What Two Old Editors Think of the “New” New York Times Magazine

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 3.13.28 PMAn email exchange between Jim Doherty and Jack Limpert.
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Jack, after hearing from appalled family-member journalists and others about the reimagined Times magazine I checked yr. blog to see if any comments from retired editors and former bartenders. So far, not. Does this mean, would you say, no strong opinions one way or another? Best, Jim
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Jim

Good question. I’ve always looked at the NYT Magazine but never really connected with it. When the Sunday Times comes, I pull out the book section, read that, and then scan the rest of the paper. The Sunday magazine never seemed all that interesting—it always seemed to be trying too hard to be clever.

Which raises the question of why should a Sunday newspaper have a magazine? Forty years ago the answer probably would have been so we can get some four-color ads, do more photo-driven stories, and run longer stories than appear in the rest of the newspaper. Forty years ago there were a lot of Sunday magazines and I wonder how many are left. The Kansas City Star dropped its Sunday magazine last month.

I always read the Washington Post Sunday magazine because it competed directly with the Washingtonian for stories and ads. The Post magazine’s problem was (and is) that it delivered a mass audience—in its heyday almost a million circulation—while the Washingtonian delivered a class audience—smaller circulation, higher income, better educated. The Post magazine never got enough upscale ads and never made much impact. That mass vs. class argument probably played out for Sunday magazines in all cities except for New York.

The NYT Magazine was different—the Times delivers a class audience, while the New York Post and New York Daily News deliver the mass audience. So the NYT Magazine got a lot of ads aimed at its higher-income audience.

As for being a place for longer stories, most newspapers now run lots of long, magazine-type stories so that’s less of a reason to have a Sunday magazine.

I think the Washington Post keeps its Sunday magazine because it wants to think it competes with the Times as the nation’s most important paper. But it looks like the Post magazine is just keeping costs down and going through the motions.

The NYT Magazine situation also is complicated by the fact that the newspaper also has T—The New York Times Style Magazine, which comes out 15 times a year. The February 15 issue of T was 252 pages and loaded with upscale ads. The February 15 NYT Magazine was 58 pages and had a house ad on the inside back cover. When a magazine can’t sell its covers, you know it has problems.

My guess is the rebirth of the NYT Magazine was mostly ad driven—how can we create some excitement with this flat-lining magazine? The debut February 22 issue (“Hello, World”) had 222 total pages and 121 pages of ads. The March 1 issue had 66 total pages with 11 pages of ads—and again a house ad on the inside back cover.

I sometimes used to wonder what I’d do if I was editing the Post magazine rather than the Washingtonian. My instinct would have been to make it much more photo-driven—that’s what it can do better than the rest of the paper.

Then there’s the question of what role a newspaper’s Sunday magazine plays in the digital world. The NYT Magazine website offers “The New York Times Magazine Newsletter,” which comes free and I’ve subscribed to.

Jack
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Jack, I have never understood why Sulzberger and his Wise Men think it’s a good idea to have a Sunday style magazine that sucks the advertising and air out of its Sunday journalism magazine. Perhaps the newly reconfigured journalism magazine is in part a belated reaction to that. In any case, my own view—that the “new” version is an unmitigated disaster—is, as part of the ongoing debate in my own family about this, contested by my wiseass second-oldest daughter, herself an editor, who says nobody between the ages of 50 and 100 can have a clue what the edit crew at the Times mag is up to. I’m 77 and I have seen, and been part of, numerous magazine reinventions. They all go pretty much the same way.

The publisher’s mandate: Make a splash. Or, if you will, redefine the brand.

Step one is the easy part. Hire a new art director and undertake a complete redesign. Thus, the first issue of the reimagined Times mag: Art director gives birth! Art director gives birth!

Step two is the hard part: Rethink the editorial personality and content. Thus, the second issue of the new Times mag is devoted conspicuously to an avant-garde Norwegian writer’s account of his brief visit to America, during which he is confounded by a plugged toilet. If that’s the “splash” the publisher had in mind, lots of luck. Oh, plumber! Plumber!

It will be a while before we know how this adventure (or misadventure) turns out. One thing’s for sure: My family members will continue to argue the pros and cons because we all care passionately about the Times writ large, and we know the effort to reinvigorate the magazine is part of that great paper’s larger struggle to survive. I just hope in the process the old gal is able to remain upright and maintain her dignity. What pisses me off most about the Sunday mag’s transformation is that it does not bode well in that regard.
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Jim Doherty has written for and edited National Wildlife and Newsweek and was a member of Smithsonian’s Board of Editors for 20 years. His story “Last Trip to Quetico” is currently posted on The Big Roundtable, a nonfiction website associated with the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Comments

  1. Comments from another longtime magazine editor:

    I don’t know Jake Silverstein, but I hear only the best about him. And the February 15 issue of the magazine (the one before the redesign) actually had two real stories—about an alleged sex harassment case at Stanford and a disastrous tweet.

    Sadly, I found the new magazine a bore, and I think that the problem begins with the concept issue (The Globe). In trying to find stories that fit the concept, the editors fail to find stories that have drama and narrative arc. They fall back on stories that are themselves concepts. (I know the problem—I’ve been there.)

    Gary Shteyngart on Russian TV was a wonderful stunt, and he pulled it off reasonably well, but it fell far short (and he had to rely on a number of gimmicks to pull it through). I dipped into several of the other feature stories, and several seemed worthy in an earnest kind of way. But nothing held me.

    I know the concept issue imperative comes from the business side—for a variety of reasons, it’s easier to sell ads into an articulated concept than into an uncertain grab-bag of stories (the foundational idea of a magazine). And I know that more concept issues are on the way. But without real stories, I don’t think readers will turn to the magazine with any eagerness—instead, it will sit there on the coffee table, mostly decoration (with lovely new typefaces and better paper stock), until tossed for next week’s issue. And eventually there won’t be a next week’s issue at all.

    I’m not sure this is dispositive (as the lawyers would say), but none of this Sunday’s magazine articles (not even a column) are currently on the list of the NYT 20-most emailed stories. Two weeks ago both the Stanford and tweet stories stayed there for much of the week.

  2. http://www.abqjournal.com/548979/a1/ny-times-mag-puts-nm-in-mexico.html

    I enjoy this “old editor” exchange. The “debut” February 22 issue of New York Times Magazine also had an amusing map error on its cover. See link above

    I guess we never think to fact-check maps. But this was also cover art.

    • Fact-checking maps and other art should be as routine as checking everything else. But sometimes ____ does happen. Years ago, the creative folks at Smithsonian had a fancy “paper sculpture” done to illustrate how a beehive works for a story I’d done on urban apiarists. A simple drawing would have sufficed but inspiration struck. By the time I realized the artist had created a fanciful hive that would have driven bees crazy, the page proofs were already in hand. The fact-checker and I had checked everything but that. After the issue came out, there was no end to the buzzing in the letters department.
      I had a similar experience with a fancy map that relocated part of Minnesota to Ontario. Readers noticed. So did the boss, who had a great sense of humor but not when it came to stuff like that.

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