In praise of The New Yorker

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The New Yorker.

Report by NewsroomPlus.com

Welcome to our ongoing series in praise of magazines – where the time has come to give a shout out for The New Yorker

First of all, the reason we’re devoting a regular spot for ‘magazine reviews’ on NewsRoom_Plus –  enabled with the kind help of Magnetix – is twofold.

One reason has similar, if not identical, motivations to the defenders and lovers of books. Namely, a sincere belief that the culture and tangibility of a printed artefact may be subsumable by online formats, but it can never truly be replaced.

The other reason is directly related to the simultaneous mix of currency and curiosity that a print magazine naturally contains and conveys. Speaking just for myself, a magazine hits home most when there is a soupcon of current affairs and an embodied ability to surprise with its quality of writing, or with the wit and weave of its combinant design of words and pictures.

The surprising thing about the institution that is The New Yorker is its well-appreciated retention, and repetition even, of its look and feel, from finely-wrought font to its famous and ever-finessed cartoons that could, at a mere pinch, see the pages being turned back to The New Yorker’s birth year of 1925.

Examining the Nov. 2 issue – The FOOD Issue no less – signs of 2015 do emerge if you flip past its opening signifiers of cultural life (Food and drink, Auctions and antiques, Readings and talks, Jazz and standards, Night life, Orchestras and choruses, Dance, The Theatre, Galleries, Museums and libraries, Art, Movies), which while largely specific to the city many still call the Big Apple, are just so undeniably urbane.

In that most enduring editorial space, ‘The Talk Of The Town’, the commentary focuses on the grilling that Hillary Clinton recently underwent on the backend of seven full investigations of the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi attack that occurred during Clinton’s term as Secretary of State. The conduct of the House Select Committee on Benghazi is summed up in one word: absurd.

For purely journalistic reasons my pick in this section of The New Yorker was a contribution by book author James Surowiecki (he of The Wisdom of Crowds) on the “misdeeds” of the for-profit education industry – schools that “made promises they couldn’t keep”.

In almost the briefest article in this edition of the magazine, Surowiecki surgically identifies that a dependence on student loans and gaming of a taxpayer-funded financial-aid system was the business model for the for-profit boom in the USA that targeted “non-traditional students”.

One sentence says it all: “Since the schools weren’t lending money themselves, they didn’t have to worry about whether it would be paid back”.

Lies and more lies. Lies about job placement rates. Lies about projected life earnings.

Surowiecki incisively observes that students at those cash-extracting colleges could be compared to home-owners during the housing bubble. “In both cases, powerful ideological forces pushed people to borrow (‘Homeownership is the path to wealth’; ‘Education is the key to the future’). In both cases, credit was cheap and easy to come by…”

The, no doubt partial, remedy in the US is that the for-profit gravy-train-riders will be required to “prove that, on average, students’ loan payments amount to less than eight per cent of their annual income”. Ones that fail that test four years in a row will have access to federal monies cut off.

At one level this may shut doors on inclusive education options and accessible degrees to those who were being put on the rack, students.

What Surowiecki argues is that the long overdue “crackdown” should be prompting more money for funding-starved community colleges and public universities. More crucially, he suggests that it would be timely to challenge the notion that a tertiary education automatically transforms a person’s job prospects or presents an automatic answer to an economy’s ills or creates jobs if they’re not there.

Endearing and Enduring Traits
Screenshot 2015-11-10 14.28.12

On a cheerier note, one of The New Yorker’s endearing traits is its low-key and understated story-flow.

A FOOD issue in any other hands might well be wallpapered with in-your-face gourmet photography. Not so The New Yorker.

The entree story, ostensibly about the rustic-sounding Campaign for Rural Barbecue, settles gently into place, and doesn’t mention the subject matter of the North Carolina-based barbecue till well into a meaty five page piece. A great read if you’ve ever suffered from “barbecue deprivation”, or wondered whether a barbecue should come with a wine list.

This is what might be called ‘slow writing’. The next story, on the potential for seaweed to be a miracle food (“if we can figure out how to make it taste good”), lingers even longer, with characters lifting off the page who are happy to be known by handles such as Captain Kelp.

Interviewees aren’t passed off with a potted bio or hasty back story, but rather receive the justice of being written about with the benefit of simply set-out life events, for instance, how it happens that you go from being an oyster farmer one year to a kelp farmer the next, pushed there by extreme weather events.

Elongated paragraph by elongated paragraph, this one article became an easy-to-follow lesson in science and in climate change, then a pointer on how dulse (look it up) was made to taste like bacon when cooked, and on to the joys of diving in an undersea forest.

This is the antithesis of short reading – or, fie upon thy name, clickbait. The Food stories just keep coming, they don’t cave into each other but continue being erudite, educative, and most of all, enjoyable and contemporary in a geeky way.

Did you know research has shown a blue soup bowl can make the soup seem significantly saltier? Or that an evocative soundtrack can intensify the flavour of a food?

Off your fast food? Then an eight pager – yep, eight.. whole.. pages, brings to the fore new outlets (anyone heard of Lyfe Kitchen? or Sweetgreen?) that are operating as “enlightened” businesses.

What about restaurants that do their best to attain hashtags like #LatAm50Best, in a parallel universe to Michelin stars?  Turns out that there could be a world of opaque and obsequious ranking going on. Or not. For a non-foodie, reading about internecine sniping in that world, and of the ’50 Best’ being likened to a “little mafia”, was refreshing.

A HEADY MIX

The New Yorker still succeeds in being a heady mix, rounded out, as it is, with reviews by Critics, and fiction, and poetry. The cartoons appear dated but are as wry and acerbic as they’ve ever been – though with one twist, in that there is now a cartoon caption contest on the last page that I couldn’t recall seeing before (one that pops up with “complete rules” at contest.newyorker.com).

At first I wasn’t sure I could come to terms with The New Yorker democratising its cartoon captions. To be honest I’m still not sure.

Balancing the retention of the classic pen and inks with the image of a successful caption writer glowing in a pinnacle of their penmanship is, I guess, one way of trying to reconcile the unholy sight of an un-captioned cartoon in The New Yorker.

I mean would it still be The New Yorker, without the The?

Long live The New Yorker. 

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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