Adam Moss is arguably one of the best-known magazine editors you’ve never seen. He’s a self-described “introvert” who avoids the spotlight, yet he’s helmed the much-acclaimed New York for 12 years. During his tenure as editor, Moss has helped the magazine accrue more than its fair share of plaudits: It’s a perennial multiple winner at the National Magazine Awards, snapping up 34 so far, as well as a handful of best cover awards and, most recently, a George Polk Award in Magazine Reporting for its Bill Cosby rape investigation.
Before coming to New York, Moss worked at The New York Times, where he edited the paper’s weekly magazine supplement and served as assistant managing editor for features, overseeing the magazine, book review, culture and style sections.
During his tenure at New York, Moss ushered in the publication’s digital expansion and rehauled the magazine to reflect the mission set forth by its founder, Clay Felker, who used a narrative journalistic style to tell the city’s stories of power struggles, affluence and culture. In some ways, Moss is still honing that voice as the magazine enters a new chapter of digital storytelling, live events and sponsored content. Like its rivals, New York has felt the impact of the volatile print environment. Two years ago, the magazine went from weekly to biweekly in order to save $3.5 million in manufacturing costs. Since then, it has kept its circulation and newsstand sales relatively stable. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, circulation for the six months ended Aug. 31 totaled 406,237 with single-copy sales of 53,443.
But New York has benefited somewhat from benevolent ownership, having been acquired by the late Bruce Wasserstein in 2003 and been overseen by his heirs since his death in 2009. Wasserstein’s daughter Pam recently took over the company as chief executive officer, marking a new management era at the title. Moss sat down with WWD to talk about changes at the publication, the hype of social media cover stars and an unexpected stream of revenue — e-commerce.
How has your job changed since you walked in the door?
When I walked in here, it was still just a magazine, and a weekly magazine. I was kind of doing what I’d done before, making a weekly magazine. I’d been in the weekly business most of my career. The project Bruce Wasserstein hired me to do was fairly straightforward: It was to do a kind of restoration project, to bring back some values of the original Clay Felker [founded] magazine and spin it forward into the future. And then, very soon after that, the Wasserstein family bought back the web site, which was then called New York Metro. It hadn’t been part of the sale because it was a joint venture between Cablevision and New York. What it was doing was actually advanced for the time, but not very different from what we do now, which was publishing the magazine’s content. It was also a listings engine and it had all of this fashion, runway stuff, which happened because the Cablevision part of the deal wanted an accompaniment to a fashion television show that they were doing. Because it was a partnership, it took a while, we bought it back, and the weird thing was it was a profitable web site…largely because of this fashion material. Any luxury advertiser, who is going to be interested in experimenting with the web in 2005, was very attracted to the audience that these fashion shows had built up. Our idea was to create a news-driven web site with the values of the magazine and so we started creating original content for the web site. It wasn’t all repurposed from the print magazine. That was the beginning of a completely different business we were in…over time we were as much of a digital company as we were a print company.
Are you saying that just editorially or also in terms of business?
[It was] in terms of revenue, in terms of size of staff, where the staff was directed, and fundamentally, also in terms of seeing everything we did, ultimately about the digital distribution of our content. What that did was, it changed our content, so that most of our readers for our material were not necessarily in New York. Print readership was a third in the city, a third in the metro area and a third national. Online, it flipped. Only 20 percent of our readers were in New York and 80 percent were elsewhere. It meant we always wanted to be creating content, making journalism that would be interesting to national and international readers. We did that by keeping a New York lens. That was crucial to us. We felt that what our business was, was the sensibility of New York, and that we could apply it anywhere, to food, technology, to fashion, entertainment, and it would make sense as a publication. That’s what we became and in the last two years, it’s other things — we’re also beginning to be a video company.
You spoke on an ASME panel in 2014 where you were skeptical about video. Have your views changed?
A lot of it has changed because Facebook has basically made us all go into the video business, so everybody is trying to address that opportunity in different ways. We’re just at the beginning of it. A lot of other people have a big head start on us. We felt, when I said that, and I think it was true when I said that, we didn’t see the business in it. We were excited about it. We did do video, but we did it in a very ad-hoc way and most of it didn’t get very much audience. We recently hired this very talented guy named Matt Johnston from Business Insider and he’s making a different kind of video for us, which plays well in the Facebook ecosystem, and it’s doing incredibly well. Things change.
How does a print magazine translate its voice to the web successfully?
There shouldn’t be a single [print and web] voice. We took some time to experiment with how to translate the magazine’s voice to the web. My advice to any magazine would be, don’t do exactly what you’re doing in print, but keep true to your sensibility. Speak in your own voice.
Do you think the transition is harder for a monthly magazine?
Some monthly magazines have very strong voices. I guess the question isn’t so much voice, but are you in the news business or are you not? News is very convenient because it gives you a mission. It gives you a reason to write every day, and in our case, every 10 minutes. Things happen and we talk about them. A lot of magazines have, in some way, turned into these sites. It’s their way of answering the challenge. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it. It’s in a way easier because news is a lot of the way the Internet works. Otherwise, you’ve got to be creating stuff that has to create its own demand, whereas news supplies demand. But we did news in our own way. It took us a while to get this voice right. The voice wasn’t exactly like the magazine, but it was definitely a sibling. But it’s all very organic. It changes according to the talent you have making journalism for it… we’re always moving. We try to keep our identity intact, but we move with our talent.
Why did you decide to break out and brand different sites from New York? Is it to drive traffic from Vulture, for instance, back to the main site?
Some people just read The Cut, some just read Vulture, and they’re not really interested — they don’t want to read political news, they don’t care about restaurants, they just want to read deeply in their area of interest. Sometimes they don’t even know that we do this other stuff. Sometimes they don’t even know that this is New York Magazine, and that’s fine with us. The way the verticals happened is kind of accidental. It just seemed logical to us. What happened is we did this Daily Intel coverage and then because we have so much food expertise we thought we could create a sort of pure food part in NYMag, and that was Grub Street, and it really worked. Huh? We can do this with culture coverage, we thought. Suddenly we started applying it to all of our different areas. Basically the principle of what we do — not to get all business lingo bullshitty — but we see ourselves as a series of enthusiast publications and we feel that we can apply our sensibility to an area. If we do it well, we will attract a bunch of obsessive, smart enthusiasts who will also be of interest to advertisers and even to people who are looking to go to live events.
Do you see any danger of having too many verticals to a point where they overshadow the New York brand?
We don’t think of that as a danger. It’s not important to us that New York be the prominent brand. New York is very much the brand for the readers who want the print experience. The danger of having too many verticals is just internal dangers of — we’re spread so thin in terms of our focus that sometimes we get a little dizzy. In terms of the audience, I don’t think that’s a danger. We’re going through the growing pains. Our verticals get pretty big. As they get bigger, they will inevitably crash into each other’s territory. If we’re doing something on Amy Schumer in Vulture, The Cut is probably interested, too. We cross post and in some cases we publish the same story in two places. But we don’t do that too much because it confuses Google and you don’t want to confuse Google.
Is it hard to balance the digital report with the print magazine? How do you keep the print timely as you’re publishing biweekly?
It’s not hard at all to balance it. We look at what we do online…and some of it gets assigned for print. Sometimes, something like when Cathy Horyn does daily reviews of fashion shows during the fashion weeks, that doesn’t make sense for print exactly. So maybe we’ll turn her into a comic strip character, and we’ll create a Cathy Horyn comic book that gets at some of her insights that actually makes sense for print that doesn’t work as well online. We’re doing quick hits online and taking the longer view in print.
I want to talk about the Kardashians because they are on so many magazine covers. But if you look at the newsstand numbers, they don’t necessarily sell well. Part of their draw is their following. What do you think about magazines using social media stars on their covers in the hope the content will be shared?
We don’t really do that. We certainly hope that our stories are shared with people with lots of followers. That’s marketing. We once tried to game this and we failed completely, which was with a cover, very early in the biweekly era. It was a good story, but we did do it cynically, which was, basically, meet 10 social stars. There were YouTube stars and Vine stars and Instagram stars. Our hope was by profiling these people…by identifying these people who were gigantically famous to certain people, but other people had no idea who they were…we were trying to make the bridge between the mostly young audience who revered these people to our other readers both in the print magazine and online. We thought, “Oh, this is going to be huge because all these young social media stars will tweet out or share in some way their stories and we would get all of their followers.” But actually all those followers, they’re looking at Vine and at Instagram, and they don’t actually want to read a magazine story — in any form. They’re just not interested in magazines. They’re not interested in most digital media. They’re interested in watching the seven-second Vine video. They didn’t actually carry over.
Maybe it works for the other magazines. A lot of these social media stars want to break out of their social media ghetto, so they’re eager to get more mainstream play and they’re using the magazines to leapfrog into a different [audience].
A lot of editors are quasi-celebrities, publicizing themselves as much as their magazines. Do you feel the pressure to do that?
I think it’s bad that I don’t do that. I’m kind of an introvert in an extrovert’s profession. I just am not comfortable doing it. I’m happy to have an actual conversation like this, this is fun…but I’m not interested in being a host of a party. I’m just not comfortable at it. Let somebody else do it. I also don’t feel we’re in a period where that’s of as much value. When Tina Brown was running magazines that was really the era in which the editor-celebrity was a more powerful force. I was worried because I wanted to edit a magazine, but I can’t do this other thing. Happily, people who have hired me, have said, “That’s fine.”
What’s your take on native advertising?
I have no problem with native advertising as long as it’s not masquerading as journalism that the publication is actually publishing. As long as there’s clarity, it’s just like any kind of advertising…some advertising is very pleasurable. You read Vogue because you like the content and yet you also really like to look at the ads. When I was growing up, I was really interested in culture. I would get the Arts & Leisure section of the Times, and I don’t think I read a single article. I loved to look at the pages and see the giant movie ad or theater ad, and would be so excited. When I go to our homepage, like if HBO has a gigantic, exciting ad, I get as excited as I do by any of our content.
You’re wading in e-commerce a bit more through affiliate links. Can you talk about that and is there a conflict of interest for your editors who are recommending products?
We’re starting to get fairly promiscuous in e-commerce, and we found, in December, that when we personalize the e-commerce content, and people were recommending things they actually believed in, that it kind of worked, when we approached e-commerce as editorial. We asked everyone what they liked…one of our editors did a testimonial for some weird thing that helped you defecate better and it sold. [Laughs]. It did! We don’t get behind anything we don’t actually believe in, but we’re doing this all the time anyway. We’re in the authority business. We’re constantly recommending restaurants and makeup brands and all that stuff, and it’s for real. We’re very careful about that. None of it is shill. If we can preserve our authority…and they believe us, they are going to buy stuff through us. That’s a very logical extension of what we do. It’s an obvious next step.