It is with no small degree of sadness that I have to report the death of the
New York Times magazine. When I first arrived in New York, it was a vibrant
and interesting book, and its editor, Adam Moss, was justly held in very high
esteem. Moss was then bumped upstairs to an ill-defined role in NYT management,
however, and the magazine suffered; he then left the Times altogether to go
edit New York, and the magazine has now withered and died altogether.
Superficially, it hasn’t changed. Moss oversaw excellent cover design: strong
and simple, safe in the knowlege that he didn’t need to shift copies at the
newsstand – and to this day the magazine is probably as close as any US
publication comes to the legendary Esquire
covers of the 60s and 70s. The problem is that the magazine’s ego is writing
checks its body can’t cash: the inside of the book simply doesn’t deliver what
the outside promises.
Take this week’s cover
story, on "The Tug of the Newfangled Slot Machines". It’s well
teased on the cover: "Neither TiVo nor the Xbox nor your Wi-Fi-ed laptop
is remaking American culture the way this thing is." But the article itself
never mentions TiVo or WiFi, and talks about video games only in passing; in
fact, it doesn’t really address the effect of slot machines on American culture
Instead, what we get is the author, Gary Rivlin, spending 8,000 words wandering
around a company which makes slot machines, marvelling at how rich, clever and
happy the people there are, and how poor, dumb and unhappy their customers are.
At the end of it, we’ve learned essentially nothing that we didn’t know already,
and we wonder, in fact, whether Rivlin really has a clue what he’s talking about.
For one thing, he seems very uncomfortable around numbers. Here’s Rivlin trying
to explain how big the business is:
In its 14-year lifetime, ”Madden N.F.L. Football,” from Electronic Arts,
has made roughly $1 billion, making it one of the most successful home video
games ever produced. ”Wheel of Fortune,” by contrast, takes in
more than a billion dollars each year. … Every day in the United States,
slot machines take in, on average, more than $1 billion in wagers.
Most of that money will be paid back to players, but so great is the ”hold”
from slot machines that collectively the games gross more annually
than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Starbucks combined. All told, North
American casinos took in $30 billion from slots in 2003 — an amount
that dwarfs the $9 billion in tickets sold in North American movie theaters
that year. (Emphasis added.)
We simply have to take it on trust here that Rivlin is comparing like with
like, since there’s no objective way of telling what he means with phrases like
"takes in". In fact, the one thing we can be sure of is that he means
at least two different things by the phrase, and possibly three. The first,
I think, is profits from "Wheel of Fortune", although it’s far from
clear whether he’s talking about profits for the casinos or profits for IGT,
the manufacturer of the machine. After all, Electronic Arts keeps all its own
profits, while IGT has to share the profits from its games with the casinos,
and in fact might not keep any of the profits at all, preferring to simply manufacture
and sell the machines rather than attempt to peel off its own percentage.
Next occurrence, "take in" refers to total amount wagered, and is
contrasted to the games’ "gross", which is left undefined, but is
probably the same as what "take in" referred to the first time around.
Finally, "take in" refers to some metric or other at casinos, which
may or may not constitute the total amount of money that slot machines "take
in" in total, since Rivlin never addresses the question of slot machines
outside casinos, and whether he’s including them in his calculations
A bit further on, we find this astonishing passage:
The company has been so profitable during Kaminkow’s tenure that if you bought
$10,000 worth of stock in I.G.T. and Microsoft in the month of his arrival,
January 1999, the I.G.T. shares would be worth more than $70,000 today and
the Microsoft shares about $6,000.
This is a crazy comparison. IGT has a market cap of $13 billion and a profit
margin of 18.52%. Microsoft has a market cap of $278 billion and a profit margin
of 20.78%. Stock price, as we all know, is only marginally connected to profitability,
and Rivlin’s comparison seems deliberately designed to make IGT seem a lot more
successful than it actually is.
But it’s clear that Rivlin doesn’t really like dealing with numbers, as we
can tell when he sits down at a slot machine himself:
The showroom machine had 8,000 credits on it — $400. It wasn’t my money,
so I played the maximum of $2.25 per spin. … At first I seemed to be winning,
gathering credits on every second or third spin. But after about 15 minutes,
I was down nearly 7,000 credits. I was winning the virtual equivalent of 15
or 20 nickels every time I scored — but I was spending more than twice that
with every spin. After 45 minutes, I was down below 5,000 credits. If I were
playing for real money, I would have lost more than $150.
This only makes any sense at all if by "down nearly 7,000 credits"
Rivlin means not that he had lost nearly 7,000 credits, but that he had nearly
7,000 credits remaining. The fact that he uses "credits" interchangeably
with "nickels" only serves to confuse things even more.
I don’t actually blame Rivlin for all of this: he’s a newspaper reporter, and
it’s the job of the editors at the magazine to make sure that his reporting
– which seems to be very extensive – is then turned into a smart,
clear, illuminating magazine article. They clearly failed, and in fact I wonder
if they even really tried.
And the photography in the magazine is going the same way as the prose. This
week’s issue is heavy on the gays, featuring a Q&A
with a transgendered biologist, as well as a long
article about the lawyers who fought for gay marriage in Massachusetts.
Here are the photos of the three; the one in the middle actually takes up a
full page of the magazine.
I can understand how many New York media types would like to send a message
that gays, lesbians and transgendered people can be perfectly normal and boring,
but I really don’t think that’s any excuse for photography as dull and unimaginative
as this. If it wasn’t for a rather good portrait
of New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, the magazine would be at serious risk
of losing its hard-earned reputation as a venue for top-notch photojournalism.
In general, it’s clear that the New York Times magazine needs a good kick up
the keister. Its editor, Gerald Marzorati, needs to start getting seriously
Tina on his mollycoddled employees, tearing up features which don’t cut the
mustard, telling photographers to go back and do better, and generally not accepting
second-rate material any more. This is the one section of the New York Times
which has long lead times and can be expected to be uniformly good. At the moment,
however, it’s uniformly mediocre. Must do better.