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Sept. 14, 2021, 1:05 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“This shit is just embarrassing”: The New Yorker’s archive editor breaks down the print mag’s dismal diversity stats

“As someone who’s done the research, seen all the numbers, I can tell you that things are simply not changing quickly enough to present real, concrete progress.”

Prestige magazines are so white, “their mastheads resemble member registries at Southern country clubs circa 1950,” Erin Overbey, The New Yorker’s archive editor, tweeted on Tuesday. To prove it, she was armed with 96 years’ worth of data from her own employer — circumventing the notion that a diversity audit has to come from the top.

The stats keep coming. (Disclosure: My father, who is white, is a New Yorker staff writer.)

Collecting the data was a painstaking process that took months, Overbey — who on Monday tweeted about pay discrepancies at the magazine — told me via Twitter DM. She’d noticed that the same white writers and critics — “terrific writers that I like and admire but, still, primarily white” — kept appearing in the magazine’s tables of contents. “I started going back year by year via the TOCs. Many of the [writers of color] I already knew, but I Google image–searched every single writer I wasn’t sure of, to make sure I wasn’t missing a writer or critic of color. I have the breakdowns for pretty much every rubric at the magazine. And then I compiled that into a larger data group of what we call fact or feature pieces and critics pieces.”

Most, but not all, of this data is technically public. A reader could go through The New Yorker’s back issues on their own. Data on who edited pieces, however, is internal, and The New Yorker does not publish its masthead. Overbey told me that her focus was on feature nonfiction and criticism “and those are primarily edited by senior or mid-level editors, so that’s more straightforward.”

A New Yorker spokesperson said in a statement:

“We’ve worked hard for years to increase the number of underrepresented voices at The New Yorker, and we’ve made significant progress—among our writers, in senior editorial positions, and across the entire enterprise. Nearly 40% of new hires at Condé Nast are from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. While we don’t believe these tweets present a full or fair view of The New Yorker and its ongoing efforts, there is always more work to do, and we look forward to doing it.”

Michael Luo, the editor of newyorker.com, said that hiring of a diverse group of editors and writers has been prioritized in recent years, especially on the digital side:

Many prominent writers and editors of color cheered on Overbey’s effort, including Dodai Stewart, Doreen St. Félix, Josie Duffy Rice, Porochista Khakpour, and Min Jin Lee. (A couple folks pointed out that Overbey’s analysis excludes theater reviews and therefore Hilton Als, The New Yorker’s long-time theater critic, who is Black.)

In the minority, in terms of public reaction, was Joyce Carol Oates, the 83-year-old novelist whose fiction and poetry have long appeared in the print magazine and whose side hustle is acting like an asshole/possibly performance art-ing (??) on Twitter.

Changing the status quo, Overbey said, is what she’s trying to do.

“White people, who really have no risk factor here except inconvenience and discomfort, have to actively step up and start raising these issues,” she told me, “not just once but over and over again until the needle finally starts to move on this.”

This post was updated several times, with additional information, tweets, and links, on Tuesday.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Sept. 14, 2021, 1:05 p.m.
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