How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 1)

New York magazine’s Approval Matrix is my favorite magazine feature. I asked Emily Nussbaum, an editor at New York, how it came to be.

ROBERTS When did you come up with this? What happened in the beginning?

NUSSBAUM I’d been hired soon after Adam Moss came on board as Editor-in-Chief and my job was essentially to oversee the redesign of the culture section. It was a collaborative process with editors like Chris Bonanos and writers including Boris Kachka and Logan Hill. I wanted to open with something more substantive — an essay on a cultural matter or a profile — follow with reviews and fun devices. and then close with something really visual, ideally that combined different genres. We rejected a variety of things before we managed to come up with something. Actually, the idea [for The Approval Matrix] came off a piece I saw in Wired magazine. Which was a kind of Matrix-y sort of chart, a one-off thing. The two directions, one of them went geek to cool, the other went nerd to wonk. It didn’t have any visuals and it didn’t have any jokes. It was all of these different people. It had Joss Whedon and Joss Whedon was nerd/cool. Names of different technology people, a little bit of pop culture. It was funny, it was hard to understand in its own way, which I think is true of The Approval Matrix as well — but that was part of the appeal. So I brought it in and showed it to Adam. We were talking about it and I suggested we use it as a back-page round-up, a visual catch-all for stuff from theatre to television to books . . . Commentary on little news items in culture, events, people, a whole range of things. That was the basic concept. Then I had suggested that it go highbrow/lowbrow and something like good/bad or great/terrible. Adam said we should make the extent of the continuum longer than that. So I said “brilliant” and he said “despicable” — which in the long run was one of the more controversial aspects of The Matrix! Every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who says, “How can you call something despicable?” The larger philosophy of the section was to combine access — talking to creators — with judgment and authority. So the Matrix was about making judgments but also being playful and random, by comparing totally different things to each other. The extremeness of brilliant/despicable was supposed to be part of that. And then there’s the highbrow/lowbrow thing, which can also be controversial. It’s both something that we’re literally doing and something we’re being satirical about. For me personally, one of things that I thought was appealing about it — not to be, as I’m already being, incredibly overanalytical — but one of the things that I wanted for the section as a whole, was to say the obvious but true thing that you can have something that’s lowbrow that’s absolutely fantastic or something that people think of as mass-y, like comics books or whatever, that’s incredible, and some opera that’s actually incredibly dull; it’s just that they operate on different parts of the spectrum. So the idea was that putting those things together was essentially saying what really matters is the quality of them, not whether people consider them an elite taste or whether people consider them a mass taste. But obviously it’s also supposed to be something fun, geeky and mathematical. There was an initial concern that it might be hard to understand. Just because it’s a graph, and people found it a little confusing. So, anyway, we drew up a prototype of the Matrix. The designers did a great job. Then there was a gradual move toward launching the Culture section. And we launched The Matrix. It didn’t change that much from the time that we put it out. What changed was the developmental process of figuring out which jokes work and what works best in terms of combining visuals and text.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

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