Rachlis, class of 1965, recently reflected on his life at GCS at that pivotal time in New York City and his career in journalism. After graduating from Yale in 1975, Rachlis went on to become music editor and arts editor of The Boston Phoenix, executive editor of The Village Voice, editor-in-chief of LA Weekly, and senior editor of The Los Angeles Times Magazine. Under his leadership since 2000, Los Angeles Magazine has been nominated for a National Magazine Award five times and has won more city and regional magazine awards than any other magazine. His writing has appeared in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll and Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.
There was a remarkable and quite legendary Journalism teacher at Grace named Myron Jones who went on to become a good friend of my parents. He and my father even co-wrote a book under a pseudonym to make money very quickly, basically in one weekend. When I was in 6th or 7th grade, Myron had us read, among other people, Joseph Mitchell, a writer for The New Yorker, who was a Grace parent. His youngest daughter was in my brother’s class. I suspect that Grace was the only school in America that taught Journalism in English class and Myron Jones was held in high regard. Among the many unconventional things about Myron Jones is that he brought the great Irish short story writer, Frank O’Connor, to the curriculum. O’Connor’s work appeared in The New Yorker, like Joseph Mitchell’s. As a writer, O’Connor did not waste a single word and I suspect that we were the only middle schoolers in the United States reading Frank O’Connor and Joseph Mitchell. The Grace education instilled in us the beauty of language and how language can express itself.
Also, we attended daily chancery services, which were inspiring and their value is not to be underestimated. As the son of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, to hear the Old and New Testaments discussed every day, it was impossible not to be infused with the beauty of language.
I was surrounded by language at school and at home. Both my parents were journalists. My father wrote and edited books. My mother was a journalist, and she went on to become the head of the English department at Nightingale-Bamford. Books were a part of our household and so both Grace and my parents were an influence but it was the school that had the most influence on me. I have the greatest feelings for it.
The Winston Churchill of the school was the headmaster, Mr. Grant. The civil rights movement was part of the conversation at the time, and Myron Jones had friends who marched in Mississippi. I remember upsetting Myron Jones in 1964 by saying that we ought to stay in Vietnam. I was trying to be contrary. It was impossible not to be aware of all that in New York at that time. Historians do talk about New York in the mid-to-late 60s as a golden age. And certainly living in the Village was special. We thought of Washington Square as our yard. We played touch football there. My brother and I walked to school together when I was only about seven years old. There was a sense that it was a neighborhood and you knew the back alleys. Store owners knew who you were. There was also the sense of it being the center of the universe, something that New Yorkers suffer from. The truth of the matter is that there was a time when New York was the center of the universe. I can remember a horribly rainy May Fair. Everything had to be brought inside the school. It was chaos and everything was beginning to close down. I was in 7th grade and there were a couple of 8th grade girls and we were having a debate about whether or not Bob Dylan could sing. This was in 1964. The Village was the white hot center of our culture. Even if you were 10 or 11 years old, and you did not think of it that way, it filtered into your life.
I left New York for a few years after graduating from Grace. Still contrary, my oldest friend and Grace classmate, David Ratner, and I decided to go to boarding school. This was not what Grace and my parents wanted for me. Most graduates went to competitive public schools or private schools in the city. David went to Choate and I went to Middlesex where I then experienced the most miserable years of my entire life, proving that my parents were right.
Years later, I’m now a New Yorker living in Los Angeles and the dirty little secret is that these two very different cities have a lot in common. They are the two iconic cities in the United States. They are each in their own ways, the capitals of media. They are ferociously competitive places. These are, at least mythically, the places you go to if you want to be the best at what you are. Until late into the 19th century, Boston was where you went, then the culture switched from Boston to New York. I can’t say that the culture has shifted from New York to Los Angeles but what has happened is that the idea of one “center” is a lot less true now than before. There are many different centers such as Silicon Valley or Seattle for technology. But, I do think that New York and Los Angeles share this mythic status. There are a large number of New Yorkers in Los Angeles. New Yorkers either take to Los Angeles or hate it. What is striking to me are the differences. Los Angeles is a very young city. It didn’t become a modern metropolis until the beginning of the 20th century. In the 20 years since I’ve been here, the city has changed remarkably. It has become culturally transformed and I can’t imagine 20 or 25 years ago anybody saying that Los Angeles would be competing with New York to be a center for classical music; that it has two or three of the greatest art schools in the country and that if you want to be an artist it’s cheaper to live here than in New York. The great transformation is that these cultural institutions are clear and free of the entertainment industry, so prevalent in Los Angeles. One of the great pleasures of being here as a journalist is the sense that I can shape this, have an effect on this. I think that’s much harder in NewYork where there are layers and layers of history and people. One of the ways that LA is becoming more like New York is that in the past, Los Angeles was a meritocracy. It didn’t matter what your last name was and where you went to school. Your pedigree didn’t matter, if you had talent you could survive. One of the ways that Los Angeles has become more sophisticated is that now this is less true.
As for my career, with parents who were newspaper people, a father who wrote and edited books and a mother who was an English teacher, it probably was preordained that I would devote my life to words. On the other hand, I stumbled into this without thinking that I would do this. And, there are many things I love about it. I love, as an editor, the relationship with writers. Also, the process from the moment a piece is conceived to the moment it gets published is a remarkable, mystical experience. It’s one of the things that gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. Recently, in the midst of budget discussions, I had a long conversation with a writer about a piece the writer was working on. This was the most satisfying moment of my day, as the writer talked about the outline of the piece he was going to sit down and write. We talked about everything from ideas to structure. The other part that gives me enormous pleasure is creating a community of work. I care as much about that as I do about the product that we put out. We create a community from interns who are doing this for college credit to people at the highest level. They must feel absolutely engaged in what they are doing, that they are participants who can shape it. It’s not a democracy but they are contributing and have a part. Certainly people run organizations in different ways—some by fear, some with enormous hierarchy. But for me, having that community of work is of enormous value. I don’t think there is a hierarchy of ideas. Great ideas come from anywhere. What makes all of journalism special is that great magazines depend on the singular voice of a writer, more than anything else. And that individual voice cannot reach its full expression without the help of other people: fact checkers, researchers, copy editors, proofreaders, deciders, photographers, illustrators and obviously editors. It is a collective collaborative effort, and yet it’s all to help a writer sound absolutely like him or herself.
I hope that I’m smart enough to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am in all sorts of ways and also have no fear in telling me where I’m wrong and where we can do it better. We could not compete with many publications in terms of what we can pay writers so how we attract the best writers in Los Angeles is to treat them better than anybody else does. Like in schools—teachers who get to teach smaller classes, having the time to do it right, not being saddled with huge bureaucracies, all of those things make a huge difference. In the future of print and digital media, there is a distinction between newspapers and magazines. Newspapers are facing a fundamental structural change. The question for newspapers is, “What is the future of daily journalism?” All newspapers, whether it’s The New York Times or a small town newspaper perform the same function. That function is easily duplicated, or even done much better on the Web. The New York Times is much more ambitious, has much more professional standards, a much greater reach. It’s one of the one or two greatest news gathering organizations but its function is roughly the same as a smaller paper. They face this horrible crisis, which is how do you pay for it? That’s a long conversation but advertising is migrating to the Web and those advertisers that newspapers were able to capture can only be charged one-tenth to one-twentieth of what they are charged in print. It’s a huge crisis. Magazines, on the other hand, are not all the same and they don’t perform the same function. There’s a huge continuum of magazines. On one hand of the continuum is a magazine like Vogue. You cannot duplicate the Vogue experience on the Web. That gorgeous photography, not to mention those ads, is the principal reason why people pick up Vogue. On the other hand, Time and Newsweek on the other end of the spectrum, are seriously threatened by the Web and are struggling. The challenge that magazines face from the Web is different for each magazine. Most magazines are somewhere in the middle and so are we. Our challenge is to be able to manage this transition between print and Web. We have been discovering over the last ten years that what appears digitally will be different than what appears in print. We’re all learning how to discover this burgeoning media and are creating new forms to suit our readers.