The New York Times Magazine

3 Stories

Jake Silverstein

Immersive Storytelling


Jake Silverstein was made Editor in Chief of The New York Times Magazine before his fortieth birthday. As a somewhat unknown quantity to the magazine’s devout readers, Silverstein could have played it safe, using his first months to work within the framework he inherited. Instead, without apology or fear, he took on an ambitious redesign, building a fresh, contemporary New York Times Magazine that feels responsible to the publication’s storied history. Another aspect of Silverstein’s early endeavors at the Times include the integration of virtual reality as a technology that can bolster immersive storytelling. So, with the launch of the magazine’s new Virtual Reality app taking place at NeueHouse Madison Square, NeueJournal’s writer in Residence, Gideon Jacobs, caught up with Silverstein, hoping to learn more about the ideas shaping the future of modern journalism. 


Gideon Jacobs: How do you balance the goal of making a magazine that is, in your eyes, of the highest quality, and the goal of making a magazine that is popular and profitable? Do you feel that the internet, with its click bait, listicles and shock videos, has only reaffirmed notions that those two goals are somewhat incongruous?


Jake Silverstein: I don’t think we really compete with clickbait, listicles, and shock videos. Obviously, there is a lot of traffic that can be generated around certain trends of content, and if you are smart about it, you can generate a lot of revenue based on that traffic. However, the way that we tend to create stories and publish them is a different game — one of quality. And there is a lot of space for that to succeed right now despite all the other forms of content. There is also value for advertisers in being associated with a content of quality rather than quantity. I think from our perspective, we focus on a kind of high-quality work, and in saying that, I don’t mean to disparage other forms of online writing. I think that type of thing also has its place in the kingdom of content. Maybe the same audience wants one thing with their breakfast and another thing with their lunch.


GJ: What do you make of our culture’s constant anxieties and fears about the death of print media? How do you make sense of the psychology of it?


JS: I think that print newspapers and print magazines have for so long been the way that people got their information about the world and there is anxiety because now there are a whole bunch of new ways to get that information. Part of what we like about digital content is that you have so much more agency as a user, but that agency can also be scary for some people because they don’t exactly know how to use it and they want those decisions to be made for them. Then there is the logistical fact that we, as a society, still haven’t figured out what the business model is going to be to support these kind of news gathering operations. So I think that the anxiety is a valid one, but I also think that the death of print can be overdramatized. I actually believe the future news ecosystem is gonna be one in which print remains a part of the larger whole. I don’t think it’s going to go away completely.


GJ: So more to do with the fear of change and less about this intrinsic switch of the tangible to the digital?


JS: There is still a bias amongst some readers and writers about digital being less serious and containing more frivolous content. However I think that isn’t fair and most people no longer feel that way,  there is tons of serious content online and equally tons of frivolous content in print.


GJ: I guess I was wondering if you have any romantic notions about the tangible read. I’m not sure Whitman was imagining us on a tablet when he said, “Read these Leaves in the open air…”


JS: I absolutely do. We relaunched the magazine in February and one of the things that we tried to do is to make a magazine that was a tactile physical object, felt high-quality, more bespoke, more custom. To do that, we started printing on a heavier paper stock , and we brought in some really incredible designers and pushed the design envelope. We’ve been doing a lot of custom typefaces. So, the product feels like a much more rich and valuable object. I believe that because readers are so bombarded with all forms of digital content during weekdays, the weekend is when they can sit down, look at the New York Times magazine and have a ritualistic relationship with something that gives them an experience.


GJ: What personal beliefs — maybe spiritual, ethical or emotional — inform your work?


JS: I would say that both as a writer and an editor, a fundamental curiosity about the world and how people operate in it has animated most of the work that I’ve done. I like stories that give me a different perspective. I think that you can keep doing that ‘till the end of time and never run out of interesting stuff to read about. I also tend to think about the theatrical quality of the work that we put out there. I think about the experience of the audience, what is the role that I have as a person creating a ‘show’ for that reader: can I challenge them? Can I surprise them? How far can I push them one way of the other? This could be something that you think about in terms of a sentence and it could be something that you think about in terms of the whole magazine.


GJ: When have you failed? How do you react to or cope with failure?


JS: I started out as a writer before I became an editor and, I can tell you I was extremely familiar with the feeling of failure. That includes my own self-criticism and also just sending work out and having it turned down, waiting by the phone for editors to call back…I’ve been there.


GJ: What powers of good journalism do you see Virtual Reality being capable of heightening?


JS: I think that the good journalism that VR can be used to accomplish is journalism that is respectful of the world and respectful of the subject while using this new immersive technology to tell readers a responsible story about those subjects. That’s what we tried to do in our first film. VR is a really powerful medium because there is immediacy and connection, and the feeling of being there is so palpable.


GJ: What is worth fighting for? What is capable of making you really angry?


JS: Other than traffic? It makes me upset when there are obstacles in the way of the incredible ambition of the people I work with. This is an amazing staff of writers, designers, photographers, editors, and they have such bold ambitions for the work that they do. My job, in part, is to facilitate that ambition and let people do the great work that they want to do. Sometimes it’s practical stuff, like someone can’t get a visa to go to a country or something —  those things make me angry. I don’t tend to throw paperweights across the room, but I do get frustrated because my goal is for this magazine to be as ambitious as it can be and not feel as though there is anything standing in the way.


Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal 


More or less impulsive

Creative Channel: Gay & Nan Talese | Artwork by: Brigitte Lacombe w/ guest photo editor Janet Johnson | NeueJournal Issue 1

Gay and Nan Talese have had storied careers and a storied marriage. The two legendary figures of the New York literary world celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary a few years ago, and through that half century, have coexisted in a partnership, both domestic and creative, that reads a bit like fiction. For our the inaugural print publication of NeueJournal, we gained some insight into what makes the Taleses tick, both as individuals, and as a couple. 


GAY TALESE: It’s typical. This morning I said, “We’ll go away Thursday.” Nan’s been looking forward to getting out of New York; it’s been cold, and she doesn’t like New York so much . . .


NAN TALESE: Too noisy. I love the country, and Gay loves the city.


GT: . . . but this afternoon I said, “I just can’t deliver this thing to The New Yorker. I’m working on it and I thought I’d be finished this weekend and I’m not, so I have to work through the weekend.” She understood, “Okay, so we won’t go.”


I think that our marriage, which was more or less impulsive, was characteristic of the way the rest of our life has gone. I was in Rome during the summer of 1959 writing a piece for The New York Times Magazine when Fellini was making La Dolce Vita. The movie had sprawled itself out from the studio on the fringes of the city and was a living episode of the daily traffic of Rome, and the nighttime atmosphere as well. I called Nan up—she was at Random House then—and asked, “Do you want to come over? This is fabulous.” She decided that this was going to be a marital trip and bought a one-way ticket—


NT: That’s because I didn’t have enough money then for a two-way ticket.


GT:—and she called my parents [to tell them] we’re going to get married. That shows you that at times one person is more decisive than the other.


NT: You never wanted to get married.


GT: Well, that was before the edict was delivered. I knew [she] was the person, if I didn’t marry, at least I should marry, if not now, then at sometime—but then that sometime became eliminated by her determination. So that was it. Both of us had a Catholic education, but we did not get married in a church [much to her parents’ chagrin]: We got married in the atmosphere of La Dolce Vita.

We’ve had a very episodic life. There were instances good and bad, glamorous and dreary, that we’ve tolerated and accepted as part of the truism that marriage is a long marathon, not a sprint.


NT: I remember when [our daughter] Catherine was about to get married and she asked, “Mummy, what’s it like to be married?” and I said, “Well it’s like being on the front of a roller coaster: You go up and down, up and down, and that’s marriage.”


GT: The reason that we were initially attracted to one another intellectually was that we both were fond of the same books. About a year before we got married, we lived together and had a library that was partly hers and partly mine. One of the deterrents to breaking up was that we’d have to return the books, which would have been too inconvenient, so we stayed together for fifty-seven years. The books have become more numerous—there are now 4,000–5,000 books all through the house.


NT: We care very much about books [and appreciate the same things. . .although we’re opposites in other ways]. We [also] have a very strong work ethic, and I think we’re pretty considerate of each other.


GT: Nan has made her living all of our married life editing and acquiring books from American and some international writers, as well more than five decades of being an acquiring editor and a pencil editor line editor. And along the way I have written books, magazine pieces, and sometimes newspapers articles. She goes to the office on Broadway and 56th Street, and I go to a subterranean apartment below the house that I call a bunker. Our routine from 1959 to 2015 hasn’t changed all that much.


On March 7, 2015 I [had] a front-page article in The New York Times that opens by describing a landscaper in Selma, Alabama, digging holes alongside the street and inserting pansies and certain kinds of shrubs. I didn’t know what kind of shrubs. . .


NT: Gay can’t tell one flower from the other] so I told him what they were: pansies, azalea bushes, and small evergreen trees. They all would have sounded the same if he had done it. I [also] read aloud everything Gay’s writing before it goes to the publisher.


GT: I like her reading aloud, because when you hear your work coming back at you with a different voice, there’s a different perception. You get clarity about it. So anything I don’t like I can more readily change when I hear it in Nan’s voice.


NT: And actually what I’ve learned from Gay, which has been very helpful to my authors, is that I know what it’s like for an author to be alone all day and to be writing on a blank piece of paper.
This conversation has been edited.


Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson 


Spencer Bailey


Spencer Bailey is the executive editor at Surface. He is also a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. Previously, he has written for Bloomberg Businessweek and worked at The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair and Esquire. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.