What Editors Can Learn from Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi

By Jack Limpert

As pro football training camps start this week, here are two stories about how an editor and a publisher have used NFL coaches as inspirations for putting out successful publications.
Ed Kosner has been one of journalism’s most accomplished editors over the past 50 years: After college at CCNY, he wrote for five years for the New York Post, then for 16 years he wrote and edited for Newsweek, serving as the newsmagazine’s top editor from 1975 to 1979, when he became one of the many Newsweek editors fired by Katharine Graham.

In 1976 Rupert Murdoch had taken over New York magazine, made a mess of it, and by 1980 he needed a really good editor to bring it back to life. Clay Felker had started New York in 1968, making it an almost instant success (Tom Wolfe! Jimmy Breslin! Gloria Steinem!), but then had tried to build a media empire, starting New West magazine in Los Angeles and buying the Village Voice in New York City. By 1976 Felker had money problems and Murdoch swooped in to take over New York.

So in 1980 Rupert Murdoch needed a talented editor and Ed Kosner needed a job. Here,  from Kosner’s book, It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor, is how he went about it:
It was already clear to me that New York was on the way back, but the advertisers were standoffish. The big department stores never lavished ads on Felker’s New York, but once he was history some of them developed retroactive admiration for him and were frosty to Rupert’s magazine. And then there was the urban legend about a Murdoch conversation with Marvin Traub, the potentate of Bloomingdale’s. When Murdoch pressed Traub to advertise in the Post, Traub replied, “But Rupert, your readers are our shoplifters”—or so the story went. It never happened, of course. In fact the demographics of Post readers were closer to the Times then the News, and Rupert offered a $10,000 bounty to anyone who could prove the colloquy ever happened. But as a metaphor, the shoplifter story was irresistible and it lives on to this day.

As it happened, Traub was one of the first skeptical advertisers I had to try to win over. He showed up with his entourage  early on and played Scrooge. Traub was riding high in those days. Bloomingdale’s was being celebrated as a model of hip retailing, and he was its guiding genius. He and his underlings faced me in a circle in the New York dining room, grilling me about my plans for reviving the magazine. Traub’s crossed arms and sour expression made clear to everyone in the room that he was unimpressed with my answers.

The problem was that I was telling him the truth: I had no sexy secret formula for reviving New York. I was simply going to make everything about the magazine better: the ideas, the cover stories, the writers, the headlines and captions, the design, the listings, even the crossword puzzle on the back page. Week by week, issue by issue, the magazine would be transformed, and everybody would know it. In six months, all the qualms about New York would be forgotten.

I told him a story I’d heard about Chuck Noll, the pro football coach who’d taken over the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969. The team was one and thirteen in his first season but made the Super Bowl four times between 1974 and 1980 and won more of them than any other coach’s team. Noll’s simple rule was every time he replaced a player on the roster, it was with a better player. Over time, the incremental upgrade in every element of the Steelers—the offense, defense, special teams, and coaches—made them champions.
A different magazine, different coach:

In 1979, Philip Merrill bought The Washingtonian magazine. I had been there for 10 years and the magazine’s circulation had grown from under 20,000 to more than 80,000 but we weren’t making money. Phil knew how to run a business. He had bought the Annapolis Capital, the newspaper in Maryland’s state capital, in 1968 and made a big success of it. In 1977 he bought Baltimore magazine, and two years later he  bought The Washingtonian. He soon straightened out The Washingtonian’s business side and within a year we were profitable.

Phil was simple-minded in the best sense of the word. He had a great analytical mind and was laser-like at getting to the fundamentals of problems, then focusing everyone around him on solving those problems.

Early on, here is how I remember him describing what he thought the magazine should be doing on the editorial side.

He was an admirer of Vince Lombardi, the tough coach who in the 1960s had made the Green Bay Packers the best team in football. He said the mistake a lot of publications make when trying to get better is to keep trying to think up the equivalent of trick plays.

“You win by doing great blocking and tackling,” he’d say. “That’s how Lombardi did it. He didn’t try to get cute. He focused on blocking and tackling better than anyone else. That’s how he built winners.”

For Phil, that meant the editors shouldn’t try to think up stories that were the equivalent trick plays but focus on great reporting, great writing, clean design. He was willing to invest in talented writers and in stories that really meant something to readers. By 1988 our circulation was more than 150,000.

Ed Kosner was right about Chuck Noll, Phil Merrill was right about Vince Lombardi. You can learn a lot from great coaches.

If only one of the Harbaugh brothers could tell us how to win in the digital age.

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