Cynical veterans of the newsmagazine business will tell you that our week really begins on Thursday. For years, there was a superstition among Newsweek writers that you should never kick in a story before Friday, because the editors would be sure to kill it when they started ripping up the book close to deadline. A lot of that has actually changed in recent years, as we’ve realized that we have to do more planning and less “crashing” to come up with stories that will feel fresh the following Monday. Even so, there are still many weeks when we have to react to late-breaking events. So it was that at 10:30 a.m. yesterday, I joined the small crowd in Managing Editor Jon Meacham’s office to watch what President Bush would say to the United Nations about going to war with Iraq. As soon as Bush finished, we quickly reached a consensus that the speech had been very tough and effective, but also surprisingly solicitous toward the U.N. In the unilateralism vs. multilateralism, Donald Rumsfeld vs. Colin Powell debate that we had written about in this week’s cover package, Powell seemed to have won. We spent a few minutes comparing personal reactions and insights then started to figure out what it would mean for the magazine. Were we devoting enough space to Iraq? Which stories should we add? Which should we kill? How could we advance the ball beyond the conventional wisdom that was already congealing all over cable TV?
I’ll spend most of the next two days making nuts-and-bolts decisions like that. It’s both the hardest and the easiest part of my job. Hardest because the hours are long (I’ll be here until midnight on Friday and all day Saturday) and there’s a lot of work to do. (I’ll read almost every story in the magazine and approve most of the layouts and graphics.) Easiest because it’s a “drill” that I’ve now been doing for two decades. I love the minutiae of putting out the magazine: crafting headlines, helping writers organize stories, and playing with the jigsaw puzzle of “making up the book.” But in this job I’ve had to train myself not to get too bogged down in it. I now try to leave a lot of that work to the excellent editors around me so I can focus on the “big picture”—choosing and supervising the cover, coming up with story ideas, hiring and motivating great talent, and representing the magazine to the outside world. When I first got this job, a friend of mine who’s a management consultant warned me that the biggest problem with most executives isn’t that they have weaknesses, but that they overuse their strengths. To be a good leader, he said, you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone. I know it’s corny, but I wrote that down and tacked it to my office bulletin board so I would see it every day.
At noon, I headed upstairs to our corporate dining room for a “command performance”: lunch with the board of directors of the Washington Post Company, Newsweek’s owner. Usually the directors meet in Washington, where the Post Co. is based, but once a year they convene in New York, and after their meetings Newsweek Chairman Rick Smith asks a group of editors and writers to brief them on the big news stories of the day. In addition to Post Chairman and CEO Don Graham, the group includes business legends like investor Warren Buffett, entertainment mogul Barry Diller, and Alice Rivlin, the former vice-chair of the Federal Reserve Board and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Although they always seem interested in our insights and gossip, we can’t help but be a little nervous about impressing such a formidable group. But yesterday there was a lot to talk about, and my folks held their own very well. Jonathan Alter and Fareed Zakaria analyzed Bush’s speech and talked about the global and political benefits and risks of going after Saddam Hussein. Our media business correspondent Johnnie Roberts reported on the behind-scenes politics at AOL Time Warner and how that merger became such a mess. The most interesting moments for us, however, came when we got to hear what the board members had to say. At one point Johnnie was talking about synergy, and Buffett blurted out: “When you hear that word, you know it’s a bad deal.” As usual, the Oracle of Omaha got the biggest laugh of the day.
At the end of the luncheon, Don Graham said some nice things about our recent issues, then shook my hand goodbye and drifted away in his sometimes inscrutable way. It made me think of the first time I met him: in 1978, when I was a college intern in our Washington bureau and he came to a Fourth of July party at the office. I had rarely met anyone, let alone a boss, who seemed so warm and so reserved at the same time. I had started interning for Newsweek during the summers because I was a financial-aid student who needed a job, and it beat working in the college kitchens. Although some friends recall that I dreamed of becoming the editor even then, I know that privately I considered that a bit of a long shot for a black journalist. But I eventually came to work here and never left because the stories I got to cover were always interesting, the people I did it with were so smart and fun, and I gradually came to appreciate that I worked for a family and a company that were unusually honorable. (I really saw that when the Grahams rallied around my predecessor and mentor, Maynard Parker, as he was dying of cancer.) As a kid, I had moved every year until I was eight years old and watched my parents’ marriage fall apart. I had attended two different colleges, gone to graduate school, and backpacked around the world before taking a full-time job at Newsweek 21 years ago. After all that, I guess I learned that when you find a good thing, you don’t mess with it.