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So What Do You Do, Jim Nelson?

GQ's new(ish) editor on his career, his mag, and his first year at its helm.

By David S. Hirschman - August 24, 2004

New York Post mag wag Keith Kelly had great fun handicapping which contender would fill Art Cooper's chair at GQ—a tastefully accessorized leather club chair, one assumes—when the longtime editor of the stalwart men's mag retired last year. (Cooper died unexpectedly just 10 days after his official retirement.) But all the discussion of Zinczenkos and Andersens and imports from Conde Nast's British cousins turned out to be for naught: Ultimately, Jim Nelson, an executive editor at the magazine, was picked to step into Cooper's shoes.

It wasn't merely the obvious decision; it was also, as it turns out, a good one. By the end of Cooper's regime, the magazine had seemed at times to meander, lost between the ever-popular world of dumbed-down lad mags, the exercise demi-monde of books like Men's Health, and the rarified air of smarter general-interest publications like The Atlantic. Nelson has found a sweet spot, however, and GQ's circulation is up 24 percent in the past year, even while the mag's cover price has risen and many of its competitors have lost ground. Perhaps most significantly, a whole new generation of big-name writers and photographers has signed on.

As his first anniversary at GQ's helm approached, Jim Nelson spoke to mediabistro.com about the past year, his vision for the magazine, and the tradeoffs between editing and writing.

Birthdate: March 8, 1963
Hometown: Greenbelt, Maryland
First section of the Sunday Times: "The front section. I just love the news. I love dissecting every little sad mistake that John Kerry or George W. Bush makes."

How did you end up in what is one of the most prestigious spots in men's mags?
I started out at the D.C. bureau of CNN. I was a writer and producer for them, and I was mostly drawn to it because I was a news junkie and could never seem to get enough of that stuff. But once I did that job, I did kind of get enough of it. There wasn't enough creativity to writing news, and I felt like I wanted somehow to work more creatively.

You mean on longer pieces?
I thought I wanted to write movies, so I moved to L.A. and worked in Hollywood. I ended up writing for TV, though. I was a writer's assistant, working on really bad sitcoms.

And that was more creative?
Well, that was what I was looking for. I had very nebulous ideas about creativity. I wanted to quote-unquote be creative. Moving there was great fun, and it was a great time of my life—this was I guess when I was 25 to 30—but then I grew frustrated with the process in TV sitcoms where you start with an idea and then don't have any control over it and you watch it become diluted. You watch the premise of a sitcom turn into something that the networks and the studios and everyone has their say in, and it becomes ultimately uninteresting.

In the meantime, I kept gravitating toward magazines. My favorite magazine at the time was Harper's, and by coincidence I met some friends who worked for Harper's, and I probably freaked them out with my adulation, to the point where they offered me a stringing job. I started off as a stringer in the "Readings" section, finding things, looking for art, documents, essays, pieces, and found objects. And I loved it so much that I just wanted to pack up everything and move to New York and try to find a job there. So I did it.

I applied to the internship and got it, and I had to work for no money, which is hard to do when you're 30. But it just plopped me in the center of my favorite magazine, and working on things I just loved. I learned a lot really fast. That's probably why the internship there is so well regarded—because, basically, the magazine needs the interns so badly that they have you do real stuff. You have to proof the "Index," you have to scrounge around for documents and call government agencies, and the editors expect a really high level of competence.

But you must like working on the longer pieces, too.
Yeah. That was the real lure of coming to GQ. I'd done a couple of longer pieces at Harper's, but mostly I was in the "Readings" section. I was really drawn to the idea of becoming an assigning editor and working on meatier features. Art Cooper had a great way of making you feel like you were a part of a family and you were working on the best magazine that ever was. He just had this great morale-boosting way about him, as though he was empowering you to bring in great writers. He loved nothing more than to have editors who wanted to bring great writing to the magazine, and I really took to it.

Did you do any writing as well?
I did. And that was the other thing that was very attractive to me. Right away I started writing. I always wanted to both write and edit. For a brief beautiful time there, I was able to do both.

It's often really hard for people to combine the two, working as an editor and doing writing on the side.
I think in some ways you can do it; the two really feed off each other very well. It's hard to balance, but as soon as you get sick of tearing your hair out writing in the lonely universe of your home or desk or wherever, you just want to connect with humanity again. And editing a piece connects you right away to the community of working for a magazine. But by the same token, when you edit a lot of pieces and you're working to make other people's pieces be good, sometimes you kind of feel like, well, where am I in all of this?

What in the past year have you been proudest of? Do you feel like you've changed the magazine substantially?
I think so. I feel like we have thrown ourselves into the task of re-imagining the magazine and re-invigorating it with a lot of enthusiasm and zeal. I feel like the writing is really hitting highs right now, and people are really motivated to raise the bar all across the spectrum of the magazine, in the writing and the ambition of the reporting.

I'm also really proud of what I think of as the elevation of photography and the new mission statement of the fashion, which is really to be a lot more definitive and more useful. We'd always been the fashion bible, and I just wanted to play off that authority even more. I really wanted to work with people like Bruce Weber. I just think that he's one of the people who defined the visual imagery of the culture.

Along with that, with that lush kind of romantic photography that is becoming an increasing staple of the magazine, the other important thing for me that we've done in fashion is to be simply more accessible, to demystify it. When I said that we want to use our authority more, we want to actually be more useful, more helpful—give more guidance and tips to guys. And of all the changes that I think we've made, that's the one that I think readers have responded to the most.

That sounds almost like a response to our Queer Eye and Cargo culture, with people more responsive to "how do I do this?" articles.
A lot of times magazines are very flip about it; they don't embrace that role. GQ is very much unconflicted that way. We love being helpful, giving that advice, helping guys develop their own style. That's what we're all about.

You're working with a several month lead time. Does that make it hard to keep articles relevant?
It's roughly two-and-a-half months, in the strictest sense. But when I got the job, right away—my first issue was September last year—I was already thinking about how we could be a relevant magazine as a monthly and engage in political issues that I cared about in the months and the year leading up to the election. I wanted political stories—important political stories—in every single issue. And that's difficult when you don't know what's going to happen.

As an example, I wanted to have something when the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries were happening. I knew that no one was paying attention to politics, but that as soon as those things happened everyone was going to be turned on to it. So I had to have something right then that not only was timely but also relevant. So we hooked up with the Howard Dean campaign, and Lisa DePaulo tracked Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, for months and months. By the time we released it, the Dean campaign kind of—well, you know. We had to very quickly change the scope of the assignment, but all the months of hard work that Lisa had done on the piece completely paid off. Because she had been tracking him for months, and it really became a better story, because it became about a trajectory. There was a great arc to the story, of the great wild ride of the genius behind Howard Dean.

What has it been like, coming in after Art Cooper—someone who'd been in that job for 20 years and was quite an icon?
It was damned hard. It was hard personally because he was a mentor to me, and it was hard in the sense that Art had been around so long that people just took him for granted. They didn't realize everything he had done, which was really to create an entire style of magazine.

In that way, he made it easy for me because there was such a strong foundation here, the sensibility he created. But I love what I'm doing. It's definitely been a hard year in that I've had to balance the new responsibilities, which sometimes seem infinite and overwhelming, but now it's all bearing fruit.

David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor and a reporter for Metro New York.



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