In February 2003, S.I. Newhouse Jr., the chairman of Condé Nast, called Art Cooper, the longtime editor of GQ, into his office. “Art,” he said, “I think it’s time for you to retire.” In a matter of weeks, Jim Nelson was put atop the masthead. Nelson, only 40, hinted at his plans. “I do think we spend a bit too much time in that kind of timeless nostalgic thing,” he said. “And my inclination is to make it more of the moment, to be engaged in the culture.”
By most measures, Nelson succeeded: GQ went in-depth on a vast number of topics, including a Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a Russian serial killer, a resurgent Axl Rose, and suicide chat rooms. There were National Magazine Awards nearly every year since 2007 and a Pulitzer Prize for Rachel Ghansah’s portrait of Dylann Roof.
In September, Nelson announced that his tenure at the magazine was coming to an end. Condé Nast lost $120 million last year, and has forced the departure of numerous employees as it faces an uncertain financial future. Recently, Nelson and I met at the Bowery Hotel to talk about the last fifteen years—his professional regrets, the diversification of the magazine’s staff, and stories that made his life a living hell.
The Daily News, March 26, 2003: “Nelson, 40, dismissed an expectation that the 800,000-circulation men’s magazine, owned by Condé Nast, would try to copy the bawdier—and far more popular—Maxim.” What does it say about the magazine landscape at large, but also GQ in particular, that this now seems ridiculous?
In retrospect, it does seem silly, but that was the world we were in. If anything, it reinforces the idea that there’s always some odd competition out there that other people are paying attention to, and that you would be foolish to pay attention to.
I have always felt that we spend so much time thinking about all the obstacles, competitions, and barriers that we psyche ourselves out sometimes. The principal task was, is, and remains creating something urgent, compelling, and fascinating to read, and that creates a readership that, if you ask them, wouldn’t compare GQ to Maxim, or to any other supposed competition. They wouldn’t even think about it. They only think about whether or not they like this thing that arrives in the mail, or they read online, or ingest through the ether.
What do you regret publishing?
Not much. I regret thinking, when I first started, that I had to show sexy women on the cover, and I just felt increasingly uncomfortable about it. I look back in particular at a Michelle Williams cover. It sat badly with me because I could see it plainly that she wasn’t perfectly comfortable at it. She’s an amazing actress, and we diminished her by showing her in that way.
Did you regret it at the time or in hindsight?
Almost immediately after I published it. I just kept staring at the cover and saying, “Why don’t I love this cover? I don’t love this cover because she doesn’t love this cover.” You can see it. And my view on all of that was changing. Even when we don’t think of our competition, when you’re trying to put together a magazine, you are thinking about the audience, and what a men’s magazine should be. And that changes over time, thank God. It evolves, and you grow. I just wish that I’d come to the job with that same awareness.
What do you wish you had published? I mean either because you had it and lost it—the Ronan Farrow scenario—
Oh, God. I wish I had that story.
—or just something that you missed, for whatever reason.
I think about writers that I wished I’d published. I chased David Foster Wallace for years, and then we finally agreed on an assignment just before he passed. That always saddened me. I had known him a little when I worked at Harper’s, and was in awe of him. I wish specifically that I’d run the McCain piece that was in Rolling Stone.
What assignment had you and Wallace agreed on?
I think it was a Mitt Romney piece. I’ve forgotten now; we threw so many ideas at him.
In every issue, I wanted to have a piece that just knocked people’s socks off. Every week I see a piece that I wish I’d run, or writers whose voices would have deepened GQ’s… The Ronan Farrow thing is a perfect example of where, when you see it, you’re just like, God bless them for running this piece. Also, New York’s story on [Bill] Cosby.
The pieces that I always lament [not publishing] are the long-haul reportorial pieces that require commitment, and where I think, Oh, I would have loved to—and I could have—deploy our resources there, if I’d only had that brilliant idea.
For one, it’s vastly improved. The site and the magazine and the brand more deeply reflect what’s going on in the world. When I think about where magazines and sites have to go in the future, it is toward that. It’s toward moving out of its historically lily-white predilections.
At a retreat a few years ago, we were talking about how to become more inclusive. The conversation was spirited because a lot of it was, Okay, you can’t just turn on a key. You can have the desire and the commitment to do it, but you have to empower new voices for people to see the change. It’s not just covering personalities of varying cultural backgrounds; it’s the people who cover them, the people who write about them, and the people who photograph them. I just hope that, in the years ahead, the business takes that very, very seriously.
There’s still very few people of color at the top of mastheads…
It is maddening, and it has to change. It also has to change on the executive level, across the board. We need to see more African-American heads of media companies. We need to see more Asian-American and Native-American, gay—everything. I think it’s only gonna be better for industry.
But how do you force that kind of change?
You talk about it. That’s what I’m hoping that we’re doing. I don’t think it changes until the sense of priority and values change.
Part of what worked about Carvell Wallace’s profile of Mahershala Ali is that the writer and subject are black men of a certain age with shared experiences. There’s something radical about the pairing that remains uncommon in the world of celebrity profiling. Why?
That piece was so great because it was a conversation. It really wasn’t a traditional profile. I have an allergy to a lot of the clichés of the celebrity profile: celebrity arrives at a restaurant, the writer observes the wedge of lettuce on the tines of his fork. I have always just hated that thing. To me, it stands in for an absence of substance, and I think people are tired of it, and have been tired of it for years.
Of all the stories you’ve edited in the last fifteen years, which is the one you dine out on?
God, I never dine out on anything. I am almost congenitally unsatisfied and always looking for the next thing. But there are so many pieces that I’m deeply proud of. My mind immediately jumps to Chris Heath and his just fantastical, almost impossible, ability to approach every subject as if it’s the first story he’s ever written, and he has to hit it out of the park—the burdens of all journalism on his shoulders. I’m thinking about the Paul McCartney story. There have been scads and scads of books written about this guy. Chris and I talked just before he went to meet McCartney, and he was like, God, I don’t know. I need to figure out how to make this fresh. Every line of questioning has been explored and exhausted. Then he just shows up with a fresh mind and intense curiosity, and meets the subject who is open.
I also think about Jeanne Marie Laskas and her “Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns.” We just sat around thinking, How the hell do we tell a gun story? This is the story of our time, and we don’t know how to break through that noise. She found this obscure gun agency, and [told] a fable about everything that’s wrong with American gun laws, and everything that prevents us from actually dealing with the larger issue, because so many people have tied the government’s hands.
Insofar as I dine out, it’s on the pieces that have a fable-like quality to them, that read as larger narratives about our era: Wells Tower on how to kill an elephant, John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about Christian rock. There’s a moment in [Sullivan’s “Upon This Rock”] where I got chills the first time I read it. He talks about loving Jesus when he was a teenager. Having gone through a religious upbringing, and having struggled hard to believe through various points in my life, that thought just jumped out at me. Here’s a guy trying to understand something and trying to have intellectual empathy with something that he has grown away from.
What story made your life a living hell?
When I first started, we ran a piece on Rick Santorum because he had equated homosexuality with bestiality. The cover line said, “Rick Santorum’s Big Gay Adventure,” which I thought was awesome. Each month, we had to show the issue to the executives. One said, “There are two things that this magazine can never be seen as: too black or too gay.” I knew what he was saying: This is an agenda piece, Mr. Gay Man. And I got so upset, and I had to defend everything. I felt like, at that moment, I had to push back and say, You’re crazy. This is a legitimate news story, and GQ can cover all these things and be stronger and better, because it’s reflecting reality. I remember looking at S.I. [Newhouse], who was sitting silently in the corner. Everyone looked at him, because he was the ultimate arbiter, and he just laughed and said, “Go on.” And I continued with it.
There were moments when I felt like I was testing the boundaries of what I could get away with. At one point, we did a story on whether cell phones cause brain cancer. Our publisher just freaked out about what that would say to tech advertisers. And maybe it’s his job to worry about that stuff, but it’s my job to publish great journalism, and that piece was something we had a lot of conversations and fights about. It was a sort of hell for a while.
What does it mean, a year out from #MeToo, to run a men’s magazine at a time when ideas regarding masculinity are challenged in arts and literature? Is “men’s magazine” even still a thing?
Look: these are questions that we all think about. Men are not going away, nor is masculinity going away. But the idea is you approach it in a new, modern way, and the next wave of editors has to figure that out. If you think about where we are, even in terms of the people we put on the cover, I think that has changed dramatically. In March we did Timothée Chalamet and I was so proud of that cover because, to me, he is a complete reflection of a changing view of masculinity, sexuality, openness.
If you look back at the GQs of the ‘80s, there was a lot of chest hair and testosterone, and that reflected the time. It’s really informative to go back and look at those covers. I always take in the history of our magazine and of men’s magazines, and think what I can learn from them. We are already reflecting different versions of maleness and masculinity. That will always be interesting fodder for magazines to cover, but you have to make sure you cover it in an informed and smart way, because if you don’t, you can really look like an ass these days.
Two stories published during your tenure particularly stick out for me, because they’re so different but totally vital: Vanessa Veselka’s “Truck Stop Killer” and Rachel Ghansah on Dylann Roof. I bring these up because the first was about a fairly obscure subject and the writer was little known. The second was about a notorious massacre and the writer had already won a National Magazine Award. How did they come about?
Donovan Hohn was the editor [on “The Truck Stop Killer”]. The pitch was just so chilling and compelling, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was a gamble, because we didn’t know the writer that well. The way she was able to talk about her own experiences in the pitch, you were just dying to read more.
As for Rachel, Dan Riley had been talking to her about a bunch of ideas for a while. The piece is just a triumph of observation, of taking the long view of history. Heart, anger, all these intense emotions come together in one odious topic, and she was able to put it in both a historical perspective and in the immediate news context.
One of the greatest thrills is finding those stories where the subject and the writer are so perfectly in sync.
Conversely, do you ever benefit from a writer and a subject being actually incredibly out of sync? Or the writer taking on an assignment that outside of her comfort zone?
One thing that has kept us fresh is always questioning whether we are getting complacent with any of our assignments or ambitions. Once you slot a writer into a certain assignment, Oh, that would be a great piece for X!, you’re already in trouble.
But that’s a natural inclination, right?
And sometimes it’s the right thing. You have to know when it’s the third or fourth time, and it’s not the right thing. I am always asking writers, “What is the thing that you’re afraid to write?”
What’s an example of that paying off?
Caity Weaver had never written a profile for us. We knew that she was gonna write funny, but did we know what would happen if we sent her to hang with Justin Bieber? We did not. Did we know what would happen if she hung out with The Rock? How are these two human beings gonna be in the same room together? All you know sometimes is it’s gonna be electric. Caity had never done anything like that, and what was great is she was game to try things. Sitting around talking about assignments with her was so much fun, because you could just see this light in her eyes. She’d say, “Well, if we do The Rock, I want to get as buff as The Rock.” And you’re like, That’s just gonna be really, really fun to watch.
What sort of advice, if any, did you give your successor, Will Welch?
I honestly don’t feel like I need to give him advice, because I feel like he knows exactly the kind of magazine he wants to do. I just wish him all the success in the world, and I do believe that GQ has a bright future ahead of it. But I would advise him to stay sane. My first two years at GQ, it was all I could do to keep my head above water.
I was talking to David Remnick yesterday and he used the word “drowning” to describe his first couple of years. That’s a sensibility and emotion that a lot of editors can relate to. You just have so many things to weigh, and there’s so many platforms now, so many business prerogatives and priorities and demands. And I just say, “Keep some balance to your life.”
In the first couple of years, I remember taking a lot of solace in a couple things; the energy that came from meeting new writers and plotting this out. I just loved that crazy, intense energy of, How are we gonna build this thing? I had my partner, John-Mario [Sevilla], who helped keep me sane, and a tiny house in the countryside that I went to that I got right before I got the job. Literally two weeks before I got the job, so it’s not a Condé Nast house. We closed on Valentine’s Day, 2003, and then two weeks later, Art Cooper stepped down, and I thought, Holy shit, I just bought a house, and [David] Zinczenko was gonna become editor in chief and fire me.
Once you got the job, at what point did you realize what sort of magazine you wanted to build? I assume it took a while.
I was lucky, because Art gave me the chance to do a few issues. I did the 2002 Body Issue, and he gave me license to come up with the story lists and make all the assignments, and I just loved doing it. But to answer your question: no. Of course you don’t know exactly what you want to do, and what you want to do also evolves over time.
Certainly when I was discussing it in 2003 with James Truman and S.I., I was naive. I had all kinds of ideas. I remember S.I. telling me at one point, “Well, you have interesting ideas, not all of which you have thought through the repercussions of, either for advertisers or readers. But they’re interesting ideas.”
The notion that I wasn’t sure what I would be getting into made me be crystal clear about what I thought GQ needed. I was like, I’m a feature writer, I’m a feature editor. And that’s what GQ did really well. They already had writers like Andrew Corsello and Liz Gilbert, and a lot of writers that David Granger had cultivated. So the writing was fucking great, and I didn’t want them to jettison that. I thought it could be modernized—even in the voice a bit, but don’t get rid of that, because that part’s working. S.I. was actually enjoyed the conversation. If you cared about it—if you had passion for what you were doing—that went a long way with him.
I think he was the perfect publisher because you want somebody that lets you make mistakes sometimes. Who keeps their head when sometimes something blows up. Who keeps your back. There was a time when John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote this piece called “Violence of the Lambs.” Oh my god, this is a great piece. It was a magazine gag. It was about a gang of marauding animals that were attacking humans. Even the artwork was just iconic. Some readers were pissed off, because they realized as they read it, like halfway through, John reveals the gag. He’s like, Okay, I’m kidding, but I’m kinda not. Basically, it was a metaphor for the earth lashing out at humans. So S.I. called me and said, “I want to talk to you about this Silence of the Lambs piece.” And I was like, “Oh, shit. I’m in trouble.” And he’s like, “Some people don’t seem to get that it’s a gag, right? It is a gag, right?” And I said, “Yeah, it was a classic magazine stunt.” And he just laughed. He enjoyed the entertainment of magazines. He knew that magazines needed to inform, needed to entertain. Part of it, for him, was publishing these things that people were talking about. Staying in the conversation is much harder to do than people realize.
Magazines get dusty pretty fast. You really have to keep things interesting. You can’t take the brand for granted.
Ever more so these days. It’s harder than people realize to break through, especially with the magazine cover, right? I’ve been noticing that, over the last year alone, we did Colin Kaepernick, which was, to me, one of those covers that I’ll be proud of for all time. You might forget, now that he’s a Nike person, but that was incredibly controversial. I got a lot of cancellations of subscriptions. It was a magazine that people couldn’t stop talking about, that breaks through the chatter of a pretty-much-jaded digital world. I don’t think people appreciate how hard it is to break through with that, and I think we broke through constantly.
Correction: The editor on the “Truck Stop Killers” was Donovan Hohn, not Brendan Vaughn.