The New Yorker, as the only widely circulated general-interest American magazine without an active Web presence, is one of the last holdouts against the barbarians at the digital gate. Which is why we were surprised when, not long ago, a piece by Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker staff writer, popped up in our online Nexis search. A modern marvel, Nexis offers a full-text compendium of more than 30,000 publications. But until recently, The New Yorker has been conspicuously absent from the vast database.
Does this signal a capitulation of the pen-and-ink magazine to the point-and-click winds of change? When we reached Gladwell (via electronic mail), he said he didn't think so. A Web site with an online archive "is allegedly in the works," he wrote, "although it is probably a long way off."
In the meantime, a few staffers--Gladwell included--have taken it upon themselves to catalog their own article collections online (see www.gladwell.com). But perhaps not everyone: Searching for www.johncassidy.com, we find not a collection of articles by The New Yorker's admired economics correspondent but the home page of a balloon sculptor-magician in Philadelphia.
Perri Dorset in The New Yorker's publicity office promises that an official Web site, along with some kind of digital archive, is coming "sometime in 2001." A welcome addition, because the magazine's current Web home (www.newyorker.com) is all window display and no product. Or, rather, it is all product and no content. Visitors can purchase back issues and subscriptions, buy books by the magazine's editors, and even browse the "Luxlook Gallery," targeted to the upmarket readership; but actual journalism is in short supply. (The only articles available on the site during a recent visit were those nominated for the 2000 National Magazine Awards.)
One might ask what has taken The New Yorker so long to boot up. But the question is not welcomed in the famously insular institution. "There's no story here," Dorset assured us. It wouldn't be a bad guess, though, that the magazine's hesitation about going electronic has something to do with its sense of traditionalism. Five years ago, staff writer Adam Gopnik told an online magazine run by students at New York University that the Web threatens to ruin the reading experience. "The printing press and the bound magazine," he said, "do the job more effectively than an electronic magazine ever could."
There are some who find the idea of the venerable New Yorker joining the online fray to be downright comical. The Modern Humorist posted a parody of the forthcoming New Yorker Web site, featuring Eustace Tilley, the magazine's haughty icon, cautioning visitors to "pardon our dust" during construction (www.newyorkermag.com).
When we reached Daniel Radosh, a senior editor at Modern Humorist, he delivered a backhanded tribute--or maybe it was a forehanded rebuke--to The New Yorker's decision to go online. "The New Yorker is the last bastion of well-written journalism, and the Web is the frontier of utterly dumb, poorly written schlock," he said.
Well, maybe. The Modern Humorist is on the Web (www.modernhumorist.com) and it's not so bad. The New Yorker might well succeed, byte by byte, in raising standards in electronic journalism.