The New York Review of Magazines

Out With The Old: A New Editor Shakes Things Up at The New York Times Magazine.

By Andrea Palatnik

Drawing by Barry Blitt

The New York Times Magazine is among the most influential publications in the United States. It has accompanied the Sunday edition of The New York Times since 1896, and has reached impressive milestones along the way. Writers such as Thomas Mann, Tennessee Williams and Gertrude Stein, and statesmen and -women from this country and around the world have published in its pages. From the groundbreaking photo spread of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 that helped save the newspaper in a troubled era, to the three Pulitzer Prizes amassed in the last four decades, the magazine has been an invaluable asset to its newspaper and an appealing staple to readers everywhere.

Last year marked the beginning of what the newspaper’s former executive editor, Bill Keller, called The New York Times Magazine’s “next incarnation”—a complete redesign, a new concept, different sections and writers and, most importantly, and most unexpectedly, a new editor: Hugo Lindgren, who had worked at the now extinct George magazine, New York magazine and Bloomberg Businessweek. He was no stranger to the Times Magazine; he had worked there, under Adam Moss’ editorship, in the early 2000s.

Lindgren, who replaced Gerald Marzorati—having run the magazine for seven years, he left to become what Keller described as the Times newsroom’s “master entrepreneur”—arrived in late October 2010 from Bloomberg Businessweek after only seven months as executive editor there. In the official announcement of Lindgren’s hiring, Keller said: “We talked to a lot of great candidates, inside and outside of The Times, but Hugo stood out for his creativity, his charisma, and his experience helping to refresh two magazines. Because he knows The Times Magazine from his earlier work there, he’ll be able to hit the ground running.” As it turned out, that was the understatement of the year. When Lindgren’s first issue appeared, in March 2011, readers discovered that the new editor had changed out all of the columnists in the front of the magazine, along with many other staffers and contributors, replacing them with a whole new team. Lindgren ultimately said goodbye to some twenty people, according to someone close to the situation, who asked to remain anonymous.

It is not known whether Keller knew of Lindgren’s plans, but The New York Observer and others wondered out loud why Keller chose someone from outside instead of hiring from within. The same anonymous source said that another outsider, The New Yorker’s Daniel Zalewski, was the top pick for the job but turned Keller down. Other non-Times names like James Bennet (The Atlantic) and James Traub (now at Foreign Policy, however still a contributing writer to the Times Magazine) were also considered for the position. It seems clear that Keller wanted dramatic change. And that is what he got.

So how is Lindgren doing?

The first impression one gets by comparing the two “incarnations” of The New York Times Magazine is that the new version feels like it’s aimed at a younger audience. The weekly now is filled with pop culture references, readers’ Twitter comments and stories exploring the latest Internet meme or iPhone game fad. The redesign made some of the sections look like a Tumblr blog, and the “One-Page Magazine,” which opens the front of the book with a dozen short, casual bricks of text, might as well be someone’s Twitter feed of random thoughts and observations.

The magazine also has a blog now, “The 6th Floor,” which is apparently supposed to give readers an inside view of articles’ backstories and make those readers feel closer to the staff and their work. Followers of the blog can learn about the saga of a lost set of photographs of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, shot by Garry Winogrand; read an interview with chief political correspondent Matt Bai, about his cover story on the debt deal; or participate in a survey like columnist Rosie Schaap’s quest to compile a playlist of what she calls “bartender rock,” following up on her story about daytime drinking. Readers can also follow the publication on Twitter, and, as I write this, nearly 50,000 of them do.

The front of the book is Lindgren’s pièce de résistance. He has killed beloved staples like the “On Language” column, started in 1979 by William Safire and continued by Ben Zimmer after Safire’s death in 2009. Popular columnists such as Randy Cohen, who had written “The Ethicist” since 1999, and Deborah Solomon, who had done the Q&A column “Questions For” since 2003, have been replaced by Ariel Kaminer, who became the ethicist on a one-year loan from the Times’ Metro section, and Andrew Goldman (whose Q&A page follows its predecessor’s format but has changed its name to “Talk”). Cohen is now the host of a one-on-one interview show called Person Place Thing on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, while Solomon is working on a biography of iconic illustrator Norman Rockwell.

This is not the time or place to provide a detailed report card on how all the new changes have worked out, but a comparative look at two of his more controversial fires (Solomon and Cohen—each of whom had a real fan base) and their replacements (Goldman and Kaminer), might prove elucidative.

The old and new  Q&A section and “Ethicist” represent the distinct styles of the magazine before and after the 2011 refurbishing. Solomon was famous for insulting her interviewees with barbs like “Do you think your basic sexual confusion underlies your political confusions” (to Christopher Hitchens in 2010) and “Your critics might find it paradoxical that you are prescribing family togetherness when in fact you’re a single mom” (to environmental activist Laurie David in 2010). Or she might have wrapped up an interview with a challenging statement like “Your name sounds like Sam-I-Am, from Dr. Seuss” (to The Black Eyed Peas’ in 2011) or a blunt out-of-nowhere reference to her subject’s sexuality (as she did to writer Gore Vidal and actress Cynthia Nixon, both in 2008).

Goldman seems to be imitating Solomon’s approach, but he arguably lacks some of her grace when dropping bombs like “Have you turned into a narcissistic lunatic?” (to Noel Gallagher in 2011) or “I assumed from the biker look that you were gay, but you have a wife and daughter. Do many people make this mistake?” (to architect Peter Marino in 2012).

“The Ethicist,” on the other hand, found a completely different style in Kaminer’s hands. Cohen typically opted for short, to-the-point answers peppered with sharp-humored comments, like: “This assumes that you use oil heat and that the misdelivered fuel was pumped into your tank and not your backyard pool or giant birdbath or enormous cat. (Insert BP joke here),” in reply to a reader who had 100 gallons of heating oil mistakenly delivered to his house in 2010. Kaminer produced a more detailed column and did her homework well, despite lacking much of Cohen’s wit and authority. Her humor was more discreet, almost shy, and she took a few more paragraphs than her predecessor to contextualize, sometimes digressing from the question being discussed in order to make a point.

Kaminer recently conducted a contest among readers—the first in the column’s history—asking for short essays on why it is ethical for humans to eat meat. Cohen once discussed a somewhat similar topic, replying to an anesthesiologist who questioned whether it was ethical to utilize a blood thinner derived from pigs in patients who don’t eat pork for religious reasons (2009). While Kaminer typically chooses a more staid approach, Cohen wrapped up his reasoning with a laugh-out-loud comment about products derived from pigs: “It is curiously liberating to learn that I would violate no religious strictures if I were to wear mascara while playing football.”

Even though Kaminer’s style seemed to mesh well with Lindgren’s new approach, her stint as “the ethicist” is over and she has now returned to the Metro section. “The Ethicist,” however, will remain. As NYRM went to press, Kaminer’s seat had yet to be filled.

Magazines do change; different editors have different tastes and preferences. The only problem with Lindgren’s small revolution, according to a former employee, who asked to be quoted anonymously, is that he never explained his decisions to the newsroom, and never told them directly that they would be let go. “Our annual contracts expired on December 31, [2010]. Shortly after Christmas, a sub-editor called and said that our contracts would not be renewed because Hugo was thinking about what he would do,” said the ex-staffer, adding that at that point nobody anticipated getting fired. “But the contracts were never renewed and we were paid for four weeks before leaving. I was fired by phone.”

“It was such a shock to all of us. Some of my colleagues are truly suicidal,” said this source, who worked at the magazine for over a decade.

During a lecture at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in early March, Lindgren said that all these measures—including the sackings—were “truly necessary.” He explained: “The front of the book is the place that has got to evolve and change. The columnists there were not, to my personal taste, doing the work. And my feeling was: I don’t know how long I’ll get to edit this magazine, but I’m going to put the stuff that I like in while I’m there.”

Lindgren is proudest of what he’s done with the front of the magazine, and considers all the renovations essential for the weekly to keep pace with its readership. “It’s not easy to make changes to a place that has been successful and where people take a lot of pride in their work,” he said.

So how do the readers think he is he doing?

Talking about his decision to discard “On Language,” Lindgren said: “There were people out there who were out to kill me.” There’s even a group on Facebook called “Keep ‘On Language’ in the New York Times,” aimed at persuading the editor to bring back the column.

In general, readers’ reactions were mixed. Long-time subscribers to The New York Times like film producer Merv Bloch and his wife, TV producer Leslie Littlehale Bloch—who have both been reading the newspaper for more than sixty years—said the Sunday magazine “is getting boring.”

“I used to like the magazine, and every now and then I still read it,” said Merv. “But it’s too esoteric for me now.” He suggested that the weekly should have fiction writing again, as it had for a while in the mid-2000s, and expand its coverage of the arts.

On the other hand, in interviews with a dozen frequent readers between the ages of twenty and thirty-three, nine said they hadn’t even noticed changes in the magazine, while three said they liked the new look.

Among the letters to the editor published in the March 20, 2011, issue—the first since the magzine was reshaped—some praised a “sleeker, more agile and more fun” magazine, while others complained that “the changes are too much,” referring to a letter from the editor that Lindgren had published, introducing and explaining the magazine’s redesign. “If all these changes seem too much,” he wrote, “work the crossword. It will always be here for you.”

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