Novelist and T editor Hanya Yanagihara on the 'slap-you-in-the-face' power of magazines

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A peripatetic childhood, a love of old fashioned magazines and a self-described "zany" sensibility have converged in Hanya Yanagihara to make her a uniquely unique candidate to edit the New York Times' T Magazine. For almost exactly a year now, she has been molding the lifestyle and culture magazine in her image—"urgent" and "joyful" are her watchwords. A recent refresh brought in a new logo and typeface, but the full bleed art, smart cultural journalism and, yes, the ads—so many ads—are still going strong.

Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara Credit: Hanya Yanagihara

"Different editors have interpreted what T is in different ways," Yanagihara says in this episode of the Ad Lib podcast. "I think of mine as more of a general interest, culture and art magazine that's masquerading as a fashion magazine."

Yanagihara, who is perhaps more familiar to readers as the author of the critically acclaimed 2015 bildungsroman "A Little Life," has what she jokes is a "checkered past" in magazines: She's had gigs at a smorgasbord of titles, including Brill's Content, Radar, POZ (a magazine that chronicles the lives of people affected by HIV/AIDS), Vibe, W, Condé Nast Traveler, Departures and more. As the editor of T, she says she draws on experiences from everywhere she's worked before.

"For every child who's growing up in a small town, magazines really were the portal to something bigger. I remember getting the Village Voice and getting Colors magazine when I was a teenager in Hawaii. Especially when you live in a provincial town, magazines really were a way of reminding yourself there's a bigger world out there," she says. "The power of finding a good image—of having it slap you across the face, of having a story find you—I think are what magazines still do in whatever form they exist."

To that end T, which comes out 11 times a year to Times subscribers, is flexing its digital muscles with more and more content produced explicitly for Instagram, for example. Its big, beautiful ads for luxury fare help bankroll much of the hard (and less remunerative) journalism the rest of the paper produces. But her writers are under just as stringent guidelines as White House correspondents or Baghdad bureau chiefs.

"The standards that apply to the journalists on the national desk apply to us too," she says. "What drives me crazy is because this is a book about style and design, there are certain writers—who don't write for us any more because I banned them—who think that they can just phone it in. You should be reporting a story about this architect or this house or this flower arrangement like you would be reporting on any hard news story."

The March 25 issue of T Magazine had 91 ad pages and brought in $10.5 million ad dollars, according to Kantar Media. Those numbers fluxuate from issue to issue—they're flat for the year-over-year for this March issue but down from 101 pages of ads and $11.6 million in ad dollars from the same month in 2015. (Caveat: Dollars reflect the magazine's rate card and do not include discounts.)

Yanagihara discusses all of this, her tenure as T Magazine's editor one year in, the relative challenges of fiction writing versus non-fiction editing, where the lush magazine fits in the broader New York Times ecosystem, and why—in an era when the Times is doubling down on digital—she herself doesn't tweet and has never been on Facebook. Give it a listen.

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