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Editor of the year: A sure-handed, calm leadership

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There is an unspoken truism in New York media circles-and if there isn't, there should be-that no article about a high-profile magazine's search for a top editor is complete without automatically shortlisting Adam Moss.

That Mr. Moss was not contacted by Fairchild Publications to helm the relaunched Details last year was enough to warrant a mention in the New York Post's media-obsessed business pages.

But to hear Mr. Moss tell it, such entreaties will fall on deaf ears.

`THE BEST JOB'

"I have the best job in magazine journalism," says the editor of The New York Times Magazine, resplendent in his cozy office, an island of something approaching sanity in the Times' notoriously dingy West 43rd Street headquarters. "The best job in journalism right now."

Mr. Moss is more than living up to it. A little more than two years after the magazine became his, it's quietly become one of the best reads in the business.

Mr. Moss smartly and subtly remade the title, from its photography to front of the book, all the while navigating the Times' internal culture. Under his watch, it's become a showcase for thoughtful, long-form journalism, taking full advantage of the yawn and stretch of Sunday and its lengthened attention span. Like few other magazines, it thrives a few steps to the side of a celeb-saturated culture and a few steps beyond typical political polarities.

"They have an interest in exploding myths, in a way that is truthful but fun to read about," says Matt Klam, the acclaimed fiction writer who's written for the Times Magazine since 1998. Mr. Moss "has a very subtle cynicism-a genuine affection for his fellow man, but he thinks some things are bullshit and he wants to let people in on that."

Significant articles in the myth-exploding mode last year included one written by Lisa Belkin, a Times columnist, on willfully childless adults-a subculture with a partly founded keen sense of persecution, in which kids are sometimes called "sprogs." And Margaret Talbot wrote a remarkably even-handed piece about fundamentalist Christians as a counterculture movement.

POWERFUL ECSTASY PIECE

Mr. Klam's contribution to that canon came this year in a lengthy piece on club drug ecstasy. In it he credited his early experiences with the drug with a sort of major personal awakening. But it concluded with the image of an ecstasy user-stoned, alone and not coming down fast enough at 5 a.m.-who's so starved for connection he tries, and fails, to hug his terrified pet cockatiel.

Such hot-button pieces fill the Times Magazine's mailboxes. But perhaps the best measure of the magazine is its stunning string of narrative cover stories-Michael Finkel's jaw-dropping account of barely escaping catastrophe after traveling in the bowels of a ship crowded with Haitians desperate to reach the U.S.; Jack Hitt's made-for-the-movies tale illustrating how the new global economy has led to an increase in old-fashioned piracy; in-house scab-prodder Andrew Sullivan's meditation on testosterone-that one simply can't imagine elsewhere.

"In the context of what [the Magazine] has been for the last 30 years, it's like night and day," says David Schneiderman, CEO of Village Voice Media, who worked with Mr. Moss to launch 7 Days. "It's far better than it's ever been."

"What I'm trying to do is reclaim literary journalism, this form that I loved as a kid growing up," says Mr. Moss. "I want to make the case that magazines still matter."

But Mr. Moss is not just another magazine editor obsessed with the glory days of journalism. He managed to find a place to conjure up glory days of his own. Mr. Moss readily-and correctly-admits his ambitious aims at times exceed his grasp, but he's on-target more often than not to make him Advertising Age's Editor of the Year.

RISING STAR

A boyish 43, Mr. Moss still looks the wunderkind he's been called his whole publishing career. But his beginning in the business was somewhat inauspicious. Following a college internship at the Village Voice, he took a job as a copy boy for the Times in 1979. "I hated The New York Times. I hated the whole idea of the place," says Mr. Moss, whose alma mater Oberlin College skews more Village Voice-if not Workers Vanguard-than the Times. "And, as you know, a copy boy's life is a life of slavery."

Later that year, he landed at an ill-fated Wenner Media launch called College Papers-an early cover featured a smirky Chevy Chase, headphones on, smoking a joint while resting his head on a coed's brassiere and stomach. But in '80 Mr. Moss went to Esquire, where he rose to deputy editor-and got tagged as a rising star.

"He's really one of the smartest editors I've ever worked with," says Betsy Carter, editor in chief of My Generation and editorial director of Esquire during Mr. Moss' tenure. Even early in his career, Ms. Carter continues, Mr. Moss had "a keen instinct for what was a story and what needed to be done-the kind of stuff you can't teach people."

The rest is familiar to media watchers. In '88, Mr. Moss launched 7 Days, the highly regarded, but short-lived sibling to the Village Voice. An abortive early '90s ur-media start-up called The Industry was bankrolled in part by heavy hitters like Hachette Filipacchi Magazines CEO Jack Kliger and Meigher Communications founder and CEO Chris Meigher, presaging the likes of Inside.com and Brill's Content.

Then a stint, as a consultant, assisting with The New York Times redesign. Then Jack Rosenthal, the Times former editorial page editor, moved over to the magazine and brought with him substantial in-house clout to the once-neglected weekly. Soon, Mr. Moss was Mr. Rosenthal's No. 2. Realizing his first reaction to the Times was too hasty, Mr. Moss stayed. Despite the myriad mentions on shortlists and wish lists, he's remained there ever since.

UNUSUAL PLACE

Mr. Moss' Times Magazine occupies an unusual place in the media world. Being a weekend read allows it a less frenetic pace and tone than other weeklies. And it has what Mr. Moss calls a "protected financial status" since it doesn't compete on newsstands. Its 1.7 million copies circulate to readers that advertisers salivate over.

A general-interest magazine "is a hard thing to make work economically if you're a standalone" on newsstands, he says, "which The New Yorker"-a favorite of his-"has learned all these years and is still learning." Mr. Moss says the Times Magazine was "phenomenally profitable" but did not elaborate.

Jyll Holzman, senior VP-advertising at the Times, says in 2000 the magazine ran more ad pages than it ever had since 1989.

All of which makes the magazine a comfortable home for an editor like Mr. Moss.

"I'm not particularly comfortable as a public person," he says. In the industry "the job of being an editor has increasingly become something like a host, and kind of a hustler. I respect those people who did it well, but I'm not good at it." (This, though, is the same guy who got big-name magazine executives to part with about $4 million for a consumer magazine covering media.)

Mr. Moss would rather talk about the Times Magazine-the canvas and audience given to him and his team each week.

"If you're a journalist, an editor, trying to do something you hope matters a little bit, it is a gift," Mr. Moss says, leaning forward and all but whispering in reverence.

He speaks so quietly it's hard to hear him. Outside his office, rush hour had begun. Even with windows closed, the noise of midtown Manhattan-the bustle and grinding gears of the coarse, implacable world outside-intrudes into Mr. Moss' lair.

But in so many other ways, Mr. Moss has found a safe harbor in the heart of the world's busiest media landscape.

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