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Paper Boy

Wunderkind Adam Moss was the handsome young glossy god, the guy who was supposed to change the magazine world -- and then he sought protective custody at the Times.

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Magazine Man: Moss in his office at the Times.  

When the country is in recession, the magazine business goes into something like depression -- particularly for magazines that do not have an exclusive niche, or an especially must-have commercial reason for existing.

But then there is The New York Times Magazine.

It appears able to exist outside of magazine reality. As the magazine business morphed during the last generation into product categories and eliminated most general-interest titles, the Times Magazine continued to conduct itself as though all readers had the time and inclination for extended bloviation interspersed with good writing (in a different age, I had a friend who described his overeducated and underemployed mother's main occupation as spending the week reading the Times Magazine).

And yet it's a strategy, or conceit, that has paid off: The Times Magazine is certainly one of the most widely read and profitable general-interest magazines in the country. It continues to have many readers who, like my friend's mother, see it as a form of religion (and the crossword puzzle as Communion). Certainly among its most like-minded competitors -- Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker -- it's the only one that is self-sustaining (of course, coming within the Times gives it untold advantages -- including freedom from circulation and postage costs).

At the same time, it's the magazine that magazine people love to hate. Despite its profits, it's always been regarded as the fabulous invalid of the magazine business -- bountiful but always unsatisfying.

What's more, it is just not, magazine people feel, a real magazine -- it doesn't have to duke it out on the newsstand or in direct-mail solicitations (indeed, various magazine editors have fought efforts by the Times Magazine to participate in the National Magazine Awards). Even its editor, Adam Moss, a wunderkind of the last great magazine age and once a contender to become the great magazine editor of his generation (that would be, in magazine time, the generation immediately following Tina Brown), got knocked off the shortlist by going, in what seemed like a semi-sabbatical, to the Times Magazine.

But as we settle into the recession (with daily muttering of which magazines are at death's door), it seemed appropriate to revisit the assumptions about Moss and his magazine. While Moss may never be acknowledged as the great editor of the age, he may be the only one who is (relatively) worry-free.

I actually can't decide what I think of the Times Magazine in its present form. It's less bloated than it once was. But it's less authoritative too (it used to be a grand op-ed page -- important people blathering on), and oddly detached.

It has better writers, a less autocratic style, and quirkier interests (among the more famous pieces of the Moss era is Andrew Sullivan's paean to testosterone; my recent favorite is the one about the Sudanese refugee kids immigrating to North Dakota). On the other hand, it has that inexplicable ethics column and that pointless "What They Were Thinking" photo thing (what were they thinking?). It tries to be hip and clever but is instead often pesky and obtuse.

Of course, part of Moss's signature as an editor is his packaging talent. He has a keen, or compulsive, ability to organize, categorize, and illustrate information. This can be stylish. But it can also be cloying, from the magazine's many front-of-the-book rubrics (the whole front of the book is called, in a great landgrab, "The Way We Live Now") to its relentlessly overarching theme issues ("The Year in Ideas," "Love in the 21st Century," "Women & Power").

Still, I'm not sure that what you read or don't read in the magazine, or whether it looks good or not, determines how you feel about it. Rather, its strongest characteristic is probably that it just comes -- and you feel often like it's been hung around your neck. It's required reading. Even if it's a diverting read, even if it's stirring up controversy, it's still a damned responsibility and obligation.

Now, one traditional goal of many people who want to write about The Way We Live Now (an activity more and more like poetry or certain specialized academic disciplines) is to do it without having to work for the New York Times. The Times has always been too institutional, too dominant, too know-it-all, too depressing -- plus you have to give your life to it (you have to grow up in the Times to truly be a part of it).

Moss began his career as a copy boy at the Times in the seventies -- as did I. The Times was then a linoleum-floor, metal-desk, rotary-phone bureaucracy of depressed and unfriendly lifers (many, I recall, with facial tics). Moss got out of there (as did I) in short order.

These were terrible economic years, but in fact, there were plenty of alternatives to the Times. It was (it borders on the bizarre to remember) a time of thriving, independent, Zeitgeisty magazines.

Rolling Stone, where Moss went to work in 1980, had moved, in the late seventies, from San Francisco to New York. Esquire -- where Moss went to work after Rolling Stone -- with several fabled lives behind it, was embarking on a new one. New Times, a biweekly alternative news magazine, where I went to work, was started by former Time Inc.-ers. New York had launched its sister, New West. Mort Zuckerman bought The Atlantic with great fanfare. Harper's was not that far removed from the era of Willie Morris (the great editor of his generation). Even Condé Nast, then just a rag-trade publisher, wanted in on the game, and launched a revival of Vanity Fair (it took a literary approach in its first pre-Tina incarnation). Manhattan, inc. and Spy burned brightly (if briefly), changing journalism and magazines.

In 1988, Leonard Stern, who owned The Village Voice, backed Moss's plan for 7 Days, a weekly arts-and-entertainment publication -- it lasted 102 issues.

It is hard to overstate what kind of magazine-world hero Moss became with 7 Days and its particular pop-culture idiom, and what kind of success failure can be.

Pop-culture magazine formats spread everywhere, especially to television (and, no small point, to the New York Times). One result was that celebrityism, which was the dessert of pop-culture journalism, became the main course (which suddenly everyone was serving). Costs began to escalate wildly, partly as a result of Tina Brown's spending at Vanity Fair (enabling, not incidentally, Condé Nast to dominate the high-end magazine market). Plus, there were growing problems at the newsstand, skyrocketing subscription-promotion and -fulfillment costs, and a sudden pervasive expansion of competitive media outlets.

Then came the recession of 1990 -- the first official magazine depression -- and the end of most independent and nongenre magazines.

After 7 Days shuttered, Moss tried to launch a magazine about the media while doing consulting on the side. Then, at a dinner party at Frank Rich's house in 1991, he met Joe Lelyveld, who invited him to consult for the Times.

"The Times was undergoing," says Moss, "certain renovations" -- becoming more magazinelike and less newspaperlike, more boomer-friendly and less Establishment-pompous.

Moss became a guru of this change -- an anti-Times sort of figure in the middle of the Times. A magazine person at a newspaper, an openly gay person in a repressed atmosphere, a mild man among bullies and screamers. (His more orthodox detractors at the Times pin on him the creation of the un-Timesian -- and often ludicrous -- "Sunday Styles.")

You can read a certain poignancy into this -- the entrepreneurial, trailblazing editor in a kind of internal exile. At the same time, you can feel his relief at not having to work for an iffy venture, or, even more horrifying, having to go hat-in-hand trying to launch another start-up.

In 1993, he joined the staff, becoming editorial director of the magazine under longtime Timesman Jack Rosenthal.

Like The New Yorker, the Times Magazine had lost much of its advertising base through the eighties and was struggling to attract national brand advertising. (The Times had famously been dependent on bra manufacturers; but then the bra business went offshore -- taking its advertising with it. Similarly, The New Yorker had lost its carriage-trade retail pages.)

While The New Yorker, under Tina Brown, was trying to reinvent itself as a high-profile, in-the-spotlight, on-the-news, edgy weekly (a strategy that probably sealed its fate as a nonviable business proposition), the Times Magazine went mellow. Under Rosenthal and Moss, and then with Moss as editor in 1998, it further unhooked itself from the news cycle; it downplayed the Times' own voice (indeed, while it used to be the platform of star Times writers, under Moss it started almost shunning them); and it began developing -- to advertiser acclaim -- its upbeat, inclusive, occasionally Oprah-ish theme issues, becoming, as Moss describes it, "more emotionally responsive."

In significant ways, Moss, operating under the Times brand and for the Times audience, managed to create his own quirky, personal, many-voiced, successful general-interest magazine.

So what's wrong with this picture?

Over lunch and then, a few days later, in his darkish office (it has a dad's-den-in-the-fifties feel to it), I prod him about what he's going to do next. What would he do if this gig ended (as all gigs do)? What are his other ambitions? (He's only 44.) Can he really see himself trying to make it at the Times until his retirement?

He keeps avoiding the question.

Now, most people, when they have been successful, believe, no matter how implausibly, that they can repeat their success anywhere. But Moss clearly doesn't hold that illusion.

He says the opposite. He says that he can only see doing what he does at the Times.

In fact, not only does he not want to leave the Times but he doesn't want to think about the possibilities if he left. He doesn't, clearly, think there are any other possibilities.

We talk a bit about what magazines we see coming to their inevitable ends, and on what timetable.

"I doubt if I'd do something in magazines," he finally says (obviously annoyed that I keep pressing him -- but I want to know). "I don't see a lot of opportunity to practice our craft." Nor does he seem to have an idea what he would do otherwise.

I can't even bear to bring up the issue of Howell Raines, the Times' new executive editor and Moss's new boss, who is, the scuttlebutt has it, putting everybody in his sights (John Rockwell, the Sunday "Arts & Leisure" editor, has been the first to go).

There is a sense that some people in the Times would like the magazine back, like it to be more Timesian and "less froufrou," as one Timesman put it to me. And there's politics, that great Timesian bailiwick -- Times people seem to think that Moss is unsophisticated when it comes to politics (the magazine did a hatchet job on Moynihan that caused him to cancel a lunch with Arthur Sulzberger -- not, apparently, a good move).

So the depressing part is not just that Adam Moss has to go into the protective custody of the New York Times to practice "our craft" but that the protection here is pretty iffy, too.

There's nowhere to hide.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Photographed by Melanie Dunea/CPI.


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