is old news by now.

Harper’s and The New Yorker are two publications unique in today’s landscape, and for similar reasons. Both have a long history (Harper’s started in 1850, The New Yorker in 1925), both have cultivated respect and a sterling reputation, and, crucially, both have adapted to the digital age without losing the style that makes them, respectively, Harper’s and The New Yorker. Many print publications create digital content that's so fundamentally different from their roots, but not the case with these two. Is this a bet that paid off very well, or proof that online readers really are diverse as print readers?

It's a good question without an easy answer.

Music to my ears.

I think that even while I'd say that the bet has paid off, or is paying off, at both places, I'd also resist that metaphor. A bet implies that you put your money down on the felt and you wait to see how the cards come up. But at both magazines, I've seen an incredible amount of thought and effort put into exactly the question of how to survive online without losing your soul. Neither magazine has embraced the spaghetti-on-the-wall approach of some other publications (nope, no names), which helps explain why I at least have been drawn to them.

But even once you've said that there's a basic standard below which we will not stoop, it's constant work to make sure that you're living up to that commitment. There is no doubt in my mind that readers want to read high-quality, well-reported journalism. There is also no doubt in my mind that at least a subset is willing to pay some amount of money for that privilege. The existential question that we and everyone else are facing is whether the amount that subset of people are willing to pay is enough to cover the cost of what they're paying for.

But of course, there's another model waiting in the background, paid advertising and sponsored content, whispering sweet nothings into your ear and telling how good you could be together. It's not just the certain type of publication that's gone in for it (nope, no names), there have been top quality ones too (a name: The New York Times). Is this on the horizon, do you think, for either Harper's or The New Yorker?

I honestly have no idea in either case, so I can't speculate. But I will say that to the extent that sponsored content and the like depends on the reader's confusion—of an ad for something other than an ad—then I'd seriously doubt it. Both magazines have worked very hard to establish and maintain a certain credibility with their readers.

Fair. I recently read that Managing Editor is the kind of position that requires “corralling stables of neurotic writers into successfully running a daily publication.” To be fair, this was in reference to Gawker (written by former Gawker employee Dayna Evans), which I imagine runs very differently from Harper’s. Nonetheless, for the uninitiated, what are the primary responsibilities for the job?

Well, I grew up on a farm, and I'd say that corralling is, in this case, a pretty apt metaphor. Along with Stacey Clarkson, our art director, I help shepherd the magazine through the production process. We get a bunch of word .docs on day one of the cycle, and by the end of the month, they're press-ready PDFS. I also do a sort of advise-and-consent line edit on everything that goes into the issue. That's the specific ME part of the job; like every other editor here, I also assign and edit pieces.

And so here's where the extended farm metaphor fails. I assume shepherding .docs isn't quite like shepherding sheep. Besides matching art to copy, what are the obstacles you have to hurdle each issue?

You're catching me at the end of a cycle so I'm tempted to say that Murphy's Law is a pretty good rule of thumb. One recurring tension at the magazine—and I hasten to add that it's a productive tension—has to do with writerly voice. Harper's takes pride—we always have—in giving writers the room to keep whatever voice they have. 

And yet?

It's that old Wolcott Gibbs line: "Try to preserve an author's style if he is an author and has a style." And yet we're a general-interest national magazine. We want our writers to be read, and we don't want our readers to think of the magazine as requiring dissertation-level interpretative skills. So it's a constant negotiation. For me, sitting in my ME chair, I always try to keep in mind how easy it is for a reader to turn the page or close the tab.

Can you take us into the sort of granular negotiations and mitigations that keep the line firmly between preserving style and not alienating readers? I mean phrases, arguments, points of view—anything that might read as a copy edit but is really a small push in a larger grapple.

Sure, but basically it's anything that raises an eyebrow. An innocuous but recurring example is the little appositive IDs you put after proper nouns. You know: can you trust your reader to remember something that happened in November? In November 2006? In November 1986? Because we're editing with some hope that our pieces will survive the month of their publication, we probably include more of those than, say, a newspaper would. Otherwise it's just the wide range of things that can go wrong in a piece of prose: is this joke needlessly offensive? Is this metaphor clichéd? Is this string of clauses that bear no obvious syntactic connection nevertheless understandable by a reasonably intelligent reader?

At the same time, I always try to remember John Leonard's plaint: "They will always fuck with your copy.” One very unflattering way to describe my job is to say that I am, in part, the chief copy-fucker.

As the chief copy-fucker, is it easier to work with writers who are, or have been, copy-fuckers as well?

Sure, because you share the same shibboleths. Before I started working in media I never realized how much magazines abhor repetition, for instance. And with certain writers, you realize that you just hear the language the same way. But one of the great advantages of working here is that we really do get to work with a lot of pros—people who appreciate the craft of the craft, and who are as keen as we are, and often more, to get things right.

And on the flip side, writers who get to work with Harper's know what an opportunity it is. Do you find it's easier to work with writers who are just happy to be in the game, for lack of a better term? Is there something to the myth of the established name who makes the most of their capital and insists on their vision?

There's a little something to that myth, but probably less than most people think. The established writers who insist on every comma are vastly outnumbered by the established writers who understand and appreciate how editing works and why it’s done. And it's not unheard-of to get a new writer who's much too precious about his or her idiosyncrasies. My general guideline for writers is: you don't have to accept my solution, you do have to take seriously what I (and my colleagues) have identified as a problem.

Can I have a complete list of all the writers with neuroses you've worked with, what those neuroses are, and what childhood trauma you owe the trauma to?

Just dropped it in the mail, along with an itemized receipt from my therapist.

Appreciated. We’re out of time, so I’ll send you out with an easy one: The staff of both Harper’s and The New Yorker are known for their exceptional foreheads. In your honest opinion, whose brow is higher?

An easy one, but let me put it this way. You read The New Yorker if you want mainstream highbrow, you read Harper's if you want to read the article that invented the concept.

Oof. Take the player or take the whole game, in other words.

It's a good game.

Thanks for your time Bobby, and your words.

Thank you!