Sat close to the webcam in a yellow T-shirt in his Chinatown apartment, David Haskell isn’t making small talk over Zoom on a recent Tuesday afternoon. It’s a different story, though, when he begins speaking about the subjects he’s passionate about, diving into lengthy, descriptive sentences and only pausing occasionally to thoughtfully select the most accurate words before continuing to make his point.
In addition to New York Magazine, of which he’s been editor in chief since April 2019, and magazine making in general, those subjects include Kings County Distillery, the first whiskey distillery in New York since prohibition that he cofounded in the wake of the financial crisis, and ceramics, with his work represented by New York gallery Donzella.
There’s also another passion on that list — architecture — and while he’s been an editor at New York Magazine since 2007, journalism wasn’t the original plan. In fact, it was only while he was studying for a PhD in the politics of architecture at Cambridge University and penning a thesis on how Barcelona chose to create public spaces after the end of the Franco regime as a way to show what democracy could actually be that it became clear to him that his future was in fact in magazines as opposed to academia.
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“I got the sense as I was writing it that best case scenario of what I was researching and writing was a long New Yorker article. It wasn’t a book and it wasn’t a thesis and the form that spoke to me was long-form magazine making,” he says.
He made the move from academia to media via Topic — the magazine he cofounded with fellow Gates’ scholars at Cambridge that eventually led him back to New York City and helped him cross paths with the then New York Magazine editor in chief Adam Moss, who subsequently hired him. “Even though I went [to Cambridge] thinking I was going to begin my architecture career, it actually launched the other one.”
Haskell then worked in various positions at the magazine for around 12 years editing almost 300 features and overseeing 14 special issues, before taking the helm from Moss. Since then, there’s been an acquisition of the biweekly magazine’s parent company New York Media by Vox Media, a pandemic and a tense election — more than what some editors have dealt with during their entire tenures.
In particular, during the early days of the pandemic, while the company recorded the greatest week for new subscriptions since New York Magazine launched its digital subscription product in 2018, it couldn’t make up for the fall in advertising revenues, leading Vox to furloughed 100 staffers. Some of those furloughed like restaurant critic Adam Platt returned to work in September, but a large chunk were laid off that summer, including some staffers at Vox’s property site Curbed. A slimmed-down team at the latter mainly focused on New York has since been folded into New York Magazine — the first time New York has brought on an outside vertical.
Now, as Vox prepares for an office return in September, Haskell says both advertising and subscriptions are performing “very well.” According to Comscore data provided by New York Magazine, its network of sites (nymag.com, Intelligencer, The Cut, Vulture, The Strategist, Curbed, and Grub Street) averaged 44 million monthly users over the past six months. It did not provide figures for the bi-monthly print magazine.
Here, Haskell talks more to WWD about his career, running New York Magazine and its verticals, as well as his side gigs.
WWD: How did you like Cambridge?
David Haskell: I didn’t enjoy it very much honestly. I think some of that was baked into the decision to go. I think I went for not particularly well-thought-out reasons and it was also very circumstantially about world historical events because 9/11 happened right before I flew from New York City out to Cambridge so to feel like I was leaving the center of the universe to go somewhere very remote and very steeped in history and outside of what the world was talking about right now all of that felt isolating. The other thing was that I pretty quickly realized that I didn’t want to be an academic by disposition or character so that was also a kind of lonely discovery.
WWD: Can you tell me a bit about the magazine you started while you were there?
D.H.: That magazine was called Topic and it was very consciously modeled on Granta so we had in our minds just the romantic, cinematic idea of starting a magazine. And then the other thing going back to that sense of craving connection to relevance after 9/11, I just was really excited about the idea of a publication that could gather people together in a social dinner party like atmosphere.
A handful of us had always imagined it to be larger than just a student magazine and there just came this inflection point where we could’ve taken some university money and in exchange sort of cemented it constantly edited by students in perpetuity. Instead we decided to take a stab at making it a self supporting magazine and then once we made that decision it became kind of obvious that its best shot at success was in New York City and so that’s when I left the PhD program and moved to New York with the magazine.
WWD: Was then New York Magazine editor in chief Adam Moss advising you at Topic?
D.H.: In retrospect one of the really great things for me personally about coming to New York City with Topic magazine was that I could meet accomplished magazine editors and not be asking them for a job, but just asking for feedback on a project that I was working on. Adam was one of those people. There were a handful of them willing to take a coffee date and see what we were up to and I really had no magazine experience editing this magazine and realized pretty quickly — and Adam was one of the best teachers in this regard — that really what I was making at the time was a journal, a collection of chapters. And that if I was interested in making a magazine there’s a lot of technique and skill and a lot of different instruments you can be playing.
WWD: How did you get to New York Magazine?
D.H.: Adam emailed me asking if I might be interested in a freelance project and that was to be a guest editor on a special issue they were doing about the odd ways in which the trajectories of London and New York City were on parallel paths at that moment. And I think his magazine editor brain just went “London — oh yeah that kid David was studying at Cambridge or Oxford. I can’t remember. Maybe he would interested.” I didn’t know London very well. I wasn’t enjoying Cambridge or England or London that much. I kept assigning pieces that were noble failures and we ended up killing like 90 percent of what I assigned for that issue.
But it did eventually come out and it was a really exhilarating experience to be at a magazine with a lot of rigor and rules and expectations that I didn’t set, but that already existed in the world. I was like I want a boss and I want to learn and I think if I stay in the world of indie magazines my whole life I will have not pushed myself enough. That’s when I made an active effort to get a full-time job and fail for a while, but eventually the stars aligned and there was a position that came open and Adam took a risk on me and I’m so grateful that he did.
WWD: Was it pretty nerve-wracking to take on the job from such a well-known editor?
D.H.: Yes, extremely. I learned something about myself in the process that I can be very good at disguising from myself my own ambition. I also just imagined Adam would not leave for a very long time. So right before [Pam offered me the job] I was considering leaving and trying to think through what I might do next. I started on April 1 and by the end of that first week I allowed myself to recognize the pleasures of the job and how much fun I was about to have.
WWD: I feel like since you took the job you’ve had so much to deal with — an acquisition, a pandemic and an election. Are you now seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel that you can kind of breathe and relax?
D.H.: No not really. I think we happen to be Zooming on a week of relative calm, but I think that the magazine went through a period under the ownership of the Wasserstein family that had enormous internal growth and evolution, but was also incredibly stable and the world was stable. We went through together the awesome election of Barack Obama and the terrifying election of Donald Trump so I’m not saying that we didn’t live through news, but it was a pretty stable place and a lot of people who worked at the magazine had worked there for a long time.
The Wassersteins were incredibly careful and focused on the long term in terms of their stewardship of it in a way that allowed us to have continuity, especially in comparison to some of our peers. All of that was just like a 15-year period and it’s just over. Honestly I think that I settled into my own confidence as editor in chief through all of the change that happened. Of course, I think about Adam and the magazine that he ran all the time but we’re just in a very, very different place as a publication, as an industry, as a nation. It’s not possible to cover this much change without changing ourselves and there’s something incredibly creative and liberating and exciting about shaping the magazine’s future. So even right now, as it feels somewhat calm, it’s not that I see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s like welcome to world history.
WWD: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as an editor since the beginning of the pandemic?
D.H.: The first immediate one was the fact that we’re all working remotely and Zooming into a creative collaborative process. That was just not something that we thought was possible. There were these technical questions of how to produce a magazine remotely, but weighing much more heavily on my mind were the cultural questions of how do we keep this creative hot house environment when everyone is incredibly stressed out and the gatherings over Zoom is by nature formally planned and therefore you could miss out on a lot of the hallway conversations that in my mind stitched the magazine together day-by-day and that’s been really difficult.
The other challenge that has been difficult and thrilling is to reckon with the reckoning, to borrow a phrase from the cover of the magazine that we used recently, and think really hard about how to make both the making of the magazine and the editorial product more diverse and inclusive and that’s something that I’m sure every institution in America reckoned with to some extent over the past year. I’m really proud of how we as an institution have been clear and committed and curious about what might actually be necessary to make us more diverse and inclusive and have really committed to it across the board.
There’s an enormous editorial opportunity sitting right in front of us to tell the story of this nation in this extraordinarily tense and charged and upsetting moment and to explore complications and difficult narratives and find the creative opportunities in challenging the default assumption of a white point of view. It goes hand in hand with the internal work that we’re doing to make the magazine less white.
WWD: Can you talk me through any steps that you’ve taken in terms of staffing to make it more diverse and inclusive?
D.H.: Every role that we have to fill we are approaching very intentionally with a sense that it’s an opportunity to make progress in our D&I goals. That has to do both with the work put into external recruiting and also a lot of work internally to find opportunities for career development and advancement. To be in a kind of ongoing collaborative conversation with everyone on staff about their career ambitions, which is something that I want to be sure to say is something I don’t take for granted being able to do structurally, is a conversation that at a company level assumes some sort of commitment to putting our money where our mouth is in finding career advancement.
But even in a situation where that is plausible there’s still a lot of intention that we’ve been putting into one-on-one conversations with staff about, “Well, OK, what do you want to be doing in six months, two years, five years? In what ways might that be possible?” Let’s be honest and frank about that conversation, but also what creative opportunities we can put together and how can we as a magazine be more transparent to the full staff when we’re looking for raised hands on a project. How do we make systems that create more opportunities for everybody working here? There’s no going back. That is the right way to run a magazine and run any institution in this country in this year.
WWD: In terms of advertising and subscriptions, how are they going as we go back to as normal as we can?
D.H.: They’re both going very well, which I’m incredibly encouraged by. Let’s talk about advertising first — the New York Magazine properties have fit well into the portfolio of the Vox properties and the combined sales team has an appealing and relevant and broad portfolio to go out and sell. That’s all great.
The thing that I’m focused mostly on when I think about my job as leading a creative product in a capitalist economy is the subscription business because I really believe it’s the magazine’s future. It’s not every magazine’s future and the boom in subscription-based media products will probably at some point look like a glut and it will be hard to convince consumers to juggle a gazillion subscriptions to a gazillion things, but some magazines have a real shot and I think that we’re one of them.
A lot of what I’ve been thinking about strategically this year when I think about the strategic direction for the magazine editorially is what can we double down on and do with even more ambition when we recognize that the consumer revenue business is the driving business for this place.
WWD: Do you find Apple News helps your focus on subscriptions. I know for The New York Times it didn’t really help.
D.H.: We’re working with Apple right now on a journalism project together and that has unlocked some opportunities for us. It seems to be fairly consistent with the larger strategy of thinking about this place as a subscription business, but I don’t think Apple News has been a game changer for us.
WWD: I’m interested to know your thoughts on newsletters and how much of a push that area is going to be for you.
D.H.: I’ve been thinking a lot about newsletters and that’s one thing that will be quite different about the magazine from January 2021 to January 2022. We are deep in the process of making a lot of bets on newsletters. I think that the obvious fundamental insight is that people who subscribe to a newsletter are on their way if not already of choosing to pay money for what you’re up to so it’s worth that intimate relationship.
But I think there’s a lot of interesting, open questions about what kind of newsletter makes sense in any given circumstance and we are certainly not subscribing to a one-size-fits-all point of view about how a newsletter is supposed to work. I think we go into it knowing that each needs to have its own robust and addictive logic, but beyond that they could look quite different one from the other.
There’s one that we’re launching that is designed to be niche. It doesn’t need to be a large-scale success to be a very large success and that has to do with nightlife in New York City and what we noticed that through all of the change in media and digital media over the last 20 years, was what used to be a robust ecosystem of downtown magazines giving a combination of services of where the fun parties are and profiles and just covering the culture of quote, unquote downtown does not exist anymore.
WWD: Will Choire Sicha, who is joining New York Magazine as editor at large, be working on newsletters at all? I know that’s what he was going to do at The New York Times.
D.H.: Choire’s main job over here will be to write. But we both are really interested in carving out some of his time for editorial projects and have already started talking about newsletters because it’s an incredibly high priority for me and the magazine already and of course he’s been thinking about it quite a bit right now.
WWD: Is he someone you’ve been trying to get over to New York for a while?
D.H.: Yes. Way before I started in this role I’ve always loved Choire’s writing and have suggested he contribute to special issues when there’s an opportunity to write. More recently I have just been suggesting to him how much fun it might be over here if he were ever interested. I think there are a lot of people in this industry who start their career or have a great career as a brilliant writer and then find themselves or less passively engineer for themselves roles that have to do with editorial leadership, editing, management and I’d like to think that New York Magazine can be that place.
WWD: What do you see for The Cut and how is it going with Lindsay Peoples Wagner, who recently joined as editor in chief?
D.H.: Lindsay is just incredibly impressive to watch up close and has been a pleasure to collaborate with. For those of us who remember Lindsay’s first chapter at The Cut before she left, it’s just wonderful to see her in editorial leadership meetings. I’m interested in running the magazine in a collaborative way and so as much as she has enormous autonomy to build The Cut as she sees and her vision for The Cut, I also depend on her to be a New York Magazine senior editorial leader and she’s in a lot of conversations from idea generation to staffing conversations.
WWD: On The Strategist you were very early entering that game, but there’s been so much competition in that area. Are you still confident about your strategy?
D.H.: Very. There is a lot of competition. I don’t discount that, but a lot of our competitors are cutting corners and offering a kind of compromised editorial integrity and copying more than innovating, so I think everything that was built into the value proposition of The Strategist when we launched it is still our competitive advantage and makes it incredibly exciting to continue to evolve.
WWD: How has the integration of Curbed been, as well as the response from readers?
D.H.: I really can’t remember New York Magazine without Curbed less than a year after we launched it. It’s really what I hoped it would be — an adoption that works incredibly well.
WWD: But you think that’s it for Vox properties coming under the New York Magazine umbrella?
D.H.: Yeah. There’s no-one’s master plan here.
WWD: And just on the office return what are your plans?
D.H.: Vox Media has an overall plan for a more hybrid way of working together that will go into place officially in September and I think for about half of the New York Magazine employees that will mean quite a bit of freedom for how remote they want to be. And then for half we’ll be expecting a return to the office, but I’m sure it will look different and be more remote-friendly that it was before.
WWD: On your side gigs, how is the distillery going and how much of your time do you devote to it?
D.H.: When I took this job at New York Magazine I stepped back from playing any day-to-day role at the distillery and so I am involved in bigger decisions, but it’s a fantastic staff that’s running it day-to-day. It had a wild but ultimately successful COVID-19. This time last year we were pumping out vats of hand sanitizer. I think we ultimately sold 30,000 of them. And we had some difficult months, but also some really strong months and this year is shaping up to be very strong. It’s mapped the media industry’s ups and down in the last 15 months pretty similarly actually. The biggest game changer for us in the weeks ahead is the reopening of the tasting room and the tours and all that stuff to original capacity.
WWD: Does your ceramics work help you to relax and destress from the pressures of journalism?
D.H.: Yes it still plays that role. It’s a solitary physical puzzle to solve. I have a studio that I share with a couple of people off of Flushing near the Navy Yard so it was a place to go other than our apartment. In that sense it was a really welcome reminder of the different facets of life during a year when all of us felt a kind of narrowing.
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