Robert Sam Anson: “Here are 12 things I learned during the 10 minutes or so I was editor of Los Angeles magazine.”

By Jack Limpert

The New York Times obit of journalist Robert Sam Anson ended with some lines about Anson’s short tenure editing Los Angeles magazine and what he learned there about being an editor. The Times said Anson reflected on the LA experience in a blog called “About Editing and Writing.”

Here’s the December 2013 “About Editing and Writing” blog post referenced by the Times:

An email I sent to writer Robert Sam Anson a week ago:

Going through old paperwork I found notes for a talk I must have given in 1995 about city magazines and while talking about covers I said “Los Angeles magazine has hired veteran writer Robert Sam Anson as its new editor. Out is Lew Harris, who had been at the magazine for 20 years. One of the reasons I hear Harris got forced out was his April cover.”

I had forgotten you were an editor—maybe because you don’t seem an LA magazine type. Have you ever written about that? If you have any good stories  about life as an editor versus as a writer, would love to have them for the About Editing and Writing blog. What did you learn editing LA magazine?

The reply from Robert Sam Anson:

Thank you for the note/invitation/good words. I especially want to thank you for saying that I did not seem the LA magazine type. Bless you for that.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned during the 10 minutes or so I was editor of Los Angeles magazine.

1. When the publisher informs you that you don’t need a contract or a lawyer, and that the salary being offered is most generous, check to see if their lips are moving. If so, they are lying.

2. Do not hire close personal friends, as they will immediately cease being friends, close or otherwise; will regard instructions you give as purely advisory; are likely to be in the forefront of any effort to undermine and/or remove you; and are effectively immune from professional improvement, however sorry their job performance.

3. Just because someone is a name-brand writer doesn’t mean they won’t turn in absolute dreck. They can and often do—and woe be to the editor who dares to try to make it readable.

4. If a deeply respected editing pro offers advice, take it. Alas, I didn’t. I asked my old friend Clay Felker what I should do on taking over. “Two things,” he  said. “First, take the existing staff out to the parking lot. Second, shoot them.”

5. Understand that while turning out an impossible-to-put-down publication is the end-all and be-all of your existence, it’s most unlikely that the same is true of the normal, well-adjusted people who work for you.

6. Magazines—especially those undergoing long overdue radical renovation—are inherently leaky institutions. Accordingly, do not be surprised when confidential editorial memos are quoted verbatim in the Los Angeles Times.

7. Providing job security assurance to permanent staff is a lovely practice. But expect neither gratitude nor editorial excellence to result.

8. Remember that you did not become top editor in order to make friends. Remember, too, that being feared in carefully calibrated measure has its uses.

9. When weeks of daily staff meetings pass without the offering of a single notable story suggestion, it ain’t a good sign. Solution: Stop pounding your head against the wall; start soliciting ideas from outside the magazine.

10. There is an inverse relationship between the sorriness of a magazine, and the willingness of those responsible for the sorriness to accept change.

11. It’s frequently said that Los Angeles is a graveyard for magazines. The reason it’s frequently said is that it’s true.

12. When the Walt Disney Company buys your magazine, and you’re well-known for all the critical things you’ve said and written about Disney CEO Michael Eisner, wear getting fired as a badge of honor.

Oh, one thing more: I came away from this experience with deepened, permanent appreciation for all the good editors do. Theirs is one helluva tough job.

My email back:

Bob – Why don’t you do all the writing on this? Do as much as you want about how you ended up as editor of Los Angeles magazine. – Jack

Robert Sam Anson’s response:

I was hired in late March 1995 by publisher Joan McCraw at a time when Los Angeles was owned by Cap Cities-ABC. I was then in the middle of what was—rightly—expected to be a not terribly friendly book about Michael Eisner’s management of the Walt Disney Company.

Why did I want the job? Well for starters, I loved Los Angeles, believe it or not, and knew the city pretty well, both from my Disney investigations (doing this book was like mounting the Normandy Invasion), but from frequent reporting expeditions for a variety of national magazines, especially New Times and Esquire.

Also, I’d been hired by Time as a correspondent right out of college, and the L.A. bureau was my first posting. I was there from 1967 to 1969 and covered politics (Tom Bradley’s first run for mayor, and Bob Kennedy’s 1968 primary campaign), organized crime, and a smorgasbord of mayhem, including the Sharon Tate killings (Polanski lived a few blocks away from me in Benedict Canyon, and bodies were still on the lawn when I arrived), racial disturbances, Bobby’s assassination, the Santa Barbara channel oil spill, and well, you name it. I was just a kid and had tremendous fun. Though I had a number of friends who were well-placed in Hollywood, I had zero interest in working there myself—a position from which I have not deviated till this day.

In August 1969, Time transferred me to the Saigon bureau, where I had an eventful time, including roundabout a month as a prisoner of war in Cambodia (I got picked up by the North Vietnamese). That was followed by a year in the New York bureau, which was my base for covering civil rights and anti-war doings coast to coast. (John Kerry and I became chums during the Vietnam Veterans Against the War business in Washington).

After I quit Time in the spring of 1972, I freelanced, wrote three books, and had a grand time being senior writer for New Times magazine. Then came the Disney project, and eventually Los Angeles magazine.

Do you know the saying, “Inside every great journalist is a bad novelist struggling to get out?” I wonder sometimes if “magazine editor” might be substituted for “bad novelist.” Actually, I must immodestly say that I thought I was pretty good running Los Angeles, where ad sales increased 20 percent during my first five months on the job. Circulation also went up, and we also got a bunch of publicity—not all of it, to be sure, admiring of yours truly.

As for why I took the job, well, I think every journalist harbors a hankering for running their own shop. I mean, how hard can it be? (That’s a joke, Jack.) I must say it was also nice having a regular pay check.

Anyway, my first issue of Los Angeles featured a column by yours truly recounting David Geffen’s unvarnished judgments about Michael Eisner. That issue was still on the stands when I was awakened at 5 one morning by Good Morning America, asking my reaction to Disney’s buying Cap Cities/ABC.

The same day, Terry Press, Disney’s fabulous head of p.r. and a friend, messengered a package to my office. Inside was a pair of mouse ears. In the publicity hub-bub that followed, an unnamed senior Disney executive was quoted as saying that Eisner would “scratch that itch” (meaning my employment as editor of Los Angeles magazine) in due time. Another piece identified me as one of the top ten losers in Disney’s purchase of Cap Cities. Meanwhile, I was readying a column for the second issue of the magazine. The subject: Michael Ovitz, head of CAA. The piece was about as nice to Ovitz as the one on Eisner. Sure enough, the issue was still on the stands when Eisner named Ovitz president of the Walt Disney Company.

The last act in this drama was a very lengthy, very critical (and only occasionally true) profile of yours truly (“Last of a Breed,” the headline read) in the Sunday L.A. Times. Suffice to say that shortly after the profile’s appearance, a statement was released from Joan McCraw’s office saying that Los Angeles magazine and Robert Sam Anson had “agreed to part ways.” I’d been on the job five months — and I loved every minute.

I’ve gone on way too long, and don’t feel obligated to use a word of it. I’m glad I went back to being a writer (I write books and am a contributing editor to Vanity Fair), where you’re responsible solely for the words you put on paper, not the lives and families of an entire staff. I have never worked so hard in my life as the five months I spent as editor of Los Angeles magazine, and I wouldn’t trade a second of it. I think it made me a better writer. And, boy, did it open my eyes about what editors have to put up with 24/7. That’s something I’ll never forget.

Albest,
Bob

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