The Times Magazine problem

emtimes-magazineem-problem
Times Magazines. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson had given herself until the end of the year to name a new editor for The New York Times Magazine to replace Hugo Lindgren, whose imminent departure was first reported by Capital last month. But the decision is vexing the Times masthead, and now it looks like it will take longer. One source familiar with the matter told Capital the search is likely to spill over into 2014.

“It is reasonable that we would take the time necessary to find the right new leader and we are in the process of doing that," managing editor Dean Baquet told Capital in a statement provided by a Times spokesperson, who said Abramson was not available to take questions at the moment.

The choice is shaping up to be among the more difficult ones Abramson has had to make since she took the helm in September 2011. The magazine is crucial for a few reasons. For one, it’s an important element of the popular Weekender subscriptions that help drive circulation revenue, which has become increasingly vital in the face of declining ad dollars.

“The magazine is one of the most popular and best read parts of the Sunday paper,” the Times spokesperson, Eileen Murphy, said. “It follows that research would show it is highly valued by subscribers.”

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

And it has a 118-year history that a company like the Times is likely unwilling to sweep away. A former Times Company executive said publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. is "very attached to that magazine" and that he views it as totem of the Times' commitment to long-form journalism. (Whether newish Times Company chief executive Mark Thompson feels the same way has yet to be seen.)

Who can do the job? Deputy editors Lauren Kern and Joel Lovell both submitted pitch memos, sources told Capital. (They declined to comment.) Bruce Headlam and Sam Sifton were both being tossed around as likely candidates early on. But Headlam left his post as media editor several weeks ago for a new job as managing editor of video, and Sifton is said to be committed to the new food vertical he's been cooking up.

As for potential outside hires, Nicholas Thompson, the editor of newyorker.com, was approached. He had a meeting with Times brass but took himself out of the running, according to sources familiar with the matter. (Thompson also declined to comment.) Earlier this year, Abramson was reportedly courting Atlantic editor-in-chief and Times Magazine veteran James Bennet to come back to the Times in some capacity.

The one name that’s gotten the most buzz internally, however, is Jodi Kantor, a features reporter on the national politics team and a former editor of the paper's Arts & Leisure section. Chatter about how Abramson recently had Kantor over to her apartment for dinner no doubt fueled the speculation, but Kantor apparently is not pursuing the job.

"Thanks for the flattering question, but I'm committed to reporting and writing," she told Capital when we asked.

THE NEXT EDITOR WILL HAVE A HEAVY LIFT. According to data compiled by Media Industry Newsletter, the magazine logged a 3.8 percent decline in ad pages in 2012, down to 1,072.7 from 1,115.2 in 2011, the first full year of Lindgren’s stewardship. Through the Nov. 17, 2013 issue, which essentially brought the curtain down on his tenure, the magazine's ad pages were down 7.9 percent to 846.3 from 919 during the same period last year.

Its function as bait for tony advertisers has been eclipsed by T, the glossy style title that was spun off from the magazine’s pages a decade ago. (T managed to top its own 2012 ad-page count this year despite a frequency reduction, according to combined numbers from MIN and internal counts provided by the Times.) Several insiders admitted it wouldn’t be inconceivable for T and the Times Magazine to be reintegrated at some point in the future, or for the two titles to slim down their publishing schedules so that only one of them appeared in any given Sunday paper.

And there is a growing sense inside the Times that the magazine’s mission has become fuzzy. As the ever-skeptical media critic Michael Wolff put it in a recent USA Today column: “Why ... does the magazine exist?”

The magazine “used to be the place where, if you had a dynamite story, that’s where it went,” said former staff writer Lisa Belkin, one of more than a dozen Times sources interviewed for this story, including current and former writers and editors for the magazine. “Being on the front page of The New York Times Sunday magazine, you were the most read person in the country that day, and that’s not true anymore, and that’s not the fault of the magazine.”

THE FIRST ISSUE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE WENT TO PRESS three weeks after Sulzberger's great-grandfather Adolph Ochs bought the Times in 1896. The magazine as we now know it began with Lester Markel, the paper’s mid-century Sunday editor who ran his department as “a major newspaper within the newspaper,” as Gay Talese wrote in The Kingdom and the Power.

But its contemporary history begins in 1993, when then-editor Jack Rosenthal hired Adam Moss as editorial director. Moss had been working as a consultant at the Times after the scuttling of his revered 7 Days in 1990. Under his decade-long tenure there, the Sunday magazine, which he would eventually take over in earnest five years later, became a distinctive brand unto itself.

The magazine moved further from its standing as an illustrated, more think-y version of the main report. It was home to voices such as Michael Lewis, Lynn Hirschberg and Michael Pollan. There was one special issue after another. If, 50 years prior, it had been part of a newspaper within a newspaper, now it was an alternative to the newspaper that ran in the newspaper.

Eventually, Moss ported his sensibility to New York magazine in 2004, and his longtime deputy Gerry Marzorati took over, retaining the title of editor longer than Moss ever had.

For a while, at least, things continued to flourish. The magazine had by then spawned its own group. T magazine was emerging as a cash cow under Stefano Tonchi with an assist from Hirschberg. The group launched standalones in Play (sports) and Key (real estate).

Before the recession, these supplements looked to most like a brilliant strategy. Once luxury and fashion advertisers grew accustomed to not having to live life anywhere near reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, among the other gloomy subject matter of the aughts, there would be no going back.

“The special magazines’ existence drained the magazine of variety,” Katherine Bouton, who was a senior editor at the Times Magazine from 1998 to 2008, told Capital in an email. (Play and Key eventually folded.)

“We no longer had sports stories and fashion stories and real estate stories to liven up and give variety to the mix,” Bouton continued. “They also drew off advertising. The business department seemed to think this was fine, because they were still making money with T and the special issues. But it meant that the magazine itself was thin. I've always felt that ads are part of the magazine reading experience. With the loss of that advertising the magazine had just its content (and reduced content at that) to keep readers' attention. I think that's still a problem today.”

MARZORATI LEFT THE MAGAZINE IN 2010 amid reports of depleted morale among staffers. After a lengthy search, then-executive editor Bill Keller installed Lindgren, another Moss acolyte who had worked with him both at New York and the Times Magazine before taking a job as the No. 2 at Bloomberg Businessweek, in the top masthead slot.

Perhaps the most crucial difference in the Lindgren era was that unlike Marzorati, who earned a vaunted place on the Times masthead in 2006, and got legacy credit for the success of the magazine group as a whole, Lindgren seemed to stand on his own.

Moreover, he and beleaguered T editor Sally Singer were said to have had a contentious relationship. One source familiar with their dynamic said that Lindgren took a competitive posture toward Singer that rubbed Abramson the wrong way.

But Singer, who’d turned T into a sort of edgy Vogue for grad students, an approach that ended up alienating advertisers, got the boot first. And her replacement, Deborah Needleman, who has revitalized the book, was rewarded with her own, separate publisher about a month ago.

At the same time, the paper has seemed destined, however slowly, to become more magazine-like.

For one thing, Abramson has a history of helming ambitious multi-part packages. And the daily paper itself has become more analytical in the face of ever-livelier digital competition. The sections of the daily have taken on the language of a magazine. The modern New York Times runs rife with call-outs and cover takeovers and slick packaging. The magazine has even lost a once not-so-secret weapon in photography to the Retina display.

Lindgren’s magazine, meanwhile, adopted more quirk. He introduced idiosyncratic front of book fare such as the “One-Page Magazine” and “Diagnosis” and the blue-tinted cultural studies essay, “Riff.” He even devoted an entire special issue to one of his explicative front-of-book inventions, “Who Made That.” But, as several sources noted, the feature-well shortened as ad pages retreated further.

As a backdrop to all this, there's been the emergence of a groundbreaking brand of longform journalistic ambition at the Times: The Snow Fall.

It was the sports section, not the magazine, that first got its hands on this new type of genre-pushing, multi-media, multi-platform storytelling bonanza with its Pulitzer-winning feature last December about a deadly avalanche in Washington state. The magazine later got the “Snow Fall” treatment this past October with Jeff Himmelman’s piece on boundary disputes in the South China Sea, “A Game of Shark and Minnow.” But when Abramson announced in a July memo that Sifton, the paper's national editor at the time, would be placed in charge of an “immersive digital magazine experience,” one that would encourage users to "lean back and read," she made clear the project would be separate from the actual magazine.

The Times also gave a slick digital presentation to “Invisible Child,” last week's blockbuster five-part series by Andrea Elliott profiling a young homeless girl named Dasani. Like "Snow Fall," its print component (all 28,738 words of it), ran in the newspaper. Reported and written over the course of 15 months, it was delivered to readers in five A1 installments that together comprised an issues-driven narrative with a poignant, literary tone.

Of course the magazine has always had to compete with these sorts of bold, multi-part deep dives, especially as the Pulitzer submission deadline approaches each year. But the ongoing magazine-ification of the paper, and its attendant bells and whistles on the web and mobile devices, means the line between the two may continue to blur.

“I actually think the series does fit a traditional newspaper template, even if it’s unusually good,” said former Times Magazine editor Alex Star, who edited Elliott when she was one of the magazine's writers.

Star, now an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, said that even if the rest of the paper is going longer more often, this trend should only cast the uniqueness of the magazine in relief.

“To me that’s only a good reason for the magazine to be more ambitious,” he said. “Even the most feature-y Sunday sections can feel a little formulaic.”

Others pointed out that as beautifully-executed as Elliott’s piece was, it was not really a magazine piece.

“That is newspaper writing,” one editor at the paper told Capital. “It’s choppy. Good newspaper writing is not the same as good magazine writing. You get a different caliber of writers, a different metabolism.”

The bottom line? “We need a magazine,” the editor said. “You need quality, and a magazine is a showplace for quality.”

So long as the Sunday Times Magazine continues to circulate to more than a million households each week with three or four multi-thousand-word stories in its pages, it will indeed continue to exist as such a showplace.

But in a way, that's the easy part. What the magazine needs at the moment, which is also the one thing that the Byliners or Mediums of the world cannot by nature have, at least not yet, is the very thing that has always made the great magazines truly great: An editor who can infuse the whole package with his or her point of view—whoever he or she may be.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jill Abramson's apartment is on the Upper West Side.