The Archivist and the Magazine

How Erin Overbey, the ‘New Yorker’s’ longtime archivist, threw the publication into turmoil

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO - FEBRUARY 8, 2020:  A woman retrieves a copy of The New Yorker magazine from h...
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Two weeks ago, The New Yorker fired its archivist, Erin Overbey, after the longstanding staffer wrote an extensive thread blasting the magazine and top editor David Remnick. As the thread told it, the magazine had put Overbey under a performance review, accusing her of being “disrespectful,” self-plagiarizing, and including factual inaccuracies in her newsletter.

Overbey saw the review as a response to her having “consistently & persistently SUWF — a.k.a. Spoken Up While Female” — a reference to a public thread that she wrote last fall, highlighting pay and hiring inequality within the magazine. The explicit takeaway from this latest thread, which was published July 19, was that the magazine was punishing a whistleblower by attacking her performance: “I also hope that speaking out on this,” she wrote, “will make other publications think twice about going after or seeking to punish whistleblowers & institutional critics.” She also tweeted a bombshell allegation: that Remnick himself inserted an error into her newsletter on purpose.

The decision to fire Overbey by Zoom on July 25 came down from the “highest echelons of Condé Nast,” according to the Daily Beast. Her termination letter claimed the decision had concerned “a pattern of conduct that is disruptive to the operation of the company and undermines the journalistic ethics of our magazine.” That conduct allegedly included: “performance issues,” a violation of company communications policy, a “Final Warning for self-plagiarism issued on September 10, 2021,” and a “history of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior toward colleagues.” Overbey, who has worked at the magazine since 1994, responded with another thread, contesting the allegations against her and signaling that she planned to file a grievance with the New Yorker union on the termination.

The fracas has pitted the staff of a magazine against a lone voice of disruption who has been hailed by industry outsiders as a whistleblower for calling attention to the magazine’s hiring practices. But New Yorker staff — from all levels of the magazine, including writers and members of the magazine's union — paint a different picture of what happened behind the scenes. Specifically, seven sources close to the New Yorker told Gawker that Overbey’s version of events excluded critical context — namely, that each of her threads occurred after internal issues related to her conduct with colleagues, and that Overbey’s relationship with the union, on which her grievance now relies, has been fraught for the past year over some of the same subjects she claimed to have spoken up about. All seven sources also noted that Overbey’s threads had consistently taken magazine staff by surprise, because she has almost everyone in the newsroom — including high-ranking writers, young women, staffers of color, and the majority of the union membership — blocked on Twitter.

“This is about a legacy white employee who was in danger of losing her job for performance reasons,” a source who works at the magazine told Gawker, “so she cynically appropriated the language of diversity and inclusion to try and hold onto that job — which if she lost it might have actually gone to a person of color.”

Overbey’s depiction of the magazine, one source put it, was “incredibly skewed” and “really designed to tell the most damning” story. “I think she did that for self-preservation reasons,” they explained, “thinking if she could present herself as this whistleblower, that she would sort of inoculate herself from disciplinary action.” That impression was widely shared among employees, the other sources noted; three of them pointed to a recent tweet from New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian, coining the term “whistleposturing:”

Overbey did not respond to a lengthy list of questions we sent her on July 26 and multiple subsequent requests for comment. But after we reached out, she tweeted about the request. “To that @Gawker reporter who contacted me, I'll simply say, Go ahead & publish,” she wrote. “Publish it ALL. I'll just be over here sipping…” The tweet included a gif of Cersei Lannister — the queen in Game of Thrones whom the New Yorker once described as “a beautiful expression of arbitrary terror, combining shapely grace with limitless evil in just the right measure to scare a man to death while rendering him helpless with desire” — drinking a goblet of wine.

Overbey’s public criticism of the New Yorker dates back to September of 2021, when she posted a long thread detailing data that she had collected on the magazine’s diversity. The data was quite damning: Overbey claimed that, in the past 15 years, less than 0.01 percent of print feature and critic pieces had been edited by a Black editor; the print magazine, likewise, had published “only 4 book reviews by African-American women” in its 96-year existence (there were many more alarming statistics which you can read here).

Some staffers took issue with her characterization — the data largely focused on the print magazine rather than the website, where most new hiring has taken place and where a more diverse staff has been assembled. One source noted that it also appeared to exclude two Black editors who had recently been promoted. But few disputed that the magazine still had far to go on equitable recruitment. As such, Overbey was rightly cheered for calling attention to the ways the print product had buttressed a largely homogenous status quo for years.

Despite Overbey’s public agitation in regard to diversity, members of the New Yorker union said that she had blown them off when they asked her to share the data she collected during contract negotiations last summer. Two sources recalled that she had been invited to work with a diversity inclusion committee, but said she was too busy. “It would have been great if she worked with us with the data she collected,” one staffer said, “but she basically told us to fuck off.”

Around the same time, the union was preparing to go on strike over inclusion and equality issues in their contract. Overbey was one of only a few union members who did not participate in the effort. “The narrative around this is really frustrating,” another source said, “because when we were prepared to strike over fair pay and diversity and inclusion, she didn't stand with us.” It did not help that in her most recent thread on the termination, Overbey included screenshots from private union chats. The names were blurred, but two sources said it angered other staff to the point that the subject dominated a union meeting following the firing. “It's a huge violation of trust that she shared internal union communications without permission,” one source said.

When Overbey went public with the data in September, union members were again frustrated, as the shop had already reached a deal with Condé Nast three months earlier without the leverage that robust inequality data might have provided. As a result, sources cast some doubt on the motivation behind the initial thread: was it a ploy to stave off potential termination? At the time, Overbey had just received internal warnings about her performance. On Sept. 9, Overbey received a verbal warning for self-plagiarism in her newsletter about the magazine archives, “New Yorker Classics,” according to a source familiar with the warnings. The extent of the offense is disputed: Overbey claims she had highlighted the same quote from a feature in two separate newsletters; the source alleged it was “much more extensive.” Either way, the verbal warning on Sept. 9 was soon followed by a written notice. “That was a final warning,” the source said, “meaning if she violated company policy again she could be terminated.” Overbey received that warning on Sept. 10; she drafted the diversity thread four days later, on Sept. 14.

Things largely died down for several months, sources said, but in June, Overbey was alerted about her performance review. By all accounts, the review was temporary, until her thread on July 19 alleging Remnick had inserted errors into newsletter copy. Overbey wrote that the errors, which concerned the timing of Janet Malcolm’s death, had been “added to [her] copy by a male colleague who knew that [she] was under a performance review & could be penalized or reprimanded severely for them.” She later revealed the “male colleague” was Remnick, adding: “I don’t pretend to understand why he did this. I do know that he has intimate knowledge of Malcolm’s work & when she died.”

In late July, Politico reported that they had obtained emails “back[ing] up Overbey’s case” — showing that Remnick had indeed emailed Overbey language that “included two errors.” (The item was written by Ryan Lizza, who was himself fired from the New Yorker for “improper sexual conduct” in 2017.) According to sources familiar with the incident, the particular copy in this case was for a piece Remnick himself had written for the newsletter, as he occasionally does. “The New Yorker is deeply committed to accuracy,” a spokeswoman wrote to Gawker, “and to suggest that anyone here would ever knowingly introduce errors into a story, for any reason, is absurd and just plain wrong.”

One source provided some context that may help explain how the internal rapport between Overbey and the New Yorker staff soured. For her first decade at the magazine, Overbey worked as the associate archivist reporting to the magazine’s lead archivist, who was a man. By the time he left the magazine, she had put in more than 10 years of work; many assumed she would be promoted to helm the two-person department. Instead, the magazine brought in a new head archivist who had some background in tech to help digitize the back catalog. Overbey has referenced this person in her threads, claiming he was underqualified and yet paid more than she was (notably, the man in question is a person of color and ostensibly part of the groups Overbey has claimed she is defending). But the fact remains that she was passed over, and was understandably upset.

“I think ever since then her sort of joie de vivre around the office and her sociability has really curdled into a kind of resentment of the magazine,” the source said. “I think it probably got worse during the pandemic because she didn't have the social outlet of the office. I really feel for her in that sense.”

As with all firings in the U.S., the consequences of losing her job are grave; Overbey recently tweeted that the magazine denied an extension on her health insurance, which expired in late July. At the same time, her tenuous rapport with the union complicates the fact that, if she plans to take action over the termination, she will likely have to work with them (the union declined to comment for this piece on their plans going forward). One source predicted that the shop would comply with all of the procedural requirements for filing a grievance over wrongful termination on Overbey’s behalf if she chooses to go that route.

But unions can go an extra step to defend an employee by rallying the shop to apply public pressure. In this case, the source said, frustration with Overbey’s workplace behavior has left little energy to mobilize any public support. “Look, I don't think you can find a single example of anyone who currently works at The New Yorker speaking up for Erin,” a colleague added. “And I think that probably says it all.” As of press time, for example, the union had not issued a public statement on the firing.

Update: An earlier version of this piece said that Overbey had put in “nearly 10 years of work” when the magazine hired another archivist. This piece has been corrected to reflect that she had in fact put in “more than 10 years of work.”