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Ashley McKinlessNovember 17, 2022
Ashley McKinless and Matt Malone, S.J.Ashley McKinless and Matt Malone, S.J.

On Oct. 11, Matt Malone, S.J., sat down with executive editor Ashley McKinless for a final interview to discuss his years as editor and take questions from America’s staff. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

This month marked your 10th anniversary as editor in chief of America. So we’ll start at the end of that decade. Why are you leaving now?

The charge that I was given was to lead the organization through a transformation where it would become a multiplatform media company, to grow the audience and to get us to a place that was near or at breakeven. And we’ve accomplished almost all of that. We’ve done what I came to do, what I was asked to do.

Matt Malone, S.J., sat down with executive editor Ashley McKinless for a final interview to discuss his ten years as editor. 

I also think that turnovers are a good thing in the life of any organization. Ignatius believed that. If you’re too long in a job, you begin to develop blind spots because you get impatient having to deal with the same problems over and over again. That just creates blind spots, and you begin to mistake new problems for old problems. I think I should add something else that’s really important. Several of my predecessors as editor in chief were fired. And even when they weren’t fired, circumstances created very difficult transitions. So this is the first time since 1982 that America has had a transition that wasn’t a crisis. And I thought that was really, really important for the organization.

Where were you when you found out you were going to be the next editor in chief, and what were your first reactions?

I was studying at the University of London and at the Catholic University of Louvain. The president of the Jesuit Conference called and said, “Do you want to do this?” And my first reaction was, “Uh, not really.” Because the truth of the matter was that I used to work for a place in Massachusetts called MassINC, an independent think tank that published a magazine. I was the heir apparent to be the executive director and publisher of that magazine, but I left to go become a Jesuit. So after all these 10 years of formation, to come back and be doing the job that I could have been doing when I was 29 wasn’t that appealing to me. But that’s when I began to realize that I wasn’t being called to do this as some former incarnation of myself but as the current incarnation of myself.

What does reconciliation look like for a media company? I thought it had to be about bringing people together who were rapidly coming apart. 

I think I could have said no. I think I was given the freedom to say no. But if I had, there might not have been an America to come back to because we were in kind of desperate straits. I thought I had whatever combination of skills was needed to do the job. And lastly, I think it was in that first conversation, I asked Father Tom Smolich, “Do we own the building? Is the building in the name of the magazine?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Then this could work.” Because without the building, we never could have bought the time that we needed to transform the organization.

Can you paint a picture of what the magazine looked like 10 years ago?

It was Father Thurston Davis’s magazine that I inherited. You have the magazine before Thurston, and then you have the magazine after Thurston. Thurston is the first editor who really thought in a multiplatform way, even though he wouldn’t have articulated it that way; but he understood the power of brand and how that brand could be rolled out across multiple platforms. But 50 years later, we needed a magazine for the 21st century. That was clear because the way we were running Thurston’s magazine at that point was coming up against these market forces that were besetting every legacy magazine in the country.

What was your greatest fear at that time?

That we’d run out of time. That so many pieces had to move. We had to continue to publish the magazine. We had to start reinventing the content. We had to change the whole workflow. We had to go from a workflow that was entirely on paper and digitize it. And then at the same time, execute this commercial real estate transaction in Manhattan, get that done in time so that we had the capital to invest in staffing up and in improving the quality of the content, all in the hopes that there was an audience on the other end. Which I never doubted. I never doubted that. But what I feared most was that we would run out of time.

What I feared most was that we would run out of time.

So the building was necessary, but not sufficient. Is that fair to say?

I think there’s a certain sort of commentary about these events, inasmuch as they’re commented on, that, “Well, gosh, we could have done that at our magazine, too, if we had owned a building in Manhattan.” Well, like I said, that was one of my first questions: Do we own the building? We absolutely had to have it. But you still needed a plan. And what I was really opposed to doing was taking the $40 or 50 million that we would generate from the sale of the building and putting it into the magazine as it then existed because I didn’t think it was worth that. I thought that the brand, the charism, the mission of America was worth saving. But as it was instantiated in that weekly magazine in print, I didn’t think it was worth saving. And we wouldn’t be good stewards of the resources from that sale if we had just put all that money back into operating.

In your programmatic document “Pursuing the Truth in Love,” you said that the most important challenge we face is existential. The most fundamental question is, who are we? So did you know who America was? Or was that a process you were trying to figure out together with the team?

The answer to that uncertainty, that sort of questioning was: a brand, or what theologians call a charism. What is the essential identity of this group? Interestingly enough, this came to me when I was having lunch with some ladies from Glamour Magazine. They were at this Yale publishing course I attended. I asked them: “Well, what is this brand thing? What is the brand of Glamour Magazine?” And they said to me, “The brand of Glamour is: We are what you are talking about when the guys aren’t around.” And then this light bulb went off.

What does America do? We lead the conversation about faith and culture.

The word magazine doesn’t appear in that. So I began to think that as we went through a transformation, as we went multiplatform, the thing that would hold all of it together is this notion of brand. And if we could articulate this and bring it into the culture of the organization, so that it became just second nature to us, that would be our guiding light.

So that was all of that work we did on brand, getting to that place where we could say, America is your smart Catholic take on faith and culture. What does America do? We lead the conversation about faith and culture. We empower you to do the same. How do we do it? We do it by producing content that is relevant, unique, accessible and impactful. Why do we do it? To promote the evangelization of the United States, the faith formation of American Catholics and the progress of civil society. In lots of ways, the work of the last decade has been about operationalizing what I just said.

Another major part of “Pursuing the Truth in Love” was you expressing your concerns about polarization in the country and the church. Can you articulate what your concerns were back then and grade how we’re doing now?

I think we as an organization are doing really well. We can always be better, but I think we have by and large implemented what I articulated there in terms of what we were going to be. We’re going to be a place that was unafraid of having a diversity of voices, that was unafraid of ideas that were different from our own. From my point of view, what was most important in all of that brand work was the rediscovery of America as a ministry. And like all ministries, it participates in the one ministry of Jesus Christ, which is reconciliation.

What was most important in all of that brand work was the rediscovery of America as a ministry.

What does reconciliation look like for a media company? I thought it had to be about bringing people together who were rapidly coming apart. We had to bear witness to a different way of being. I thought that our sort of mindlessly mimicking the patterns of division and polarization within the church that we were seeing in secular society was extremely dangerous, that we were debasing the church’s intrinsic identity by doing that.

I remember when we published an article by Arthur Brooks, and it was like the end of the world for some of our longtime readers. What do you say to people who have loved America for a long time and feel threatened by this move—that something’s being taken away from them?

Part of the reason why I went back to the practice of the editor in chief writing the Of Many Things column every week was because I wanted to narrate for our readers and for the audience what was happening. And I didn’t want to get too far ahead of them. So there was a lot of narration work that occurred before we published Arthur Brooks. And what I discovered was a transition among our readers from “Why is this person in America?” to “I really don’t like this person’s ideas.” But the first objection has pretty much gone by the wayside.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, too. We have dramatically increased the size of our audience while pursuing this strategy. And I think that there are very few people who have read America for the last 20 or 30 years who would like to go back. I have a fundamental trust in the readers of America. I always believed that they were well educated, they were faithful Catholics, and they knew the Jesuits. And one of the things that they expect from the Jesuits, the Jesuits and our lay colleagues, is that we will say something different, that they expect something like the classroom of competing ideas that they experienced when they were students.

In the last few years, we’ve covered some really difficult stories in the church. I’m curious: On a more personal level, what has that done to your own faith and relationship with Jesus?

How has this affected me? This may seem odd because of what we lived through together—covering things like the Pennsylvania report and Ted McCarrick and these other awful, awful stories, these traumas we really lived through together—but my faith is stronger after 10 years in this job. Another way of putting it is, when I became editor in chief, I was far more worried about the church than I was about the country. Now the reverse is true. Part of that is that the survival of the church is safeguarded by the promises of the Lord himself, which the republic does not enjoy. He didn’t make them to the republic; he made them to the church.

But I have also visited the church in every part of this country. And I find that I’ve been much more edified than disedified by those encounters, the faith of Catholics, the work that goes on every day. All around us, people are encountering Christ for the first time. They’re being baptized, they’re being married, they’re being buried, they’re being fed, they’re being housed. People are accompanying them. People are holding their hand when they die or when they’re sick or when someone they loved has gone. All of that is happening all around us all the time, around the clock. That is the work of the church. And I’ve been in a very privileged position in this job to see that up close, and it really inspires me. It really consoles me.

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