T Time With Deborah Needleman

by The Daily Front Row

(NEW YORK) It’s been five months since this Domino-trix fled Murdoch’s WSJ. for the friendlier folds of The New York Times. Her mission? Restore the struggling paper’s onetime cash machine, the Singer-ized T magazine, to its Tonchi-era glory. Here, the print world’s most in-demand turnaround artist opens up about, well…everything.

Talk to us. What the heck happened?
Everything that was written about it sort of wasn’t right! I was approached about this job two years ago, had a rather awkward meeting with Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, but felt I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I could bring to T. This time, when Jill approached me, there was no “maybe.” But I also wanted to take care of everything at the Journal first and finish all the things I’d started. I wanted to feel like I was leaving WSJ in a good place.

How’s the vibe at the Times? Less corporate?
The Journal never felt corporate, surprisingly. I always felt free and entrepreneurial—I didn’t anticipate that. Which is kind of why I ended up staying there.

Do you fit in better at the Times?
I feel more comfortable here, certainly. I know a lot of people. I’ve known Jill for about 20 years through journalism and living in Washington, D.C. It sounds kind of dorky, but I feel super proud to work here. I’ve never felt that sort of institutional pride in a place.

I always felt like a little bit of an outsider at Condé Nast and News Corp. I don’t feel like that here. People have been so incredibly nice and supportive.

Why did it feel like the right move this time?
is a more serious fashion magazine, but I didn’t feel like I had the experience or a point of view to bring to fashion two years ago. I feel much more comfortable now. I know the industry so much better. I just didn’t have any sense of what I could bring to it that would make it successful at that time. There are people who’ve been going to shows for 20 years, and there’s still a ton for me to learn, but I think my whole insider-outsider thing is good. I didn’t grow up in this industry, so I get to see things a little bit more freshly. 

What did you think of T before signing on?
Stefano [Tonchi] built such a strong brand. It stood for cutting-edge information and beautiful photography. It felt like something you just couldn’t ignore. I want T to feel like that again.

Why work on yet another mag tucked into the pages of a newspaper?
Oddly, this is actually my third newspaper magazine, and my second as editor. Something about that tension of not being completely entrenched in an industry appeals to me, I guess. It’s the tug of proper journalism and investigative reporting. I like constraints. I like the idea of making the best possible product within a framework. If someone gave me a load of money to go do whatever I wanted, I wouldn’t know what to do! There’s also a great freedom in not doing a newsstand magazine. You don’t ever have to talk down to the reader or do the lowest-common-denominator stories that editors have to do to sell on newsstands. T has a smart, devoted large readership. You just get to bring them the best.

The best as opposed to what?
Putting a dumb slutty celebrity on the cover! [Laughs] I’m able to choose people to put on the cover because they’re interesting or talented, as opposed to how many copies they can move.

Is that why you chose Lee Radziwill? Are you going for more mature celebs?
It’s not about appealing to an older demographic. If an 80-year-old is cool, that’s fucking cool! It’s cooler than a cool 20-year-old being cool. If you’ve weathered life and tragedy and you’re still amazing, that’s really interesting to me. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be twenty-somethings on the cover. Our job is to edit the cultural moment, and to me Lee feels right for right now. Someone who’s a minimalist, sure of herself, and sure of her style for 50 years seems timely.

Your predecessor, Sally Singer, seemed to skew a bit grungy. What’s your aesthetic vision?
My sensibility is cleaner, with bigger pictures. I like white space and all those old-fashioned magazine things.

What other sorts of changes are you implementing?
This might be a total disaster, but I have a poetry editor. It might just come off as pretentious and ridiculous. She chooses a poem, then we give the poem to an artist to make something sort of inspired by it.

We like it! What else?
Another weird thing is called “Take Two,” which are quick reviews. For the first round, we did Oscar de la Renta and Chelsea Handler and had them review the same cookbook and pair of Nikes. Oscar said he’d never worn sneakers until he tried them on for us. We also have this new section, “Lookout,” which is all quick, newsy cultural bits.  Then, there’s this section called “Of The Moment,” which captures a styling moment. It’s not about buying the products, though. It’s a filter for the season. I kind of hate the “It” bag or the “It” girl. There’s no “must-have” anything.

When you took the job, you were pretty open about your to-do list.
I’m not very calculating! Those were the ideas I had. A reporter asked, and I answered. I didn’t want to come to T if I didn’t think I could make the best product possible. It’s not like anything I’m doing is a direct response to anything that was happening before, and yet I think I have made what will probably be considered big changes.

Can you share any others?
Sure, I don’t care. The frequency, the paper, the trim size, and the broadening of the themes. A big part of why I came here is because I like starting and rethinking things. It’s a different magazine in many structural ways and yet it’s not like we reinvented it.

Talk to us about the logo.
I’m excited about it, but I think it might freak people out. This T is a very elegant, clean, modern variation on the T that stands for The New York Times. That T represents the Times—on its app, in the newspaper—but it doesn’t really represent the magazine. T is not the most interesting letter. It doesn’t have a lot of sexiness to it, which is why I think our version is pretty great. But people always hate redesigns of anything they’re used to.

How would you describe the new look?
Patrick [Li] has designed a special typeface—it’s elegant and spare, but not cold. He’s been tweaking different little serif things that I don’t understand. There is a lot of crashing. He’s very into crashing! It takes a knowing eye to see it, but if you don’t understand it, then it doesn’t matter. 

How are you handling fashion?
We’ve got this amazing fashion director, Joe McKenna, who’s, like, my hero. That’s an amazing thing about the Times. Being able to just ring Joe up and have him say “OK” just kind of blew me away. The whole hiring process has taught me a little bit about the power of the Times. Or, maybe a lot a bit! I don’t want him just in the fashion issues, though. I want Joe’s input and sensibility all the time.

What about the rest of your team?
I restructured the magazine, so I needed a different set of staffers with different competencies. I want people who share my vision. That’s the great fun in making a magazine—it’s a collaboration between people who are way more talented than I am. People were saying, “Oh, she so wants to bring in her own team,” like I only wanted [to work with] my buddies, but it wasn’t like that. There are lots of people that were here already and are crucial to making this magazine. But everyone needs to be essential to making what I’m trying to make.

How different will the masthead look?
When I got here, it was filled with a lot of stylists. We’re still styling fashion shoots, but we’re not styling every single person and turning everything into a fashion shoot.

What are your thoughts on Kristina O’Neill, your successor at WSJ?
I have no idea. She seems very nice.

Is your old protégé, Ruth Altchek, going to be WSJ’s shadow EIC?
I have no idea. I probably know less than you do!

Any advice for Kristina?
I gave her some off-the-record advice yesterday.

Back to your new staff: Did you poach Kate Lanphear from Elle?
No. She completely felt she was finished there, for whatever reason.

Where does she fit into your dream team?
I just love Kate, and we really needed someone to run the fashion department and there wasn’t anybody to do that. Michelle Kestler Sanders had that role, but she left early on and was never replaced. I had a really strong desire to know everything going on in every segment of the market. Kate is someone who knows everybody and has a great sense of style.

You and Cathy Horyn go way back, right?
I’ve known Cathy for so long. I knew her when I worked at the Washington Post, when I was, like, ten years old!

Have you talked to her about her recent battles with designers?
A bit. She’s just doing her job, you know? The great thing about Cathy is that she has thick skin, which isn’t true of all journalists or critics. There are a lot of people who can dish it out but can’t take it.

Have you smoothed things over with the Times Magazine?
Yes. My job is to make something that isn’t being made here already. Hugo [Lindgren] has a magazine about policy, economics, entertainment, sports, and all kinds of things that T isn’t about.

How are you feeling lately about Debbie Needles as a nickname?
Someone made me that Twitter handle, and I thought it was fine and ironic, but then people started to think I actually liked being called Debbie. I’ve started getting pitches addressing me as Debbie. I don’t really care, but I kind of do. That’s what I was called in New Jersey. I ran fast and far from there, and [Debbie] kind of drags me back down.

How’s your personal style evolving?
I kind of just want to dress like a man. Or a really chic lesbian.

Why do you think that is?
There’s something about comfort, style, and simplicity. Beautiful blouses, crisp pants, and I’m really into the idea of flats. Every look I’m liking now is a little bit manish.

Who’s your current crush?
We have a different one every season. [Vanity Fair France editor] Virginie Mouzat was the big one in September. She’s ballsy, beautiful, and smart.

What do you think you’d be doing now if you hadn’t gone to WSJ?
For a while I was trying to start a Web business and what I learned about myself is that I’m a super business-minded editor but a terrible business person. This job allows me to feel entrepreneurial but not actually have to be. But I don’t know. I used to think I would open a flower shop.

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