In a corner of Michael Luo’s office on the 38th floor of 1 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan hangs a front page of World Journal, which bills itself as the largest Chinese-language newspaper in North America. Its lead story features Luo, a journalist who sparked a viral discussion about racism last October after penning an open letter to a woman who accosted him for his heritage. “It made me the face of Asian-America for a little while,” Luo, whose Chinese parents immigrated to the U.S. before he was born, told me.
But just for a little while. The then-New York Times editor left the newspaper weeks later to edit investigations at The New Yorker, and by February he was tapped to oversee its site. The fast ascent made him one of the most prominent Asian-American journalists in the country. Luo’s charge now is to help the storied magazine of politics and culture find a firmer footing on the internet.
The Trump administration has helped push this transformation along: NewYorker.com has averaged 20.8 million monthly unique visitors this year, a spokeswoman said, up 29 percent from the same period in 2016. The magazine has also sold nearly 475,000 new subscriptions since the election, bringing its total to more than 1.2 million paying customers. That latter growth is part of a broader push among many national media outlets to reduce their reliance on advertising revenue.
Luo’s job is in part to draw in younger audiences, which will likely require both new offerings and a more diverse stable of writers. I caught up with him recently to talk about Asian-American representation in media, how NewYorker.com is getting faster covering current events, and whether satirist Andy Borowitz is less funny given the moral panic around fake news.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
SPLINTER: You had this incident last year when a woman on the street told you to go back to China. How has that affected how you think about your job?
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Luo: I didn’t suddenly become an expert on Asian-American history and the Asian-American experience in the United States just because this one thing happened. But it did make me a more visible person and Asian-American journalist. It sort of accentuated my sense of responsibility.
The issue, when it comes to Asian-Americans and journalism, is whether we count when people talk about diversity. This was an issue at The Times. The Times was making a big push around diversity as I was leaving, and still is now. But one question that a lot of Asian-Americans at The Times had was, “Are Asian-Americans part of that diversity push?”
We were doing better, in terms of number of reporters and editors, than African-Americans and Latinos, specifically. But the biggest beats at the newspaper are overwhelmingly white: Covering the presidential campaign, the White House, Congress. When I was on Capitol Hill, I was one of the only Asian-Americans in that place. When I was on presidential buses and planes, there weren’t very many Asian-Americans. One of the things we were trying to make sure of at The Times was that Asian-American representation was still an important concern.
Do you think that’s how it permeates into coverage as well? Not being counted?
The thing with Asian-Americans is this sense of being the other—not quite feeling like we belong. That’s very real. Jay Caspian Kang had this great piece in The Times magazine about a hazing death at an Asian-American fraternity. He wrote about how being Asian-American is a bit of an artificial construct—that different people within that category often have very little in common, other than a shared experience of discrimination. It’s obviously a different kind of discrimination than what African-Americans or Latinos have experienced, but it’s definitely there.
I moved a bunch of times as a kid, but I always lived in these mostly white suburban areas. And even though I was captain of the soccer team or had a lot of friends, that lingering sense of otherness was always there. That’s a social feeling.
When I first started in a newsroom, I was part of this minority training program at The Los Angeles Times. And a big thing they taught us was that the work is important, but so is how you navigate the newsroom. It’s like any other social ecosystem. There is an in-crowd. And there has always been, for me at least, this nagging sense that, as an Asian-American, there’s just additional hoops you have to jump through. I don’t want to overstate it. But it makes a difference when you’re building relationships and trying to navigate an organization.
So when you think about that as an editor, as a person in a position of power, how do you address it? How do you hold yourself accountable?
As someone involved in hiring now, I’ve come to see all these things that make it hard to hire minorities, like slipping into the habit of going to people in our networks. At this place, the thing that can happen is we go to writers that we’re familiar with, or people who’ve been in the orbit of the magazine. Why do we do that? Because they are more of a sure thing.
All those pitfalls are very real. And being an editor now, I’ve realized that it really does take so much effort to overcome those things. There’s no one out there who’s scoring me in terms of my hires. We’ve done a bunch of writer hires who are people of color. But I’ve also seen how easy it is to slip into those old habits. You’ll have to judge me in a couple years.
What do you want NewYorker.com to be and, more broadly, what is a digital magazine?
My predecessor, Nick Thompson, used to say that NewYorker.com tries to be for the internet what the magazine is for the magazine world. You come to us for some guidance in how to understand the news. On culture, it’s not that dissimilar.
So what’s the strategy for that, given that you came in at a time of unprecedented news cycles?
I was talking to Anna Wintour when I became editor of the site, and I asked her, “How responsive do you think The New Yorker needs to be to the news?” She said, “More responsive.”
People don’t want a hot take from The New Yorker, but in this news environment we look silly if there’s some gigantic event and we’re not on it. One thing we’ve been experimenting with is what we’re calling “First Thoughts.” Dexter Filkins was in a bar somewhere when the Syrian missile strikes happened, and he pecked out two or three paragraphs on his phone for us. People want to know what somebody like Dexter Filkins thinks, and it holds us until we can get that 1200-word elegantly written piece.
The other thing I’ve been trying to do is bring more reporting to what we do. The more we can get into that space—the reported commentary space, as opposed to the commentary space—the better.
So, bigger picture, your goal is to find the next generation of New Yorker readers. How do you bring new people in?
I just think a lot of people don’t know what we do day in and day out, beyond just big magazine stories. So part of it—and this isn’t an original thought—is how to push our content to those audiences. I want to make our homepage more of a destination. But I also think there’s a lot of opportunity with our daily newsletter, which has more than 1 million subscribers, as a way to cut through Twitter and Facebook feeds, and have a 1-to-1 relationship with readers.
Facebook and the others are so dominant. But they often require a lot of bells and whistles when The New Yorker has a pretty good core product. Seems easy to overextend yourself.
This place’s infrastructure is pretty thin. There aren’t enough digital brains. We need more of them. The other thing that also falls under my responsibility is video. Conde Nast has put a tremendous priority on video. We’re being pushed a lot to find scale, and we have a five-person video team at this point. What does The New Yorker’s YouTube play look like? We’re trying to figure it out.
Do you think you need to change your content at all to get younger folks?
That hasn’t been part of the discussion. The New Yorker has a very distinct identity, particularly around good writing. And there’s a lot of protectiveness around that.
How popular is Borowitz? Is it odd when he fools people, given all the panic about fake news?
He’s very popular, though I think he’s less popular among younger readers. We’re pretty explicit in labeling him. Occasionally we run into the issue of people sharing him as real news, but I think it’s a pretty small minority of situations. When it has come up, that’s prompted some really serious conversations here.
How much Trump is too much?
It’s super important for us that the focus on Trump doesn’t mean we’re doing less on the culture front. I’m more of a news guy, I’ll admit, but I’m excited by our Game of Thrones recaps. That’s part of the pleasure of coming to NewYorker.com.
With Trump, we have not tapped the brakes. Obviously the orientation of this place is liberal/progressive, but you can write from that perspective in a way that’s surprising sometimes. That’s what we’re aiming for.