When Writers Try to Run Things

By Jack Limpert

By 1987 the Newhouse family had taken ownership control of the New Yorker and Si Newhouse surprised the magazine’s staff by replacing longtime editor William Shawn with an outsider, Knopf book editor Robert Gottlieb. The New Yorker staff was angry that they hadn’t been consulted—they had expected Shawn’s successor to be someone already at the magazine. In a letter, 154 New Yorker staff members asked Gottlieb to withdraw his acceptance of the editor’s job, and what happened next was described by Elon Green in a story for The Awl, a New York-based website. For magazine lovers, a wonderful piece of history.

In late 1968 when I was hired to edit The Washingtonian, the writers also weren’t happy. (I know comparing the New Yorker of 1987 with The Washingtonian of 1968 is like comparing the Yankees to a rookie team but there are parallels.)

The Washingtonian had been started in 1965 by Laughlin “Loc” Phillips, an heir to the Jones & Laughlin steel fortune. Loc’s father Duncan had come to Washington from Pittsburgh in the early 1920s and had bought paintings from many young artists who became well-known. Most of that art now is at the Phillips Collection, a much-loved museum in DC. Loc had grown up in Washington, and after serving in World War II and then in the CIA, he decided to start one of the first city magazines.

At the beginning The Washingtonian ($3 a year) tried to be like the New Yorker in tone. In late 1966 Loc hired Mark Baldwin, a bright, young journalist, to edit the magazine. Mark was an editor who would have been happy at a magazine like today’s  Mother Jones—his strongest passion was being against the Vietnam war. So in a few years the magazine went from being a low-key clone of the 1960s New Yorker to having all kinds of hard edges. It was a good magazine in its way but it wasn’t The Washingtonian the subscribers had signed up for.

Loc was soft-spoken and gentlemanly to a fault, in contrast to the more activist Mark and many of his writers. As the magazine floundered on both the circulation and ad side, Loc began to assert himself as owner. Mark resisted any input, at one point telling Loc if he made one proposed editorial change he’d quit and most the writers would quit with him.

That finally was it for Loc. In December 1968 Mark was out.

I had come to Washington in July 1967. I had a Congressional Fellowship for the year 1968, but had come early to start a weekly newspaper, the DC Examiner, for O. Roy Chalk, a wealthy businessman who hated the Washington Post. I hired Tom Shales and other talented young writers, got the paper started, and then went on the fellowship. I began in the Senate office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, doing routine Capitol Hill stuff, but in March 1968 President Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for reelection and Vice President Humphrey became a presidential candidate. As the campaign heated up, I was assigned to ride the plane that carried the writing press—that meant I got to know most of Washington’s top political reporters. After Vice President Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in November 1968, I was looking for another job in journalism. In December I accepted a job as editor of a group of weeklies in San Diego, but several days later I got a call from Loc asking if I’d talk with him about The Washingtonian. He invited me to his home and described the Washingtonian job. Having fallen in love with Washington, I said, “I’ll take it.” He asked, “Don’t you want to know how much money you’ll be making?” Okay, I said, and he said, “$15,000.” It was $5,000 more than I’d been making in California.

What Loc didn’t tell me right away was the awkward situation I’d be walking into— angry writers who had told Mark they’d walk out with him. My lucky break was in having gotten to know so many DC reporters on the campaign trail. I had no problem getting good stories for my first few issues.

The boycott by Mark’s writers? One by one they called with story ideas and in a month or two most were again writing for the magazine.

One lesson: Writers may feel some loyalty to an editor but their own careers are much more important—and should be. As at the New Yorker, any righteous indignation on the part of the writers quickly gave way to getting published and getting paid.

Second lesson: Writer or editors who threaten to quit unless they get their way are on thin ice. As an editor, I had no problem with someone getting a job offer and asking me to match it—I did it more than once. But a young editor once sat me down and told me he’d quit if his job couldn’t be changed more to his liking. My answer: “I’m sorry to see you go.”

Final lesson: Any editor who thinks he or she is the most irreplaceable person at a newspaper or magazine is asking for trouble. Every morning an editor should look in the mirror and remember that writers are more important than editors. And writers should remind themselves that they’re important but they aren’t running things.
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Most of this narrative is a result of conversations with Loc Phillips. Mark Baldwin and I never talked about it—he was gone when I arrived at The Washingtonian. If he remembers all this differently, he’s welcome to add his recollections and comments.

Comments

  1. Tom Shales says:

    Jack — Among other things, you have deftly evoked those turbulent, passionate ’60s. Today’s digital kids, so concerned with being “cool” and indifferent, will never understand. Meanwhile, I’m sure you’ve seen the movie “Shattered Glass” about a plagiarist run amok at The New Republic — and perhaps chuckled at the initial righteous indignation of staff writers who half-threatened to quit over what seemed to be a defining point of honor. Those are really so few and far between, and moral victories so rare. Oh and thank you for the kind & generous adjective.

  2. Well, Jack, this is a friendly response, with a note that better reporting uses more than one interested source. I’ll give you some first-hand background before talking about your last points.

    “Activist” has a meaning when it comes to reporting. In the case of the old Washingtonian, I’d say we practiced “responsible journalism.” It is true that I was fiercely against the Vietnam war, and I must say that Loc and his partner Robert Myers were reasonably good sports about it, both having been in the CIA. (My single contact on that said that Bob did well for himself.) But they went along with articles, some political, some straight reporting, some cultural, where the headlines, at least, leaned against the war.

    There was, for example, a profile of North Vietnamese leaders by Tran Van Dinh, who knew them personally. We also published his translation/rendition of Kim Van Kieu (virtually unknown in the west) that was translated into several languages. There was the piece by John Steinbeck IV on GIs smoking dope in Vietnam, a straightforward first-hand report that caused congressional investigations, and a conclusion that nope, no soldiers smoked dope in Vietnam. (Do you know why the copy of that issue in the Washingtonian library has that article razored out?) Loc and Myers even let me publish an anonymous essay by a former Washington Post reporter that excoriated J.Russell Wiggins for, among other things, making the Washington Post into the “liberal” voice that enabled LBJ’s war, for which he received the UN ambassadorship. That piece infuriated Ben Bradlee who had long been kind and helpful to me. He wanted me to name the writer, but I did not, and, to his credit, neither did Loc.

    It wasn’t all “progressive.” My first article was a profile of your old boss, O Roy Chalk, and I wrote about learning to race sports cars. Some of Larry Massett’s pieces on music were among the best written. Engineer Bob Burruss wrote probably the first piece published on ambient electro magnetic radiation from broadcast towers, microwaves, and other sources. Madeleine Lundberg’s devastating investigation of area emergency rooms was so well researched that one ER was shut down, at least one more thoroughly revamped, and there was not even a hint of legal objections by the hospitals. The Washingtonian, in those days anyway, never published “exposés” of already settled cases: it was all original reporting.

    On Loc: was Laughlin Phillips a bright light? No. But he was a gentle man who wanted to make a contribution beyond his father’s, and I was brash and did not give him the respect he deserved for his taste. I apologized to him for that before he died. After all, I had done my school homework sitting in the Phillips Collection, his old family home, and in later life I came to deeply love some of the artists that he loved. I think that ultimately he felt diminished and not enlarged when he came to his office at the Washingtonian.

    On the Washingtonian failing? When I went to it, the magazine was a thin society rag on its way out. When I left the circulation had grown by at least four times. I believe it won a “most improved” award from the Columbia journalism school (along with Newsweek) but Loc liked to be the front man in those occasions and I didn’t pay much attention to those things.

    On my quitting and taking writers with me? I can see where the idea could have scared Loc, but it’s a fiction. If any writers stopped writing for the Washingtonian, I’m pretty sure it was only a few, because they were personal friends who I had brought along. Other personal friends continued. I even suggested a story idea to one of them. I am almost certain that I asked nobody to quit. (I can document that, with those who are still around.) I was devoted to the magazine, and spent long long hours at it. Many of those hours were getting Loc and Myers to pay writers what we owed them, sometimes months after publication. Our total editorial and art budget was $3,000, which I think was what Esquire was paying for its cover art, and, from my glimpses, was less than the perks that Loc and Bob were allowing themselves.

    But you’re right. Loc probably wasn’t happy with the magazine becoming “progressive.” He wanted to be respected in his circles. He told me, over some drinks, that he was not happy in his personal life, and I did not make him happy about himself. I think he wanted a magazine more like you made it. I think he did not know how to make that happen, but Bob Myers did (with Loc’s complicity, I’m sure). On Christmas eve Bob insisted that Freddie Baumer, the competent, dedicated copy editor, come in and type letters for him and Richard Contee, the advertising salesman, because his secretary was off and Freddie was the only other woman in the office. Bob, smart guy, knew exactly how I would react to that. (Looking back, the women’s movement was just getting started, and I’m glad to have been involved in one of the early skirmishes.)

    Being indispensable? You would have concluded your piece differently if you had ever talked with me, Jack. A long successful career in establishment journalism seemed like a losing idea to me, and I wasn’t as smart as Andy Kopkind or James Ridgeway. After the Washingtonian I was offered other jobs, including running two magazines and a news bureau, but I stepped out of Washington and out of that business before I was thirty, and never looked back.

    regards,
    Mark Baldwin

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