Corrections and Amplifications, Part 1

In my “October Notes” blog, in which I made some pedestrian speculations about the future of print, I remarked that some magazines never made a profit, and never expected to. The New Yorker is famous for never having made a profit since it was launched in 1925. Owners support it like they’d support a yacht, just because they enjoy owning it. It’s famous for that business model, if you can call it that. Through all those years of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Joseph Mitchell, Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, John Updike, and company, it was famous and appreciated but not actually profitable.

That’s the story, anyway. It’s not publicly traded, and it’s hard to nail down their numbers, but people in the know, including New Yorker editors, have cited its failure as a business model for years. I hadn’t checked on The New Yorker’s fiscal health recently, but assumed that the 21st century wouldn’t be doing any favors for any old print publication, much less a remarkably old-fashioned weekly that never has splashy ads and in fact has much more print than pictures. But as my resourceful colleague Cari Gervin, who keeps up with nearly everything, pointed out, New Yorker editor David Remnick has recently been claiming that the magazine has been profitable since about 2002.

I wanted to use The New Yorker as a great example of the fact that print doesn’t have to make a profit. But now it turns out to be an even better argument for the idea that print is not dead. It’s profitable, and somehow becoming more profitable in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

If the Internet is killing print, the matter is at least complicated.

In the story about Leola Manning’s hair-raising song “Satan is Busy in Knoxville,” which first appeared in Brunswick/Vocalion’s St. James Hotel sessions of 1930, I found the newspaper descriptions of the murders described in the song, but mentioned that the criminal dockets from that era were lost, and we didn’t know how the case was disposed. The day I was there, that was the assessment of the clerks on hand at the Knox County Archives.

However, my friend Phillip Smith, who works in that office—he also serves as the umpire of local vintage-baseball games–did some digging and found some back-alley routes to the verdict in the case of the fatal bread-truck hijacking near Knoxville College. Not only that, he found the transcript, about three inches thick, saved for unknown reasons. Most such documents from that era are lost.

Will Harris, a “light complected colored man” of Mechanicsville, had been at Greenway’s Pool Room at College and University, and a witness testified he was going to go out and get some money somehow. Another witness who Harris allegedly threatened with his .44 pistol was a Knoxville College student, and a member of a prominent local family. Most surprisingly, as Phillip pointed out, the two men arrested for the murder of Amanda Toole, who’s also mentioned in Leola Manning’s song, play a minor role in the court case, as characters in jail with Harris. I didn’t devote the hours it would take to pore over the whole transcript, but may someday. It looks like it would be a fruitful subject for a thesis. Few blues ballads are so well documented.

At Norris Dryer’s memorial reception at the Standard on West Jackson Avenue last Monday, city policy chief Bill Lyons made a surprise appearance and announced that indeed there would be a plaque on the historic bell. It was one of Dryer’s pet peeves, in his later years, that the old City Hall bell was there for people to gawk at without having any idea of what it was, and why it was considered significant enough to put on a pedestal. In the era before radio, city authorities used the bell to signal emergencies, from big fires to train wrecks. It was important to Norris that people know these things. Now the city is on record, working with the Central Business Improvement District, for promising to supply that plaque soon.

And I’ve gotten several requests for my 2004 cover story about riding the Amtrak Crescent with Scott Miller and his then-band, the Commonwealth. It was probably the biggest adventure of my middle years, and for better or worse, the longest story ever published in Metro Pulse, weighing in at 12,000 words. That was after a good deal of judicious trimming.

It was one of those stories I got a request for once or twice a year, but maybe because I mentioned it in my “19 Boxes” essay, I’ve gotten more requests than usual just lately. I used to be able to find links to it—at one time, it was out on Instagram–but as I remarked in the essay, links aren’t as eternal as we used to suppose. For a few weeks, I could only apologize.

However, Ian Blackburn, co-founder of Metro Pulse, longtime systems manager, and originator of one of America’s few all-local crossword puzzles, found an electronic copy.

I know there’s surely some groovier way to hyperlink it by merely colorizing words. Forgive me. The blogging business is still new to me, and I’m taking baby steps. But see if you can cut and paste this here link:

It includes a very brief reference to Scott’s opening band on a couple of his dates, a then-obscure band from North Carolina called the Avett Brothers. I watched them play in an upstairs bar in Charlottesville, and I’d be lying if I tried to claim, almost 11 years later, that they impressed me with their potential. To be honest, I was just wishing they’d get on with it. The crowd was thinning out as they played, and I worried that it might vanish entirely before Scott came on. Maybe they improved their act.

One thought on “Corrections and Amplifications, Part 1

  1. Chris Hodge

    I believe your statement that the New Yorker Magazine has never made a profit is incorrect. The magazine was founded in 1925 by the Fleischmann family (the people who make the yeast). According to Raoul Fleischmann’s obituary – he died in 1969 – the magazine did fail to make a profit for its first 4 years, but profits grew steadily after 1929., and in 1968 the New Yorker had gross revenues of $26 million, with a net profit of $2.2 million — $14.5 million in 2013 dollars. The magazine was able to command high ad rates – and even be selective as to which ads it accepted – because of its affluent subscriber base. (The average income for the New Yorker subscriber is today twice the national median.) Profits declined in the years leading up to its sale in 1985 to the Newhouse family, but never disappeared entirely. Working solely on memory here, that period coincides I believe with an overall decline in the profitability of general interest magazines, and in the case of the New Yorker in particular, the dryness of William Shawn’s final years. (The National Lampoon, in a wonderful parody, cited a 12-part piece on the history of sand. I myself can attest to having read their 5-part piece on the history of grains.)

    If I can indulge in some pedestrian speculation of my own, I think publishing has historically been a great means for acquiring wealth. Wealth, and influence. Publishing was also a respectable profession for the wealthy, and while I’m sure some publications were subsidized, I doubt many were subsidized by much and for long. Marion Ascoli made significant inroads into her Sears stock to keep her husband’s magazine The Reporter going for 20 years, but I doubt whether there are many significant examples like that. I think today people have found better tax write-offs. (After all, even yachts not sailed get sold.) But other media have become larger sources of news and entertainment – and for their owners, wealth and influence – for several generations now.

    I don’t doubt that the Newhouses bought the New Yorker in part to improve their own social standing, but their efforts since the purchase would indicate that they have expected the magazine to pay its own way, and do not regard it as a public charity. They continue to move very aggressively on both the business side and the editorial side to make it so.

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