It Was Easier for Adam Moss to Hire Frank Rich Than to Create Frank Rich

Frank Rich’s decision to abandon the New York Times for New York magazine is, as plenty of people have noted, mystifying in some respects—like abandoning a 50,000 watt AM radio station for a Mr. Microphone. But presumably there’s a lot of money involved, and Rich does have a longstanding working relationship with New York’s editor, Adam Moss, that transcends the particular jobs they may be holding at any time.

And quitting the Times is not as unusual as it once was. There may not be very many people like Gay Talese or David Halberstam, as Jack Shafer wrote—but that doesn’t mean Timespeople won’t think they, themselves, are Talese or Halberstam material.

Regardless, the move makes a great deal of sense from Adam Moss’ side of things. Frank Rich is a name-brand writer, which is something that’s been missing from Moss’ version of New York. Moss has made the magazine a success, on the terms in which it is a success , by practicing an extreme version of the magazine-industry philosophy known as “writer-proofing”: a story should contain nothing that an editor or a page designer (also: a reader) would not have expected to find there a priori.

This leaves little space for writers to flourish. (It also notoriously leaves no space for humor; humor might confuse the reader and muddy the clear flow from teasers to headline to content.) Moss recruits talent, but he doesn’t cultivate it. At the magazine that once would top the cover with ” Tom Wolfe on…”, there are no bylines that get the public to pick up a copy. Good as some of the writers are, no one goes to read a New York magazine story because a particular New York magazine staffer wrote it.

Frank Rich is a byline. That is, better yet, in Moss’ value system: he’s a cover line.