Founding Father of New Journalism

October 1, 2008
Felker's milieu: The renowned editor, shown at Village Voice offices

Felker's milieu: The renowned editor, shown at Village Voice offices. The New York Times / Paul Hosefros

Clay Felker, who died in New York on July 1, was a major force in magazine journalism—including this magazine. Felker '51 was the founding editor of New York magazine. He was also the founding chair of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board, a position he occupied from the magazine's beginnings, in 1983, to the time of his death. In that role, he helped conceptualize the magazine's mission of focusing broadly and deeply on the world of ideas; it was an editorial mission, in his view, that reflected the intellectual currents of a major research university.

Duke awarded him an honorary degree in 1998; he also received the Futrell Award for Excellence in Communications and Journalism, given by the Sanford Institute's DeWitt Wallace Center. Duke Magazine honored him in its own way, with a staff position, the Clay Felker Fellow, meant for an aspiring journalist with unusual promise. Felker was renowned for having drawn legions of writers into the journalism profession.

As he recalled in a Duke Magazine profile published in 1996, his interest in storytelling was stirred during his undergraduate days at Duke, which he came to—because he liked the look of the catalogue, he said—from distant Missouri. In the library, he happened upon some bound volumes of the Civil War-era Tribune, and he found himself gripped by the narrative power of the reporting. He became editor of The Chronicle, earnestly committing the newspaper to performing "public service."

Then in 1963, Felker became a consultant to the New York Herald Tribune; later he was named editor of the paper's Sunday supplement, called New York. "Sunday supplements were junk, with the possible exception of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, which was merely boring," Tom Wolfe—one of the Felker-nurtured writers—told Duke Magazine.

After a few years, the paper folded. Felker worked to sustain the magazine as an independent publication. Unlike the stale or shallow supplements derided by Wolfe, New York became a trendsetter, the first city magazine.

Felker didn't just sustain the magazine, though. He managed to capture the essence of a raw and restless city during a time of massive cultural transformation. And he conceived a novel editorial formula. The magazine combined service-mindedness—how to avoid the store with the rudest clerks in the city, for example—and trend reporting, including the cultural elite's inadvertent contributions to the urban theater of the absurd. Among the most famous of its pieces was a searing account of celebrity conductor Leonard Bernstein's genteel cocktail party for the Black Panthers, Wolfe's "Radical Chic."

"New York magazine was not market-driven, it was Clay Felker-driven," Wolfe observed in the Duke Magazine story. "It was Clay's view of the world. In New York magazine, Clay really wrote an enormous novel about the city. He had a lot of collaborators and writers. But it was his vision, his plot—a huge novel called The City of Ambition."

One of Felker's chief collaborators at New York was designer Milton Glaser. In the Duke Magazine profile, Glaser is quoted as saying that Felker brought to New York the curiosity of "a perpetual outsider." As he put it, "It didn't matter what the subject was. It could be politics, it could be food, it could be subway construction—he had this universally astonished attitude toward everything that fell within his purview."

Circles of influence: Felker with Tom Wolfe, top, and with wife, Gail Sheehy, bottom.
Circles of influence: Felker with Tom Wolfe, top, and with wife, Gail Sheehy, bottom.

Circles of influence: Felker with Tom Wolfe, top, and with wife, Gail Sheehy, bottom.
John Bryson (top), Courtesy Gail Sheehy (bottom)

The City of Ambition, a.k.a. New York, came crashing down in 1976, when the magazine fell to Rupert Murdoch in a hostile takeover. Time magazine, in a cover story, referred to "The Battle of New York." It documented the back-and-forth with a drama reminiscent of the Civil War reporting that long ago had captured Felker's interest.

After the New York era, Felker returned to—in fact, acquired ownership of—Esquire. He had to let it go, though, with the collapse of an effort to expand circulation and increase frequency. Other relatively short-lived ventures into publications followed: the Daily News; Manhattan Inc., a magazine that trumpeted the business leader as the icon of a new Gilded Age; Adweek, a well-regarded trade publication; U.S. News & World Report; and East Side Express, an alternative newsweekly. He also worked as a producer at Twentieth Century Fox.

His greatest production, though, would remain New York. That and the seeding of the journalism profession. Among the many notables whose careers he helped launch, in addition to Wolfe, are Gloria Steinem, whose Ms. magazine originally appeared as a supplement in New York; Aaron Latham, whose "Urban Cowboy" story appeared in Felker's Esquire; Ken Auletta, who writes the "Annals of Communications" columns and profiles for The New Yorker; and Gail Sheehy, one of the original contributors to New York, now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and the author of the groundbreaking book Passages. Felker and Sheehy were married in 1984.

Long comfortable in the role of editor as teacher-mentor, Felker culminated his career teaching magazine journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He took unabashed pride in his students' class-produced magazines, written around themes like the meaning of modern relationships that could be richly explored in a California context.

A tribute dinner, held in New York in 1995 to inaugurate the Felker Magazine Center at Berkeley, drew some 700 writers and editors, all of them, to one extent or another, professional protégés of Felker.

Musing, in the Duke Magazine profile, about how California—like New York—was prime territory for trend-spotting, Felker said, "Journalism is very often about the future." It was a fitting observation from someone who influenced the future of journalism.