Here's a puzzle for a Tuesday morning: If the particular fame of a magazine editor corresponds to the quality of the publication he or she oversees, why haven't you heard of Adam Moss?
Those who follow such things seem to have the names of the usual suspects stencilled into their brain: elite players like Graydon Carter (Vanity Fair), Tina Brown (Talk), Anna Wintour (Vogue), Bonnie Fuller (ex-Glamour). God knows it's hard to avoid them. Their boldface names choke the gossip pages. Entertainment news programs catch them in mid-giggle, nudging the waifish arms of Hollywood starlets.
So if you don't know of Moss, surely that means his mag isn't worth your time. Or is there another explanation?
"As I made my way in this business, magazine editors became hosts," offered Moss the other day. "Their job was to get their magazine in the columns, and some of them were really, really good at it. I'm just not like that. I don't have that kind of personality."
But here's why you should overlook his personality flaw. For the last three years, Moss has led the renaissance of one of the stodgiest titles in North American journalism, a magazine with a once-proud tradition that had fallen into disrepair and near irrelevance. Under Moss's editorship, The New York Times Magazine consistently surprises, amuses, shocks and enlightens. It ignores the flashy trends infecting the U.S. magazine industry -- like big-name columnists and a disposition toward stories that can be turned into movie treatments -- and focuses on the main reason people pick up a magazine: the content. And right now the Times magazine, reaching more than three million readers every Sunday, might be the most exciting title published in North America.
"Adam has done an extraordinary job in making the magazine almost a must-read," said Lisa Granatstein, an editor at the trade journal Mediaweek.
Recently, the magazine gained headlines around with the world with an explosive cover story that alleged former U.S. senator Bob Kerrey participated in the 1969 wartime murder of Vietnamese civilians. The story played for weeks, though Kerrey had tried to defuse its revelations by going to the press with his version of events before the piece was published.
There was a mild irony about the Kerrey piece bringing so much attention, because the magazine's importance is largely in a different kind of journalism.
Public discourse in America is in a postpolitical phase, one in which people are concerned primarily with how social and cultural shifts affect them and their families. Larger political struggles continue, but most people understand them only within the limited context of intense self-interest. Moss's magazine manages to make readers understand how they fit into the picture, subtly hinting that cultural and political engagement is still vital.
In the past year, the magazine has published a remarkable array of affecting pieces: a strongly worded argument in favour of Third World countries violating drug patents to save AIDS patients; a profile of a lawyer suing an SUV manufacturer for negligence; an unforgettable account of a boatload of illegal Haitian immigrants who almost drown at sea; and a surprisingly controversial article about childless people who resent the social and financial advantages accorded parents of young children. All of the pieces reflected back to the reader a portrait of a privileged America undergoing fundamental change.
"Increasingly, they've been coming out with insightful and entertaining stories, forward-thinking pieces that you wouldn't associate with a Sunday magazine, which is a kind of dying breed," noted Lisa Granatstein.
Sunday mags are dying for the same reason newsweeklies are in trouble. All are questioning their roles, trying to figure out where they fit in a media landscape in which the Internet and 24-hour cable-television news coverage set the pace and agenda. Two weeks ago, the editor of U.S. News and World Report left after suggestions that his publisher wanted to shift the focus of the publication away from political news to science and history. One of Time magazine's best-selling recent issues featured a cover story on yoga.
Magazine publishers in North America had taken note of the success of bawdy titles like Maxim and spiritual-advice guides like O, The Oprah Magazine. Many turned to lifestyle features -- fashion, travel, shelter, celebrity and "service" journalism -- that offer readers fun but ultimately empty fantasies. Hollywood stars, the favourite tool of selling those fantasies, landed on covers from Cosmopolitan to Time. In the short term, the sales tactics goosed readership. But over the years, the publications ended up selling their birthrights -- the hard-earned respect of their readers -- for a mess of potage.
Weekend magazines face additional constraints. "You have to ask: What is the purpose of a magazine in a newspaper that now runs 3,000-word stories on the front page, with colour?" says Lisa Belkin, a contract writer with the Times magazine. "Adam has managed to find an answer to that question."
He found it in the title of Anthony Trollope's 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now. That title heads up the first few pages of the magazine, encompassing such diverse elements as an ethics column, a brief Q&A with a politician or lobbyist, and stalwart William Safire's language column. A feature entitled What They Were Thinking, which places photos of regular people involved in daily activities alongside a kind of voice-over paragraph, might be the most innovative use of photojournalism around today.
In sum, The Way We Live Now is "the defining phrase for much of what we do in the magazine," Moss explains in his corner office, eight stories above 43rd Street in Manhattan. "We find ourselves very interested in the way people actually live, the intersection between private lives of people and their public lives on a public stage."
As we have established, Moss doesn't much enjoy living on a public stage, but he is the magazine's public face and, as such, physically embodies its dynamics. He began his career in 1979 at the Times newspaper as a copy boy after graduating from Ohio's Oberlin College. He worked at Esquire and Rolling Stone magazine before being tapped as founding editor of the downtown New York weekly 7 Days. The paper only lasted two years, though it did pick up a National Magazine Award after its demise. Moss landed at the Times magazine in 1993, serving as editorial director under the more conservative Jack Rosenthal before winning the top job in April, 1998.
A boyish 44, Moss still has the sparkle of a wunderkind in his eyes. He favours white dress shirts worn tieless, slim charcoal grey pants and black, fashionably chunky boots. There is a touch of tension in his appearance, as if he recognizes he isn't dressed according to the dour playbook of the Times, where even the arts reporters wear blue sports jackets. But there is a naturally occurring tension in everything Moss does, as there must be if he is to take the magazine where it needs to go. It's not easy to overhaul a glossy, high-profile publication under the watchful eyes of The New York Times braintrust.
"I think about The New York Times, those four words in the logo, all the time," Moss confides. He is a quiet speaker, and he gets even quieter as he discusses an especially controversial piece that he published last summer. Written by novelist Matthew Klam, it was an intoxicating cover story on the drug Ecstasy that included a finely textured description of what it is like to be under the drug's influence.
"I thought he did a great job," says Moss. "Almost too good a job. The reaction among parents and doctors -- and assistant district attorneys everywhere -- was shock that The New York Times would be advocating drug use." For the record, no such endorsement was in the piece, which ended on a deliberately dark note. Harbouring none of the customary arrogance of a man in his position, Moss seems still to be wondering whether he should have run it. "If the story appeared in a different venue, I think it would have been read as Matthew intended it to be read," he says. "But because it was in The New York Times, there were some readers who looked at it not as a piece of literary journalism but as an editorial endorsing drug use. That is a place where the New York Times-ness of the magazine is tricky."
The magazine might have come a long way, but the audience remains less inclined toward irony than the mainstream. "I didn't realize quite how literal the readership was," Moss admits. "We're trying to get the readership to loosen up a little bit because we think we can give them a more interesting magazine if they do."
Along with its editorial mission, the magazine's writing and design have also been transformed. Designer Jolene Cuyler, one of six Canadians (out of a staff of only 10) in the art department, has seen enormous change in her seven years there. "Design follows content," she says, "and the magazine's content used to be much more conservative." Visually, it is now bracing, intelligent, and almost funky. "Yes, that's the word out on the street, that it's likely the best piece of design out right now," says Cuyler.
Moss's writers also like the changes. "The magazine used to be a place where your byline was decoration, and you may or may not have actually written the piece," explains Lisa Belkin. "Adam gives writers room to be writers."
The approach is a hit: Last year Moss was named one of the country's top 10 editors by the Columbia Journalism Review. Marketing trade journal Advertising Age named him Editor of the Year. Still, Moss admits he has few ways of gauging the success of a particular issue with readers. He gets about 1,000 letters a week, many more when he runs an especially hot story. But the magazine isn't sold as a stand-alone on newsstands, so there's no way for him to know, for example, if a certain cover image entices readers to pick it up.
"There's part of you that wants an instant rating, but there's a part of you that knows that you couldn't do a magazine that you like if you had to live by a number," he says, touching on the uniquely engaged readership of The New York Times. "I'm not sure this is a magazine that would survive on the newsstand. It's a magazine for its context. Thank God for that context."