Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


A Hip, Phat and Cool Extra-Residential Activities Guide

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Last week's regime change at New York magazine was a quiet reminder of the six factors that propelled the shift at the venerable city weekly: a natural generational transition; the trend away from mid-20th century media formats; the resurgence of the once-sleepy New Yorker; the nationalization of The New York Times; the fading importance of the city's alternative press -- and, most fundamentally, the rise of Time Out New York.

Derided at its start
Derided at its 1995 launch as an inessential import from the clueless U.K., Time Out New York has established itself not only as the city's foremost guide to extra-residential activities, it's become the rising demos' radar of all things hip, phat and cool. Paradoxically, perhaps, this bible of the 20s is overseen by a radiant woman just two years shy of 50, Cyndi Stivers, who credits the magazine's success to her fundamental conviction that she doesn't know what she doesn't know.

"If you're trying to get a demo that's younger than you by half, it'd be the stupidest thing in the world to second-guess your staff," Ms. Stivers said.

We were strolling the former ballroom in the original McGraw-Hill building on 10th Avenue in Manhattan into which Ms. Stivers had just moved her staff of 120. Some of them she'd collected from the various editorial stations at which she had stopped (the New York Post, Daily News Tonight, Soho News, Us, Eastside Express and Premiere) before arriving at Time Out New York. But most were young enough to be her progeny. She was just weeks away from the launch of a magazine designed for their offspring, Time Out Kids. As she mulled an e-mail from Robin Leach ("Where's the hippest ultra-lounge bar?"), she reflected on the lessons of leading young creatives in a city that is forever young and creative.

'You own it'
"The only way to make listings interesting is to get people who are incredibly obsessed and passionate and knowledgeable about their areas," Ms. Stivers said. "What we could offer is to say to someone, 'This is your area. You own it. We won't second guess you.' It's a horrible word, but it's empowering."

"Empowerment" is not a word heard often in journalism, which tends rather to celebrate managerial divas and dictators. But that's not the only paradox embodied by Ms. Stivers. In charge of a periodical devoted to the city's newest, she can trace her New York lineage back some 10 generations, to the family of Peter Stuyvesant. Her career history might lead one to assume that she'd by ornery and independent; spurned by the Columbia Spectator, her college daily, which she recalls as inhospitable to women, she found her way to the newly Murdoch-ized New York Post, where, as one of the few copygirls who could type, she managed to turn herself into a reporter.

Managing young people
But Ms. Stivers credits three former bosses -- Anthea Disney, Susan Lyne and Clay Felker, renowned editors all -- with teaching her both the business of magazines and the human side of managing young, creative people.

"From the beginning, I told the kids who were joining us, 'If we do this right, this will be your showcase.' " Time Out New York has indeed launched several careers, including those of Elle Girl Editor in Chief Brandon Holley and humorist Joel Stein. "Nobody thought we would make it," she said, reflecting on the first nine years, "but everybody here felt we were on a mission."

Everyone's a critic
Listings, a mission? That, too, is core to understanding Time Out New York's accomplishments. Consider it a spin on Andy Warhol's tired old saw that in the future, we'll all be famous for 15 minutes. As it's turned out, the major cultural aspiration is to be a critic for 15 minutes. The grand "I" now explicitly permeates the arts and letters: The most fashionable literary format is no longer the novel but the memoir; the newly opened Whitney Biennial continues to drench us with social criticism with only the thinnest veneer of vision or craftsmanship. Thus, journalistic fame no longer comes from breaking a story; it comes from breaking an opinion. For an editor, that means adopting managerially what our moms told us way back when: Everyone's entitled to their opinion.

"It's all about consensus-building," Ms. Stivers said. "Everybody takes responsibility and pride."

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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