Six years later, as editor in chief of New York, his discomfort is still apparent -- and more welcome than ever in a business packed with over-promoters.
Instead of dragging visitors on tours of New York's crowning achievements, Mr. Moss sits in the corner of his office in the magazine's new SoHo headquarters and waits for questions. Then he answers, speaking quietly, dropping in an occasional "you know" for effect and even checking to make sure he's still on topic.
It's his combination of care for quality, thoughtfulness and unease that leads him to describe New York's triumph at last May's National Magazine Awards, where it collected five trophies, as both a "great night" and personally "mortifying."
It was wonderful, of course, because the judges gave wins to New York in profile writing (Vanessa Grigoriadis on Karl Lagerfeld); section ("Strategist"); interactive feature ("Show & Talk"); design (by Mr. Moss and then-Design Director Luke Hayman); and, for the second year in a row, general excellence in its circulation category of 250,000 to 500,000. In the time since its 1968 establishment under Clay Felker all the way until last year, New York had won just nine times -- total.
EDITOR OF THE YEAR
MAGAZINE: New York
PUBLISHER: New York Magazine HoldingsWHY HE WON: Exacted a major turnaround and made magazine more inclusive
"This magazine is almost 40 years old," Mr. Moss says, "and, you know, has never gotten the recognition in that organization that I think it deserves. And so I sort of felt, you know, it was for the whole history of the thing."
By comparison, The New Yorker has amassed 46 National Magazine Awards, making it the Yankees of consumer magazines and Editor in Chief David Remnick a version of certain Hall of Famer Joe Torre. As the Yankees' short-lived 2007 playoff run suggests, though, new powers can rise.
"I guess if brown is the new black," cracked former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker from the stage at awards night, "Adam Moss is the new David Remnick."
A minor backlash developed, with Gawker doing what Gawker does (snark attack!) and Radar Online pitching in as well. "Despite all its recent accolades," John Cook wrote for Radar, "New York is to journalism what the Eagles were to rock: a technically flawless assemblage of expertly crafted elements that look, on paper (as it were), as though they ought to translate into a superb magazine, and yet somehow still manage to suck."
Others, clearly, disagree. "Adam Moss has turned New York magazine around," says George Janson, managing partner-director of print at Mediaedge:cia, New York. "I think it's more inclusive and broadened its appeal."
Mr. Moss says he shrugged off Gawker, which is hard-wired against saying nice things, but gave Mr. Cook's critique a closer read. "He was trying to make an actual criticism of the magazine," Mr. Moss says. "Mostly, I didn't think he was right, but in a couple of places he did; he was very critical of our relationship to the money culture of the city. And that's something I think about anyway."
It's funny; that concern -- covering money in New York without getting too close -- has actually led Mr. Moss' priorities since he arrived from the Times Magazine in 2004. "There were a lot of components when I got here that I thought the magazine needed," he recalls. "I think that the sort of caricature of the magazine, which had too much truth in it, was that it was a magazine for the Upper East Side. We had to signal that the magazine was as much for people who ride the L train as for people who live on Fifth Avenue or even Second Avenue."
New York hasn't given up on readers from the high life -- a recent feature offered "a user's guide to the person you hire to bring up your kids while you work." But he made sure the magazine found new ways to include other New Yorkers, such as the eye-catching photos and mini-profiles called "Look Book," published as an actual book to extend the brand.
"That encompasses the socialite on the Upper East Side and the guy in Bushwick, you know, who's just come from Iowa to try his hand at New York," Mr. Moss says. "It also encompasses, you know, someone living in Los Angeles or Chicago or Iowa itself who has an idea of New York and an idea of cosmopolitanism in some way. And they use the magazine as a way of seeing the world or a way to enjoy the world."
Mr. Moss also built up the service and utility the magazine was providing, arguing that in a city like New York, the publication had to be useful for readers beyond shopping advice. Service came to include recommendations within Philip Roth's bibliography and which places in the city were best at certain times of the day. "We probably doubled the amount of service that we did," Mr. Moss says.
There also was the physical makeover, challenged by the aesthetic demands of New York City and the rising interest in design. By bringing over Jody Quon as photography director and Mr. Hayman as design director, Mr. Moss worked to make the magazine look more like its sophisticated subject -- and become a physical object people would want in their hands. In the constant battle against broader, coarser, quicker culture, too, Mr. Moss tried to continue the fight for literary journalism that he championed at the Times Magazine.
"A lot of it was trying on a voice level to make sure the magazine was smart," he says, "and to not accept the idea that you lose your pulse if you're smart, that a magazine that tried to be thoughtful wasn't also fun."
In at least one way, New York's business model has helped untie Mr. Moss' hands. Newsstand sales account for a tiny fraction of its paying readership (5% of New York's total circulation of 429,219 in first-half 2007), so he doesn't have to worry over titillating cover lines or "newsstand crack," like the Paris Hilton appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Instead, he's been able to assemble covers like the one showing a group of people with the text: "Everyone on this cover is living with cancer." ("It tanked," Mr. Moss says of that issue's newsstand performance.) Or there's the more recent, ghastly cover image of Bill Clinton as, quite literally, a first lady.
"Our basic relationship is with the subscriber," Mr. Moss says. "And we're trying to present an entire magazine that this subscriber can have a bond with. And that means not doing certain kinds of covers that would be more successful -- I guess -- as impulse buys. But we're not interested in that."
However, it might not hurt to be a little more interested in the newsstand "impulse" buyer. Advertisers like to see a little single-copy commitment from magazines and readers alike. "I would like to see more investment in newsstand distribution," says Mr. Janson, the Mediaedge print director. "Newsstand is an important metric in terms of consumer want and demand. Perhaps they need more sampling against younger consumers."
Recent editorial in New York has also proved more memorable than Mr. Cook's assault suggests. In addition to the powerful cancer package, New York has lately published standout work such as the Matt Drudge profile by Phil Weiss, Emily Nussbaum's "Say Everything" essay on privacy's disappearance and Jennifer Senior's report on the uneven fates of talent-driven-reality-show winners.
But after his first couple of years on the job, Mr. Moss also had to concentrate on making the magazine's website an "equal partner" to the print edition. Asked how that could happen when, presumably, ad revenue in print will exceed the web's for a long time, Mr. Moss shows the most enthusiasm yet.
"You're wrong!" he interjects. "If it keeps going at this rate, you will see the revenue of the website, I think, probably in two years exceed the revenue of the print side."
Morpheus Media, for one, regularly buys space on the magazine's website for marketers including Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Armani and The New York Times. "Our agency runs a good number of clients through the New York magazine website," says Shenan Reed, managing director of Morpheus. "It performs very well."
None of this means New York will ever leave print, emphasizes Mr. Moss, who turned 50 in May and has plenty left to do with magazines.
"Are we in the middle of a web fad, or is this a sort of permanent realignment? I couldn't tell you," he says. "But I know that if the current trends continue the way they are, the website will be at least the energy driver -- which is not to say the magazine will ever go away, but they will be very much twinned as the engines of what we call New York -- whatever that is."