A Chat With GQ’s Michael Hainey

Bespectacled GQ Deputy Editor Michael Hainey is a testament to timelessness. We're not just talking about his style either, although he does prove that a blazer, woven shirt, knit tie and jeans are a solid uniform for the modern man. As one of the shotcallers behind one of menswear's most revered periodicals, he's cut his teeth working for respected editors like Graydon Carter, who currently helms Vanity Fair. A seasoned editor and writer, he's also a firm believer in the values and good practices of journalism's good old days. Working in a generation of journalists and writers who sought truth and crafting a good story over generating social media buzz and pageviews, his new book, After Visiting Friends, sheds light on a world of hard-drinking, chain-smoking editors and a Chicago Sun-Times office that seems more in line with the work environment you'd find at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Ten years in the making, it documents his personal quest for the truth—finding out what happened to his father, Bob Hainey, copy desk chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, who died suddenly at the age of 35, supposedly found dead "while visiting friends," a curious alibi that not only provides the book's title, but impetus for the younger Hainey's journalistic journey. The gripping story debuted at number 11 on Amazon last week. "My publisher said it's pretty rare to come out of the box and do that, and I think that even for a moment, it surpassed 50 Shades of Gray—whatever that means," says Hainey. But perhaps what's more powerful are the e-mails he's received from people who read the book and find it's one of those stories that sticks with you long after you finish the last page. "It's a very personal story, but it's also universal; it elicits a lot of reaction in people," he says.

We caught up with the author to get some insight on the state of journalism, dressing well and what he makes of all this #menswear nonsense.

You've said that you can't be a good writer without being a good reporter, and you stress the importance of good reporting to younger journalists. How can one develop that old-school skill in today's media environment?

I would say get out from behind a desk, behind a computer. I don't say that as a crotchety guy. You'd be amazed how easy it is to send an e-mail, and people think that's getting a real answer from someone. You and I speaking on the phone allows for a truer conversation. If we were able to do that conversation in person, it'd be even better.

I think people these days, because of all the connectivity, it's easy to send an e-mail and think "oh, Michael answered the question. He told me how old he is." But you could also have coffee with someone and see what else you can find out. It's really making yourself available for interactions. A lot of times what you go in search of is one thing, but if you put yourself in the presence of people you want to talk to, you might find something you weren't looking for.

In the book, you recount an old trick from an editor and offer to buy coffee for some hospital employees to get them to help you out. What other sorts of methods promote more personal interaction with potential sources in a world that's increasingly impersonal—where e-mails and texts have taken precedence over phone conversations and meeting people face-to-face?

You're hitting the nail on the head with that point. When I called this woman from New York, I didn't get an answer. Same with e-mail. Even when I flew to Chicago, went down there and talked to her, she were still like "we don't have that information." Even though I say it's a "reporter's trick," buying coffee is also just doing something nice for someone. I was just asking for help. That woman we're talking about, Lynne, she proves to be pivotal in the story.

Two years later, even after she told me there was nothing there, she decided to keep looking. She told me "I just couldn't forget about you, you were nice, you were looking for this, and I wanted to help you." And again, as a reporter, you just need to put yourself in the presence of people, ask for help, and build those relationships. I've always felt if you want to learn what reporting is, and how to do it well, then read and watch All The President's Men. That's a huge story about taking down the president, but there are a lot of moments there of small, grunt work reporting—like going into City Hall to pull records—and today it's a lot of "oh the publicist gave me all the information," but the best stories happen when we just put ourselves in motion.

It's easy to get sucked into these vivid scenarios you've written. And having done a bit of reporting myself, I can feel your frustration when you chase a lead only to get a completely different answer than the one you were hoping for.

As reporters, a lot of times we have to keep making "one more call." I also think that maybe reporting prepares you for life in ways where maybe you sort of have to realize that if you keep searching, keep asking questions, you can find knowledge for yourself.

One of the things you talked about with David Coggins was how you called your father a "newspaperman" and your mother a "newspaperwoman." It was a very, very different world back then. What can today's "bloggers" learn from yesterday's "newspapermen?"

In my father's generation, journalism was still a craft, rather than a profession—what it is now. That's not a good thing or a bad thing. You're just no longer part of "the newsroom," you're part of "the media." I would say that the one thing I hope people take from that time are these skills of reporting and editing, because it was such a trade and there were guys who passed that knowledge on.

I think having a generation that's grown up creating blogs, Twitter, and working by themselves a world of opinion—I think they've missed out the benefit of having an editor, a top editor, or having a colleague that they can work on a story with. That's one thing I really enjoy about GQ, it's a collegial world and it's collaborative creativity. It's not for everyone, I think some bloggers are great as sort of independent frontiersmen out there, but there are some of those skills and knowledge from the past that I wonder if it's being passed on.

You wrote that your father made it a priority to dress well ever since his first day of college. You also have this older generation of journalists like Gay Talese, who talks about "dressing for the story," and obviously pay a painstaking amount of detail to their writing. Do you think that attention to detail also informs personal style?

*Laughs* That's a good question to ask about Tom Wolfe and his white suit. People forget now that was the ultimate act of rebellion for him. I guess it's all about elements of style, to use the E.B. White book. It cuts both ways.

You've also done poetry and paintings. There's definitely a more artistic side to you, how did this novel sort of help you expand on that, or was it more catharsis than expression?

I've always believed that being able to toggle between writing, painting, journalism works different parts of my creative energies, but I also see how they feed each other. Working on a painting I sort of look at as solving a problem, and just like when you're working on a story, you have to solve problems. When switching from words to images, you turn off one part of your creative mind, but you also feed both as well.

Was it especially hard to interview your mother and family as sources, asking them deeply personal questions and revisiting a painful past?

I think my mother is the hero of the book because she perseveres and has persevered after all these years. That takes a lot of strength and sureness of self to be able to say that this story should come out.

Gloria Steinem said, "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off." Did you feel a similar conflict when you discovered the truth and then having to reveal it to your family?

I've never heard that. It never pissed me off, but it made me know my family better, and my father better. I felt closer to my father after because I saw him more as a man at fault. If anything I felt a sense of calmness after.

So in this case, the truth actually set you free?

The truth sometimes provides closure, but I don't think we ever close the door on things. If you think about your own life, you might be pissed off if someone wants to break up with you, and you're so pissed off when they tell you the truth, but most of the time, a few days later, you're like "well, I'm glad they told me, rather than lying to me and going through this charade." Maybe most of the time we have a moment of being pissed, but in the end, it's knowledge. It allows us to go forward with our lives.

You've embraced technology and new media, going so far as to set up a Reddit AMA last week. Where do you see new media going, and where would you like to see it go?

It fascinates me to think where you and your generation are going to lead journalism. You guys are gonna provide solutions and come up with ideas for what journalism should and shouldn't be, but at its core, I think the values and integrity of journalism will always endure, which are: good stories, good reporting, and editing a reader's world for them. There's an 18-year-old right behind you whose perspective of what media is and how it should be delivered, available, and how one can use it to tell stories is probably different from what we think about, and I think that's exciting.

You sort of glorify and question this old school brotherhood of journalists—guys who may not have worked at the same publication, but drank with each other after hours, and looked out for one another. It was sort of an inner circle, similar to some of the criticism directed towards communities like insular #menswear bloggers. 

I think having any fellowship is good. Life is too short to not be comrades and colleagues. We all have to compete with each other, but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don't get to know each other. I think we're so busy, like myself with Fashion Week stuff—you gotta tweet, you gotta blog, you gotta shoot video—but the privilege and honor of working with really talented people who are your competitors and colleagues is a great part of the job.

You've said that sometimes Fashion Week has a world swirling around it, and that's what at the core of it—designers doing creative work—gets lost. Having been around it so long, is this more true of the way people write and talk about clothes now?

I believe that ultimately the more creativity is brought to bear on something, the better. Ten years ago, street style photographers were not there, and now they're there and it's part of the mix. People like Tommy Ton and Scott Schuman are pretty big brands that many people out in the rest of the world know.  And maybe there's some kid out in suburban Chicago who's 16 and sees this stuff, and it ignites a dream in him. That's great.

  • http://superdanger.us alex

    nice interview. good job jian.

  • http://www.brunopostigo.com Bruno

    I completely agree with his comment about brotherhood of journalists.

    While it might be lost with bloggers, it’s alive and well with photojournalists such as myself. I have friends all over the country and we always get together after working, and we look out for each other while working.

  • Infamaess

    This interview will stick with me for awhile.