Media Circus: The Gray Lady as hipster

Readers of the new, unimproved New York Times Magazine will attest: It's not hip to be square.

Published March 17, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

it may be absurd to argue that everything was better back in the '60s, but if the New York Times Magazine is your only specimen for comparison, you can probably make a case. As a Yale student of that era, I'd open my dorm room door each Sunday morning in dread and anticipation to confront the five-pound Times that lay in all its gravitas at my feet. The Magazine was then the Times' showcase, gray and ponderous like the newspaper itself, but suffused with an unquestionable Establishment authority. It seemed intended, like an English meal, not necessarily to be enjoyed but certainly ingested. Over the course of the day I'd earnestly tuck away at least three or four Magazine stories, all the while persuaded that reading them was a prerequisite to taking sides in the political and cultural wars of the time.

These days, however, the Magazine is more likely to inspire neither anticipation nor dread, but indifference. It is a thinner and smaller product whose advances are overwhelmingly cosmetic: the advent of color, more white space, only one story per issue that jumps pages. However, while that one story may run 7,000 or 8,000 words, no other story is longer than 2,000. Some, like historian Jonathan Spence's recent piece on China's Three Gorges Dam, read as if truncated in mid-thought. And whereas the Magazine once routinely carried seven or eight feature stories of several thousand words each, it now typically runs only four, including all the stunted ones.

Increasingly, the Times Magazine looks like every other magazine issuing out of New York, with light matter at the front, features in the middle, and a short essay on the inside back page. The Magazine's version of that essay is called Lives, apparently a synonym for "trifle." Not long ago, for example, Lives readers were treated to a new mother's 900-word exposition turning on her startling observation that she must carry more possessions when she travels with her baby son than she did when she was single.

Out of curiosity, I turned to microfilm to peruse a Magazine issue published when I was a college senior. The feature stories appearing on the date I chose at random, March 17, 1968, were all longer than any current Magazine story except for its cover centerpiece. Among them were profiles of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, movie mogul Darryl Zanuck, German media magnate Axel Springer and comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory. Ted Sorensen, once President Kennedy's special counsel, wrote on the Vietnam War as an issue in the 1968 presidential campaign. Luigi Barzini, author of the bestselling "The Italians," held forth on divorce in Italy. Altogether, the contents were far more substantial, if less flashily presented, than what the Magazine offers now.

The tribulations the Magazine has endured since then haven't all been a consequence of editorial incompetence. Indeed, much of what befell it was outside the control of any editor. For one thing, the '60s -- civil rights, Vietnam, drugs and the counterculture -- happened. Just as the Establishment itself began to crack and crumble, the Times' stature as the reasoned voice of the Establishment slowly eroded.

The Magazine has also suffered from its peculiar relationship to its companion daily. Virtually every successful magazine reflects the vision of a dominant editor: Think of Harold Ross' and William Shawn's New Yorker, Arnold Gingrich's Esquire or Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmopolitan. (Even Louis Rossetto's Wired, for all its garishness and enthusiasm for cupidity, embodies a palpable vision that gives the magazine coherence.) Times Magazine editors, on the other hand, have had to fend off interference from the daily's managers while at the same time procuring an adequate budget and maintaining access to the Times' reporters, the authors of many of their stories. Until the mid-'60s, the Magazine was insulated from some of these concerns by Lester Markel, the Times' legendary Sunday section editor who ran his domain as an independent fiefdom, but since then Magazine editors have had an uneven record in this regard. Jack Rosenthal, the Magazine's current editor, calls relations with Times reporters "an immensely complicated area."

Rosenthal first edited the Magazine in the mid-1970s, then became an editorial writer and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. After a seven-year stint as editorial page editor, in 1992 he returned to the Magazine, which was mired in one of its periodic crises. Rosenthal won commitments from the Times' publisher to spend more money and used the funds to expand the Magazine's use of color and increase writers' fees. At the same time, Rosenthal invited Adam Moss, former editor of the defunct New York weekly Seven Days, to help him rejuvenate the magazine. Moss' title is editorial director, subordinate to Rosenthal, yet Rosenthal refers to Moss as his "complete partner."

The 61-year-old Rosenthal and the 39-year-old Moss make an improbable team: One Times reporter calls their leadership "schizophrenic." To many Times staffers, Rosenthal represents substance without flair, while Moss stands for flair without substance. Rosenthal is "square, heavy, plodding, while Adam is the New York club scene," one says. The Magazine's earnest but often leaden international stories suggest Rosenthal, while the confetti-like squibs in the front of the Magazine, the splashes of color, the bizarre fashion stories and the Lives column all evoke Moss. To be fair, both men warn that their contributions to the Magazine don't adhere to this pattern at all, but they also decline to elaborate. What seems unquestionably true is that their collective product does not embody a coherent vision, but instead feels slight, as if their respective strengths cancel each other out.

It doesn't take much imagination to deduce Rosenthal's thinking: If the Magazine needed rejuvenation, why not hire people who could make it more hip, more "contemporary"? To that end, in the last few years he has recruited not just Moss but editors from the New Yorker, Harper's, New York, Lingua Franca, Spin and Outside. One consequence is that within the Times, the Magazine is increasingly perceived as alien, less concerned with the newspaper's journalistic traditions than with concocting a new formula, however facile, for success. A few months ago, for example, the editor of the Lives column told writers that he was seeking "celebrity" contributors, as if celebrity had not already displaced insight in one media venue after another. It's as if, in its drive to be up-to-date, the Magazine has sacrificed its excellence, its concern for quality. The Magazine may have two heads, but it has lost its bite.

By Jacques Leslie

Jacques Leslie is the author of "The Mark: A War Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia." He has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine and Wired, where he's a contributing writer.

MORE FROM Jacques Leslie

Related Topics ------------------------------------------