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