When an editor as universally admired as Adam Moss leaves a thriving magazine like New York and its family of fabulously successful digital offshoots at the relatively young age of 61 — even though, admittedly, his is a business increasingly run by teenagers — all purportedly because he's tired or was reminded of the fragility of life after a bicycle accident, something smells fishy.
We are talking about the best magazine editor of our time, his successes having been well documented in the New York Times piece announcing the news. He is that rare editor who maintains the highest standards, produces stuff people actually want to read, wins awards for it, and who performed the herculean by spinning off that content into a stable of well-read and profitable websites. For those of us who write about the media business, reading that Adam Moss is leaving New York is like reading that God is dead. Reading it also makes you wonder, what's the real story? None of us is naive enough to think that people like this, people as mighty as Adam Moss, just up and "retire."
A closer read reveals the truth. Reports the Times:
And while he never shied away from the business side of the job, his management duties were outweighing the thrill of putting out a magazine. "In a lot of ways, it doesn't feel like the same publication or the same job," Mr. Moss said. "I get reports back about what sold at what price point and all that stuff, and I think, Wait, really, this is what I do for a living? You do spend less time worrying about getting the story right."
"This is what I do for a living?" It's a question more and more editors have started asking themselves.
Once upon a time, I ran features for a magazine. It was good journalism, and we got a lot of attention for it, and yes, it was also fun. Then that magazine got bought by some bottom line-obsessed goons who had no experience in journalism (nor expertise in anything that I could tell) and demanded that their editors and reporters be held accountable, revenue-wise, for everything they produced. Every reporter's clicks were scrutinized, every editor's stories judged against whether they were monetized — and editors were even forced to make sales calls, and had how much sales revenue they'd brought in tracked by software designed for that purpose. At one point, the idea was weighed of having editors' salaries tied to how much money they'd brought in. Let that sink in.
There are a lot of other news organizations being run, while not quite to that extreme, not all that far off either — where, like Moss says, journalists are now spending more time worrying about clicks and ad sales than producing quality journalism. Nobody appreciates that news organizations have to make money more than I do — in fact, I've been closer to it than most, having spent a career producing "listicles" and profiles of award winners against which congratulatory ads are sold, as well as advertorials and custom content, and working closely with the sales department on such projects. On more than one occasion, I've had to hold my nose and do my best from retching when forced to create content that was nothing more than a promotion, a free ad, for another division of my company. Businesses are in business to make money, of course. We all know that, and accept it. It's when there's no breathing room, or support or respect from the higher-ups, for actual journalism that it becomes untenable.
I once attempted to explain to one brainless twit I worked for — one of the owners of my publication — the importance of journalistic integrity and independence. His response? "We're not Woodward and Bernstein here, you know." No, I found myself thinking — more like Laurel and Hardy.
However, I was fortunate enough early in my career to have worked for editors who had me chase stories regardless of who it upset — including the publisher or owner. And I did, and we were threatened, and our lives were made a little miserable for a while. But we ran the stories anyway. And those stories had impact with our readers and led to real change in the real world. It happened because I had bosses with balls, who had courage, who didn't back down — even if it meant being threatened with their very jobs. I'm sorry to say, we just don't live in that kind of world anymore. We live in a world of ass-kissing and kowtowing and building "relationships," not of independent, adversarial journalism. Just look at the way the TV networks cower at this corrupt president and his cronies instead of standing up to them and feeding the shit they peddle daily right back to them. There are a few brave ones like Jim Acosta, but precious few. Did you see that story this week about NBC News telling its reporters not to refer to Steve King as a "racist," before backing down after everybody, quite rightly, erupted in a rage?
We are no longer allowed to call racists racist, or crooks crooks, or bullshitters bullshitters. Make nice, now. Be friends with everybody. Don't ruffle feathers or rock the boat.
Remember what he told the Times: "It doesn't feel like the same job."
Is it any wonder the guy finally said enough?
What is this industry where Graydon Carter, the onetime impresario of the magazine world, can be driven into retirement too early because he makes too much money, paving the way for an unknown, untalented kid who is, issue by issue, destroying an entire franchise? Where Out magazine decides it's time for "new blood" and hires another child as editor to create a product that is totally unremarkable and unrelatable in every single way unless you ride a skateboard to work? Where all the content of Hearst's legendary magazines is now done on an assembly line of drones — cranking out dull, soulless content for one website that is virtually indistinguishable from the dull, soulless content of another?
I've always been in love with journalism, especially that which is produced by magazines. It's so painful watching it be destroyed.