How To Be Thoughtful, Weird, And Welcoming: Lessons From Alex Wagner

Advice from The FADER’s former editor-in-chief on how to lead creative people, and make a magazine that’s both uncompromising and accessible.

October 01, 2015
How To Be Thoughtful, Weird, And Welcoming: Lessons From Alex Wagner

I’ve barely met Alex Wagner, who was editor-in-chief of The FADER from 2004 to 2008 before moving on to things like writing about the White House, directing a human rights advocacy organization, and running her own show at MSNBC. But I’ve studied her writing and worked in her shadow, as a FADER editor and the magazine’s only other female editor-in-chief so far. Last month, for the oral history of our magazine that ran in our 100th issue, I interviewed her at her Brooklyn apartment. I was surprised to learn how much and how little FADER has changed in the seven years since her departure—we blog a lot more now, but we still fight openly and hang out after hours. But mostly I was just thrilled to talk to another woman who’s managed a team of passionate emotional people, someone who also believes that structure can help people be more creative, and that it’s possible to make a magazine that’s ambitious, weird, and accessible all at once.

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At the beginning, why did you think working at The FADER was a smart move?

I had just moved to New York and I was the editor of a magazine called Tokion. It was a street art and culture magazine, and it was half Japanese and half American. We thought we were such hot shit. At the same time, these guys from Canada had come down and they were starting something called Vice, and then over in Chelsea there is this crew, The FADER. And for the lack of a better word, we were like the magazine gangs of New York. It was us—independent, scrappy guys—against the people with actual magazine budgets. The Tokion offices were on the Lower East Side. We would go get blind drunk at this hole in the wall called The Hat, where you could get takeaway grain alcohol margaritas. The first time I understood the brilliance of The FADER was the day that I saw them setting up a fashion shoot at The Hat. It was a real fashion shoot: there were lights, there were models, and clothing, and trucks. I was like, “What is this magazine, and how do they get to do crazy real shit at crazy broke-down places? How are they winning at this moment right now?”

When I joined FADER in 2010, your legend was still very present, even though you’d been gone from the office for some time. A joke I used to hear was, “Well, Alex didn't really like music anyway,” which was said as a compliment. I want to understand that joke—was it accepted in the office, at that time, that you were interested in pushing the magazine beyond music?

I was never like, “I'm the biggest music fan ever.” People who edit music magazines usually don't make a concession like that, or don't make that part of their editorial leadership. But the reason I got involved with FADER was that I loved magazines and I loved writing and I liked culture. And I really appreciated that—and I think [former editor-in-chief] Knox [Robinson] should really be credited with this. The FADER understood music as a lens through which you could examine the world. Music is the world, the world is music. Well, not really, but music is the world. And I really liked the fact that The FADER was super wide-open. It was a jumping off point for fashion and art. You could do anything with it.

“It’s not fun telling people they have to turn their stories in. But you can’t actually have a creative work environment if there are no rules and there’s no structure.”

In my experience, someone is not necessarily hired at FADER because of any particular expertise, but just because they make sense here, for whatever unspeakable reason.

It just comes down to people who are curious about the world and kind of get it. Which sounds kind of elitist and closed door—it's not meant to be—but you can just tell. Somebody can be really different from you and have different reference points but you can sort of understand that they think of the world and are curious about it in the same way.

When I started, The FADER was Knox, Mariel Cruz, Will Welch, and Nick Catchdubs. It was a great crew, and everybody was really different. There wasn't a look or a feel or a style that everybody conformed to. We all legitimately were interested in different things. I mean, I was obsessed with Jamiroquai. And I remember that one of the first issues I worked on, Knox was like, “Why don't you work in Jamiroquai?” And then we put Jamiroquai in the magazine. Right up there with Nick and his hyphy stuff, Will’s Chicago house, and the Drive-By Truckers and Tego Calderon.

Was it difficult to be the manager on that kind of team—where people have this amazing curiosity, but maybe not any concern with keeping a business afloat?

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There was definitely a lot of youthful folly. The first issue I worked on, we were at the office till three in the morning for two weeks. It was absurd. It was like, “This doesn't need to be like this.” I was first hired as managing editor, and one of the first things I did was just figure out how to keep budgets and manage deadlines. It's not fun telling people they have to turn their stories in. But you can't actually have a creative work environment if there are no rules and there's no structure.

The FADER can get a little ahead of itself. I remember saying a lot: “We're a magazine for sale on a rack, we shouldn't forget that. People need to feel like there's some part of the magazine that's welcoming or that's accessible.” Because if you get too out-there, it becomes irrelevant, and we're writing it for ourselves. It's a fine balance between letting the editorial team and its various tastes dictate what is interesting, but also remembering that there's an audience out there. But for better or for worse, it still functioned as kind of a clubhouse. Keeping the vibes positive, as ridiculous as that sounds, was fairly important. It was maybe the best job that all of us ever had. Once you work at The FADER, it is hard to work at another magazine.

How did the wide openness of FADER prepare you for the other jobs you’ve gone on to do? After being at this place where it was OK to dream big, how did you learn to dream bigger?

I commissioned a lot of international stories while I was at The FADER, and I listened to that when I thought about leaving. The world is a really big place. Because The FADER has a lot of integrity, because it’s uncompromising in a lot of ways, I think it reaches a smaller group of people. I felt like I wanted to be more broadly engaged with the world writ large. I wanted to nurture my passion for the socio-cultural stuff.

The thing that was hard for me about leaving and thinking beyond The FADER was just thinking, “How am I ever gonna have a group of people that I trust and like and care about as much as I do these people?” We worked really well together. Obviously there were complete blow-up fights and doors slammed and people throwing things. Phil [Bicker] pushed a hole in the wall and Will would leave my office and slam the door and it would shake the hallway. So maybe I just have a different conception of what relationships were like—but I think that was also awesome! Being able to openly fight with people in the workplace? That’s a rare and wonderful thing. And to come back and totally trust each other and rely on each other, that's a real friendship and a real solid relationship. Some people at work never get to open up. To be able to do that, then come back from that and put a magazine together, it's emotionally exhausting in some way but it's also totally honest. It was an incredibly resilient office. And duplicating that, I thought, would be really difficult. But I had a very good team on the show that I worked on for a long time at MSNBC, and that taught me that one of the things that makes me happiest is running a team. I don't know what other people think about me being the boss, but I really like a collaborative work environment, and I don't have a problem being at the head of that.

Camera Ready @alexwags

A photo posted by Joseph Patel (@jazzbeezy) on

FADER’s website launched during your tenure. How did you approach the internet at the time?

We hired Nick and we were like, “Just make [thefader.com] like your blog.” Then we were like, “Well, that's not gonna really work.” And then it became apparent that we were all gonna have to contribute to the blog. Which was like pulling teeth because it was like, "Well wait a second, we're going down to the record store right now, we can't write a blog post!” There were CDs everywhere, which made the fishbowl the filthiest, most chaotic place. It was impossible to find anything. I had interns constantly alphabetizing my CD collection, which became this running joke.

The way that I understood the power of the internet was the exchange that it afforded young artists. MySpace was a big thing, and it was awesome that we could hear about new bands and listen to them and they didn't have to have record deals, and that bands like Vampire Weekend got really into Afrobeat or whatever, and that they were learning about that music through internet culture. That exchange of ideas broadened the field. You didn't just have to be this crate-digging nerd, you could be a bedroom artist with crazy samples from the internet and you knew about crazy music stuff even if you didn't have Other Music in your town.

But on a practical, financial level, I don't think we had conversations about how the internet was changing the landscape. I don't think we understood how much the internet was gonna shatter the industry. People did not want to [write for web], and people didn't understand it. There was this real concern about the web cannibalizing real writing. We had this idea of new journalism, and great magazine profiles, and wanted to keep that form going in some fashion, and here was the internet with blog posts. There was no hierarchy, there was no important information. The initial iteration of thefader.com was just a blog roll. A piece about Paul Simon and Graceland being an important touchstone was just as important as a post we might have written about Twizzlers. It was all together in a garbage can of information. The freedom of that was exciting, because there were weird things you'd think of and you'd write a post about that. But the lack of editorial structure bothered people and was scary. It was all coming to a head while I was leaving. The internet happened to newspapers first, and then the music industry, and now it's the TV industry.

For me, your run at FADER remains a template for what the magazine can be at its best. Back when this thing was handed over to you, what did you feel was your greatest charge, or responsibility?

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I think that people who find themselves at executive level positions or get really successful forget that there is nothing they have done that wasn't the result of a lot of other people’s hard work. I never thought of the magazine as mine, I thought of it as ours. In TV, where I am on camera and the show had my name on it or whatever, it was never mine. It was always ours, and that’s something that I think I’ll carry with me forever. As editor-in-chief, I always wanted people to feel that I trusted them, and that we could be free to say, “I don't know, let's figure it out.” Magazines can be kind of brutal, and independent magazines especially are really hard, and it takes work for it to feel like it’s actually a functioning place. It was important to make FADER feel like it was a real magazine, but you also didn’t want to overcompensate on that front because we wanted it to feel like a place where you could go set up a fashion shoot at a shitty place like The Hat. So, preserving those two things, which are arguably at odds with one another, was a part of my mission. And I wanted it to be a really readable, thoughtful magazine. I always thought we were creating a magazine for someone out there who is like us, who may have been a unicorn! I mean there was no concrete evidence we had that this person existed but we really wanted them to, and we did not want to disappoint this person.

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How To Be Thoughtful, Weird, And Welcoming: Lessons From Alex Wagner