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HBO Documentary Offers ‘Very Semi-Serious’ Look at the Publishing Business

Bob Mankoff is not exactly a media star, but that doesn’t seem to bother HBO, which is trumpeting a new doc about him, titled “Very Semi-Serious.”

Mankoff, 71, is the longstanding cartoon editor of the New Yorker and, consistent with the magazine’s tradition, he has remained a behind-the-scenes figure, quietly selecting his famously amusing, and often arcane, drawings. And now he’s out there in public, looking downright cheerful.

If Mankoff cuts an upbeat figure on the documentary, that also reflects the attitude of the magazine for which he works — an unusual phenomenon in the industry. I have a number of friends in the magazine business, and they are like characters in a Tarantino movie, anticipating doom at every corner. Careers collapse as fast as ad revenues. In a business once based on great stories and lavish photos, the key to survival now rests on videos, the Internet, metered paywalls, virtual reality apps, conferences and variations on “native advertising” (disguised ads).

Given this gloom-and-doom scenario, I decided to peek under the covers of the New Yorker, currently celebrating its 90th birthday. The publication looks, and reads, much like it did a generation ago. But of course, that’s not really true. In fact, the Conde Nast-owned magazine has been shrewdly, but quietly, adapting to the new media universe. The day-to-day agenda of its editor, David Remnick, reflects this change. When he landed the job 17 years ago, Remnick seemed well cast as the prototypical print editor — a serious Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman who could be counted on to assign important stories and faithfully move the copy. Today, the 57-year-old Remnick has also taken on a mandated role as a media celebrity. He serves as host of a new radio interview show, moderates myriad panels and festival events, and will regularly appear on a new weekly TV show on Amazon, a sort of New Yorker meets “60 Minutes.” He even performs now and then with his rock ’n’ roll band.

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“The magazine’s showbiz focus is even reflected
in the decision to initiate a special entertainment issue in April, complete with a rich portfolio of TV and film stars.”
@mrpeterbart on Twitter

Amid all this, Remnick also focuses daily on New Yorker.com, which has built a substantial fraternity of digital followers. Unlike his Conde Nast colleague, Graydon Carter, however, he has not as yet opened a restaurant or produced a movie.

Cordial and good humored, Remnick is a little defensive about his media celebrity. “I owe this to the magazine,” he explains. In other words, show business is a component of editing a magazine. That showbiz focus is even reflected in the decision to initiate a special entertainment issue in April, complete with a rich portfolio of TV and film stars — an intriguing precedent for a magazine whose critics historically treated entertainment with more pedantry than praise (though the publication has run occasional pieces by the likes of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Lena Dunham and Tina Fey).

Conde Nast doesn’t volunteer numbers on its publications, but the New Yorker’s circulation has now climbed to more than a million. From the outset, the magazine defied most precepts of publishing success. Drawings adorned the covers, not star photos. The principal pieces were both long and occasionally academic. Yet some members of the literary elite, such as Dwight Macdonald, writing in the Partisan Review, labeled them “middle-brow” or “mid-cult.”

Which brings us back to Mankoff. In “Very Semi-Serious,” he admits that cats are funnier than dogs — a heresy, in view of the fact that the magazine’s most reprinted cartoon is about two caninessitting in front of a computer, with one commenting, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Mankoff acknowledges that many of his cartoons simply aren’t funny to readers, but they’re funny to him.

And in the magazine business — even at the New Yorker — a good laugh is hard to come by.

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