“Barbecue?” Jake Silverstein asks playfully, as he leans back in his chair inside his glass-walled office.
The 14th or so word out of his mouth, after pleasantries and a welcoming, familiar smile, is oddly pertinent. In the northeast, where we are presently, barbecue used to mean frozen hamburgers on a cheap charcoal grill. Not anymore, and partial credit goes to Silverstein. Barbecue is now familiar. It is wholly American. It’s fad-proof cuisine, the opposite of fondue or cronuts.
Do I want to ask him, a newly minted captain of New York’s media elite, from his perch on the sixth floor of the most famous newspaper and magazine building in the world, about barbecue? It hadn’t occurred to me, but yes. Yes I do.
Silverstein, MFA ’06, took over as the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine in May 2014 after nearly six years at the helm of Texas Monthly, and his legacy at that hallowed institution is already defined—beyond a profound emphasis on longform journalism—by a predilection for the ever-growing culture of slow-cooked meats.
The Texas Monthly Barbecue Issue, a quinquennial “who ’cued it better?” bible, took a turn for the wistful in 2008, when Silverstein was still a senior editor at the magazine. Under his direction, Silverstein had the idea to have non-food writers like Robert Draper and Roy Blount Jr. pen odes to their favorite comestibles. The result, seen through lines like “A rescue mission/of smoked pig and Budweiser,” from Tony Hoagland’s “Ode to Ribs,” melds the lowbrow with the high, a then-new concept in the world of barbecue.
“We felt that barbecue was more than just a food, it was a culture, a passion, and for many a way of life,” Silverstein says. “This wound up being the beginning of a rather insane but entirely earnest plunge into serious barbecue journalism at Texas Monthly.”
Two years later saw the inaugural TMBBQ Fest, followed by a TMBBQ mobile app, and finally tmbbq.com. After he was named editor of the magazine in 2009, Silverstein hired the first and only barbecue editor in the world in 2013, Daniel Vaughn, as part of an effort to do what Texas Monthly director of editorial operations and Silverstein’s former right-hand woman Stacy Hollister refers to as “blow out barbecue.”
“I think the pitmasters who do the work are deserving of celebration and attention,” Silverstein says. “And I’ll be honest: I got a kick out of creating something with all those new media bells and whistles that was based around people eating meat with their hands.”
But barbecue is one thing. All respect given to Texas Monthly (full disclosure, I used to work there), a highly regarded publication not just in the Republic but across the nation, his new task is much more arduous, though you wouldn’t know it from Silverstein’s perpetually calm demeanor. If you’re to believe alarmist New York media reporting, the 118-year-old New York Times Magazine was stale, losing money, and in need of saving. The man they’ve picked to rescue this quintessential New York journalistic institution is a Californian who made his bones in Texas, and February 22 is the most important day of his career.
Silverstein takes a call inside his new glass-walled office.
The May issue of Capital magazine profiled Silverstein just after his hiring at the Times Magazine. The headline read “New Blood: Can a Texas Transplant Make the Times Magazine Matter Again?” A bit of hyperbole, sure, but the Times Magazine is one of the oldest and most widely read magazines in the world. The sense among media reporters like Joe Pompeo, the author of that story, was that the New York Times Company had knocked the Times Magazine down a few notches on its list of priorities. Ad revenue was down. There hadn’t been a full-time editor since Hugo Lindgren left under murky circumstances at the end of 2013. (Lindgren declined to comment for this story.) And with the Times’ other offshoot, the glossier, sexier, luxury book T, bursting at the seams with ad pages, the esoteric Times Magazine had seen better days.
“I would not say that it's my job to save this magazine," Silverstein says. "I would say it's my job to breathe new life into it and rouse the people who are here to a new effort.”
That’s where Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, stops me in my tracks.
“I wouldn’t say ‘saving.’ It is already one of the best-read things in the Sunday paper,” he says. “This isn’t some vanity publication. I just thought it was time for somebody to come in and look at it completely differently.”
Perhaps the idea of saving a magazine—even one as tightly woven into the cultural zeitgeist of as this one—is melodramatic. Still, Silverstein’s outsider status afforded him one advantage: He had a different perspective than a Times lifer.
“I do think the magazine needed to be rejuvenated,” Baquet says, “and I do think the magazine’s relationship with the paper needed to be rethought.”
Plainly stated, media people inherently know when they are reading a magazine feature or a newspaper feature. But most people are not media members, and that has led to some brand confusion.
“I would not say that it’s my job to save this magazine,” Silverstein says. “I would say that it’s my job to breathe new life into it and rouse the people who are here to a new effort.”
That new life took shape in the form of a memo Silverstein wrote, according to him, in his first month on the job. It detailed a top-to-bottom redesign for print and the web. The Times doubled down, making a multimillion dollar investment in his vision, and in naming its first-ever publisher, longtime Times staffer Andy Wright, and pairing him with Silverstein. The two are working to change the public’s perception of the magazine.
“There’s no better way to communicate the [magazine’s] vision than to have the editor go out and do that [himself],” Wright says in his office on the other side of the building, a symbolic bifurcation of the editorial and business sides. “He’s terrific at that.”
Partitioned though they are by an elevator bank, the two nonetheless have been inseparable since Wright’s magazine tenure began in July. Together they’ve made 13 overnight trips in the last seven months, pitching the redesigned, Silverstein-led magazine to ad executives. They jokingly dubbed themselves Bonnie and Clyde in Dallas and Crockett and Tubbs in Miami.
“He’s a smart, modern editor who understands that in order for him to be successful, the business and the company have to be successful,” Wright says. “And that doesn’t mean in any way that he crosses lines.”
Baquet, who led the search for the next Times editor, needed someone who wouldn’t be afraid to step up, in his words, “the whole package.”
That description is a mere drop in the bucket of Silverstein love that his peers have given me. Looking for some variety, I convince texasmonthly.com editor Andrea Valdez, BA ’05, to say something off-color about the venerated editor. Valdez laughs and searches for an insult.
“Not as funny as he thinks he is! No,“ she backtracks. “I guess it’s relative. Not as funny as I am.“
He also excels at both the micro and the macro in a way that many people can’t, due to either genetic wiring or an inherent need for sleep. When I’m with Silverstein, he whisks me around the magazine’s floor. He’s been in high-level meetings on both the editorial and sales sides. He’s busy formulating a plan for the February 22 relaunch of the magazine. But, as it has thousands of times before, the Sunday Times will carry a copy of the Times Magazine this week, so the micro creeps in. This one, the Great Performer’s issue, will feature lush photography in print and cinematic videos online, all based around a theme: famous strangers kissing. Reese Witherspoon and Benedict Cumberbatch are on the cover.
Silverstein inspects several opening pages. He looks intently.
“Does this totally work ... the addition metaphor?” he asks Gail Bichler, the magazine’s design director, of a title treatment. His brow furrows, before giving way to a grin. “I like it, I just had to go through it one more time.”
Silverstein peruses the table of contents and ask where an image came from. These are small details, but small details are important to Silverstein. He’s satisfied with the issue, especially the concept they cooked up.
“Who doesn’t love kissing?” he says with a laugh. “I mean … literally everybody loves kissing.”
Bichler and the other art folks in earshot are now grinning. They’ve done a good thing.
“It’s like pizza,” I quip.
“Kissing is like pizza,” Silverstein says. “It’s like pizza or balloons. Pizza, balloons, and kissing. Next year we’ll do a whole issue on pizza. Or balloons.”
Now the entire cube farm is smiling, trying not to bust out laughing in front of their boss. He’s charming and funny. He’s undoubtedly in control.
It’s a trait not necessarily learned during his time at Texas Monthly, but certainly honed there: the ability to be the authoritarian who cares, the foreman at the dig site who also wields the first shovel.
Stephen Harrigan, BA ’70, remembers a story on kolaches he wrote for the March 2012 issue. The longtime Texas Monthly writer-at-large felt stuck writing about the delicious Czech pastry, so he trudged over to Silverstein’s office with a far-fetched plan.
“What would really make this story work is if I went to the Czech Republic,” Harrigan says he told Silverstein, expecting a rebuttal. Heck, he could get an authentic kolache 120 miles up I-35 in West if he was desperate.
“Instead,” Harrigan says, “[Jake’s] eyes lit up.” Before he knew it, Harrigan was headed to Central Europe to finish his treatise on kolaches and his own Czech heritage.
“He had the ability to see the deeper, more meaningful story that I was trying to get to,” Harrigan says. “He never shrank from the fullest expression of any particular piece that he could get. Writers revere that.”
Executive editor Pamela Colloff had the same nurturing experience while writing “The Innocent Man,” the epic story of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. As her story ballooned to almost 16,000 words—vying for serious print real estate at that point—she panicked.
“He said, ‘Just keep going, just keep writing,’” Colloff remembers. “That’s not what you typically hear from an editor after the 16,000-word mark. He was not hemming me in, or urging, ‘You’ve got to finish this story.’”
Silverstein also made the unorthodox decision to split the story into two parts over consecutive issues, as it landed at a novella-esque 27,000 words when the dust settled.
“The Innocent Man” was universally praised as it unfolded in the November and December 2012 issues of Texas Monthly. Six months later, Silverstein gripped a copper elephant onstage at the New York Marriott Marquis awarded to Colloff for the piece. The Ellie, the National Magazine Award she won in the prestigious Feature Writing category, would be Silverstein and the magazine’s second of the ceremony.
He had arrived. The national magazine of Texas had a nationally recognized editor-in-chief.
A general timeline of the circuitous path of Jake Silverstein
1975 - 93
Oakland, California | Born and raised
1993 - 98
Middletown, CT | BA in English from Wesleyan University
1998 - 99
New York, NY | Intern at Harper's Magazine
1999 - 2001
Marfa, TX | Journalist at Big Bend Sentinel
New Orleans, LA | Works carpentry and service industry jobs
2001 - 02
Roanoake, VA | MA in English from Hollins University
2002 - 03
Zacatecas, Mexico | Fulbright Scholar
2003 - 14
Austin, TX | MFA from UT's Michener Center for Writers; becomes senior editor at Texas Monthly, then editor-in-chief
New York, NY | Becomes editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine
Though Silverstein is now seen as a capital-m Magazine Man, he took a circuitous route. The difference between the prodigious wunderkind—he’ll turn 40 this year—and most people who take the long way is vast: Silverstein was good at everything he did along the way.
He grew up in Oakland, California, raised by a psychoanalyst mother and architect father. He studied English at Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut, where he cultivated an adoration for narrative fiction that never left. After graduation, he was an intern at Harper’s Magazine in 1998, where then-editor Lewis Lapham tried to hire him full-time as a fact checker. The nomadic lifestyle was more appealing, so he packed up and set out West on a road trip.
Robert Halpern, the publisher and editor of Marfa’s weekly newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel, had just been up in New York City for a wedding when he ran into some colleagues from Harper’s. Had he heard of Silverstein?
“Our little paper in West Texas got put on Harper’s map through this event,” Halpern says. He had an open reporter position, so he took a chance on Silverstein. From that first day, he clicked.
“He fit right in,” Halpern says. “There was no pretentiousness.”
Though Silverstein’s only journalism job was a brief stint in New York, he assimilated quickly to small-town life and treated his job with the utmost seriousness, interviewing local sources for a story one day and sweeping up the office after deadline on another. One trait that stuck with Halpern more than 15 years later was Silverstein’s sensitivity and his attention to detail.
“He could see the big picture and write a big-picture-issues story through something a little bit more approachable, told through a local person,” Halpern says. “Jake always wrote from the point of view of rank-and-file people, you know, Juan and Juana Six-Pack.” Silverstein still owns a fixer-upper adobe in Marfa.
It would seem Silverstein’s journalistic career was on a usual trajectory: He’d be a reporter, then an editor, and on upward until he was running a newspaper or magazine. But he still questioned himself. Should he be writing fiction? Could he even hack it full-time as a writer? He packed up, “as many men before me had,” he says, and moved to New Orleans in pursuit of meeting women and making more money.
“A lot of media organizations are forced to cut back on quality and to focus on quantity—the fire hose as opposed to the water glass.”
That set him on another labyrinthine path. After a stint in carpentry and the service industry in New Orleans, he was an English master’s student at Hollins University in Virginia and a Fulbright Scholar in Zacatecas, Mexico.
“There was a reason I was only living in a place for at most two years at a time,” Silverstein says. “I was definitely looking for something, and I didn’t quite know what it was or where to find it.”
And then, a major moment of validation: His first piece of magazine writing, a story about searching for the vanished author Ambrose Bierce in Marfa, was published in the February 2002 issue of Harper’s.
As soon as his journalistic career picked back up, he was accepted into UT’s prestigious MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers.
“He’d done these phenomenal nonfiction pieces for Harper’s,” James Magnuson, director of the fellowship, says, “and he wanted to write fiction. That was a very brave thing to do: a young journalist who’s making it taking three years to do something he always wanted to do.”
During his time at the Michener Center, Silverstein worked on his novel/memoir Nothing Happened and Then It Did. Throughout the eight essays that comprise the book, a small-town newspaperman is constantly foiled by reporters from the New Yorker. His book blurs the line between fact and fiction, but this bumbling protagonist is rooted in his experiences. He had left the nonfiction world multiple times, but he clearly still felt a pull to journalism. Shortly after UT, he became a senior editor at Texas Monthly. By the time the book was published, in 2010, Evan Smith had chosen Silverstein to succeed him as editor-in-chief.
“I never intended to become a magazine editor,” Silverstein says, of that time. “I intended to become a writer.” Silverstein is remarkably successful as a magazine editor, because, as Magnuson says, he has an uncanny sense of what doesn’t work in a piece of writing. As talented as he is at writing fiction—and Silverstein acknowledges that another book or books could be on the horizon—the dream he never considered is his reality.
For now, Silverstein lives in the world of his book’s antagonist, the powerful media elite, though a glimpse at his life reveals a more meat-and-potatoes existence than caviar and champagne. His family of four—he and his wife, Mary, married in 2004, and they have two sons, Leo, 8, and Joe, 5—rents a modest home in Montclair, New Jersey, a medium-sized suburb where numerous New York media members reside. He rides the NJ Transit bus 45 minutes to the Port Authority every day.
“I enjoy the experience of being a blood vessel,” Silverstein says, “in a giant network of veins.”
Silverstein’s phone rang in November 2013 with a curious proposition. Would he like to be considered for the open editor position at the Times Magazine? Of course, but as soon as he hung up the phone, he thought, “Ha! That’s never going to happen, but what a nice phone call to get.”
He spent months as a “dark horse” candidate before things started heating up when then-executive editor Jill Abramson met with Silverstein in Austin during SXSW in March 2014. Later, Silverstein made a discreet, one-day trip to New York for a final meeting with Baquet and deputy executive editors Matthew Purdy, Susan Chira, and Janet Elder. Going incognito was difficult, however, because of the VIPs on his flight, Governor Rick Perry and his wife, Anita.
“I felt a little like I was betraying the whole state of Texas that I was coming up here for this meeting with the The New York Times when I had a job already at Texas Monthly,” Silverstein says. Even so, he still didn’t have the new gig in the bag, so he used the opportunity to press the outgoing governor for an exit interview, which ended up being the July 2014 Texas Monthly cover story.
Perry inquired about his trip to the big city. “So I made up some lie about how I was visiting a friend or something like that,” Silverstein says. “Then I texted my wife, ‘I just lied to the governor of Texas.’”
After the close call with Perry and the meeting with the Times, it was apparent to Silverstein that the wheels were in motion to pluck him from his perch in Austin.
“I may be coming from Texas,” Silverstein says, adopting a Southern drawl, “but I know when things are happenin.’” He was hired the next day.
It’s no surprise, then, that Silverstein’s departure from Texas Monthly was bittersweet, and his courtship by Abramson and her replacement, Baquet—then the managing editor of the newspaper—made headlines. After the kerfluffle over Silverstein’s potential hiring over well-liked internal candidates died down, a bomb dropped on April 11: Emmis Communications, the owner of Texas Monthly, was suing the New York Times Company.
“As a direct and proximate consequence of defendant’s willful and intentional actions, Texas Monthly has suffered and will continue to suffer significant economic harm,” the suit read, accusing The New York Times of essentially willing Silverstein to break his three-year contract, which was to end in February 2015. Emmis sought between $200,000 and $1 million in damages.
It was awkward—and scary—for Silverstein, who was still at his soon-to-be former employer and about to make the big move to New York.
“Initially I thought that I was getting sued,” Silverstein says. “I imagined living in a little cold-water apartment because we’d have to spend all our money on legal fees.”
After that initial confusion—Silverstein was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit despite initial reports to the contrary—the smoke cleared, seemingly, though a Times representative confirmed that the lawsuit is ongoing as of press time. Regardless, the ordeal left a mark on Silverstein.
“It was a sour note to go out on,” he says, dropping his voice a half-octave. “I say that in no way directed at Texas Monthly.”
Still, it must be flattering, to be wanted, to have six or seven figures attached to your worth.
“I don’t know [that it’s flattering],” Silverstein says. “It’s surreal. I can understand why the people on the other side of the suit were upset that I was leaving. It was all very unfortunate.”
February 22 is circled,
at least figuratively, on Silverstein’s calendar. If everything goes as planned, the print and web versions of The New York Times Magazine will launch with a complete redesign. In print, the magazine will carry a heavier paper stock, closer to that of T, another sign that the Times is fully behind both magazines. Online, as Wright says, “You [will] very much know when you’re reading a magazine article.” On this day, the magazine which some say was in dire straits will have its vision completely aligned for the first time in more than a year.
Redesign elements of the magazine include an entire suite of typefaces (Fig. 2), the logo redrawn by typographer Matthew Carter (Fig. 3), and a new short form logo (Fig. 4) for use in smaller and more casual settings like social media.
Silverstein’s impact has already been noticed. He’s made a splash on the hiring front, nabbing standouts like The Atavist’s Charles Homans and newyorker.com’s Sasha Weiss. Wright confirms that Silverstein’s presence has moved the needle in terms of ad revenue. His “Small Plates” video, for the fall Food issue, in which six second graders are treated to a seven-course tasting menu at the two-Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant Daniel, is the most popular video in Times history. After less than a year into his tenure, Baquet is beyond pleased with his candidate of choice.
“This sounds PR-ish, but it’s not. He’s created a sense of excitement about the magazine,” he says. “I really think it’s better designed—everybody is going to kill me for saying this—I think it’s got a better mix of stories, and I think that Jake has become part of the life of the paper.”
Through this whirlwind of a year—a dream job hiring, an almost-lawsuit, a cross-country move, a complete redesign—Silverstein has not only managed to stay strong, but impress his colleagues and supervisors, and during a stretch where the Times is going through a heavy period of buyouts and the global print industry continues to experience plummeting revenues.
“It’s been a pretty crazy five months,” Silverstein admits, though again, not showing a sign of fatigue or ennui. “A lot of media organizations for a lot of reasons are forced by market to cut back on quality and to focus on quantity—the fire hose as opposed to the water glass.”
Hours before we are scheduled to meet, news breaks of a mass exodus of the editorial staff of another longtime stalwart of journalism, The New Republic. Now owned by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and run by Silicon Valley castoffs, former Yahoo! employee Guy Vidra declared the 100-year-old magazine as now a “vertically integrated digital media company.” It’s jarring, but in 2014, it’s not particularly surprising.
Silverstein feels relieved, blessed even, to be in a place that supports him the way he has supported his employees past and present.
“Very few magazines are able to do that,” Silverstein says, his eyes never leaving mine. “You can count ’em on one hand that has a couple of fingers cut off.”