Inside the Drama Shaking Up the New York Times’ Styles Section
Under Choire Sicha, the section became a must-read. Why isn’t he still running it?
Choire Sicha’s sudden departure as The New York Times’ Styles section editor shocked many at the paper. He left a job previously described by the Times leadership as “one of the most important features jobs in American journalism” for a newsletter position—a sign some took as a demotion.
The move also took many by surprise, as some Styles employees only learned that it was Sicha’s last day on the team from a tweet posted by NBC News media reporter Dylan Byers. Six insiders at the publication suggested to The Daily Beast that Sicha’s transfer was the result of both masthead-level dissatisfaction with Sicha’s management style—including his handling of some of the paper’s higher-profile reporters—and a bit of discontent with the gig on the part of the now-former Styles editor himself. The friction is also part of the paper’s continued struggle to reconcile the buttoned-up impulses of its old guard and its newer, less traditional, digital-native staff.
A spokesperson for The Times said in a statement: “You've heard a lot of false and misleading rumors. Choire is a superb journalist and a treasured colleague who has mentored journalists on the Styles desk and across the newsroom. We realized that newsletters offer us big opportunities and key to those ambitions is having expert newsroom leadership.
“As our most senior leaders have made clear, there is no one better suited than Choire, an innovative thinker and a naturally entrepreneurial editor, to help build on our newsletter portfolio and showcase new voices in ways that meaningfully expand and evolve Times journalism.”
Since taking the helm of the section in 2017, Sicha—a former Gawker editor and co-founder of The Awl—turned the Styles section into something weirder, more playful, and more engaged with how online life informs and defines cultural trends.
Beyond its traditional focus on fashion, the section published lighthearted takes on how the pandemic has affected urban rat populations and the people who suspect they live in haunted houses; and expanded its coverage of the changing lives, ideas, and culture of young people in America. Sicha allowed his team broad freedom to pursue story ideas that may not have run under previous Styles editors; one Times staffer said it was rare to see him shoot down pitches. The open-mindedness and creativity paid dividends: The section was widely praised as one of the Times’ most innovative, playful, and fun.
But multiple insiders who spoke with The Daily Beast said that, in recent months, some friction had grown between management and Sicha. To some senior editors, Sicha’s management style was viewed as what Times insiders described as, at best, “hands-off” and, at worst, “absentee”—a creative editor well-liked by his crew of writers, but seen as averse to the difficult conflicts or the intrapersonal headaches that may come with running one of the paper’s highest-profile sections.
Others also said Sicha seemed out-of-step with Times leadership. Some masthead editors were irked, for example, when they saw Sicha’s signature on protest letters involving internal Times matters, including a note from staff critical of racist comments made by former reporter Donald McNeil Jr. during a 2019 Times-led student trip to Peru.
Sicha declined to comment for this story but in an interview last year with Study Hall, he acknowledged that he had taken a fairly hands-off approach to the section, and much of the section’s success could be attributed to its rank-and-file staff.
“[I]f your central question is ‘Gosh how does Choire Sicha make the Style section so magical?’ Then the answer is... I do not. It's not me doing any of it! I don't write the stories, I don't assign the stories, I don't design the stories, I don't take the photographs, I don't edit the stories. Man, I don't even do the INSTAGRAM stories,” he said. “And this can sometimes be really annoying or stressful for folks here! When things are a mess, I'll let them be a mess until someone decides to clean it up. It can be uncomfortable, or awful.”
Some of those intra-management frustrations played out over Sicha’s approach to managing stars like Taylor Lorenz, a technology and internet culture reporter originally hired onto the Styles desk. After being poached from The Atlantic, Lorenz (a former Daily Beast staffer) has quickly become one of the most prominent reporters at the Times, breaking major stories on influencer culture, TikTok and other emerging social-media platforms, and prominent YouTube stars—earning wide acclaim in journalism circles as a creative and hardworking reporter.
But many of those stories were not for Styles. Over her tenure, she’s written more and more for Business and an array of other sections at the paper. The Times has rewarded her with a documentary project, as well as with an upcoming newsletter, both outside of Styles.
Lorenz’s rising profile has also made her the target of many detractors. At one point, the star reporter had to apologize for misattributing a slur to prominent tech investor Marc Andreessen. Her coverage of the audio-based social platform Clubhouse prompted outrage among tech bros who took issue with their public conversations on the platform being reported. Earlier this year, Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald repeatedly mocked a tweet she posted lamenting how persistent online harassment had “destroyed” her life, and criticized her reporting on teenagers who use various social platforms. It prompted the Times to release a statement labeling the Fox News far-right host’s broadsides against her to be “calculating and cruel.”
Few Times staffers have a more active social-media presence than Lorenz, who has nearly a half-million followers on TikTok; she’s tweeted or retweeted more than 100 times on Tuesday and Wednesday alone, for example. And the Times has publicly struggled to develop and enforce social-media guidelines for its reporters that have been seen as both strict but fairly vague. The paper, for example, prohibits employees doing “anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.”
Over the past year masthead editors have on occasion held internal discussions about how to respond to the wave of this persistent, heated, and often bad-faith attacks generated by Lorenz’s thousand-mile-an-hour social stream. Sicha, while technically her manager, was seen as too hands-off and too conflict averse to handle such a high-octane, highly-combustible situation. It was another sign that Sicha wasn’t perceived to be enough of a hands-on leader.
Masthead editors made the case to Lorenz that by regularly engaging with her critics online, she was giving them ammunition and perpetuating the cycle of harassment. Deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan suggested that Lorenz reach out to Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter Maggie Haberman, a prominent Times female journalist with a large online following whose work often provoked the online wrath of political media figures like former president Donald Trump.
“This did not happen,” Lorenz told The Daily Beast. “That literally did not happen.”
But Lorenz did say she and Haberman had spoken on several occasions. According to three insiders, one of those conversations turned into a heated exchange that was later described as a “blow-up.” The pair allegedly argued about Lorenz's reporting on and signal-boosting of Kellyanne Conway’s teenage daughter Claudia’s social-media postings about her difficult family life, these people familiar with the matter said.
“I don’t remember every single specific conversation but I have a great working relationship with Maggie and everyone else on the politics team,” Lorenz said. “It is so disappointing that people are trying to sow controversy and instigate acrimony when there is none. Maggie is amazing. She’s talented and I'm so lucky to be her colleague.”
Following the conversation, Lorenz made a number of critical and disparaging remarks about Haberman in Times Slack chats, three people familiar with the matter said, including complaining about how the political reporter had treated her, and using the word “bitch” to underscore her frustration.
Haberman declined to comment for this story, and Lorenz said she had never made disparaging comments about Haberman or any other colleague “in any sort of public Slack.”
“People try to make me as the main character of every story about the New York Times,” Lorenz told The Daily Beast, saying she has recently questioned if she wants to have a public-facing role in journalism.
Meanwhile, the search for Sicha’s successor continues. Times insiders said the most likely replacement is Alexandra Jacobs, who has been acting as a sort of interim leader for the section since Sicha abruptly vacated the role. The New York Post reported that former Cut editor Stella Bugbee was in the running for the gig, but that Jacobs, a well-liked features editor who has been running the section in Sicha’s absence, is seen as having the fashion industry knowledge and editorial sensibilities necessary to take the helm of the culture, fashion, and lifestyle vertical. Dodai Stewart, the deputy editor for narrative projects at the paper and former editor-in-chief of the website Splinter, is also a potential candidate for the gig.
But the process may give some observers a sense of déjà vu from the last Styles editor search, back in 2017: As Vanity Fair reported at the time, several of the candidates included Bugbee, who reportedly turned down the job, and Jacobs, as well as Times media editor Jim Windolf. The gig ultimately went to Sicha.
—with additional reporting by Lloyd Grove