An Editor Who Can Make a Magazine Truly Great?

By Jack Limpert

Capital New York has a story on the search for a new editor for the New York Times Magazine. The piece, by Matthew Lynch and Joe Pompeo, tries to build some drama—ads have been down a little, but mostly because T, a sister Sunday magazine at the Times, is doing better, and the Times is doing more magazine-style stories.

They toss out a few names—Lauren Kern, Joel Lovell, Bruce Headlam, Sam Sifton, Nicholas Thompson, James Bennet, Jodi Kantor—but the main point of the story comes at the end: “What the magazine needs at the moment… 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.”

His or her point of view? Try this:

# A boredom detector. No, that’s kind of interesting, but we’ll pass. Yeah, we’d run it, but at 2,500 words, not at 6,000.

# A b.s. detector. Our readers are smart enough not to buy into that.

# More inner-directed than other-directed. (David Riesman explained it back in 1950.)

# An interesting mind. See Harold Hayes, Dick Stolley, Willie Morris,  Andre Laguerre, Jim Bellows, Tina Brown, Michael Kinsley, Ray Cave, Ed Kosner, Charlie Peters, Adam Moss, Ruth Whitney, William Broyles, David Remnick.

# Warm-blooded. The great Alan Halpern, who edited Philadelphia, was known for this. When a writer got one terrific from Alan, it meant the piece was good. Two meant you did really well. Sometimes he said this piece is terrific…terrific…terrific. The three terrifics—those were what the writers worked hard for.

# Cold-blooded. If I want to be loved I’ll bring my dog to work.

# Resilient enough  to say no ten times for every time you say yes. Caroline Miller, once editor of New York magazine, told me that her dangerous time of day was late in the afternoon when she was tired and it seemed harder to say no.

# A strong enough left brain to be well-organized—or be savvy enough to hire a number two who can do it.

# Confident enough to have smart sub-editors who can get the best out of writers and don’t edit for the sake of editing.

# Visually savvy enough to work well with designers but not get rolled by them. Listen, we’re trying to amaze the readers, not other art directors.

# Can manage up (owners and publishers) and down (editors and writers)—the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee was good at that. But be wary of editors whose number one priority is managing up.

# Can make lemonade out of lemons. Ben Bradlee again: “The ability to control damage is one of the essential skills of an editor.”

# Live, eat, and sleep the job. The best ideas often come while taking a morning shower or trying to go to sleep at night. Clay Felker did that when he edited the New York of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He was great when he was totally focused on one magazine.

Infuse the whole package with a point of view? Sure.


  1. Andrew Olstein says

    Don Hewitt famously said, “Tell me a story.” Harold Hayes boiled it down to two phrases: “God is in the details” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” both of which were literally pasted on the wall. Like anything else worth doing well, it’s perspiration and inspiration driven by a consuming intelligence and curiosity. In short, a point of view.

  2. Jack Limpert says

    Andrew – Great comment. As for the Harold Hayes “don’t fix it” line, John Mack Carter, the longtime Hearst editor, liked to say, “If it ain’t broken, break it.” What he meant was editors shouldn’t get too comfortable with a magazine; they should continually look at each section to see if it should be updated or replaced. I always liked to pick a section of the magazine and get three or four editors together to talk about how it could be made better. I thought four was the magic number–if you had six or seven people then it became a meeting, not a freewheeling get-together where you could say anything, there were no bad ideas, and you could laugh a lot. Agree completely on perspiration and inspiration. – Jack

    • Andrew Olstein says

      Thanks, Jack. If I may edit myself, I left out two elements that are key to turning a point of view into a singular voice readers will respond to, especially in these plutocratic times: wit and a sense of mischief. Harold, Clay, Adam Moss and David Remnick all had that healthy, seemingly effortless balance. Hugo Lindgren’s, alas, felt inorganic–forced–like he was working too hard. Probably with good reason. As the rather perceptive Capital New York piece makes clear, this was an editor trying desperately to avoid drowning in a sea of diffusion.

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