Q&A: New York’s Adam Moss talks moving on from his 15-year home

Adam Moss. Photo: Axel Dupeux.

On Tuesday, New York magazine Editor in Chief Adam Moss announced plans to step down this March. The move follows 15 years at the magazine’s helm for Moss, during which he oversaw rapid growth in both coverage and readership, as well as the introduction of popular verticals like Vulture and The Cut.

Moss’s career in magazine journalism spans decades. He held roles at Esquire in its heyday, Rolling Stone before that, and prior to joining New York he enjoyed a lengthy stint at The New York Times as editor of the paper’s magazine, among other positions.

In a farewell memo to New York’s staff, Moss writes that his decision to leave boils down to a belief in term limits for editors: “Experience is good, but after a while every institution needs a blood transfusion.” During Moss’s tenure, New York garnered many accolades, including 40 National Magazine Awards and, in 2018, a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

“I’ve been going full throttle for 40 years,” he says in a Times profile published Tuesday. “I want to see what my life is like with less ambition.” Moss plans to spend his summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the piece notes, and has adopted painting as a hobby. CJR spoke with Moss Tuesday afternoon about New York’s growth, what he learned from editors early in his career, and memories from his time with the magazine. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Many city magazines have wilted or died outright in recent years, but New York went in the opposite direction, kind of transcending the city magazine format and becoming an international brand. What enabled this?

There were two factors, principally. First, the magazine that Clay Felker and Milton Glaser founded was actually never just about New York City. It was about the way New Yorkers saw the world. In the very first issues, you had Gloria Steinem, who was at that point a political correspondent, you had Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin. And they weren’t just talking about New York. They were talking about Washington, Hollywood, and the whole range of subjects New Yorkers were obsessed with. So, this was the genetic matter we’ve been working with for our whole 50-year history.

We were also very early to digital, at a time when the Web was something many publishers were running away from, because there had been a lot of promise and then a lot of disappointment from a business perspective with the early Web. This all preceded me, by the way. At a really early stage, New York’s website had a restaurant search function, which was really popular and of course one of the early utilities of the Web. It also entered a joint venture, partially to defray costs, with this thing called Metro Television, which had one show called Full Frontal Fashion. Their gimmick was to put runway shows online, before even the designers were putting their stuff online. And it turned out to be really popular, and it attracted early Web-adapting luxury advertisers to our site.

In the long run, this gave the money people here confidence in the Web, and confidence to give journalists what they needed to begin building out an aggressive digital-first publication. It started with food and then moved to entertainment and then politics and on and on to things like The Cut and, ultimately, the New York magazine of today.

 

When you came onboard with the magazine in 2004, did you have any sense of what it would become during your tenure? What were some of your early goals at New York?

My early goal was just to take the physical magazine and modernize it, to renovate it for what I thought were changing times. The magazine by that point had been through many renovations since the Felker/Glaser days, and when I came on, it was just like, “Okay, lets remake this magazine, let’s have some fun.”

On the digital side, I had been at The New York Times before I came here and had actually been really interested in the promise of digital journalism. I didn’t think it was the end of journalism, I thought it was actually a really exciting beginning that could lead to all kinds of storytelling. I tried to bring that sensibility here and luckily I had the support of the management to hire people and start building out our digital operation.

 

Today New York does a lot of things, under a lot of individually branded verticals. The content still all seems unified in a way, however. As the magazine grew up and out, was there a simple distillation of its identity that you kept in mind?

We’ve spent an enormous amount of time refining, adapting, and evolving our voice. And all the stories we do, across all of our different sites, speak in some version of that voice, which unfortunately can be hard to describe without loading up on adjectives but which I hope is very clear. You know, the voice is smart, it’s skeptical, it’s generous and funny. It is essentially cosmopolitan and sophisticated but also somewhat irreverent. The idea is that this voice or, if I can switch metaphors, this lens can be applied to any topic—whether that’s technology, politics, entertainment, food, whatever—and it will still feel like the same publication.

 

A lot of New York’s verticals, like The Cut and Vulture, have become prominent in their own right. What has been the value of developing and branding those sites as separate from the magazine, as opposed to running all of their content under New York’s banner?

We think of what we do as all connected but as separate at the same time. A lot of this has to do with the different ways that people take in our journalism. There are many readers who will read Vulture or The Cut, for example, and only those sites, with no interest in sifting through everything else we do and potentially no knowledge that these sites even belong to a larger network. For those people who are vertically minded, we give them sort of self-contained universes.

 

People talk about the era of editor-auteurs, who are hyper-involved in all aspects of a magazine’s identity and content, as coming to a close. You’ve said you don’t believe in all-powerful editors, but you’ve also been characterized, in the Times piece, for example, as a taskmaster. How would you describe your leadership style, and how has that served you at New York?

I have no idea what my leadership style is. [Laughs.] I’ve noticed that, after you establish the basic rules of the game you’re playing, you can kind of step away, let your people take that thing on, and sometimes just watch. That’s not completely true, obviously, but it is to a large extent. Even today, after I announced I was leaving, I went to an ideas meeting. I listened to the ideas and just marveled at the extent to which the staff at this moment has kind of a mind meld. A lot of the ideas could have come from my own brain. So, it’s really not necessary to be a taskmaster. If you do it right, everybody will wind up working in sync.

 

As you were coming up, were there things you saw editors do that you tried to emulate?

I was lucky enough to have learned from a lot of amazingly good editors. In fact, by virtue in part of my age, I’m kind of a link between some of the great editors of the sixties and seventies and the present era. When I was at Esquire, it was populated by some of the greatest magazine editors of all time. I was this little kid, and they taught me the value of storytelling, of creating some kind of explosion on the page. And then I went on to the Times, and my mentor there, Joe Lelyveld, who was this towering journalist, taught me so much about serious journalism—the importance of facts, and ideas, and inquiry.

No one ever teaches you how to lead, how to manage, how to edit. But you’re the sum of what you’ve learned from those people you’ve been around. And you take what you’ve learned, you have new experiences, and then people learn from you, I guess.

 

Were there any moments when you really doubted yourself? Stories or covers that you weren’t sure would hit their mark?

I certainly made a lot of mistakes. But in the moments when you’re really full of doubt, there’s usually no time to doubt. You just plow ahead and then regret.

We did this cover the week before the 2016 election, for example. It was a Barbara Kruger cover of Trump with the word “LOSER” printed in that Kruger red-type. In a way, I think the cover’s genius, because it works on so many levels. “Loser” was an epithet Trump used during the campaign, of course. It was also a description of America, really, at that point, for the ways Trump had coarsened it in his run for the presidency. It was those things, but it was also a call on the election, which was obviously spectacularly wrong. So that was a fiasco. But, you know, I still think it’s a great cover.

 

A lot of folks seem skeptical about the future of print, as more and more magazines go digital-only. Do you see any hope, any enduring opportunities out there, for print magazines?

There will always be an audience for print magazines, it will just be smaller. Magazines will have to have a real reason to be tangible, physical things. In a way, that might be a wonderful thing, because the magazines that survive will have an opportunity to do all sorts of interesting, experimental things, which they’ll be able to afford to do with a smaller circulation. I’m talking about really palpable things: changing the paper, using pop-outs, all sorts of things that could make for a really dynamic magazine, for people who really revere print. That won’t be a lot of people, but it’ll be enough to keep print alive.

 

In your farewell memo, you described making a magazine as a communal effort, likening it to a kindergarten project. You wrote, “I’ll miss playing with you all.” Are there specific parts of the process you enjoyed most?

I enjoyed all of it. I love talking about stories. You know, a story comes in, you get a bunch of people together, and it becomes sort of a free association exercise. We try to figure out what we most want from the story and then work our way towards a solution. I love the process of idea generation, where you sit around with everyone and there’s no such thing as a bad idea. People just blurt stuff out, and eventually great ideas emerge. I love the visual part of it, whether we’re designing a specific magazine, designing a digital story, or sometimes even creating new something from scratch. The new Intelligencer homepage, for example, is designed to mirror social media in a really interesting way. Being a part of that process, being in the room where everybody has a chance to weigh in—“I like this,” “I don’t like that,” “What if this happened?”—it’s just the greatest.

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.