On Tuesday morning, January 15, New York Media employees woke to the news that Adam Moss, New York’s editor-in-chief of 15 years, is stepping down. Press Room spoke with David Haskell, a 12-year veteran of the magazine (also a whiskey maker and ceramist), about his big promotion, as he prepares to take the helm as editor-in-chief on April 1.
What are your immediate goals in your new role as editor-in-chief? Long-term goals?
I think it’s too early to talk about specifics, but I would say that what I want to do here, and what I want this place to be, is very, very similar to what Adam has been reaching for over the past 15 years. I hope that comes as a relief, and not a surprise — that this thing that Adam has made is something I cherish. One of the things Adam did is instill in us an obsession with the new and the next, not just as journalists discovering the future but as a journalism institution embodying it. The world didn’t know it wanted an “Approval Matrix.” It didn’t know it needed television recaps. It didn’t know that a local magazine could be this national, or that we of all places could dominate three presidential election cycles in a row — but we knew that. We invented that, and that sense of constantly looking for how to reinvent ourselves is incredibly important to me. That’s the project we will all do together, and I feel like it’s on me to remind us all how deeply that runs.
I didn’t know until I read your bio recently that you started at New York Magazine editing a special London issue. Could you tell us about how you and Adam first met, and what the transition from being an editor on one specific project to a staffer was like?
When I was in graduate school in England, I started a magazine called Topic. It was a nonfiction publication full of first-person storytelling, and Adam, who was then the editor of the Times Magazine, was so generous with his time in giving me some advice. Every handful of months, we would have a new issue out and I would be in town and he would take me to lunch and give me rudimentary lessons in how magazines work. Basic stuff like sequencing stories, or the value of looking at the whole thing one last time and cutting another 10 percent. At the beginning Topic was really a literary journal, and by the end it was a magazine, and Adam helped me think through the difference. I edited that from 2002 until 2007, and for the last three of those years, I led it in New York City while also waiting tables, working at an urban-design nonprofit, and editing college-essay applications on essayedge.com.
A couple years after Adam went to New York, he reached out to propose I guest-edit a special issue on London and how, at the time, it and New York City seemed to be twinned in all these interesting ways. He let me assign pieces, and assign more pieces, and more pieces, and the issue date kept getting pushed back, and every time we met he kept suggesting more things to add. He gently suggested I ask other editors at the magazine for story ideas, and I remember in those story memos recognizing, “Ah, this is how you translate a general interest in something into an assignment that speaks the language of magazines.” In retrospect, it’s clear that so much of what I was assigning was junk, or just not working, and what he was spending on me in kill fees was my tuition to the Adam Moss Graduate School of Journalism. Then, of course, closing week was a massacre, we killed 85 percent of what I had assigned, and I remember walking out of the office on Madison to Paley Park and almost having a panic attack. The writers were professional about it — I was the one who wasn’t the professional.
But in the end, the whole experience was invigorating and I said, “This is what I want to do. I want a job where I can make magazines more frequently than our quarterly — and I want a boss who can teach me what I want to learn.” It took another six months for a position to open up, and at the end of August 2007, I was deputy culture editor working under culture editor Jared Hohlt.
You have had a lot of jobs here over the years. Can you give us a condensed version of all the positions you’ve had up to this point?
I was deputy culture editor for a couple years, and in that job I spent about half of my time learning how to be a features editor. Then I started doing features full time. Then I became features editor, which was really the same job with a title change. Then I became deputy editor of the magazine, and then a few years ago I suggested to Adam and Pam that we create a new job — one with a title that nobody understands and a description that doesn’t really make much sense but was actually really rewarding and brought me to different parts of the company in a way that taught me so much.
What have some of your favorite New York Magazine stories been in the course of your time here?
I was thinking recently about the stories … not so much ones that are my favorite but that stand out as teaching me lessons. One of the very first pieces I had to edit was by Jada Yuan on Wu-Tang Clan. The first thing I did was edit it like a Wikipedia entry, and Jada said to me: “You took out all the fun stuff!” And I realized, “Oh, right. Got it. The fun stuff is what we are adding to this conversation. Don’t waste words on the background at the expense of the good quote.” My main memory of My First New York, which was first meant to be part of the 40th-anniversary issue, then became its own cover package, and later a book published by Ecco HarperCollins, was Adam drilling into me that more is better. Keep assigning; keep perfecting the mix; keep returning to good interviews and find ways to make them great. More, more — and then cut in the end. And that the equation was simple: The more you do the work, the better the final product will be.
My first success as a feature was Bob Sullivan’s on Freshkills Park — it was the first time I understood what a lede told with literary ambition might look like. I remember Ben Wallace-Wells’s piece on Marty Peretz being the first profile that really had, as John Homans put it, a “theory of personality,” which I realized is everything: A profile isn’t an account of things you’ve noticed or time you’ve spent with someone; it is a portrait with a point of view, built with the reporting materials at hand. Jessica Pressler taught me in her piece on Diane Passage the magic and power of using a very specific set of circumstances to tell an archetypal story. Molly Young was one of the first writers from outside the organization I fell in love with, and in that experience I realized how much of being a magazine editor is being a talent scout. You spot a voice that is fantastic and maybe not quite what New York sounds like but it’s what you want us to sound like and then it becomes what we sound like. We become Molly. We become Dan Lee.
Every year Bloomberg puts out an “Envy List” of stories from other publications it wishes it had covered. I’m curious if you have any stories on your “Envy List” you wish you had published at New York.
Oh, so many! It’s one of the downsides of the job: You read with pleasure but also with envy. Patrick Radden Keefe on Carl Icahn was so precisely what we should have published. I envy half of his story assignments.
I envy Larissa Macfarquhar’s sentences.
I envy too many well-sourced political writers to name. I cried reading the Times Magazine’s recent cover story of the fire in Oakland. That also made me jealous.
If budget weren’t an issue and we lived in some imaginary world where you could hire anyone, which dream writers would you spring for?
Honestly, I’d trade any day the chance to poach a dream writer for the room to spot and develop talented young writers who will grow into the envy of our peers. That’s part of our DNA at New York, and selfishly, there is nothing more fun in this job than watching a writer kick into high gear. Have you all been watching Allison Davis recently?
New York’s editorial staff recently decided to form a union. What’s your stance on that?
It was a decision obviously made with a lot of deliberation and care, it’s what a lot of our staff wants, and I’m happy for them. I’m very conscious of how fortunate we are to work in a warm, generous, kind environment — and I will do everything I can to nurture that, to protect it. One thing I took from the announcement was how deeply our editorial staff cares about each other. That’s a beautiful thing.
You’re another white man assuming this role. How do you respond to the fact that some will find that news disappointing?
I understand that reaction. Part of me shares it. But I want the staff to know two things: The first is that I do not take this for granted in the slightest — by which I mean, the privilege of the new job, but also of my entire career. At so many crucial moments in my life people have taken a risk on me, and I want to make part of how I assess my own job performance how frequently and meaningfully I pay that forward. The second, related point is in last week’s Diversity Council meeting, we had an extended conversation about how the most effective way to move the needle on diversity hiring is for a strong, loud commitment to come from the very top of the masthead. I listened very carefully and plan to do exactly that.
You have some really interesting side hustles, some of which we have covered in our newsletter before. Can you tell us about some of the things you do when you’re not at New York?
I started a distillery with my friend from college, Colin, who is from Kentucky and had come home from a visit there with some moonshine. We started talking about buying a still and learning how to do it ourselves. The economy had just crashed. He worked at an architecture firm, I worked at a magazine. We both thought this might be a nice plan B if either industry collapses. But really, it started as a hobby and then it became a tiny business and then grew into a slightly larger and larger one. For about five years now, we have been based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with Colin now running the business full time. I’ve watched us evolve from a trendy new thing to a young but hopefully permanent New York City institution, and that’s what gives me the most pride. It has outlasted the moment and is part of the fabric of the Yard, the borough, the city.
As for the ceramics, it’s been a wonderful part of my life for the past few years. It’s solitary, uncommercial, relatively non-intellectual, and does weird things with my brain, quieting some parts and lighting up others. In the 2016 primary cycle, I found myself on the wheel during many of the debates, and it was really nice to have my hands so full of clay that I couldn’t touch my phone. The debates were in the background, on NPR, and I could have my own night. To some extent it still functions in that way. It’s just a private other thing in my life that I take very seriously but not too seriously.
Do you have any final words for the New York staff?
Don’t be afraid of change. Don’t let the insecurities of our industry freak you out. My entire magazine career has existed during a crisis in magazines. Of all industries — and of all news organizations — the future is our friend, even if it is also worrisome, because the future is our subject. It is our beat. The second thing I would say is: Remember how privileged we are to work at a place where everything — our editorial ambitions, our business model, the taste and standards of our owners — converges at the same place: a commitment to excellence. That is rare, it is frankly a scary amount of pressure, but it is gift that should energize all of us, always.