Just over four years ago, The New York Times’ magazine empire was getting bigger and richer, and a reward was in order. In March 2006, executive editor Bill Keller announced that his old friend Gerry Marzorati would be put on the newspaper’s masthead, a gilded spot alongside the other top editors at the newspaper. Mr. Keller said that the magazines had “flourished” under Mr. Marzorati’s leadership. What he meant, in part, was that the paper’s magazine empire — including T Magazine and others — had become a cash cow for the strained Times Company, so Mr. Marzorati, the editor who oversaw it all, was getting the perk of seeing his name in the paper every day.
And then the economy buckled. The Times‘ magazine empire got smaller, just as it did at newspapers across the country. Play, a sports magazine Mr. Marzorati started and treasured, was shuttered. T Magazine was scaled back. The size of the magazine was reduced, and some content, like “The Funny Pages,” a much-debated Marzorati concept, had to go.
And then, according to current and former staffers, the place began to devolve. The New York Times Magazine, once a plum assignment, felt like a different place to work. Morale dropped, and some big names began to leave. It became — within that shark tank that is The Times — one of the unhappier places to work at 620 Eighth Avenue.
While the economy can be blamed for affecting any magazine staff’s morale over the past few years, several Times sources said that things at the magazine grew unusually tense, for two reasons. The first, they said, was that Mr. Marzorati seemed less engaged and less ambitious, and that had an effect on the staff and the magazine itself; second, they said a personnel decision he made-the appointment of a new deputy editor-created some animus that has yet to fade.
So, one month ago, when Bill Keller announced that Mr. Marzorati would leave the magazine for a new job at the Times Company, it seemed, in many ways, an inevitable outcome.
One can argue that no editor during these times could make the magazine any better than Mr. Marzorati did. Yet one thing seems clear: The new editor of the magazine, whom Mr. Keller told The Observer should be named by late August, will have work to do.
‘This isn’t an easy topic,’ said Lynn Hirschberg. ‘It makes me sad. I don’t dislike or hate Gerry at all. I feel things went wrong somehow.’
ONE OF THE favorite parlor games in New York media is to debate whether The Times Magazine has lost its luster. It’s over! It’s dull! It’s too dry! Why was yet another abortion story on the cover? Yet they still get the goods: stories by Dexter Filkins, long investigative pieces that few other magazines still invest in, and the ProPublica joint production that won both a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
The night after the Pulitzer announcements in early April, Bill Keller met with Gerry Marzorati for drinks at Colicchio & Sons on 10th Avenue. Mr. Marzorati said he always imagined staying on at the magazine through the 2012 election. But then Mr. Keller proposed an idea.
“He said, ‘What have you got left to do here? You’ve done everything you are going to do here,’” Mr. Marzorati recalled in an interview describing the night, which eventually led to dinner with both of their wives. “And I said, I got it. There isn’t going to be any new big thing I was going to do here and seven years is a long time, and it’s like twice as long as my predecessor. It’s longer than most people have to edit a magazine, so I said, ‘Yeah, O.K., you’re right, let’s do this now.’”
The new job they were discussing was what Mr. Marzorati described as making the Great Wall between editorial and business “less rigid or more permeable.” He said he doesn’t mind if you call him a businessman now.
“We’re going to expand the local pages that we are doing in San Francisco and Chicago into Los Angeles. So should we cover Los Angeles like we’re covering San Francisco, and cover it like a local story?” he said, explaining hypothetical situations in his new job. “Or should we be making a play to cover Los Angeles in the way we cover Washington, as a company town?”
Should DealBook, the Andrew Ross Sorkin-created franchise, expand to Washington and Los Angeles?
When looking back at his tenure, Mr. Marzorati twice made the point that he served longer than his predecessor. Yet Adam Moss, the current editor of New York magazine, had a celebrated tenure at The Times Magazine and also had a markedly different style than Mr. Marzorati’s. He was hands-on and wanted to be involved with every decision. There were lots of meetings, and lots of conversations about nearly every page. Mr. Marzorati, who was Mr. Moss’ deputy, has had a different style: He likes to delegate power and puts a lot of trust and authority in his deputies and story editors.
“I think Gerry is a very democratic person,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor of T Magazine, who took over Condé Nast’s W Magazine earlier this year.
When all the magazines at The Times were doing well, staffers saw Mr. Marzorati’s approach as a blessing. But by the time budgets started to dwindle, his style was reinterpreted. “When there’s a hands-off approach, when things are going well, everyone’s happy,” said one former staffer, “and when things aren’t going well, it feels like no one cares.”
During the difficult time, some staffers said, Mr. Marzorati seemed to lose some of his energy. “I think I and others felt that Gerry was less ambitious and less engaged in those last couple years,” said a former staffer.
“I don’t even know if he changed, or the situation changed, but that enthusiasm that he had for contemporary culture and art and design and fashion and music somehow was still a part of his life, but not in his magazine,” said Mr. Tonchi.
“I think what changed at the magazine over the last three to four years was Gerry’s engagement with the magazine,” said Lynn Hirschberg, a former editor-at-large for the magazine who followed Mr. Tonchi and became an editor-at-large at W. “Part of the reason why it was so frustrating is because I respect Gerry, and Gerry changed.”
“Morale deteriorated pretty far down,” said yet another former staffer, who added that the magazine had lost the “dynamism” of the past few years.
And then several big names began to leave. Mr. Tonchi and Ms. Hirschberg both decamped to W (Mr. Tonchi was replaced by Sally Singer from Vogue, seen by many as a coup for The Times); Paul Tough, a popular story editor, took a buyout last December; Kira Pollack, a deputy photo editor, took a new job to become the director of photography at Time; and Matt Bai moved from the magazine to the newspaper.
New job opportunities are new job opportunities, but the soured environment at the magazine contributed to the departures, sources said.
Mr. Marzorati takes issue with the distracted-editor theory. “As to my energy level, I think there are people who feel I’ve been distracted by masthead stuff and by my interest in the Web and stuff like that,” he said. “But, my God, I’m sure we’ve had more National Magazine (Award) nominations than some magazine companies had, so it’s hard for me to believe that when I walk in, there’s a bunch of really unhappy people who I’m working with. I just don’t sense that, and I’m pretty sensitive to that kind of thing.”
He explained that there is a “very large and sophisticated machinery for evaluation” at The Times, and if there were any problems with his management, “I think I would have known about that.”
We asked Ms. Hirschberg why she left the magazine.
“The whole thing makes me very sad,” she said. “This isn’t an easy topic. It makes me sad. I don’t dislike or hate Gerry at all. I feel things went wrong somehow. I valued his influence and his editorial role in my life enormously and to have that erode was unfortunate for the magazine and the writers who worked for him. I loved The New York Times Magazine. I did. I think a lot of people felt that way. There’s a lot of emotion attached to this situation. You give 15 years of your life to something and you try really hard to make it great, and you felt other people tried to engage in the same way. It’s an endeavor we all felt passionately about.”
MANY TIMES SOURCES said a big factor in some of the staff’s lost enthusiasm stemmed from Mr. Marzorati’s appointment of Megan Liberman as his deputy. A former editor at Us, she edited the front-of-the-book section at The Times Magazine under Mr. Moss and eventually became a story editor under Mr. Marzorati. In 2007, Mr. Marzorati named her the Web editor, and by 2008, she became (along with Alex Star) his deputy. She also became an extremely close confidante. The two of them were often seen together, and she was a very close ally, staffers said. (Ms. Liberman did not respond to a request for comment.)
The magazine, as sources described, is a bookish place that doesn’t feel much like the newspaper. There are lots of meetings about ideas, and editors tend to do lots of listening. The story editors are people who are usually in mid-career, are pretty well established within the industry and have plenty of side projects, whether writing books or raising a family. They are secure.
Several staffers described Ms. Liberman as a different type entirely, someone who is outspoken and ambitious. While her personality could easily have thrived at any number of magazines, it cut the wrong way at The Times Magazine. Several people familiar with Ms. Liberman who spoke to The Observer said she “cuts people off” in conversation (not the culture of the place!). The word “abrasive” was used to describe her several times. She clearly is not a resoundingly popular colleague.
“You have a smart group of editors, and when you treat them like idiots, it can read as a loss in morale,” said one frustrated current staffer of Ms. Liberman.
Mr. Marzorati strongly defended his deputy. “Megan is a phenomenal, phenomenal editor,” he said. “She has done everything I have asked of her and the magazine has asked of her in an exemplary way.”
He said any problems with her can be traced to the fact that she is a woman and that there is “professional jealousy.”
“I promoted a young woman, a really smart woman and an ambitious woman, and ambitious women make people uncomfortable,” he said.
He recommended that we reach out to Mark Leibovich and Peter Baker, both Washington-based Times reporters who have been writing for the magazine for the past few years. Both gave Ms. Liberman credit for smoothing that transition.
“I’m a career newspaper writer, with long-form experience but no real magazine background until I arrived at the NYT in 2006,” said Mr. Leibovich, in an email. “Megan — more than anyone — taught me the mag craft.”
“My point is there isn’t a thing that she has done that hasn’t been extraordinary,” said Mr. Marzorati. “As for her being difficult, I don’t see it. I’m a person who is very sensitive to the office culture, and I think I’ve built and helped maintain an office culture that is incredibly friendly and horizontal and not hierarchal.
“In the end, it’s not a participatory democracy,” he said. “I’m the editor. I don’t really give a damn what people think about whether they didn’t like Megan or not. I would hope they would. I promoted her to do a job and she did extremely well.”
GERRY MARZORATI DOES not feel he was pushed out of his job. He felt that Mr. Keller was nothing but sincere.
“I don’t think he has any complaints about the magazine, and he said, ‘I could read a magazine you’re editing as long as you wanted to edit it,’” he said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, or that’s something you say to somebody when you want them to do something else, but I didn’t feel shoved out, to be honest.”
Mr. Keller said in an email that “Gerry’s edited the magazine for about seven years — and before that was Adam’s sidekick. He’ll tell you that’s longer than any other job he’s held, and quite a long tenure for a newspaper magazine. It’s a good time to push the refresh button.”
When we asked about the staff morale, Mr. Keller only wrote, sarcastically, “Of course I’m shocked, shocked to learn that any sector of the newsroom is not governed by pure, blissful harmony.”
But Mr. Marzorati is proud of his legacy at the magazine. We asked him what he thought that was, and he took a day to reflect before emailing back.
“I can look at this magazine, where I have worked since 1994, and see that, for better or for worse, a lot of it came out of my head: from front (getting D Solomon to do the Questions For) to back (extending the length of our cover stories),” he wrote in an email after considering the question of his legacy. “Finally, I am most proud of our commitment to long-form narrative journalism in general, which has been recognized by those who matter most to me, our readers, who — despite the conventional wisdom — immerse themselves in these pieces not only in print but on the Web, where they typically get a million or so page views each week.”
As for the next editor of the magazine, Bill Keller said he has asked potential candidates to write up a memo on what they’d like to do with it, and that they should get the memo to him by the end of July. “I’ve told people I’d like to have a successor by the end of August,” he said.