Cities of the Mind

The May issue of UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine is a paean to editor Clay Felker, whose exploits in the magazine trade are praised by writers Tom Wolfe, Ken Auletta and Gloria Steinem, among others. Is Felker’s experience in the 1960s through the 1980s relevant to wannabe media entrepreneurs today? I read my issue of California Monthly on the train home last night, but if you’re not a card-carrying Cal alum, you may have to wait a while before the current issue is posted. Meanwhile, even if you are not familiar with Felker — who made his reputation by founding New York magazine in the 1960s — what his famous protégés say about his editorial style is revealing. “Before each of us went out on a story,” Auletta writes in Cal Monthly, “he instructed us to be sure to answer two questions: Why are things the way they are? How do things work? He knew if we answered those two questions the piece would succeed.” Steinem, among the first names in feminism, says Felker helped bring forth Ms. magazine “by giving birth to its preview issue in the pages of New York .” She paints Felker as a demanding editor and recalls how he skewered her first draft of a story on the then-new contraceptive pill by telling her: “You’ve performed the incredible feat of making sex dull.” Wolfe was vice-president of New York in 1968 when Felker re-launched the magazine as a standalone pub (it had previously been a Sunday supplement in the defunct New York Herald Tribune). He write how Felker risked everything at the outset of his independent publishing career by running a story that risked the loss of “90 percent of the magazine’s advertising.” The following excerpt from the Duke University magazine (which, also, at one point profiled Felker, an alumus) tells more about that article: “In a story called “La Dolce Viva,” writer Barbara Goldsmith profiled a model who was part of Warhol’s “Factory” crowd–which she portrayed as an environment obsessed with drugs and sex–and who starred in Warhol’s soft-porn movies. The profile ran in the fourth issue of the magazine. It included a full-page Diane Arbus photo of a naked, anorexic-looking Viva sprawled on a shabby velvet couch. In her quotes, Viva came across as frighteningly servile to Warhol’s whims; she even compared him to Satan in the eternal hold he exerted on his followers. “I’m nude because Andy says seeing me nude sells tickets,” she told New York . “It’s hard to believe. I think I look like a parody, a satire on a nude, a plucked chicken.” Writing in Cal Monthly, Wolfe explains how Felker narrowly contained a rebellion by the magazine’s financial backers — and reveals that it was Goldsmith, the author of the provocative piece — who had loaned Felker the $6,500 he needed to acquire the New York name after the demise of the Trib! What does this praise for Felker — who is lionized by UC Berkeley because he helped establish a magazine writing program on campus — have to do with today’s publishing environment? Wolfe sums it up when he talks about the Felker’s “vision of New York as the city of ambition … and his insistence on in-depth, reporting—saturation reporting.” In short, he defined a community in geography and spirit. Today place may be less important, though not necessarily so. Or perhaps there are simply more places to define, communities built only of shared interest and perspective, communities waiting to be defined by editorial vision and served by a range of media formats beyond those available to the editors of Felker’s day.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media