Glimpses of a Once Great Magazine

By Jack Limpert

At a meeting of the American Society of Magazine Editors in the late 1980s, editors were invited to talk about tricks of the trade and some of the lessons they’d learned. John Mack Carter, then of Good Housekeeping, told editors “Go out to lunch,” making the point that the worst thing editors can do is to stay in the office too much. He also advised, “If it ain’t broke, break it,” making the point that an editor should continually be engaged in creative destruction, always looking at parts of a magazine for signs of people going through the motions. But Rick Smith, then editor of Newsweek, got the biggest response with this one: “Never leave the payroll sheets in the Xerox machine,” admitting that it once happened and caused lots of headaches.

In the early 1990s, at a National Magazine Award judging, I shared a cab with Oz Elliott, who had edited Newsweek for 15 years and was then teaching at the Columbia J school. He said he was seeing a shift in journalism from a passion for good reporting to more stories that had lots of attitude but not enough reporting. He saw attitude as a cheap and easy way for a writer and a magazine to get attention but not a editorial strategy that would keep readers.

In September 2010 the Washington Post Company sold Newsweek, giving up on a magazine that Philip Graham, with help from Ben Bradlee, had bought in 1961. Graham died in 1963, but Newsweek under Katharine Graham and her editors was lively and fun to read, always seeming to have better reporting and more life than Time. But then in 2006 Don Graham, Phil and Katharine’s son, installed Jon Meacham as editor of Newsweek—an eminent author and historian Meacham may be but his Newsweek was spectacularly dull and it slipped further behind Time, opening the door for Tina Brown to take over as Newsweek editor. Oz Elliott died in 2008—one can only imagine what he would have thought about Tina Brown’s cheap thrills approach to editing, and then killing, his once-great magazine.

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