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Secret Service

The legendary editor Clay Felker's most significant legacy was inventing "service journalism," which transformed magazines into proto–search engines.
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But though you wouldn’t know it to read last week’s many encomiums of Felker, the fact is that New Journalism’s efflorescence at New York didn’t last for long. A few years at most, until roughly 1972. Felker quickly sensed that New York couldn’t mimic Esquire, nor could it try to pass itself off as some precious repository of creative non-fiction. Yes, Clay Felker was a revolutionary figure in the history of print media, but New Journalism isn’t the reason. Clay Felker’s most significant contribution was inventing the concept of service journalism, the magazine as proto–search engine.

Felker was the first editor to think about New York like a sports fan (his father, it should be noted, was managing editor of the Sporting News, and Felker himself covered sports as a young reporter). And like any self-respecting fan, Felker had an urge to gather up all of the crucial data and taxonomize it, order it properly, and then sell it as the absolute final word.

Felker looked around the city--or at least Manhattan, the only borough he really cared about--and saw compelling chaos all around him. It’s now hard to imagine the city as an island comprising many ethnic neighborhoods and little pockets of cultural ferment, thrillingly polyglot but impossible to master with any ease. There were no Mocha Lattes on every corner, no Disneyland retail, no ubiquitous bank branches or Duane Reades, and no online city guides to tell us what to do.

As the editor of the first magazine to audaciously call itself New York, Felker wanted to make sure he got it right. So he subdivided the cultural chaos into neat, bite-sized chunks of information and made everyone think they were a little bit smarter and savvier for having read the magazine. No more 8,000-word thesis papers on the South Bronx; New York was arguably the first magazine for which the phrase “user-friendly” might be applied. Ask your mother what she turned to first in the magazine, and the answer will invariably be ‘Best Bets,’ the two-page shopping guide that Felker invented, which birthed Domino, Real Simple, and every other pure product play on the newsstands.

Like a Yankee nut trying to settle a bar bet, Felker broke everything down into definitive lists: the ten best bagels, the best podiatrists in town, even the best country music clubs, for Christ sakes. Milton Glaser, New York’s brilliant design guru, once chided Felker for so many lists, but once Felker initiated this new direction, ad revenue took off like a rocket. New York was the first publication to keep its purview local and locked-in on the goods and services available to the city’s residents--hence, “service journalism,” a term many regard as a contradiction in terms.

There’s a good reason for that: Service journalism, as Kurt Andersen points out in his piece on Felker which ran in New York, is awful for the most part. It creeps too close to publicity. It reeks of front-office intervention, the final breakdown of the wall that’s supposed to separate editorial from advertising. The problem with service journalism now is that it’s become ubiquitous on the newsstand; Lucky and their ilk are catalogs with mastheads, really, and I suppose Felker has a lot to answer for in that regard.

But if you go back and rifle through those old New York back issues, you get the feeling that the objective was different then. Felker, a Missouri native, was passionate about the city as only an outsider can be: he had a proselytizer’s zeal for exposing his readers to whatever mattered at that moment, because it was new to him, too. And his ear for good, witty writing meant that only good, witty reporters applied themselves to the task of trawling for urban treasure. Baumgold, Mimi Sheraton, Peter Maas, Nick Pileggi, and Nora Ephron were frequent contributors during the early ’70s era. For example, we didn’t just get a guide to the best delis in the city. Instead, Sheraton, "The Underground Gourmet," wrote "A Gentile’s Guide to Jewish Food." A twist, a strong point of view--that was Felker’s criteria for everything that ran in the magazine.

New York always looked great, too--sleek but given to a hand-crafted aesthetic, thanks to the work of Glaser, art director Walter Bernard, and Seymour Chwast. They all took "Service" seriously, and it showed. The magazine became a forum for service without the cynicism, the craven need to please corporate sponsors, and the dumbed-down pith that passes for clean copy today.

What is wrong, exactly, with trying to sniff out the very things that lure people to the city to begin with, if you’re clever about it? What about the initiates, like the college freshman from Bayonne who wants to find the best pastrami sandwich? What of the nanny looking for the safest park? As much as New Yorkers like to think of themselves as being immune from material lust, Felker intuited that, deep down, we are all consumerist whores at heart. Forget every service magazine that emerged in its wake; New York was really the precursor for the modern search engine. Google, meet your father.

Felker’s career never again reached the brilliant peaks of his tenure at New York. But he must be recognized as the man who understood the value of service journalism in alerting a city to itself. It’s not enough to simply live in interesting times. You have to participate yourself, and Clay Felker made life a lot more compelling for everyone who read the magazine during its ’70s heyday.

Marc Weingarten is the author of The Gang Who Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution.

By Marc Weingarten