Haskell took up the reins of New York Magazine this year after its 15-year editor Adam Moss stepped away.
On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Peter was joined in studio by David Haskell, the recently appointed editor-in-chief of New York Magazine. Haskell minced no words about how intimidating it is to replace Adam Moss, his well-liked predecessor who restored New York Magazine to cultural relevance.
“He saw a moment to leave the New York Times Magazine and then he was up high in the masthead at the Times,” Haskell said of Moss. “To leave that for New York Magazine — which was, at that moment, not a great magazine, you know? It had the bones of something amazing and an early history that was exciting, but Adam got to oversee this massive restoration project and it was like all upside for him.”
Haskell told Kafka that he never actively sought out the editor-in-chief job, so being asked to take the job by the magazine’s owner, Pam Wasserstein, was a surprise.
”I was never interested in the pressure of the job that I have right now,” he said. “But I did find myself, over the course of last year, recognizing that I wanted next in my career the opportunity to lead an editorial project with the ambition and resources to be excellent. That was a sentence that I typed the morning that Pam called me into her office.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Jessi.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me, talking to you from Vox Media headquarters in New York City. My guest today is David Haskell, the brand-new editor-in-chief of New York Magazine. Welcome, David.
David Haskell: Thanks.
You’re looking at me askance. Did I get something wrong?
No, that’s all right.
Did I pronounce your name wrong? Did I get the title wrong?
You got it all right.
New York Magazine is correct.
It just still feels a little bit weird.
Because it’s brand new.
Because it’s brand new.
As we’re speaking, you have your first new issue as the new editor-in-chief of New York Magazine.
Yep, that came out on Monday. Today’s Thursday, I think?
Thursday-ish. Mayor Pete’s on the cover.
Mayor Pete’s on the cover.
Lot of … How much pressure is there in issue No. 1 for you? Or do you feel like you’re just going to ease into this job?
Well, I spent a lot of February and March telling people not to judge.
And that the real project for the first couple months was just me adjusting and the whole editorial operation adjusting to saying goodbye to Adam, basically, and finding our way in this new world.
Let’s fill it in for listeners who don’t know who Adam is.
Adam Moss is one of the bold-type big-deal editor-in-chiefs — formerly big-deal chiefs — left in the magazine business. There was Graydon Carter, there was Anna Wintour, Adam Moss. It’s kind of a triumverate. David Remnick.
Jeffery Goldberg, but yes. Jeff is not in New York, so that’s a different thing.
Jeffery’s a great person. But this is one of the people that you like moved to New York to work for.
And you are filling his shoes.
Yeah, that’s … Of all of the things, that is the scariest part.
Just the filling of the shoes of Adam. And I’ve known him for my entire … I’ve worked at New York Magazine for 12 years. I knew Adam for a handful of years before that in a kind of mentor/friend relationship. I had started a magazine of my own in graduate school, a little magazine called Topic. Originally, it was at Cambridge University and then I moved it to New York City, and Adam, who was editing the New York Times Magazine at the time, I got in touch with and he just was really generous with his time and gave me a lot of advice about how to make a magazine.
So, we had that kind of a relationship. Then he went to New York for a couple years. He was there and I was editing Topic magazine. We’d sort of loosely had conversations about me going there and then in 2007, that all made sense. And I went.
I can’t underscore how big a deal Adam is in the magazine world.
Yeah, he’s a big deal. I mean, the thing that’s interesting to hear you, to me as you talk, is that he is such a big deal in all of those ways and then at the same time as a person, incredibly approachable, friendly, warm, understated, modest. He doesn’t play a character.
How many people did he have working for him to read his emails? I heard Graydon Carter had four different assistants that would print out his emails and read them.
Adam had these two … Adam.firstname.lastname@example.org was sort of the public email and his assistant read that. And then, he had a shorter email for internal, all of us to reach him more directly.
And he read his own email?
Of course, yeah.
Down to earth, great.
He was a very hands-on editor, not the kind of editor who sort of set the stage and then did a lot of public events. He was the opposite of that.
We can name names, if you want. So, there was a public announcement that he was leaving.
And then there was a gap in between that and you being anointed. Behind the scenes, was that already a done deal? How did that work?
Yeah, yeah. I found out soon after Thanksgiving.
He pulls you in …
No, not him. Pam.
Who’s the CEO of the company.
And with her family, the owner of it. So it was really a decision that Pam had already made after some time of sitting with the news that Adam had told her that he didn’t want to stick around for another re-up of his contract.
So they had already been having months of conversations of what that meant and she landed on a plan and looped me into that plan.
She brings you in and says, “Sit down. I have news.”
Yeah, it was kind of a … it was a classic scenario where I completely didn’t expect it, it was an informal …
Because Adam had not told you he was leaving.
And it wasn’t like there was a meeting that showed up on my calendar, an important conversation that I was about to have with Pam. It was literally a, “Hey, can you come by?” She had a few things to talk to me about that were completely tiny and then she said …
“Oh, by the way.”
Yeah, oh, by the way, some sad news, but good news, is that Adam is leaving and I’d like you to take his job. So anyway, that was in December, right after Thanksgiving.
She says to you, “You are going to replace Adam Moss. He’s leaving, you’re going to replace him.” Do you go, “Great”? Do you go, “Holy shit”?
My face flushed and I was so taken aback, I really, truly was. It was not what I was imagining was going on. And I mean, I was just so appreciative. Inside, incredibly nervous already, but I think all that fumbled out of me was just … thank you, I guess, and I’m so excited? Something along those lines.
So no introspection, no, “I got to think about whether I could do this or whether I want to do this”?
No. I mean, I had weirdly, I had just filled out, you know, maybe you have this here too, but we instituted a couple years ago this annual review, annual summary HR process. And part of that is you have to write your own assessment and answer a handful of questions. And one of the questions was a sort of long term, or what is your view of the future, something like that.
And I had been at this place for 12 years and I have been always sure that I didn’t want Adam’s job because of the pressure of inheriting something that’s performing so well.
It seems like it’s the kind of thing that tears up your stomach lining, where you’re filling his shoes, the magazine is doing really well and …
And the thing that I so envy about Adams’s career is that he saw a moment to leave the New York Times Magazine and then he was up high in the masthead at the Times, to leave that for New York Magazine, which was, at that moment, not a great magazine, you know? It had the bones of something amazing and an early history that was exciting, but Adam got to oversee this massive restoration project and it was like all upside for him.
Because the history of New York was city magazine, back when city magazines didn’t get respect, and then it was the new journalism …
Well, the first 10 years of New York Magazine were amazing.
It’s Tom Wolfe.
Exactly, Clay Felker built it with Milton Glaser and a handful of other people, Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Jimmy Breslin, just an incredible collection of journalists.
It is a local magazine, but it’s definitely a national magazine.
Yeah, it was writing about Watergate. It was writing about Hollywood. It had a New Yorker’s point of view of the world and then very specific, useful, no-bullshit service about how to actually get around the city. That was sort of its thing. It invented what city magazines could be.
And then, the “city magazine” kind of became this thing and it often wasn’t that ambitious.
It was more service, less impact.
Yeah. But you know, the simplest way of understanding what Adam did was look to those first years, the Clay Felker era, and find in that history a template for what the print magazine could be and also what a digital magazine could be, which we could talk about more.
But just to finish my story, I was never interested in the pressure of the job that I have right now.
That job, yeah, yeah.
But I did find myself, over the course of last year, recognizing that I wanted next in my career the opportunity to lead an editorial project with the ambition and resources to be excellent. That was a sentence that I typed the morning that Pam called me into her office. And so, somehow internally, I had gotten myself to the place and I really, truly did not think it was going to be here because I didn’t think Adam was going to be leaving and so it just felt like I should let Adam and Pam know that kind of long term, I’d like to run something.
And anyway, then she called me into her office and so that was, sorry, that was December and then we were all very nervous about how to break this news. And it was Adam’s very smart, although at the time I thought maybe not correct idea that the best way to do it would be to split the news cycles, create two news cycles, basically.
“Someone’s leaving, someone’s coming.” Two different stories.
Someone’s leaving, yeah. Exactly. And in that gap, people wouldn’t jump out the window. That was the thing I was worried about, that Adam is so beloved in the office and truly has created a magazine and its digital incarnation in his image and what would the staff think to know that he’s going and not to know who’s coming.
So anyway, we got through those 24 hours, and there was an enormous and glowing article in the Times about his career and all that stuff. And then, people were interested in my news too, so that didn’t get buried either. So it was …
And then Adam, his last day was going to be and was March 31st. And this was mid-January now that the news came out. So then we had a like, 10-week transition, which was, every week very different from the week before.
Is he pulling you aside and saying, “Listen, I mean, we never talked about this, but this is actually the secret to doing the whole thing.”
We had a handful of conversations of like, “All right, big picture. How does this place work? And big picture, if you look at the staff …”
Because again, you’re there, you’re obviously high up the masthead now and thought … so you had access to a lot of this, you knew how a lot of the mechanism worked.
The last iteration of my job at the magazine was in a position of some leadership and was pretty strategic. So I was involved in a lot of conversation about where this place was going. I wasn’t as clued into the mechanics and the budgeting about how it currently works. So that was a big education.
You are, by the way, how old?
I just turned 40.
That’s the right age to start running a magazine.
Yeah, so I started it when I was 39 …
You already aged.
And then April 10th, I turned 40.
So there had been a series of high-profile magazine leaders leaving in the last couple years.
Sometimes on the business side, sometimes on the editing side. And very often, the through line is — whether it’s stated or not — is this person is leaving because the magazine business is contracting and there isn’t the budget for them to get paid the gazillion dollars they’re getting paid, or there’s cutting and they don’t want to do the cutting or they just need a cheaper person. Graydon Carter just did a thing for Hollywood Reporter where he more or less says, this whole thing’s shrinking and its less fun for me.
Radhika Jones has that job, and part of her job is to run that thing at a smaller budget but still have it be a big deal.
How much of that is …
It’s not really applicable to this situation.
Yeah, yeah, so how different or applicable is it?
Pretty different. I mean, it was … it’s a pretty exciting time to be the editor-in-chief of the magazine. I feel that and Adam also feels that. So he wasn’t sort of, it wasn’t a kind of … I mean, you should ask him, but I believe him when he says in public and in private that it was truly a sense of personal … exhaustion’s not the right word, but ready for something else.
It’s kind of surprising to me, it has been, that so many magazine editors are still interested in being in the job for as long as they sometimes are. It doesn’t necessarily reflect …
Because in the old days, it was was a great gig, right?
Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s true.
Town cars and expense budgets and …
But just, Adam’s incredibly, has an incredibly creative, fertile mind. And the fun thing about this job is you’re constantly reinventing things. You’re not only constantly looking around the world and saying, “Oh, that’s a story we want to do, this is actually changing in the world and let’s notice it,” but you’re the magazine itself and the digital newsroom and the brands that we’re creating, the verticals, all of that … going to film, television, podcast, events, there’s so much to create all the time. So that is really fun and makes the job exciting. But it doesn’t surprise me that after 15 years of that Adam was like, “Oh, okay. Let’s sort of see what else I’ve got in me.” And specifically, the management drain was wearing on him.
It’s a lot of work.
So anyway, that’s why he left. And it really didn’t have anything to do with the business. But it was interesting when we were trying to plot out how to manage this announcement, there aren’t that many playbooks that we could find of a successful transition in magazine editorship, especially recently. It’s all been kind of rocky. And I’m just so grateful that he saw as part of his legacy transitioning well, you know? That was part … he has set me up in every possible way to succeed and that’s also super stressful because I might not, but it’s such a different situation compared to, say, Graydon and Radhika.
Normally, this would be the part of the conversation where I’d say, “Hey, magazines, what’s up with magazines? What’s the point of a magazine, isn’t this all digital?” But New York in particular has done a very good job of adapting in a lot of ways to a digital world, right?
Yeah, I think so.
You’ve been publishing aggressively online for a long time and I think have done a really good job of providing useful information, big important stories, and also service-y stuff, so you’re getting both eyeballs and attention, positive attention. How much of that was your hand?
Not that much. I think one way to look at the last 15 years of Adam’s tenure and also the Wasserstein family’s ownership of this place is that we as a magazine figured out how to be a digital publication and to bring the qualities of magazine-ness to the digital world and our magazine in particular. That was like the big accomplishment. And I had very little to do with it. Most of my time was editing big features.
Doing actual magazine editing?
Not that much time spent on decoration of … our verticals, with the exception of The Strategist, which is …
Yeah, explain what The Strategist is.
I think a lot of people in the magazine business know what it is, but others might not.
Well yeah, so really quickly, one thing that we as a company realized early on is that New York Magazine is a general interest magazine. Right? It’s a very particular point of view and voice. It’s sort of known for its stylish journalism and all that stuff, but it’s general interest. Whereas on the internet, what really performs, what really works is deep obsessional reporting and commentary and attitude around specific topics.
”I want this thing. I equate this brand with this thing, and that’s why I value it.”
Yeah, or like Vulture, which is one of the first verticals that we created, New York Magazine has always covered culture in a very obsessive way. Rather than just sort of add a lot of culture covers to what New York Magazine was digitally, we created this thing out of nowhere called Vulture. It just was this repository of, it’s motto for a long time has been, “Mind of a critic, heart of a fan.”
And some people are consuming Vulture and don’t know it’s a New York Magazine product.
Exactly, right. The big discovery was that we could create these verticals of excitement and enthusiasm attitude, blah, blah, blah, and that they could completely live on their own, independently. You really truly could be — and there are millions of them out there — huge Vulture fans, and not really have that much of a relationship to the rest of what we’re about, same with The Cut. There’s five of them, Vulture, The Cut, Intelligencer, The Strategist, and Grove Street.
The Strategist is the newest one?
Yeah, The Strategist is named after a section of the magazine that gives you service journalism, tells you how to do life more.
Right, and it’s fashion-centric, right?
Well, no. It’s not fashion-centric, but it’s practical centric. It’s main job in the magazine originally was your strategies for getting through New York City. It’s where our food coverage is, “This is the restaurant to go to,” but also, “This thing is trending right now, and this is literally the best route.”
We just did this thing on everything guide to umbrellas, and it included, “What is the right way to walk through certain areas of the city to get rained on the least?” And it’s very specifically …
That’s good. Does it have an umbrella etiquette, because people are …
It has an umbrella etiquette.
Exactly, and it also has “these are the best umbrellas.” So there was an aspect of what we were doing that was always a lot of really rigorous testing and research and filtering through our point of view to say, “This is worth buying.” What we decided to do a few years ago is create a digital expression of The Strategist that was all about internet shopping, and saying that, “The internet, like New York City, is both overwhelmingly exciting and just overwhelming.”
”We recommend you buy this stuff.”
That’s what we do. So we say in a million different ways, and we have different forms for doing it, we look at what’s out there in the world and say, “This is worth buying.” It’s a different business model for us than the rest of our …
Because it’s e-commerce.
Because it’s e-com affiliate-revenue based.
So you’re sending people to Amazon, other retailers, getting a cut of that. You guys were early on that. Everyone’s very interested in it now. New York Times bought Wirecutter. I think they in their filings they said that’s now doing $50 million a year for them. BuzzFeed is pushing it. We’re doing it at Vox Media … It’s still growing for you guys, I’m assuming.
Yeah, it’s growing very quickly. It’s a great business story for us. It’s really exciting editorially, because it’s … business incentives are so in line with editorial excellence. You have to be trustworthy in order to convince people to click on a link. Then if you do, Amazon or Nordstrom or whoever’s gonna sell that product eventually, is really appreciative of our referral, because they know that we were for something we’d genuinely believe it and the people who are coming are “qualified.” Right? They pay us for that, and they have no influence over what we choose.
From the outside, it seems like the obvious problem here is you have a race to the bottom where you have Amazon dominating this business, and then Walmart and a few other retailers. They know that all the publishers really want this business, and they can afford to give them less and less on each cut.
I was just talking to someone who’s doing this business and they were providing the counterargument. Did you want to explain why this is …
Yeah, I’ll give you a counterargument.
Why this is sustainable?
We’re in a stronger position than the Amazons of the world are. Really, in a sense that …
Very few people can say that with a straight face.
Well, they’ve got a great business. I’m not saying we’re a better business, but in this relationship … In a world without storefronts, it’s really hard for e-commerce retailers to get people to discover products. That is a dilemma that they’ve got.
So even though Amazon has everything …
It has everything, but how are they gonna get you to some of the stuff? In my opinion, it’s a pretty sustainable business if it’s not … You don’t wanna have all your eggs in the Amazon basket, and we don’t. We work with pretty much anybody who sells anything online, but I just see that ecosystem needing referral sources.
Right. As big as Amazon is, they need you guys to funnel shoppers to them to buy a specific thing.
So they’ll pay a small … a few pennies. It’s just cutting into a tiny bit of their margin and saying, “Sure, take some of it for getting these people here.” I think that’ll keep going. I really do. From our point of view, where we’re more concerned is just making sure that we have, on the business side, relationships with a lot of different places, so that if Amazon is changing its plans …
Right, and they’ve already gone, they’ve already said once, “We’re cutting the fees for this in general.”
Well, they did to their non-preferred relationships, but if you are …
If you’re a generic link provider…
Yeah, if you are a kind of blogger, you’re not as valuable to them, but for us, for the Times, I’m sure that a handful of other places, that relationship is getting stronger over time.
Yeah, someone told me that they’re actually going to expand in specific territories around the world, because Amazon is saying, “We would like it if you went to country X and generated more leads for us.”
Which sounds both creepy and, “Our office supports journalism. We’ll take it.”
Yup. That’s what I was saying.
Let’s have the “whither magazines?” talk, though. So you guys make great stuff online, and then there’s stuff that’s also online but exists in print. How do you demarcate, “Okay, this is an online-only thing,” “This deserves to be in the magazine,” or “This should be in the magazine”?
Because as a reader, I don’t care. Right?
Yeah, right. I mean, everything that we publish shows up digitally, so it’s really just a question of, “What also is in the print product?” Historically, the way that the editorial operation was built, the print magazine was really the engine for a lot of journalism. One thing I know I want to do is shift that a bit, so it’s more a showcase for it, but the engine exists outside of the print magazine.
Over the years, our verticals, digital verticals in general, have gotten more ambitious, more layered in their approach, borrowed a lot of the tools of magazine-making, becoming real magazines. When you look at “enterprise journalism,” which was like traditionally the very expensive journalism that was happening in the magazine, and then that would show up on Vulture and be the big Vulture story. Vulture itself is making enterprise journalism, and it should be doing more of that.
We’ll get to this place where they are somewhat now, it’s not gonna be completely there, but we will push more towards a place where the magazine is just, “Every two weeks, how can we package it all together and just something that has a lot of magazine drama?” Magazines are such a theatrical experience.
Explain that, because I think — again, I moved to New York 20-plus years ago because I loved magazines and I wanted to work at them. I thought they were great products. For a bunch of reasons, I think, well, economic reasons and just culturally, they become devalued, and it’s hard to sort of explain how big a deal they were, again, even 20 years ago. Again, as a reader, and I read voraciously, it’s all in my phone. It kind of all looks the same.
You did your Biden story, “Joe Biden creeped me out,” kind of story, and that’s online, and I can’t imagine …
Didn’t run in the magazine.
Didn’t run in the magazine, and again, it said, I think everyone said, “This is a New York Magazine piece.”
And The Cut.
And The Cut, right?
But as a reader, it’s all the same stuff. I value it, but I don’t value it. The idea of this sort of … curated, very specific thing is kind of lost, I think. Even to someone like me who’d love this magazine.
Yeah, I think that that’s true. That’s the world we’re in that so much news comes at you in a kind of uniform way. It’s just the world we live in. And I’m not saying that we’re gonna live in a different world, but there is something …
What is the drama of a magazine then?
Well, starting with the cover, what you’ve got is this opportunity to shake people and say, like what we just did with this Mayor Pete cover, “How about Pete?” That was the cover line. It took most of my 24 hours of Thursday into Friday just focusing on that and the deck, the language going into the cover line, to figure out what is it that we’re actually going to say? It was that important to me to get that language right, because it’s a big jolt of a statement. We took a kind of weird … a live photograph that was both real and slightly cartoonish.
From the very beginning, a magazine cover can announce something and make something big happen in the world.
Right, and there’s iconic Esquire magazine covers, bunch of famous magazine covers. Even, again, fairly recently, if you were a magazine editor, you spent a lot of time thinking about how this would work on a newsstand. “What would this sell?
I mean, the newsstand of today is Instagram.
I assume that you don’t care. Yeah.
It’s not that I’m … New York Magazine’s never really had a newsstand business, so actually that is special to us.
”We’re gonna make this print thing that we have been …”
We’ve always been more based on subscribers. So the value of a cover for us isn’t so much like, “You’re walking in an airport and you see it.” I mean, that’s great, fine, but it’s a marginal part of the business now. It always kind of has been, but it’s really kind of just like, “Oh yeah, this is why I subscribed, because wow, that’s exciting, or weird, or provocative.”
Someone’s already giving you money, you feel better. Then you also expect this is gonna travel around the internet, have a certain brand for you.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That’s just one part of my magazine experience, but I’ve always appreciated a kind of curated intentional … dramatic walk-through of my news. I mean, I find that when I go to a museum, I want to know whether to turn right or left, and I want somebody to have guided me through what they think is the right way to see something. So that’s sort of a bias of mine, but I think it’s what’s exciting to a lot of people about magazines, is that you can really go on a journey in a kind of regularized weekly, bi-weekly, monthly cadence.
It’s kind of this form, right, where there’s the front of the book and the shorter, snappier pieces?
Then, once you get into that kind of how it all works, that’s where I’m like, “Eh.”
You don’t care.
Yeah, or like, “Let’s shake it up.” None of those rules are important. Really, the only thing that I would argue for in terms of a print magazine is just that it forces you as editors to spend a lot of attention to making a full experience, and it gives a reader a chance to break from the world and have an experience. That’s the argument for print.
The core thing of what New York Magazine is translates beyond print because it’s about voice, attitude, and approach to journalism.
So the same reason, like when people who still make albums care about track listings and the order, even though most of the stuff is gonna get disaggregated and the single’s gonna go out or someone’s gonna stream it. They still think it’s important to like, “This track starts this side.” Well, there’s no sides anymore, but still, “We’re gonna go in order. We’re gonna tell you a story.”
I think, whatever you think of what Apple News+ is, the fact that they, Apple, a tech company’s in magazines matter in the world. I think what they’re saying is, not just that flip-through cadence are the digital equivalent of that, but that there is a type of content out in the world, a type of journalism that isn’t newspapers, and it isn’t nonfiction books, and it isn’t documentaries on Netflix. It’s this other thing where it is a relationship that you can have with a brand of journalism that shares a point of view and an attitude with you, and is your sort of partner in understanding the modern world.
Let’s talk about Apple News+.
You guys were prominently featured in it. A lot of Rebecca Traister in that promo reel. She looked great. A lot of the magazine publishers are in it in part because they were in a contractual… They had this thing called Texture and they sold it to Apple, and they’re bought, but you guys have opted into this.
No, we were part of Texture too.
You were part of Texture to begin with. Okay.
But you weren’t owners of Texture?
We weren’t, but we had already had a relationship with … There were people, not many of them, who were reading us on Texture already.
You didn’t need to be part of Apple News+, right?
I’m not sure, but we definitely decided it was worth jumping on.
So, I’ve talked about this a couple times. I think it is a pretty cool experience if you like magazines but don’t particularly care about any one magazine.
It’s kind of what Apple is saying sort of like, but not onstage. It’s sort of like if you, same thing for the Wall Street Journal. If you love the Wall Street Journal, it’s not a replacement.
Just sort of interested in “premium content” but across a wide variety of stuff, and you’re not too loyal to any one thing.
So the upside for you guys is there’s money potentially, and then theoretically you’re exposing your stuff to someone who maybe doesn’t read your stuff all the time. That’s all good. The flip side is, there’s a real disincentive, I think, to subscribe to New York Magazine if you’re getting Texture, because it’s already in there. You guys are getting a very, very small slice of $10.
The one thing for us, because we put everything on the internet, you could get it all on Apple News regular. We’re already giving you all of our content there. Now Apple is coming to us and saying, “Can we put it in this premium locked category, and we’ll actually be paying you for some of the readers of it?” So that’s sort of just an up.
So, “We’re already giving it away, and now we’re getting paid for it.”
But the other thing that happened this year, probably most significant, second-most significant thing after Adam leaving, is that we launched a digital subscription business back in December. Now, we are asking our readers to pay $5 a month or $50 a year.
If you look at what we’re about from a macro business thing, Pam Wasserstein, our CEO, she’s been here for three years. She made this big decision early on that even if we thought — and we do think we can grow our advertising business — the overall business is better if it’s diversified. That there are these two other business models out there that are best for us. One is the affiliate revenue, with The Strategist, and one is the digital subscription business.
The cool thing about being an editor is that both of those are basically rewarding good journalism. Right? It’s just, as an editor, I need to try to get some percentage of the 50 million people who are reading us each month to decide that we’re that good that they want to pay for it. So okay, great.
Because you get this, and you get five free articles or whatever it is, and they pay up.
Yeah, we have this thing, “dynamic paywall,” which means you never really know what the tally is, but at some point if you’re …
You get a tap on the shoulder.
You get a tap on the shoulder, and then you get a full wall and it says, “You’re up for the month. Please subscribe.”
When you go to Apple News, then again, which is gonna allow me to pay, I’m paying for it now, $10 and then I can read you and the New Yorker and everything else in there. In theory, when I get to your tap on the shoulder and the paywall goes up online, I go, “Oh, I don’t wanna pay you directly. I’m already paying Apple.”
“I’m just gonna go to Apple News.” Yeah. That might happen with enough frequency that the whole thing doesn’t work for us.
The answer is, you don’t know.
Yeah, of course we don’t know. We’ll see. The sense is that there [are] two different use cases, really. That there are people who are gonna get to us from Apple News, and they’re really not. There’s a huge number of them, first of all, and for the most part they’re not the people who are already going to our site all the time.
That’s a billion iPhone owners that are gonna flip through it periodically.
And I know folks at the New Yorker have made a separate argument. If you really love us the best experience of us is gonna be on our site. If you’re kinda …
The New Yorker’s online editor said, “please, please don’t go through it, Texture, through Apple News+, please subscribe to us directly.”
Yeah, and I would say a similar thing. If you really like us, you’re gonna get the best experience from us. And that’s on us to make sure, from a product point of view, we’re giving you the best version of us. But if you’re just casually interested in content, I think Apple News is probably worth it. I mean, it’s definitely a deal.
So this is, even though you guys are prominently featured and you’re a big part of this, you view this as an experiment, wait and let’s see how this goes.
Yeah, I think we as a company, I mean, I don’t know what the deal is and how much flexibility we have, but I know that just strategically, jury’s out on how much it will cannibalize the digital subscription.
And you have the capacity to get out at some point, I think.
I don’t know, honestly.
I think you do.
I think we do.
I think you do.
Yeah, I’m sure.
And all of this business conversation, right, in newspapers, in the old model, the editors were proudly ignorant of how any part of the business worked, they wanted no part of it. In magazines, I think there’s always been more of a blend, right? ‘Cause you’re selling the product, you’re well aware of it, at least with the magazine experiences I’ve had. Even if there’s a clear wall between edit and advertising, you guys were talking all the time.
Yeah, and I’ve also felt, always, like a kind of entrepreneurial editor, so I’m not afraid of any of the business conversations. I’m very protective and careful of our journalism and brand, so I’d rather be in the room and say, “Let’s double down on The Strategist. It was really important to me that we grow that business. It felt completely in line with who we are as a company and would facilitate a lot of really great journalism that was on brand, so I was like, “If this is the business that’s gonna work, let’s go deep into it.”
But then, we’ve had other conversations about X, Y, and Z ways of making money that would obviously be intentioned with editorial quality, and that’s super important to me to be in that room and say, “Nope, not that one, let’s not do that,” and make that case.
And it’s not just being defensive, right, it’s like, “I think we should pursue this, but let’s do this, this is a good revenue opportunity for us.”
Exactly. Exactly. I really think, and it’s very fun to be Pam’s partner in this because she is very interested in ways of growing the business that is smart. But she’s also very discerning and has really great taste, so that is a nice combo to have in a boss.
By the way, last fall there was a story saying you guys had hired a banker, and you were exploring alternatives, I haven’t heard anything about that, it sounds like it didn’t go anywhere.
Yeah. The magazine’s owned by the Wasserstein family, they’re a pretty private family and you should talk to them about what happened. But I will say that at the town hall meeting, our big company-wide meeting in February, Pam was asked by one of our employees, “Are we still for sale?” and she said no. And in all of my conversations with her, too, that is a true answer.
Good, we got it out of the way!
Good. I know.
Just one more business question for you, what percent of the revenue comes from strategists and e-commerce and that stuff right now?
That, I don’t know, I know that a couple years ago the whole company had about 85 percent of its business was advertising. And this year we’re on track, Pam was telling me the other day, to be around 60 percent, even though the advertising business is growing.
Okay, so that’s not just the ad business declining, okay.
Right, so the ad numbers are growing in absolute terms but going down pretty significantly in overall …
And this is the new normal for publishers, they want that.
Yeah. I mean, at least for Pam. And for this company, I think it’s like, you find a few different business models that all, in different ways, make money on high-quality content. And so, anyway, that number I can give you. This year, we’re on pace for advertising to be at around 60. But I can’t break it out between the others, I don’t know what they’re …
All right, I’ll get the pie chart from you later, we’ll publish it.
Let’s talk about politics, and then how you guys think about your role in covering politics in general and 2020. Again, clearly, like we talked about, you guys are New York Magazine, but you are a national publication.
Everyone wants to cover Trump, everyone’s gonna cover the Democratic race. How do you stand out in that crowd?
That’s a conversation we’re having all the time, and it changes all the time. Looking back on the last few presidential cycles, it’s kind of been interesting to study what our lane has been. John Heilemann was writing for us for the 2008 race and the drama, that was a premium cable show. The primary between Clinton and Obama, the race itself, so narratively-focused.
2012, and also ‘16, by that point, we had a kind of murderer’s row of commentary with Frank Rich, John Chait, Rebecca Traister, Andrew Sullivan, giving really super-smart analysis of what’s going on. In addition to obviously a lot of strong reporting, also.
So I’m, just in a sort of theoretical in-my-head way, that you try to plan things, and then in reality, things just happen, trying to think of how we can really meet the 2020 race with our greatest assets. But if you look at the piece that Olivia Nuzzi wrote about Pete, it was actually a pretty quick turnaround piece, we decided just a few weeks ago that our internal Pete obsession was actually maybe worth covering.
And so we were like, “All right, let’s do this, the classic New York Magazine piece. She’s gonna fly to New Hampshire, she’s gonna watch him, she’s gonna have a lot of conversations with him, but she’s not just gonna write a piece that transcribes her conversations, she’s gonna download all of the wisdom that she’s picked up of what’s going on, she’s gonna be a super-smart observer, what’s happening.”
Meanwhile, we’re getting a photographer out to New Hampshire to try to document what these surreal early primary meetings are there. And then we’re also on the phone with the campaign to convince them to give us a portrait session, because if that could come through, that really felt to me like a cover. And then we realized that he’s actually going to be announcing right when the piece is coming out, and that’s just …
Yeah, it’s luck that you sort of fall into and sort of make for yourself kind of thing.
It’s funny, all those elements are still how big magazine covers are made, which is, there’s a combination of, “we have a gut feeling of this is an interesting person, and we’re trying to catch that wave, and we wanna be out a little bit early, and then by putting him on the cover, we’re now part of the wave, it’s self-perpetuating,” and then also, like you mentioned, needing a photo. Again, I think for a lot of folks, especially folks who consume stuff online, you don’t think about photography, and if you’re us at Vox Media, generally you go to the Getty archive and there’s a photo.
Yeah, photography’s really important for me.
But for you guys, the photo is a big deal, it’s very important, and if you don’t get the photo, it makes it less compelling for you, it makes it less likely to put on the cover.
Yeah, or it’s a bigger cover challenge. I think by the end of that cycle, of closing that issue, I was sure that that should be the cover, with or without the picture, and so, if it wasn’t going to be that, then that’s really fun, because we as a magazine don’t have the kind of cover constraints that … we don’t need to make a commercial cover. We can really do anything we want on it. So, it could be in all type, just a bunch of words, it could be … we have this weird picture of — or not weird, but a kind of cute picture of the back of a teenager’s head where he had shaved, “Pete for President 2020” on it. And I was like, “all right, well, that could be a cover.”
That’s your backup. Yeah.
Anything could be, but you just need it to solve the cover problem. And thinking about politics going forward, I really do want to apply our journalistic talent to each of the candidates while there is still an opportunity to be observing a lot of them, but at the same time, write about the systems of how a race works, the money behind it. New York Magazine’s always been particularly strong on the media of politics, and the money of politics, and the behind-the-scenes, how something is constructed. So there’s a lot of that that I wanna be able to do.
And then, also, we all feel like, you never want to feel stuck, hostage to the horse race coverage. So where can we be surprising, and who is the senator who’s not on anyone’s radar right now but an incredible story right now? I definitely want to be assigning into the heat of the 2020 stuff, not just the obvious 2020 pieces.
I’ve been asking people this for a couple of years, there was all this soul-searching post-Trump on the media side. What did we get wrong, how do we fix it? I feel like maybe you guys were exempt from that conversation because you weren’t supposed to be providing a national take, but maybe I’m wrong.
Well, I don’t know. We were definitely a part of that conversation.
I mean, obviously you had Rebecca writing about Clinton, and she was deep into that, and you guys really focused a ton of resources on that.
The cover of the magazine that was out on election day on 2016, it was a piece by Barbara Kruger where you had a big image of Donald Trump and it said “loser” on it. And he wasn’t. But he is. I’m not afraid of anticipating the future. I think we’re actually really good at that. A lot of our political commentary is, “Okay, what does this mean next?” We’re talking right now, as the Mueller report, I assume, is being released any minute now, and the job of …
It’s already out.
It’s out, okay. So, the job of our political writers and editors is not just to say what’s in it, but how is that changing the near future. And so we’re gonna get that wrong sometimes. And there’s a lot of conversations we’re having internally about responsibility and how much has actually changed in the world of political media? What did the 2016 election permanently do? In what way did it permanently change how you can responsibly cover politics? We are deep in those conversations.
Trump famously is a New York-centric media person, likes the Post, the Times, are you guys in his media diary?
I mean, he “likes,” quote-unquote. He’s complained about us.
But consumes it.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
So he’s aware.
That’s good. Or is it good?
Of course it’s good. You wanna be …
You want the president of the United States reading your copy.
Yeah. You wanna be in the conversation.
Last question is about whiskey. You have a side hustle. You’re running New York Magazine and you have your own distillery. How did that happen?
It’s a business I started with a friend of mine from college. And he, at the time, was working at an architecture firm, I was working at a magazine, the economy had just crashed, both of those jobs seemed pretty precarious, and we had this little hobby going on where he had brought some moonshine back from eastern Kentucky, where he’s from, we bought a still on the internet.
We’re making — illegally, because you aren’t allowed to distill anything without a license in this country — but we were making some whiskey. Realized we could be the first in New York City to get a license if we moved quickly, and therefore always “the oldest distillery in New York City,” and that seemed like a great business proposition.
Oldest distillery in New York City means incorporated in 2009.
Yeah, actually, our birthday was last week, so we’re officially nine years old.
What’s the name of the brand?
And if you go to a certain kind of liquor store, meaning the ones I go to all the time, your stuff is all over the place.
Yeah, that’s good to hear.
The little bottles of moonshine.
The big news in our business is that we’re about to finally release to the world a 750-milliliter bottle, which is the average size bottle of liquor. But we started so small, we were not only first in New York City, we were the smallest distillery in America by a factor of 20 or something, when we started.
Where do you actually make the stuff?
In the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But now, we’ve amassed enough juice that we can put out a regular-size bottle, and that’ll be a big deal for us.
Are you gonna branch out of whiskey, or you go whiskey, whiskey, whiskey?
Well, the big bet was to be just a whiskey distillery. We bought stills that were only good for whiskey and not gin and vodka and other stuff, which was a departure from how a lot of other micro-distilleries were building their businesses. So now that we’ve got … all we really do is whiskey, but we’ve played with brandy, and we’ve played with our version of tequila.
You didn’t make a gin, right? I had some kind of Brooklyn-y gin for a sort of industry setting.
No. Yeah, so there’s around, I think, 30 distilleries in New York City now.
But we’re always the oldest. And if you’re ever in …
On your Twitter account, there’s one post from you, it’s an image of I guess of you in a cornfield.
Yeah, I don’t know how to be on Twitter. I mean, I use it all day long as a way of reading the news, but in terms of expressing myself on Twitter, it’s never made sense for me.
You can’t fuck up that way, right?
I used to promote stories I worked on, but I just couldn’t find a language that felt true to myself, so I deleted all of those before the news came out, because I was like, “eh, that’s just kind of awkward.”
Ah, okay, so you have used it in the past.
I’ve played with it.
You’ve made more than one post.
And I’ve made more than one, but none of them made any sense to me.
Okay, so we can buy your liquor anywhere in New York City and beyond?
Yeah, we’re in most states and a handful of other countries.
We can buy your magazine at a newsstand, via Apple News, online … people can figure it out.
Or just nymag.com. You can pay an extra 20 bucks a year beyond your 50 and get it in your mailbox, which is also pretty cool.
We subscribed, post-election.
Yeah, all right, good.
I don’t know if it renewed. I gotta check. I’ll look at it. David, this is great. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’ll let you get back to reading the Mueller report.