Ex-New York editor Adam Moss on fanatical attention to detail
When Adam Moss stepped down as editor-in-chief of New York magazine in January 2019, the New York Times ran a piece about his career and influence, with the simple title, ‘He’s the Best, He’s the Best, He’s the Best’. During his 15-year tenure he oversaw an ambitious digital expansion in his role as editor-in-chief of parent company New York Media, with the magazine and digital properties widely recognised for editorial excellence. Under Moss’s leadership New York and nymag.com won 41 National Magazine Awards, more than any other magazine over this time period, including Magazine of the Year. New York’s groundbreaking journalistic event “Cosby: The Women” won the 2015 George Polk Award for magazine reporting, and in 2018 the magazine won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College, his alma mater, and is a member of the Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame.
Adam is judging our Editor of the Year award. Ahead of entries closing on 27 September, he spoke to us about magazine-making and obsession.
Speaking to the New York Times in January, you said of leaving New York magazine after 15 years, “I don’t wake up obsessed every morning, and I used to”. What is it about making a magazine that attracts, or creates, obsessives?
I think that magazines are essentially an obsessive craft and an art form. And they’re difficult to make, so on the one hand there’s a fanatical attention to detail that’s required. And on the other hand: magazines are generally a group endeavour, and it takes a certain amount of obsessive drive to get other people to conspire to your idea of what the magazine should be. So in many ways, it requires a kind of fuel. And in my case the fuel is a kind of mania, which other people might simply call obsession. There’s no other explanation for it.
Because it’s getting someone to conform to your vision?
Absolutely, and then to conform to every little nook and cranny of it. So whether you’re talking about print, or digital, or any of the newer incarnations of what magazines can be, the amount of care that has to be brought to the task in order to make it right is ludicrous. It’s just enormously labour intensive and not terribly well paid, so the only thing that justifies it is obsession.
New York’s Washington Correspondent Olivia Nuzzi wrote about a piece of advice you gave her, when she was agonising over how to explain something that had happened to her at the White House. “Adam had the obvious answer: You just start where the story starts, and you tell it honestly, just as it happened and as you experienced it. Once I understood that, saw what he meant, it was easy.” Is there a single motto you lived by, as a magazine editor?
Not really. But I do think that I was very interested in narrative. Very interested in the simple ‘telling stories’ aspect of what magazines can be about. And the fact that in many cases, narrative was a lot simpler than it looked to people. That storytelling really involved trying to find the beginning, middle and end. Don’t gum it up with your over-interpretations of what’s going on. Just tell it. Your point of view will be suffused in how you tell the story anyway, so you don’t need to worry about shadowboxing the reader with too many explicit thoughts.
Is there a magazine in your life, past or present, that you particularly love, or which has had an influence on you?
I have always been very, very susceptible to the great work that other people do. And very impressionable as an editor. The answer to your question would have to be a group of magazines that arose in the sixties and the seventies that would include (and this is a very cliched answer) but: Esquire during the Howard Hayes era. Or the beginning days of Rolling Stone. Or New York under Clay Felker, when it was founded. They got me super jazzed about what magazines could do. Partly, that’s because the magazines were great at the time, but also I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was somewhere between 10 and 20 years old. When you’re young you’re impressionable, so what you like defines the magazine values you’re going to carry with you and try to emulate throughout the rest of your career.
Maybe it’s a bit like music: the way the music you listen to when you’re a teenager stays with you?
Totally. It gets in you and shapes who you are.