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Nicholas Thompson, editor: 'our capacity to absorb information is growing'

Nicholas Thompson, editor: 'our capacity to absorb information is growing'


We spoke with Nicholas Thompson, the editor of, about The New Yorker, the magazine, the website, Twitter, and what it means to be a successful magazine in 2012.

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Nick Thompson 5MOTV headshot
Nick Thompson 5MOTV headshot

Nicholas Thompson's a busy guy. He's the newly-appointed editor of, the website companion to The New Yorker. He's also co-founder of The Atavist, an ASME-nominated company experimenting with new ways of publishing and selling long-form journalism. He's a former senior editor at Wired, a contributor to Bloomberg and CNN, and the author of a book about the Cold War. Thompson spends his time dealing with the intersections between people, journalism, media, and technology, and has some fascinating insights on them all. We talked about his job, his seemingly endless #longreads tweets, and whether or not he agrees with Malcolm Gladwell on the value of Twitter.

Follow Nicholas on Twitter @nxthompson.

What was your first computer? What do you use now?

An Apple IIe. Now I use a MacBook, and I have a Chromebook, too.

What was the last technology or gadget that really amazed you?

The Sonos speaker system I started testing out three months ago. I love being able to find a song on Spotify on my phone and then play it immediately.

What's your first memory of the internet?

The pure thrill when I upgraded from Emacs to Pine.

Where do you look for inspiration and ideas?

I like meeting new people and asking them lots of questions.

What apps do you use most, both by choice and because you have to?

On the iPad: Tweetbot & Longform. As the father of young kids, I also have nothing but good things to say about Drawing Pad and Peekaboo Forest.

"For a long time, the internet seemed to always push things to be shorter and snappier. A reaction of some sort was almost inevitable"

You've been a pretty big promoter of the Longreads movement, which is kind of an odd thing. Why do you think it's taken off like it has?

People love long narrative story-telling. It's sort of innate. For a long time, however, the internet seemed to always push things to be shorter and snappier. A reaction of some sort was almost inevitable. And fortunately, some of the people who've been curating longform narrative content have done a great job of building communities and making things easy to read and find.

What was the last book you read?

Alberto Salazar's "14 Minutes."

Where do you read the New Yorker? Print, iPad, Kindle, online?

I read it online, every day, of course. I also read the magazine content in the iPad and in print every week.

What sites do you read most, other than

The Verge, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Google News, Bloomberg's Technology page, Silicon Alley Insider, Arts and Letters Daily, Politico, Reds Army (or Pats Pulpit, depending on the time of year). I also listen to This American Life and Planet Money.

How do you and The New Yorker decide what gets pushed outside the paywall?

We put up about thirty percent of the magazine each week, including one long feature. There are lots of complicated —and some random — factors that go into the decision about what exactly gets posted.

Do you have different editors controlling the website, the apps, the Kindle subscriptions?

It's pretty much the same group of people. And the design is overseen by the same people too, which is very important. And, amazingly, everyone seems to like everyone else — which is one of the best things about The New Yorker.

The New Yorker has a ton of different pieces, from Tumblr to the magazine to the podcasts. How is the balance struck, and how do you figure out what goes where?

We start with the magazine and figure out what content we're going to put live on the site. If we have a big story that week, and it's something we're going to keep behind the paywall, we'll often do something online related to it: maybe we'll have a podcast or we'll have an author chat. We're also constantly churning out stories that don't run in the magazine but just run on the website. As for social media, we tend to use them, as best we can, to share our best stuff. Twitter's great for long in-depth articles; Facebook is great for pieces that'll start conversations; Pinterest is great for cartoons and covers.

"We want to make sure that people know that the content comes from The New Yorker"

People are increasingly using Twitter, Facebook, and the like to create their own "publications." How does a modern publication take advantage of that, and what does it do to the core product?

We want people to be able to read our stories in as many ways as is possible. We, also, however want to make sure that people know that the content comes from The New Yorker, and we want to figure out ways to make money from it — in order to keep paying writers, editors, fact checkers, and so on. So we try to balance things very carefully.

Do you find people still read the magazine cover to cover? Did they ever?

It depends how you define cover to cover! I doubt many people go straight from our listings to Talk of the Town to the feature well. But there are lots of people who skip around and read most everything in one sitting each week. I love these people.

What do you think of the idea that people's attention spans are shortening?

Yes, they may be. But our capacity to absorb information and keep track of many things at once is also growing.

Magazine apps are often slammed for being slow, large, and kind of kludgy. Why is it so difficult to do properly? Who's doing the best job?

New York has an excellent app, as does Wired. I've also been very impressed with Esquire and Vanity Fair.

Why do you think The New Yorker has been so successful on the iPad, relative to other magazines?

The main reason is that people genuinely like the magazine, and they like to read it. Also, we've, very deliberately, kept our iPad app very clean. There isn't much clutter; it's really just the stories, with some added slideshows, videos, and infographics. always felt like a section of the magazine, rather than its own thing. Is that changing? How so, and why now?

I think of it more as an extension of the magazine. We're trying to do things that work really well on the web — responding to news; breaking news; writing short, smart arguments — with the voice and sensibility of the magazine.

"We're trying to do things that work really well on the web... with the voice and sensibility of the magazine."

Internally, does the New Yorker staff use Google Docs? How has networked tech like that changed any of the editorial processes at The New Yorker?

We use it for all sorts of informal things. It probably makes us somewhat more efficient. And I have spent many delightful weekends in Google Docs with Ryan Lizza, getting ready for a crash close of one of his pieces that's stuffed with breaking news. I'll edit the first half while he adds things to the second half.

People have disagreed a lot about the value of Twitter and social media, even in your own magazine. Where do you land?

I love it. I did a podcast interview a few weeks ago with Sasha Frere Jones and John Bennett, who has been an editor at the magazine since the mid-1970s, and we were all in agreement that communication on Twitter is an art form that should be respected, studied, and used.

What led you to build The Atavist?

Back when I worked for Wired, I was over at Evan Ratliff's apartment one Saturday afternoon and he told that he had dreamed, for years, of trying to build a magazine from scratch for digital platforms, but that he didn't know the right kind of designer. I said I knew just the guy and introduced him to Jeff Rabb. The three of us then started drinking and plotting and came up with it. Eventually, we built the magazine and then started licensing the software that Jeff wrote to create it.

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