Media

Choire Sicha on His Plans for NYT Styles, His Gawker Days, and More

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Photography: William Jess Laird

Five years ago, The New York Times boardroom seemed an unlikely place for a tête-à-tête with former Gawker star Choire Sicha. As he takes the helm at The Grey Lady’s Styles section, we should continue to expect the unexpected.

How have you been passing time between gigs?
I’ve been reading The New York Times deeply and historically. The real answer is, I’ve been going to a lot of physical therapy. It’s not cute at all. And I’ve been making a lot of lists.

What kind of lists?
I have a list of stories on one of my many lists called “Why don’t we have this!” It’s a thought exercise.

So how did you end up at The Times?
I saw the opening and I thought, “Wow, what a cool job!” It’s a group of people and an institution that was too fantastic to not want to be near. They wouldn’t like me saying this, but no one knows what Styles is or is supposed to be. That was really attractive to me.

What was your reaction when you got the job?
When Dean [Baquet, executive editor] called me, I said, “Okay, get ready for the hate mail,” and he said, “Haha, I already get the hate mail.” I thought, “Great, we’ll get along perfectly.”

There was a lot of buzz about who was up for the spot. Why do you think you beat out the competition?
I’m not sure I did. It was a nice old-fashioned round of media gossip—it felt very 10 years ago, which was refreshing. I think people are strongly and deeply attached to Styles as an entity. Whether they love it because they care passionately about fashion or society or capitalism, or they hate it for all those reasons, it’s a part of people’s lives. I appreciate all those emotions.

Vanity Fair spawned rumors that it was an actual bake-off.
God bless Joe Pompeo and his devotion to reporting on The New York Times. I love media reporters. It’s such a funny beat. And reporters want to spill. They’re actually the dishiest people in the world. [Laughs] People in this industry need gossip because they need to know what’s going on in their field. It’s less tabloid gossip than servants’ quarters kind of gossip, which is what gossip historically is—normal people talking about rich people. We won’t go down that road.

You’ve contributed to The Times, but was it ever a goal to be here full-time?
It was never a goal—I’m actually not much for career goals. I’ve been a bit haphazard and have had really amazing, fun adventures because of that. I loved being at Vox Media. I had one of the first jobs in the world that was totally about dealing with Facebook and Twitter. I would never have had that job if I did things on purpose. I’m not a schemer, and I definitely didn’t mean to accidentally work here.

What exactly was your role at Vox?
My main goal was to help exploit opportunities with other publishing partners, mainly Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Apple, and help them work internally across product, revenue, marketing, and editorial to build things together and make smart choices. A classic example is Facebook getting into articles two years ago. That’s the short story.

Do you think people were surprised when you joined The New York Times?
This place is pretty rollicking right now. The New York Times has been through a lot of change in the past year—from the outside, not having been here, more rapidly than a lot of much younger institutions. It surprised me, I can say that.

Will you work from home or is this a big boy job?
I’ll be in the offices—I actually love offices! However, I am more of an 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. person. Morning rush hour in New York City has been devastated [by the MTA]. It’s good to remind myself how real it is out there. I like a nice reverse commute, but you can’t always engineer that. I’ve worked in a lot of remote-friendly cultures, but there’s a sort of a magic hour in media between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. when you’re tired and you start talking about dumb ideas, and then your dumb ideas become real. That’s hard to replicate in remote culture.

How do you plan to succeed editor Stuart Emmrich?
I worked for him a little bit, but I don’t know him well. The nice thing about Styles is it doesn’t have a super storied history—it’s not that old compared to the institution here. I don’t think we have to worry too much about what Trip Gabriel or Stuart Emmrich have done. They’ve done hilarious things and adventurous things, and each has caused trouble in their own amazing way. We can build on that and create our own kind of trouble.

So what’s your first order of business?
My first order will be something boring like an org chart, which sounds unexciting coming from me, but I’m a total process queen. I’m asking people what they’ve done and how it works. In the first half hour with someone you find out the things you’d expect; in the second half hour, you find out the weird infrastructure stuff that’s been plaguing them for years. I’m listening and accumulating a picture.

Your writing has become recognizable, whether at The Awl, Gawker, and even as a contributor for The Times. What will the voice of Styles be?
When I first started writing here in Arts & Leisure, I told my editor that I was worried about sounding like The Times. She said, writers do that to themselves. The paper—which they would call it back then, but would never now—does not do that to them. I thought about that a lot. I want us to be a place for young writers to learn, but also be themselves and sound like themselves. The Times has a lot of room for voice and for experimentation. Sometimes voice means visual voice—brilliant photographers, people who work in video and imagery—and I really want to celebrate those voices too.

Can we expect any Gawker undertones?
We’re definitely not bringing back Gawker Stalker—the bane of my existence! Honestly, a lot of Gawker’s DNA was stealing from places like Styles and The Observer. I don’t think we have to steal back. We can go to our roots here, and the roots of the places that people who work on the section have been. Can you expect Gawkerisms? You can expect some good old-fashioned sauce when warranted, but that harkens back to things you’ve seen at The Times in the past 60 years. I’ll say this—Gawker didn’t invent much. [Laughs]

Will your fondness for the word “like” survive?
I do have a passion for the word “like”! I grew up in Southern California in a particular era when “like”  was pioneered, and I have never recovered. [Laughs] I have to be proud of my heritage.

Coming from digital media, how will you split your attention between digital and print?
The really boring answer is that we publish digitally first, but the paper has to also be fabulous and exciting and cool and smart and cheeky. We have to nail both. It’s a little bit like running the MTA. [Laughs] I think of it as an express and a local, which is a ridiculous metaphor. To devote a lot of energy and attention to things that live on phones doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a fabulous front page.

What kind of stories will you be orchestrating?
A Styles story is often about innovation, whether that’s the pricing of clothing or technology or social rules. The evolving states of marriage and family and workplaces, the way we confront the legacy of how we live with the actuality of how we live—all that stuff is Styles. So, specific stories? There’s a million I’ve seen in the past few weeks that I wish I had a whole team of crack journalists and editors to have done. I’m jealous of a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of top-notch publishing out there. Everyone talks about media being in turmoil, but we did democratize media and voices a bit. We’ve come a long way with letting people write from a point of view and report on topics that they would not have been able to cover in decades past. The competition is great.

Do you think that Styles has had its finger on the pulse in the past?
No, but I’m not sure that it’s always supposed to. This kind of goes deep into what Styles is. Ask me again in six months if it does, or should.

What’s your relationship with fashion director Vanessa Friedman like?
Oh, we don’t know each other at all—it’s going to be great! September 5 is the wackiest start date in the history of jobs in this world. We have five seconds to be like, “Hi!”

And your relationship with Gawker founder Nick Denton?
It’s good but fraught, which I think is the relationship everyone has with Nick. He’s a tough character, but a fascinating man. I think he has a really weird, exciting chapter after his rather explosive most recent chapter. I’m looking forward to what he does next.

Is the word “blog” still relevant today?
No, and it probably never was. It was a weird thing we had to use to make sense of things. I mean, that was the Gawker joke, that The New York Times was a fancy blog, because it was publishing rapidly and iteratively. We were all blogging—some of us were just paid less.

Why do you think you’ve been able to survive the fickle world of media?
I actually haven’t survived the fickle world of media that well. I’ve moved out of apartments in the middle of the night, I’ve owed massive amounts of money to the IRS, I’ve searched for gas and cigarette money in the couch cushions. I’ve done all these things as a grown adult man, not as a 19-year-old, and it was not cute. I think everyone makes it look easy when they have a good job or are wearing nice shoes, but anyone who wants to work in journalism has downs and ups, and we don’t want to talk about the downs as much as we should. Especially in New York and other big cities, it’s easy to look around and think everyone is so pretty and well-dressed, and doing so amazing, and they have a deal at HBO, and they’re selling a show to Netflix, and what do I have? And they’re probably home crying, being cheated on, or getting fired. You know what I mean? This stuff is all an illusion. 

THE STORY ON CHOIRE!

Favorite American designers?
I’m not going to answer that—I don’t want to make endorsements! That’s Vanessa [Friedman]’s joy and pain.

Do you speak multiple languages?
No, and I’ve tried. My husband is bilingual, and I’m very jealous. We’ve tried a tiny bit of a home immersion, and I’m like, I can’t watch this telenovela.

Any plans for another book after your first [Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City]?
I was half-heartedly writing one for a year. It was about a young blogger who gets to murder a lot of men and winds up at The New Yorker as the happy ending. It’s very timely. I think people will love this book.

You have more than 1K Twitter followers and less than 20 tweets—what’s the deal?
I set up this thing a couple of years ago to delete all my tweets older than seven days, and I’m not really sure how to turn it off. But I’m sort of okay with it. I felt burdened by them. Twitter is disposable for me.

How are the cats?
The cats are well. It’s very embarrassing, having three cats. I had two and then one appeared on the street. Their names are William James, Peregrine—Perry, really—and Linden, named after the tree not the president. We found him under a Linden tree. It’s bad! But they’re incredibly well-trained. They sleep at the foot of the bed like dogs; they have feeding times. What really helped me is automatic dry food feeders. I could talk about this much more, because Page 2 of Styles will be devoted entirely to cats!

Kristen Heinzinger is the Senior Editor of The Daily Front Row/Daily Summer.

1 Comment

  1. Sandra

    September 22, 2017 at 8:57 PM

    Really hope this is true about page 2 of Styles being devoted entirely to cats.

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