Real Media Riffs - Tuesday, Nov 23, 2004

FETES OF CLAY - Ever wonder what's on the minds of the world's greatest magazine editors when they're in the process of producing the world's greatest magazines? Turns out, they're full of Clay. Yeah, Clay, the name, not the organic substance. It's the given name that goes with the surname Felker, as in Clay Felker. As in the guy who inspired, if not directly mentored, many of the best editorial minds of our time.

For those who are more familiar with the history of blogs than magazines, Felker is the guy most directly responsible for the "new journalism" of the 60s, 70s, and '80s. He's the guy who created New York magazine and spawned an entire genre of city magazines that transformed the publishing world. He's the guy who discovered such brilliant young journalists as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, and Pete Hamill.

He's the guy, who even today, is the role model for the best of the best editors. At least, that's what they all said Monday evening during a panel discussion honoring Felker, and, ironically, questioning the vitality of the magazine medium.



"Clay is in my head everyday," acknowledged Adam Moss, the editorial wunderkind who conceived the short-lived, but unanimously-acclaimed Seven Days, a New York weekly that some consider to be the editorial descendent of Felker's reign on New York magazine, as well as weekly counter-culture paper, the Village Voice during its heyday.

After a superb stint as editor of The New York Times Magazine, Moss was made Felker's actual descendent, being named editor of New York, which he has been in the process of retooling in an effort to bring back the elements that made it great in the first place.

"Every day I do this, I think, 'Well, what would Clay do with this?" professed Moss, describing his work on New York as a "restoration exercise" designed to bring back the "core values of New York when Clay founded it and to try to figure out their DNA and to spin them forward."

That DNA code, he said, includes Felker's trademark point of view on feature journalism, that frequently revealed, or possibly even triggered, trends in popular culture that transcended New York or even New York. We all know the stories. Pieces like New York writer Nik Cohn's "Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night," which inspired the movie "Saturday Night Fever" and sparked a disco revolution, or Esquire writer Aaron Latham's "Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit," which defined America's modern cowboy culture.

Other elements of the Felker DNA Moss is trying to reintroduce are the "utility" he brought to New York's city features, as well as the "incredible sense of romance" the magazine reflects about the city.

"I hear his voice in my head too," admitted another Felker protégé, Cyndi Stivers, president and editor of Time Out New York, a magazine that also adapted some of the original Felker DNA, and in the process proved the adage: "New York, New York: The city so nice, they published it twice."

Similar Felker-isms were echoed by other editorial elite, including BusinessWeek's Stephen Shepard; and John Battelle, a co-founder of both The Industry Standard and Wired magazines.

But it was the comments of a speaker who was not directly touched by Felker, and who's work - some might argue, couldn't be more removed - that may have actually captured the spirit of "new," "exciting" and "what's next" embodied by Felker's brand of journalism.

"I'll call him Mr. Felker," quipped a clearly deferential Ana Marie Cox, editor of Wonkette, one of Washington D.C.'s insider blogs published by Nick Denton's Gawker Media. In fact, it is the emergence of influential blogs like Wonkette and Gawker that in some ways may have inspired the topic for the Felker Magazine Center Forum discussion: "How Will Magazines Survive the Internet?"

The polarity of those two media even seemed to be represented by the seating arrangement on the panel's dais, with Wonkette's Cox sitting - from our vantage point - on the far left and BusinessWeek's Shepard sitting on the right on a stage in the plush auditorium of a building owned by and named after Shepard's publisher McGraw-Hill.

"I guess I represent, on this panel, old media," acknowledged Shepard, noting that BusinessWeek this year is celebrating its 75th anniversary. But instead of struggling for survival, Shepard declared that BusinessWeek "will participate in the Internet revolution," citing the business pub's adoption of a digital publishing format developed by Zinio that enables the magazine to be published for a fraction of the cost of its paper-based version and is more easily distributed, especially to international subscribers.

"It has a lot of advantages," shared Shepard. "You can get it to readers real fast." More than that, Shepard said digital editions enable advertisers and editors to provide additional and/or multimedia content to subscribers, turning print ads into the equivalent of TV commercials.

While Shepard believed most magazine's would survive the Internet, former Industry Standard Editor Battelle noted, "Mine didn't." In fact, Battelle seemed to suggest that the Web is where all the real editorial energy is these days and that if he were a young journalist starting out today, online, not in print, is where he'd be starting.

Battelle also described the kind of digital editions that BusinessWeek's Shepard was praising as "fish with feet." While it's unclear what they may ultimately evolve into, Battelle was clear that digital publishing ultimately would "eclipse" print, if only because of its superior economics and ease of distribution.

But it was the Wonkette's Cox who seemed to suggest, ironically, that blogs are only the most recent stop in a rapid evolution of digital publishing that began with small, cheaply printed 'zines in the early 1990s, which were replaced by small, cheaply posted online 'zines in the late 1990s, which were replaced by - for the most part - even smaller, and more cheaply produced blogs in the early 2000s. Cox, a veteran of all three waves of publishing, noted that each was "a big deal and they were going to revolutionize everything," adding, "I'm hoping that third time's a charm."

But Cox, who recalled sitting on virtually identical panels for each of the 'zine crazes, referred to her boss Nick Denton as "crazy" and said she had no idea what his business model was or how he made any money, only that she received a check from him on a regular basis. "He calls it a stipend," she said.

But while publishing's older guard tried to rationalize the role of blogs, Cox was far more forthcoming and down-to-earth about the whole thing, suggesting that the greatest immediate value of blog publishing was for "resume-building" and for young, aspiring journalists to get the attention of mainstream publishers. As for their contribution to the role of journalism, Cox acknowledged that it's not necessarily the goal.

"I'm perfectly happy to have the standards of journalists lifted from blogging. I don't want the two to be synonymous," she said, suggesting that blogs like Wonkette are more about emotional immediacy than thoughtful pundicy.

"People expect to be spun so quickly that they want to see as much of it as possible. And then they start making up their minds," she said, concluding, "It's not journalism. And let's hope we never confuse them."

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