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An Interview with Jake Silverstein

If I had to cite one magazine that most inspired me to go into the journalism industry, it would be The New York Times Magazine. I think I was initially drawn to the sort of brand name of The New York Times, but what really piqued my interest about the magazine in particular was that, as an extension of the newspaper but also a separate entity, it didn't really have to sell itself, which gave it a distinctive quality that enamored me.

When I visited New York this past summer (through the School of The New York Times no less), through relentless emailing, I had the chance to talk with Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein. Prior to taking over the magazine in May of 2014, Mr. Silverstein worked for The Big Bend Sentinel, a newspaper based in Marfa, Texas (and later published a partially ficticious memoir Nothing Happened and Then It Did based around the early years of his career). As an aspiring journalist living in a relatively small town, I was especially interested in getting his perspective on how small town newspapers differed from world-renowned publications.

Below we discuss how an issue comes together, what qualities a young journalist should develop, and the difference between having a lesser but direct impact as a journalist in small communities versus having a larger but more abstract influence working for a company as prestigious as the New York Times.

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First of all, I was wondering if you could describe the process of putting together an issue?

It's like a form of organized chaos really. There's not a straightforward routine that we use every time. Obviously, an individual story goes through the same sets of steps [every time]. It's edited, it gets sent to the photo department, or the art department to figure out what the visuals will be. It gets copy edited. It gets fact checked. It all gets put together, and then re-edited to make sure it's smooth and perfect and seamless. And then it's read a few more times after that. So that's just a standardized sequence that every single piece that's in the magazine-- no matter how large or small --goes through.

But as far as how all of those pieces come together into a given issue... it's not the case that we design issues really far in advance. We make assignments for stories in some cases very far in advance, and in some cases the very shortest would be 6-8 weeks in advance. And then we have this very big inventory of stories. And the inventory has some stories that are like ready to go, and some stories that are not quite ready to go, and some stories that are really not ready to go. They're all at varying levels of readiness. The fundamental fact of a weekly magazine is that you're just burning through you inventory all the time. It's very different from a monthly magazine in that way. And as we chug through the year, we're just kind of constantly grabbing what's ready in the inventory.

Usually it starts with what the cover story of the issue is, because obviously there are fewer of those than other kinds of stories, and an important part of the issue is what's going to be on the cover. So you kind of work outward from that. You don't want three or four politics stories in an issue. You want to have a nice balance. Often one big story that has to be in the issue, either because it's a cover story or because it profiled somebody that's pegged to like an album coming out or whatever, will start the process. And then we figure out what would pair well with that.

It's funny though because the thinking that goes into putting together an issue and figuring out what stories will be part of it is all very much about what makes a good print magazine, because, in print, they're all clustered together and turned into this package. Online, they just scatter completely. The same sort of thinking wouldn't really apply if we weren't focused on a print magazine. But we do still think about what's the right mix for the print magazine. That determines what goes out on a particular week.

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What draws you to the print magazine medium?

We're an interesting magazine because we're a part of a newspaper, and that's what makes us different from our peers at The New Yorker or Vanity Fair or any other big magazines. We're the only one that's part of a newspaper. It makes us different in a whole bunch of ways, one of which is that we're not on the newsstand, which is a huge, huge freedom that we try to take advantage of by running covers that aren't really commercial in nature, but might be creatively really interesting or visually very powerful.

But it also means that we're within an organization, The New York Times, that is rapidly transforming itself into a digital organization, as they should. For them, shedding the print product and really focusing entirely on the digital product makes a lot of sense because newsprint is purely a delivery mechanism. People have nostalgic attachment to it, but that's just because it's what used to exist. It's not because it's better than, like, a phone. If you want to get the latest Donald Trump story from The New York Times it's better to get it on your phone. There's no way around that.

But I don't know if that's true for magazines, because a magazine isn't just a single story, like we were talking about earlier. It's a package of stories. It's like, smaller ones in the front, and then you build to the big stuff. It's like a meal. It's designed in a certain way. The material product itself is special. It's on glossy paper, the photographs are reproduced very nicely. And if the magazine is big enough, it's perfect bound and it doesn't even have staples. It feels really, really lasting in a way that a newspaper never does. So, the value of a print magazine is a little different from the value of a print newspaper and it's not as easily surpassed by the value of a digital version of it. It's harder to throw aside the print magazine and embrace the digital future.

That said, obviously we are equally about our digital presentation as we are our print presentation. But we're a rare department in this building that still focuses very hard on print. The rest of The New York Times, it's a badge of honor if you don't really pay attention to print. I'm kind of exaggerating, but it's encouraged to put your emphasis on your digital product, and the print product is what they call downstream from digital. Here, we can't quite do that because the magazine has a certain special value in print that I think is likely to be there for some time.

All of that said, your question was what attracts me to the print product. I mean, I think it's some of the stuff I was just saying. It's that as a reader, when you're reading a package of stories in the print magazine, you get a real sense of who the editors are and what their sensibility is, how they pair things together, and how they think about how a reading experience might go out of casual small stuff in the front to bigger stuff in the middle. And when you just read an individual piece in a sea of content online, you don't have the same experience. You don't feel like somebody's created an experience. I often say that a good magazine experience is somewhat theatrical. It's like you're sitting down in a theater, and somebody is putting on a show for you. First they come out and they do a little small thing for you to get you comfortable, and then they like bring you the main attraction. That appeals to me as a reading experience, and it appeals to me as a type of product to create as well.

It's something that's fun to create, to think about the mix and to think about what balances well. Not just in editorial terms but in terms of art as well. We constantly talk about things, like if two of our stories in a given issue have two portraits of people on the beginning pages, we definitely need to have a third story that's got an illustration or that has an environmental shot of a landscape. Creating a package every week that's rounded, and varied, and feels complicated and complex is part of the fun of working in print media.

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You've experienced both extremes of the publication world. What are the good and bad sides to both?

The Sentinel is a small town newspaper that serves about 2400 people, at least at the time that I was working there. It had a really small newspaper staff. I was one of two reporters and then there was an editor basically. Because of that, we wrote all the stories ourselves. I would probably write five stories a week, and sometimes more. So that in and of itself was kind of interesting, just because there were not beats. You just did everything.

And also, it's not that the stakes were low. Obviously, in some ways, the stakes could not possibly be higher, because this was the news source for this town. But on the other hand, because of the size of the staff, there was no working your way slowly up before you got a break to cover the city council meeting. You were just thrown in the deep end every single week. It was always learn this, learn that. Learn about border patrol. Go down to Mexico and do a story about crime, immigration, what have you. There was just huge opportunity for a young journalist to learn about so many different aspects of, in this case, small town Texas life. I was 24 when I went there.

But I think what has stayed with me the most from that experience isn't so much the fast learning curve or the ability to write a lot of stories, but the relationship with the newspaper to the community it was a part of. You don't have the sense, when you're participating in producing The New York Times, that you're creating a paper that's for the people around you. I mean, it is, sort of. But it's such a crazy, huge, diverse town that it's not the same. And that's true for pretty much any place. Whereas, with the small town paper, you write something, and you're likely to see the person you wrote about at the post office the next day. For a journalist, that's a valuable lesson. Too often I think we imagine we write stories and publish them, and it's not that the subjects of the stories aren't real to us, but they're somehow far removed from our lives.

So starting out my career in Marfa and literally writing stories sometimes about touchy material, like, there was a drunk driving accident and some people got killed. You write that story up, and then the uncle of the person that was driving that car and was drunk is in front of you at the checkout line. Did you tell the story right? You better hope so, if you're standing next to the guy's uncle. And that was a really good lesson. Not just about sensitivity, but how important the newspaper or any type of media can be in a small community, or a large community, but you really see it at the level of a small community. You know how important it is for people to get information from that paper. It came out every Thursday, and people spent time on Thursday reading it. They would often come in to the newspaper office, buy the paper for fifty cents, and just stand around reading the paper. I think it's different now because there's more of a web presence than there was back then for the paper. But back then it was really like a moment for the week, everyone standing around reading the paper, and they'd be like 'ok, got the news!' That's something that really stayed with me.

And if you fast forward to here, obviously The New York Times is a completely different type of operation. The size of the platform is thrilling and exciting. You get to do a tremendous amount of stuff and the resources are off the charts. I think of this as the greatest job in journalism. There's no but in that sentence. It's not like I'm going to say "but I missed seeing my subjects in the checkout line." That's actually not the case. But I think that it is valuable to have that experience, and it does sort of inform, in some ways, the way I work here.

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What do you think is the most vital skill for a young journalist to develop?

Having a sort of combination of natural curiosity (which I imagine that anyone who at some point decides they want to be a journalist has), tenacity (like you're going to get the door slammed in your face but you're going to keep knocking anyway), and then also having an innate ability to know when you're being lied to. Or when you're being told 85% of the truth. Something like that. Because it's not that people are always going to lie to you, but people are always going to shade the truth when they're speaking to you.

I think one of the things that journalists who are really good at their jobs have is just this ability to be non confrontational with subjects, but deeply skeptical at the same time. Because if you're just an asshole, and you just go around accusing people of lying all the time, they're never going to talk to you. And obviously building trust with sources and subjects is a huge part of how you get good stories and good quotes and great moments and scenes and all of that stuff. But if you're too cozy with those people, then either you're willingly deciding to not press them for the truth, or you're just kind of a fool and you don't realize that they're soft pedaling stuff. So having the ability to both win people's trust but also maintain a level of necessary skepticism about what they're telling you, and push them further, and being able to combine that with a tenacious streak and an innate curiosity about the world, I think that's the magic combination.

Obviously, there's a huge number of technical skills that are necessary now and like personal brand building, but I tend to think that's secondary to the core qualities of being a good journalist. A really good journalist is somebody that has sort of a preternatural ability to not care so much about how a story turns out. They just care about getting it right. So if your own personal politics are liberal in nature, but a particular story leads you down a path and you realize the liberals in this particular story are wrong and the conservatives are right, you don't care. Because what you care about is getting it right. Having that natural instinct to subordinate your personal beliefs in the service of figuring out exactly what happened. It's not right to say that you don't care, but the part of you that cares is not involved in the making of the journalism. That's a particular talent, and it's a particular talent that's in short supply now because there's so much advocacy journalism, and a lot of journalism that doesn't even call itself that because advocacy journalism is journalism. That neutrality that's not a soft neutrality of "this side says this but this side says this and I don't know," but goes hard at the truth no matter what, that's really important.

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