First Mover: Frank Rich

Former 'NYT' columnist on the future of the paper and his move to 'New York'

New York Magazine

How is it being back with New York editor Adam Moss?

It’s great. Our editorial relationship dates back to when he was essentially a kid at Esquire in 1987, when he called me up out of the blue. I didn’t want to do the assignment; he convinced me to do it.

Why did you leave the Times for New York?

There was no way I could expand further as a writer at the Times. I didn’t want to be an editor or be in management. Furthermore, the Times Magazine is not the ideal place to do long opinion pieces. I’d had a great time at the Times, I’d turned 60, and I wanted to do something different.

You were doing 1,500-word columns at the Times, now you’re doing 4,500-word columns. Do you finally have the room you need?

It is a lot of room—and I don’t know that I’ll write 4,500 every time. It will always be longer than 1,500, but the great thing is you can shape it to what you’re writing about, and have the freedom of not being in a box. One of the reasons I got bored with the 750-word column years ago, and then with the 1,500-word column, is that I find when I do those forms, at a certain point I feel like I’ve done as much as I can.

You mean the words are different, but the rules stay the same?

I found once I figured out the secrets, as a writer, it just became deadening for me. If it becomes deadening for the writer, it’s probably deadening for the reader, too.

You’ve gone from theater to largely politics.

It could swing back again. The two things are still my two passions: I grew up as a theater nut in Washington, D.C., so I was always a political junkie and a culture junkie.

How long will you be at New York?


Have you missed the Times yet?

Less than I thought, which I don’t mean in a pejorative way at all. Jill Abramson is one of my closest friends. Many of my good friends are on the paper. The whole thing is amicable.

How will she do?

I’m a little bit too close to judge. But I’ve known Jill since before she came to the paper. I lived through the whole nonsense she went through under Howell [Raines]. I think she’s just an incredibly smart, sharp, aggressive journalist. I think it is a great choice.

Your thoughts on the Times’ new “Sunday Review”?

I think it’s a work in progress.

Why do so many people in the media world spend so much time focusing on The New York Times?

Because The New York Times has, as long as I can remember, set the agenda for American journalism, even if it’s in reaction against it. Now, with what’s going on with the Murdoch empire, they’re in an even stronger position because that’s been seriously destabilizing.

Were you ever worried about the fate of the Times?

Certainly. During the darkest days of the recession, when they took out the huge loan from Carlos Slim. During the layoffs, when there was blood on the floor, with an aggressive Murdoch saying he was going to spend anything to kill the paper, even if he lost money doing it. It was a double whammy: first advertising collapsed, plus the digitalization issues. The Times seemed to have no clear policy about what they were going to do—charging for readers and so on. But you look at the paper now, and the last-man-standing theory may be true.