After a four-month search, Texas Monthly editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein was named the newest editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine. The native Californian was reportedly chosen over internal Times candidates and New York magazine editorial director Jared Hohlt, and was the only finalist from outside of the New York region. Silverstein was named editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly in 2008, two years after joining the Austin-based magazine as a senior editor. He will replace Hugo Lindgren, who left the Times Magazine in November after a shaky two years as editor-in-chief and rumors of clashes with Times executive editor Jill Abramson.
We spoke to Silverstein about his vision for the magazine, his passion for impactful long-form journalism, and giving up Texas barbecue.
International Business Times: First things first: Have you thought about where you want to live yet?
Silverstein: This is a very contentious topic. Both my wife and I have lived in New York City before, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and we may be ready to take the plunge and go Jersey.
IBT: Why do you think you were ultimately chosen for the position over internal and local candidates who were also in the running?
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JS: First of all, it must be said that everybody that the New York Times was talking to throughout this process was an exceptional candidate and had a tremendous amount to offer. I think that the internal candidates they were talking to have shown over the past five months and the past couple of years that they are capable of putting out excellent magazines.
All I can do is speculate about a few of the things that maybe distinguished me coming from Texas Monthly. I know that our dedication to long-form storytelling has had an appeal. Just two weeks ago we published a 25,000-word story on this amazing triple homicide investigation [“The Murders at the Lake”]. Those kinds of narratives are one of the things that have become kind of a classic part of the Texas Monthly DNA. As they are for the New York Times magazine – the magazine has always done a truly exceptional job at that kind of work.
IBT: A Columbia Journalism Review story from December noted that you “had not rushed change” after becoming editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly. Do you agree with that observation, and do you expect changes will happen quickly at the Times?
JS: I think that’s a fair assessment of how I handled the transition when I became editor of Texas Monthly. In general I think that [when] editors take over magazines and announce that there will be instantaneous redesigns and revamps of the magazine, there’s a danger of taking too aggressive an approach. Any magazine is a carefully calibrated system made out of people. Until you have a firm understanding of what the capabilities of that group are and of exactly how things can be pushed, I think it’s wise to make observations before you make big changes. That was kind of the approach that we took here at Texas Monthly.
I would never say that we weren’t putting out an ambitious magazine right at the beginning, because we were. But we didn’t begin to make wholesale changes to the magazine either in print or in digital until we had a little bit of time under our belts and really understood the nature of the beast and the challenge.
IBT: How much license do you have to change the magazine and what do you see as the limits? Do you already have an idea of what you’re not going to touch?
JS: I don’t have any specific ideas of what I am or am not going to touch just yet. I’m not even in the building yet.
The Times magazine has one of the strongest traditions and legacies in American journalism. People care dramatically about the continuity of what’s in those pages. And changes that are made to those pages cannot be made lightly.
I would also say that the New York Times is clearly interested in evolving the magazine, in seeing what else it can do and how far it can go, and I’m extremely excited to be part of that exploration.
IBT: You recently joked on Twitter that you were the New York Times Magazine’s new barbecue editor (a position that exists at Texas Monthly). What can reading Texas Monthly tell us about how you and the time you spent in Texas will work to evolve the magazine?
JS: It’s funny – here I thought that my legacy was going to be about all the hard-hitting public interest journalism that we do, or the National Magazine Awards for feature writing. But pretty much 50 percent of the tweets in reaction to this announcement have had to do with the fact that I named the first barbecue editor in American history.
The fact is that Texas Monthly has historically been a place where the fun and the serious and the ambitious and laid-back are able to mix very easily. Some of that has to do with the fact that it’s Texas – we’re out here on the frontier. We are operating in a different environment than most magazines in the country.
We do a lot of serious political journalism, we do a lot of serious civic journalism, but we also don’t take ourselves so seriously that we can’t hire a barbecue editor. I think that combination of fun and serious, of irreverence and reverence, is good for any magazine and I hope that I am able to bring a balance of those two moods to the Times magazine.
IBT: What about you personally, independent of your experience at Texas Monthly and elsewhere? What are your personal obsessions as an editor?
JS: I don’t know that I would call it an obsession, but what I am always interested in, and always have been, is trying to find ways to tell great and even literary stories that will last. The job of the magazine – of any magazine – should be to create work that has a lasting value; that is able to stick around not just for a week but for six months or even a couple years.
Taking the approach to magazine making that what [you're doing] has a value that’s permanent, and does more than inform, does more than speak to a momentary need for information -- that actually speaks to something much deeper and more lasting -- that’s the obsession that I have about any piece of writing. It’s my obsession that I have about what we’ve done at Texas Monthly. It’s very hard to do and we don’t accomplish that every single time. Nobody does. But my goal at any place I’ve been is to produce work that has that kind of value.
IBT: According to Jill Abramson’s memo and the announcement in the Times, under your direction the magazine will be more “fully integrated in the newsroom and will play a significant role in the big news stories of the day.” What will this look like from a reader’s perspective?
JS: I think one of the interesting things is that from a reader’s perspective that’s already happened -- if you think about the fact that for a lot of readers, the experience of the New York Times happens entirely online. And because the experience is entirely online, the question of where certain content is coming from is less significant. I think to some extent the need to bring the magazine more closely into the newsroom is driven by the fact that the New York Times understands that readers are not consuming this stuff in the same way they were 15 years ago.
The magazine should be a place where great immersive long-form reporting and storytelling gets done. And that storytelling and reporting can work hand in hand with the reporting that’s coming out of the newsroom on the big issues of our day. I don’t mean to give the impression that that doesn’t happen at all currently, but I think it could happen with greater regularity and with a more strategic focus.
IBT: I’ve gotten the impression that for better or worse there is a bit of a firewall between the newsroom and the magazine.
JS: I don’t know that I would say it’s a firewall, but there is definitely a sense that the magazine operates fully independently of the paper. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not going to continue to operate independently with an autonomous staff… that’s all very important to the way that the magazine operates. However, it’s clear that it’s also important that the autonomous staff is working in a more collaborative spirit with the rest of the paper, and I think that’s what will happen.
IBT: One criticism of the magazine under Hugo Lindgren was that it went light on international and investigative in favor of lifestyle. Do you agree with that? And is it something you plan to redress?
JS: You can make that criticism, or you can say that Luke Mogelson’s story about the refugee boat, which was nominated for a National Magazine Award just last week, is one of the finest pieces of international reporting that was published in all of 2013. I don’t have anything but respect for the way the magazine has operated and the stories that it’s published.
IBT: Is there anything in particular that you’re sorry to leave in Texas, besides the magazine?
JS: Absolutely. Not to bring it back to barbecue but it is amazing how many people in New York have emailed, texted or tweeted at me saying, “Not to worry, we have some good barbecue up here as well and I’ll show you where it is.”
I will miss the whole culture of Texas. It’s not my home, I was born and raised in California, but I’ve been in Texas for 14 years now and I love this place and I will miss it dearly. It's a fascinating place. I told one reporter that there are some similarities between New York and Texas. Having lived in both places I think I can say that: Both of them have a sense of their own importance that is sometimes a bit overblown but it's also the secret to their fascination.
Texas Monthly itself is a place I will miss dearly. This is, I believe, one of the great magazines in the country. It’s going to be difficult to leave these people behind, but I am looking forward to being a reader of theirs again.
The above interview has been condensed and edited.
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