Just Break Open the Establishment Already

Photo: Courtesy of The Atlantic

A few years ago, someone introduced me at a party to a man — a swaggering, posh-leftist, real type of a man — who worked on “long form” for the website of A Very Prestigious Publication. I was described as “Noreen, who works at New York.”

“Ah!” the guy replied. “You work for the Cut?” I adore the Cut, New York’s women’s vertical; I sometimes write for the Cut; it’s a flattering place for people to assume you work. But as it happened, I worked on the print magazine side of the operation, editing “long form.” That didn’t compute, I guess, with what he assumed I might write about or edit, or who he imagined — maybe based on the magazine’s history — to be guarding the gates on print here.

I thought about that when I read an interview that Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, gave to the Nieman Lab alongside Adrienne LaFrance, the magazine’s executive editor, who oversees the website. It was meant to be a discussion and celebration of the publication’s efforts to recruit and promote more women — which the magazine has done under Goldberg — but it went viral for the wrong reasons. Goldberg explained that there was one area in which it was difficult to achieve gender parity or racial diversity: print magazine cover stories, where, as the Nieman Lab pointed out, 11 of the last 15 Atlantic print issues have had covers authored by men.

GOLDBERG: It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.) Cover story selection is, however, the clearest indication of what the editor-in-chief thinks matters, and where he spends the most money; it’s the most idiosyncratic choice the person in that role gets to make. Editors agonize over what their choice telegraphs to the world. So if Goldberg is having trouble in his diversity efforts in this one area, it’s particularly revealing about what he’s had drilled into him over the years, by the milieu he came up in, about what kind of work deserves to be on a pedestal.

Goldberg is upset that his words were taken out of context, that people on the internet are missing the bigger picture, and the hard work that he is doing to promote and seek out women and candidates of color, and his — truly! — fine record on that front. (Sounding a bit like Jane Goodall, he says in the Nieman Lab interview, “I studied their potential, their innate leadership abilities, their competence and ambition.”) But this initiative that he has undertaken is filtered here through the language of obligation, of creating a presumably long “pathway” to write the story. This is the framework of political cause, of benevolence, of noblesse oblige — and also of onerous editorial effort on his part. It is the language of well-meaning condescension.

What Goldberg seems to be saying — in addition to size matters — is that the kind of people who write the stories he used to write, the ones that make him feel competitive, maybe, are almost all white men. He wants Big Ideas, or features reporting from inside the literal palace or the clubhouse. (These are also the kind of stories that often interest the kind of people who tend to own magazines.) He’s keeping his eyes peeled for women and people of color who will satisfy him with having developed “that particular journalistic muscle,” as he puts it. He wants to update the lineup with a few subs, not draw up a new playbook.

The truth is that white guys have gambled on white guys forever; they gambled on him to write a cover story (here!) when he was in his 20s. Goldberg’s predecessor gave a young blogger, Derek Thompson, a big cover story in 2012. Goldberg may conscientiously acknowledge how a wider set of hires might change story selection, but the thing he doesn’t talk about is what those green writers — with the perspectives he knows he needs to include — might be giving him and his magazine: life, energy, something different than what’s come before. Trying someone new for a big cover story who mostly writes online doesn’t mean lowering standards. (As the editor of the Atlantic well knows because that’s where Ta-Nehisi Coates did his blogging before they put him in the magazine.) Instead, it can mean getting access to a new set of notions about what is central to the culture, which ideas and people to elevate, how to tell a story, and where to look for one. The chance to unearth The New, both in subject matter and writer — as the Atlantic did, of course, in publishing the essays of Coates; as it does today regularly all over its website and elsewhere in its pages — isn’t that the most exciting, rewarding, thing you can do as an editor? Isn’t it the best thing you can give your readers?

And he’s right that it can be more work to bring in The New. It’s easy to be the gatekeeper who says no, who looks wise and practiced in refusal, who works only with the longtime pros who might be phoning it in, but are doing so by the book. This is how Establishments get established. Being the person who gambles, who says yes, is a bigger risk, requires more sweat on the part of the editor to shape and to teach. (But where’s the glory, at least this century, in spotting that Michael Lewis has talent?)

But maybe it’s not more work to try someone new. There is no acknowledgement that many of the rising writers who would want the Atlantic’s cover story might have not just talent but skill, and that the difficulty might not be so much the supply of writers, but rather the scarcity of magazine real estate. There is also no acknowledgement that writing cover stories really isn’t this niche skill, and that actually almost any writer with a dedicated editor can write a feature (and the Atlantic has done plenty of heavy rewriting in order for bold-faced names with fancy titles to be in its pages).

Goldberg’s wife, Pamela Ress Reeves, who advises Melinda Gates on gender, “introduced me to the concept — which you don’t have to be married to a gender specialist to understand — that women are judged on experience and men are judged on potential,” he says.

This is of course often true, and there’s virtually no better example of this than Goldberg’s own career: Before he was persuaded by David Bradley, the Atlantic’s then-owner, and Bob Cohn, its president, to take the job (instead of a number of external candidates who were — dutifully, it now seems in hindsight — women and people of color), he had been exclusively a writer (sometimes a blogger, no less) with no management experience. “In the end, the editor appointment was a harder call for Jeff than it was for Bob and me,” wrote Bradley in a memo to staff. He had recruited Goldberg as a writer from The New Yorker with a literal pony in 2007, and then gambled big on his potential less than a decade later, when he was over 50, an age at which it’s even harder to imagine that happening to a woman. Bennet, whom Goldberg replaced, is the son of former NPR president Douglas Bennet, and ultimately left the magazine because he was recruited to the New York Times by soon-to-be publisher A.G. Sulzberger, son of former publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Bennet replaced Andrew Rosenthal, son of former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal, as editorial page editor. Since joining the Times he has hired and promoted multiple women, multiple people of color, and one Bret Stephens; Bennet’s brother is running for president, and he is one of a handful of white men who seem likely to become executive editor when Dean Baquet steps down at age 65.

“It might not work. It often doesn’t,” Goldberg said, of trying someone new. So what happens when it doesn’t work? Does it give the gatekeepers — in media and elsewhere — an out to say they tried once or twice, but it’s just not a fit? We tried a woman who was a tech innovator, and even though she was a Stanford dropout with megalomania like the rest of them, it didn’t work. We tried a woman running for president, but even though she was an Ivy League lawyer with megalomania like the rest of them, it didn’t work. We tried a woman running a prestige general-interest magazine, but even though she was a spendthrift with megalomania like the rest of them, it didn’t work.

Maybe the gatekeepers stop trying new kinds of people. Or — more damaging in the long term to those kinds of institutions — the people they’re not letting inside stop caring about getting behind the gates.

Just Break Open the Establishment Already