The New Yorker Goes Digital

Even though The New Yorker abandoned the languorous, pleasantly archaic style of the Shawn era some years back, with run-on sentences that Tom Wolfe, not inaccurately, lampooned as a “whichy thicket,” and more commas even in short sentences than one could find in any other publication, it was a shock to read the venerable magazine on an electronic screen, as we were able to do for the first time on the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 12, in what calendric experts agree to be the true first year of the new millennium. Well, not the whole magazine. The New Yorker’s new Web site, which you can go to by clicking here, reads like a compromise between the Atlantic’s Web site, which disgorges everything from the print edition, and the stingy Web site for Harper’s, which expects readers to be satisfied with just an online Harper’s Index. The New Yorker gives online readers more than half the contents of the current issue, which we must now refer to using the retronym “print issue,” and which happens this week to be the anniversary issue, which usually has Eustace Tilley on the cover, and which, of course, makes it especially appropriate for The New Yorker to be unveiling its Web site just now, which is not to say that an Internet version of The New Yorker fails to jolt jolly old salts like us. It does.

In addition to shovelware from the print edition, The New Yorker Web site posts some copy that’s exclusive to the Internet. So far, this consists of two items. The first is a brief, characteristically charming, piece by Hendrik Hertzberg explaining how the cartoonist Rea Irvin came to invent Eustace Tilley. (Let it be said, however, that Mr. Shawn would not have appreciated Eustace Tilley being described as a “top-hatted twit.”) The second is an interview with Alice Munro, conducted by her editor, Alice Quinn, that focuses not on the content of her work but on the minutiae of her work habits as a writer of fiction, a subject which always bores us to death. But maybe our wife will like it.

We are prepared to declare the online “Goings on About Town” an unqualified success. The listings are broken down into individual links: one for “The Theatre,” one for “Movies,” one for “Art,” and so on. This feature, combined with the fact that you can search for individual plays or movies or art exhibits by hitting “control f,” makes the online version of this section easier to navigate than the print version. The “Talk of the Town” section is another feature that may prove to be more popular online than it is in print. The advent of the Web has made these brief articles seem misplaced in a print magazine–when we encounter them, we often say to ourselves, “We already get a bellyful of this genre on the Internet.” In time, we wouldn’t be surprised to see “Talk of the Town” removed from the magazine altogether, and posted daily on the Web instead, and though this would no doubt upset New Yorker traditionalists, who are legion, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, since topicality is extremely important for these pieces.

And now, for the bad news. We are dismayed with the size of the print, which appears to be quite similar to, and may even be identical to, the font used in the print edition, which is fine for the print edition, but not fine for the online edition. We find reading it onscreen slightly difficult. We could solve this problem by printing the longer stories out, but this poses a different problem: Since there’s no “print only” option, you eat up a lot of pages and a lot of ink. Nicholas Lemann’s piece on the Bush tax cut, for instance, is only five pages in the print edition, but it managed to eat up nine pages when printed out, and that’s without any ads.

The other bad news is that the very thing we most want from a New Yorker Web site–an archive of past stories–isn’t really there yet. There is a link called “From the Archive,” but so far it includes only “The Smoker,” a short story by David Schickler that the magazine published last June 6; “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks,” a Joseph Mitchell feature about steak houses, published in April 1939; and a profile of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Jon Lee Anderson, published in September 1999. Obviously the magazine can’t put everything it’s ever published into its archive, but it needs to post more. We should add that the layout of the “From the Archive” page is so confusing that it took us a few moments to figure out that it included two other articles in addition to “The Smoker.” The other two are designated by a small box on the right, headed “related links.” They are identified only by headline, which doesn’t really tell you much, and, in the case of the Mitchell piece, the headline is misidentified as “All You Can Eat for Five Bucks.” (Or, possibly, the latter is the real headline and the one above the story itself is wrong.) At one time, we would have been shocked to see a typo in anything connected in any way to The New Yorker, but we’ve been noticing for the last few years that the print edition has the occasional typo, too. We are not inclined to make a big to-do over that, however.

Also, the cartoons don’t work very well. The real pleasure of New Yorker cartoons comes from stumbling onto them, and that just isn’t possible on the Web.

[Update, Feb. 13: They fixed the typo.]