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David Remnick Laments the "Cultural Serfdom" of Young Writers on the Web

capitalnewyork.com

For what was essentially an audience of twentysomething journalists aspiring to write for the New Yorker, editor in chief David Remnick had no incontrovertible advice on the subject Monday evening.

Noting the recession of the small town newspaper, he cited the Internet as an alternate point of departure for journalism-school graduates.

“There’s a whole wave of websites,” Remnick said optimistically, addressing the magazine program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “How to get published online is one question. How to get paid, how to make a living — which I have had to do; no rich boy was I — that’s an entirely different and more complicated question.”

Remnick’s turn at the helm of New York’s most rarefied politics and culture periodical has been characterized by fiscal accountability: when he first took his post, the publication was losing money and there was talk of making it a bi-weekly, but these days, as Remnick announced, it’s a “profitable magazine, quite profitable.”

The editor in chief’s emphasis on monetary compensation for literary value came into perspective via his description of himself as the pragmatic son of two parents plagued by health problems: “I wanted to be a writer first and foremost, and my mother might have been an art teacher, but she was an art teacher in a wheelchair, and retired after I was in kindergarten, and my father’s health fell similarly apart. So the idea that I would graduate from school and set up shop as a novelist was an impossibility.”

As a student at Princeton, Remnick interned twice at The Washington Post. “There were these things back then called paid internships,” he quipped. (There are still today, although they’ve become more competitive than ever.) He added later: “I think this business of getting people to write for free is obscene, and it’s a kind of cultural serfdom that’s wrong, especially for places that can find a way to pay."

But when the editor’s NYU host, magazine program director Meryl Gordon, directed his attention to the end of Condé Nast’s internships, Remnick immediately pulled the “no comment” card.

“Alas, as you know,” Gordon began, “Condé Nast just ended all internships. Obviously, it’s a huge loss for us—“

“Can I be a weenie on this?” Remnick asked, cutting her off. “Condé Nast has a lawsuit” — filed against the magazine publishing conglomerate in June by two former interns who claim they should have been paid at least minimum wage — “and I have to respect that that’s in litigation. I cannot stand the comment ‘no comment.’ I’m going to pass on this one.”

He offered as amends the opinion that “it’s very important to the New Yorker or any other publication to find a way to get young people a leg up … The web didn’t exist ‘x’ years ago, and a lot of those writers who are writing for the web are extremely young and it’s more fluid. Look, in print, we’re only publishing a dozen things a week, on the web we’re publishing I don’t even know how many. And believe me, when something really good is up there, I take notice.”

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