Jonathan Alter Ruminates With Ed Kosner About Great Moments in Magazine Journalism

From a post on by Jonathan Alter headlined “Ruminating with Ed Kosner”:

My friend Ed Kosner and I didn’t overlap at Newsweek, where he worked in various capacities from 1963 until 1979, when Katharine Graham fired him as editor. He went on to be the editor of New York Magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News, the only person ever to edit four major American publications. Ed will be 84 this month and he still writes trenchant book reviews for The Wall Street Journal.

JON: Let’s talk magazines. We all know that most magazines are dying or dead–“pocket flop,” as you call it. That means magazines with so few ads that they flop in the newsstand rack at the airport. So what comes next for American journalism? With Google and Facebook grabbing so much of the available advertising revenue, what do we do? Have you got some ideas that aren’t much covered that we should all be thinking about?

ED: I don’t have any brilliant rescue plans for magazines or serious journalism in whatever forms. The advertising base that sustained great magazines like NewsweekThe New Yorker and others is never coming back and readers have been drawn away by all the other sources of information and distraction. Trump Derangement Syndrome gave magazines like The Atlantic  and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post a one-time shot of adrenaline, especially of digital subs.

But that’s not sustainable. I wrote in my memoir fifteen years ago that print journalism was likely to bifurcate. There will always be an audience of smart, successful people who need accurate news and savvy analysis from publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and such. And there will always be a market of sorts for low-brow celebrity rags and the like. But the middle-brow middle market in print is doomed. I’ve long thought thought that relatively benign billionaires like Bezos and Bloomberg supporting quality journalism is the likely outcome.

JON: It’s kind of a return to the era when newspapers in every city were owned by rich guys. At least Bezos and Bloomberg aren’t as bad as William Randolph Hearst and Colonel Robert McCormick. They and their ilk gave FDR fits. But overall, I’m very concerned about the demise of an authority structure in news—where moderate, factual reporting was believed by most people and the major publications had a stature that allowed for legitimate agenda-setting.

ED: It was really important what was on the cover of Newsweek and Time and what they said about things and that’s just the newsmagazines. I remember when I was the editor [of Newsweek] and I used to go traveling around the world. We were a little self-important but also actually important.

JON: That was partly because there were no national newspapers until the ‘80s [when the New York national edition finally caught on and USA TODAY was launched], unless you include The Wall Street Journal, which was for business people. Before that, when I was a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s, our only out-of-town access to the New York Times was the Sunday paper, which we had to reserve at Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago. There were only a handful of copies in the whole city.

ED: Yes, my parents had radio and, starting in 1947, television with its fifteen minute newscasts; my father brought home The New York Sun and my mother The New York Daily News. Later, I started reading The New York Post. When I was about fourteen, I subscribed to The New Yorker. It was a big event each Thursday when it showed up in the mailbox in its brown paper wrapper. In high school I started reading the Times and doing the crossword puzzle, which I’ve done ever since.

JON: The New Yorker eventually had real cultural influence.

ED: Hiroshima, by John Hersey in The New Yorker, was one of the most influential articles of our time. It was reprinted as a book and sold millions of copies. It’s a portrait of carnage and the moral complexities of the event.

The decision to drop the bomb arguably shortened the war. Without it, the coming invasion of Japan would have cost tens of thousands more lives on both sides.

JON: The second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki, was unnecessary but I likely wouldn’t be here without the Hiroshima Bomb. My father, who had flown 31 missions in a B-24 in Europe, was in California when Truman dropped the Bomb. He was getting ready to ship out to Japan, where they needed experienced aviators. His odds of survival were iffy. My dad loved Hersey’s Hiroshima.

ED: William Shawn was Harold Ross‘s butt boy for many years and it was Shawn who edited it.

JON: I recently did some research on the infamous 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, who kidnapped and killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks on the South Side of Chicago. For years, it was rumored that the killers had first targeted Franks’ grammar school classmate, William Shawn, who lived in the neighborhood. Turns out it’s not true.

ED: Before the war, The New Yorker ran a devastating takedown of Time [by Wolcott Gibbs], all in Timese: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” After the war, Shawn made the magazine more serious.

JON: I interviewed Shawn a couple of times when I was covering media for Newsweek in the ‘80s. He had a bowl of cornflakes for lunch every day at the Algonquin for, like, 50 years. A really long run at the top.

ED: You’ve got to have an iron ass. He had the stamina and he didn’t burn out.

JON: But he did have this passive-aggressive quality that could give people writer’s block. In the early 1970s, the Washington Monthly had a brilliant writer. She likely wouldn’t admit this, but after she went to The New Yorker, my understanding is that Shawn intimidated her and she wrote almost nothing for 15 years. After Shawn died, she wrote brilliantly again. She wasn’t alone.

ED: It’s much easier for some writers to respond to an editor who can be a bully, who’s yelling at you and being awful, because then you get mad and the adrenaline flows and you go, “I’ll show that fucker” and write a great piece. It’s harder when editors are recessive and nothing you write is smart enough and there’s this whispery presence and obsession with the right commas. The New Yorker in those days could be precious—and precious can be good. But it was also hermetic. Tom Wolfe wrote a famous takedown [in the ‘60s] where he called them [New Yorker-types] “tiny mummies.”

JON: When The New Yorker was sold to Si Newhouse in 1985, I called up Roy Cohn because I’d heard that he talked at 6:00 a.m. every morning to his two best friends from the Horace Mann School, Newhouse and Gene Pope, the founder of The National Enquirer. Cohn and Newhouse confirmed it and when I used their close friendship as my lede in Newsweek, it practically blew the roof off the New Yorker building on 43rd street. Roy Cohn is our new owner’s best friend! But I think it became a much better magazine under Newhouse and [David] Remnick, who in the last 20 years has done as much as anyone in the country to nurture great journalism.

ED: Definitely.

JON: But we’re hardly in a golden age. What do you think were the glory days of American magazines? When was their apex in the culture?

ED: There were different periods. In 1959, when I was a kid working on The New York Post, they sent me down to The Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia to interview whoever the hell was the editor of it then [Ben Hibbs]. I’m 22 years old and I go into this giant building, a colossus like Rockefeller Center. All for this one magazine—now long gone. This was also the period of Colliers, Look, and of course, Life Magazine. They were called “the slicks” and had huge circulations.

But the period that I think we’re really talking about is the ‘60s, when Harold Hayes was running Esquire, and Time and Life were still big.

JON: Your list of other great 20th Century editors were all New Yorkers. My list would include you but also editors of “thought leader” opinion magazines like The New Republic, The Nation, The Washington Monthly. So I’d put Charlie Peters—founder and editor of The Washington Monthly and my old boss and inspiration—and Michael Kinsley— the brilliant, long-time editor of The New Republic—on my list.

ED: I love Michael Kinsley, too.

JON: It’s hard to imagine but at Newsweek we had literally 100 times the readership of those little magazines and ten times the readership of the biggest newspapers. Critics in the ‘80s were already calling newsmagazines dinosaurs but we still had a circulation of three million paid subscriptions and an estimated 25 million readers.

People are surprised when I tell them that I’ve interviewed nine of the last 10 American presidents— either before, during or after their presidency. But it wasn’t because of me, it was because of the reach of Newsweek. After Nixon came to Newsweek for a three-hour coffee in 1988, my mother gave me a hard time for our cover, “He’s Back.”

When I was there [1983-2011], Newsweek, unlike today, was very much part of “the conversation.” But when you were there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it could actually change the conversation, right?

ED: In those days, Time was stodgy and no one was doing advocacy in newsmagazines. Oz [Osborne Elliott, the editor from 1961 to 1975] decided to change that by doing special issues with policy recommendations on big issues. The first [in 1967] was called “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done, a Program for Action,” which Peter Goldman, Larry Martz and I pulled together.

JON: Nowadays, it would be discredited for being written by three white guys. I noticed that among other things, it recommended “proper police training” and “welfare policies that guarantee minimum necessities.” Sounds like the reckoning of 2020.

ED: Some things have changed; others less so. The Johnson White House did pay attention. That cover seemed to have a lot of impact at the time.

And of course during Watergate we were breaking stories that moved the needle. And our covers were out there all week.

JON: They were really impactful. I still remember the summer I was 15 [1973] and saw that cover with a tape recorder on the roof of the White House.

ED: That was the favorite thing I ever did [as an editor]. I got the idea and a piece of paper and sketched it. In those days you could fly over the White House, so we chartered a small plane and Wally McNamee [legendary Newsweek photographer] used a telephoto lens. There was no Photoshop then so we had to do something called a dye transfer. Bob Engle, the cover editor, stayed up all night and took a photo of the reels at the exact same angle as Wally’s airborne shot, then superimposed it.

JON: We both knew Katharine Graham [the owner] well.

ED: She was wonderful but could be a little testy if we were unsophisticated about something that she felt she knew about.

JON: I had a great relationship with her. I know this was true of you, too, but at political conventions, where newsmagazine reporters don’t have deadlines until the end of the week, we would often have breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon coffee and sometimes dinner with Mrs. Graham and the most prominent politicians in town [other than the nominee]. Every day for two weeks. That’s 50 meals. She was tireless.

Why did she fire you?

ED: I was very smart and very good but very inexperienced in managing people. I was not good at conducting the members of the orchestra, and I felt very intensely competitive. I just knew better on a lot of things. I had what Oz described in another context as a “crisis of fellowship.”

JON: You were arrogant.

ED: I think I may have come off that way. I was a relative kid— 38 years old—when I was named the editor.

But there was an editorial reason, too. I had a deep gut feeling that the news magazines had to move beyond politics and business and deal more with popular culture and popular trends—high and low—Pavarotti to jiggling tits on television sitcoms.

Remember, at that time all these great movies were coming out and I put “The Exorcist”and a lot of other movies and television stuff on the cover, which led people to think that I was making the magazine soft. Now I was by background the hardest hard news person there was, but I had this conviction that “The Godfather” was just as important as Henry Ford II. But I overdid it.

In the summer of ’79. Pope John Paul II made his first trip to Poland, where he was from. I knew he was coming to America in October and I was going to put him on the cover then so I went with a cover about Hollywood scary movies. When I saw in an ad in the Times that Time had gone with the pope, I knew I was toast.

JON: You were hardly alone. She fired five editors in less than 15 years.

ED: I learned a tremendous amount from that. From that point on, I adopted from what I call the Robert F. Wagner School of Management. Wagner was the mayor of New York for 12 years but he was never seen to do anything besides sitting in his chair. And yet he built more schools than any mayor and did much more for the city in 12 years than anyone realized.

A light bulb went off in my head—I didn’t have to solve every problem right away, before people even realized it was a problem. I could let it marinate. A lot of times it’s best not to make a decision because 60% of the problems take care of themselves and you don’t have to go looking for trouble or commit yourself to do anything, but you do have to recognize an incipient crisis and act on it. That’s a good life lesson. In all the jobs I had after that, I had a totally different approach—calm, relaxed. When people would get so concerned about what we were going to put on the cover, I would say, “You know, I’ve never seen a magazine come out without a cover.”

JON: They said the same thing about Eisenhower. A Princeton professor, Fred Greenstein, called it “the hidden hand” approach to governing. Biden is like that, too.

ED: Given the horrors of Fox, it sounds strange now, but Murdoch was the best guy I ever worked for. In 13 years, he never once called to complain. He gave me plenty of resources and let me do what I wanted. He believed in “horses for courses” in New York Magazine.

JON: What does that mean?

ED: I means, what’s the appropriate thing for that publication. So New York magazine is a boutique and it should be attractive and smart, and it can be a little liberal. It doesn’t matter as long as readers like it and the ads come in.

JON: That’s been his approach all along. It’s all about the Benjamins.

ED: The most rewarding magazine to edit was Newsweek. The most fun was New York Magazine. And the worst for me was Esquire. I was not gaited to do a monthly. It’s a whole different cast of mind, trying to figure out if an idea will work next May, instead of next week.

JON: At the Daily News, you got your old friend Pete Hamill — who I did a documentary about — to come back to the paper to write for you, and he did a spectacular piece about 9/11.

ED: Well, Pete did a memorable piece. That day I said, “This story is, planes hitting the buildings.” Everybody else had people covered with ashes. I said, “Get me a picture of the plane hitting the buildings.” And the hours went by with thousands of pictures but not the right one. We finally got the picture [in the middle of the night] of the second plane approaching the building that was still up.

JON: The South tower.

ED: And I put on a red headline: “It’s War.” Ours was the only paper in the world that did that.

JON: You were right. And ahead of the curve, as usual. Thanks, Ed.

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