He was proclaimed as a "magazine innovator" in the obituary on the front page of The New York Times for July 2. The paper was describing Clay Felker, the longtime editor of New York magazine from the time it first started in 1964 as a supplement to The New York Herald Tribune. Felker continued at the helm when, four years later, the Trib went belly up and he took New York, with the help of graphic designer Milton Glaser, on its own as a freestanding magazine.
So what did the Times mean when using the word "innovator"? According to reporter Deirdre Carmody, New York's mission was "to compete for consumer attention at a time when television threatened to overwhelm print publications. To do that, Mr. Felker came up with a distinctive format: a combination of longer narrative articles and short, witty ones on consumer services. He embraced the New Journalism of the late '60s: the use of novelistic techniques to give reporting new layers of emotional depth. And he adopted a tone that was unapologetically elitist, indefatigably trendy and proudly provincial, in a sophisticated, Manhattan-centric sort of way. The headlines were bold, the graphics even bolder."
Notes the reporter: Felker was largely credited with "inventing the formula for the modern magazine" simply by focusing unflinchingly on "the city that fascinated him."
In Carmody's opinion, the attitude that he and his staff imparted to the magazine "captured the attention of the city and influenced editors and designers for years to come. Dozens of city magazines modeling themselves after New York sprang up around the country.
"Mr. Felker's magazine was hip and ardent, civic-minded and skeptical. It was preoccupied with the foibles of the rich and powerful, the fecklessness of government and the highjinks of wiseguys. But it never lost sight of the complicated business and cultural life of the city. Articles were often gossipy, even vicious, and some took liberties with sources and journalistic techniques."
Felker's stable of star writers was an enviable bunch, including such powerhouses as Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem and Tom Wolfe, who helped spread the magazine's fame far beyond New York City. "Meanwhile, what he called its 'secret weapon,' its service coverage — on where to eat, shop, drink and live — kept many readers coming back."
In the end, Felker lost his baby to Rupert Murdoch in 1977, after a protracted and nasty takeover struggle. "But," wrote Carmody, "his influence can still be felt in the current magazine, from its in-crowd tone to its ubiquitous infographics and inventive typography tailored to each article."
Adam Moss, the current editor of New York, perhaps gave Felker the ultimate compliment: "American journalism would not be what it is today without [him]." Moss once said that Felker "was obsessed with power, and he invented a magazine in the image of that obsession," one that "reported on the secret machinations of the city's players."