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10 Years: Hey, How Do You Decide What We See in New York Each Week, Adam Moss?

New York's EIC delves into how the magazine's weekly lineup takes shape

- October 4, 2007
To celebrate mediabistro.com's 10th anniversary, we spoke with our Golden Boa honorees about their achievements in media. Check back throughout the week for Hey How'd You Do That features showcasing these media pros.
Since taking over as editor-in-chief of New York in March 2004, Adam Moss has transformed the magazine from a struggling book into a vibrant, Ellie-dominating franchise with a robust Web site. The former New York Times editor spoke with us about the difficulties of putting out a weekly magazine, the frantic scramble when "stories fall apart," and how he chooses each issue's content.
What are your top criteria for the ideas that may become features in New York? What do you ask yourself/tell your editors to evaluate about every topic, before you/they assign a story on it?
There are dozens of questions we ask ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, but the top ones are probably: Is it interesting? Will it be interesting to anyone but us? Will it still be interesting by the time we can publish it? And then, of course, does it belong in New York magazine -- or is this really a story for American Ammo?

The August 20, 2007 issue included a feature about New Yorkers living longer than people elsewhere in the country, one about adoption, and another about a Long Beach surfer. How did each of these make it into that specific issue? What was your thinking in terms of how they complemented one another editorially, and which segments of New York's readership they would appeal to?
You give us more credit for thinking these things through than we deserve. In this issue in particular, I'm afraid to say that we pretty much ran what we had, though we ended up very happy with each story.

Clive Thompson's story was prompted by an intriguing study about the life expectancy of New Yorkers; we wanted Clive to investigate its truth and argue with it. The adoption story, which was about blended families and was written by Emily Nussbaum, who happens to be Clive's wife, was a reaction to the public circus around blended families created by celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie; we were interested in reporting on what happens to the family dynamics of non-celebrities who adopt kids from other cultures. As for the surfer, he just seemed like a gnarly subject, though I'm not actually sure what gnarly means.

We rarely make a mix based on demographic considerations. We just try to publish a well-rounded picture of New York that all segments of our readership will appreciate.

Walk us through the planning process for an individual issue of New York: If there's no specific peg (i.e. Fashion Week, Fall Preview), how do you choose which features that will appear in that issue? What meetings/conversations occur between you and your staff, and when (relative to issue date) do they occur?
These kinds of conversations are going on all the time. Things are ginned up at the last minute when news breaks, but writers also work for months on stories -- sometimes two or three at a time. There is a formal process in place, involving a schedule of meetings that's too boring to go into, but we violate it as much as we stick to it.

"Stories fall apart and we're left frantically looking for decent stories to publish."

What's a recent example of a change to an issue's story lineup extremely close to deadline? When did that occur (date and time), and what spurred the sudden change?
It happened [in the October 8, 2007] issue, actually: We'd been working on a piece about Daniel Libeskind for a while, but we hadn't yet slotted it in to run. When the news came last week that Libeskind had been chosen to design what could end up the largest residential building in New York, we put it into the issue we were just starting to close. Then last Friday, we changed the cover story closing this week because an extremely interesting book became available, and we were lucky enough to get a piece of it. More often, though, changes to a lineup are defensive. Stories fall apart and we're left frantically looking for decent stories to publish.

With a feature that isn't pegged to a specific event, do you have a specific run date in mind at the time you assign it, or do you aim to have multiple 'evergreen' features in the works so that you can slot them into non-time-specific issues when there are slots needing to be filled?
Both. On the other hand, I can't remember the last time we met a target date.


Three tips for finding the correct editorial mix
1) Don't get hung up on doing what's "right" for the magazine.
"If a story excites you, you should probably find a way to publish it," Moss says.
2) Be wary of listening to advice from the likes of people like Moss who have been doing this for a long time.
"If you're an editor as long as I've been an editor," says Moss, "you get too used to saying no because you've been hardened by the experience of too many small disasters."
3) Sometimes inexperience helps.
"The best ideas come from people who don't know what hasn't worked before," Moss explains.

Noah Davis is mediabistro.com's associate editor. He can be reached at Noah AT mediabistro DOT com.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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