James Fallows

James Fallows

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 31 1997 3:30 AM

James Fallows

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       Tonight, none of that annoying waxy buildup. It's 1:35 a.m. I want to get out of the office; so here is the way the last 18 hours have gone.
       8 a.m. Up. In the background hear my son driving off to high school. Really try to look at papers this morning--last night didn't get to them until nearly midnight. Market news, China news, AIDS news, Nixon news--plenty of stuff to bear in mind as we get through the next two days.
       8:20 a.m. Log on to magazine's central computer through the ISDN line. (Subject for student essay: Modern communications systems--threat or menace? Discuss.) Promised to look at a story that one writer and two editors had been working on until nearly 2 a.m. Looks fine now! They stayed awake that I might sleep--last night at least. Get the final comments plugged in before they log on at 8:30 a.m. Get dressed and all of that.
       9:00 a.m. Go through the motions of collecting e-mail. Wonder what really is the point. Several months ago I realized I might as well stop even looking at paper mail, since I would never answer it. Knowing that it existed would only make me worry. Same has happened with phone calls from anyone outside the direct chain of command here. I still limp along with e-mail--but each week the unanswered backlog grows. Maybe this weekend I'll answer them. (Oh sure.)
       9:15 a.m. Go to bank to put in checks that have been sitting around for 10 days, waiting for me to "have time" to deposit them.
       10:00 a.m. Arrive at work! Ready for the final two days! Read through all the comments and reports and complaints about stories that should be closed (i.e., sent off, electronically, to the pre-press operation and then the printer) today.
       10:15 a.m. Say hello to Mort Zuckerman, in office next to mine. Admire his fit and rested look.
       10:30 a.m. Booking meeting! This is where we do actual journalistic business, taking story proposals for next week's issue from the various sections of the magazine, matching them against the space available, and deciding what we should "book" (schedule) and what we should kill, postpone, or ignore. Oops! Stories to be booked for this issue exceed available pages by 13 pages. Certainly better to have this problem than the reverse. (Problem in this case caused by two contending cover stories fighting it out for primacy in the same issue. Again, right kind of difficulty to have.) Hear descriptions of the various stories, reserve judgment in front of large group. Retire to executive chambers with Lee Rainie (managing editor) and Steve Budiansky (deputy editor) to carve up the pie.
       10:45 a.m. In theory it is time to start down the Sign Off Trail, known as the Trail of Tears in difficult weeks. This is the process of giving a final read to upcoming stories before sending them off to press. As the clock ticks between now and tomorrow night, story names appear in a special SIGNOFF file, various "top editors" work them over, and they leave the building--assuming they also make it through the fact-checkers, the proofreading room, the lawyers, the ever-surprising computer system, and so on.
       11:00 a.m. One of three-dozen talks during the day with Lee Rainie, coinciding with one of a dozen with MaryAnne Golon. MaryAnne, the photo director, had commissioned a big-name, big-ticket New York fashion photog to do a special cover for us this week. This is the cover that, because of breaking news, will never appear. (I am revealing no secrets here. All newsmagazines will have covers on the same news-related theme next week. I have no inside sources at Time or Newsweek, but I'm sure it's true. Check it out next Monday.) MaryAnne brings along Jerry Sealy, our cover-designing whiz, to show the cover we will actually use, which is fine--and then, just to make us wince, the one we paid for, but must keep to ourselves. On one wall of my office I have the nearly 60 covers that have appeared in my time here. On another wall, the covers we loved, but for some reason couldn't print.
       Time for an executive decision! For the cover we will actually use this week, two serious contenders for the main cover line. (You know, the huge type saying "More About Diana!" and so on.) One is artier in its phrasing; the other is more direct in telling people just what we have inside. Art is fine, but this week we have to be direct.
       Noon. An unbelievable surprise! I see my wife Deb, on one of the last two days of the week! She is downtown and stops by. I say hi, say "this will just take a minute," and sit at the Atex. She wanders down the hall. (I find her later on.)
       1:00 p.m. Back to the Sign Off Trail. Working yet again on the same Big Piece that occupied so much of my time--when was it?-- two days ago. Seems like last month.
       2:00 p.m. Mmmmmmm! Time for lunch! I walk outside the building to the hot-dog cart run by an Ethiopian woman and buy a delicious pork product. This is not the way it worked in Henry Luce's day, I suspect. Our building cafeteria is being converted to other uses; I don't feel like walking to an adjoining one we are allowed to attend. Construction in our building may subject the hot-dog woman to a windfall-profits tax.
       2:10 p.m. While still savoring the taste of pork and ketchup, get a visit from Bill Cook, our science writer. Hot tips on new software and other topics of mutual interest. Discuss what we would do if we owned our own airplanes.
       2:15 p.m. It is a beautiful day in Washington. Go downstairs, change my clothes, and head out for a run in Rock Creek Park. Decide after two miles that I probably should turn around and come back. Change and shower in the basement. Come upstairs feeling chipper.
       3:00 p.m. Energetic and talented young reporter shows up to apply for/be recruited for a job. Tell him that the newsmagazine life is stress-free and almost like a paid vacation. Detect skepticism on his side.
       3:45 p.m. For novelty, decide to return a few phone calls. Then sign-off reading on two medical-related stories for this issue. Erica Goode (culture and ideas editor) detects my need for emotional lift and passes me a copy of a very good article she has booked for next week. Read it and feel emotionally lifted.
       4:15 p.m. Back to sign-off reading. Think of Bill Whitworth, the Atlantic's sainted editor, going through long galley proofs of articles and asking the right, penetrating question at the right place. No illogicalities could hide from him. Try to ask questions that would crop up in the reader's mind--consciously or unconsciously--and distract him from what the writer was trying to say. Try not to ask so many as to prompt staff revolt. Also bear in mind that the minutes are ticking away until press time.
       5:00 p.m. Sign-off reading of the lead essay of the issue called "One Week." This one, by Gregg Easterbrook, actually has a surprising twist halfway through, like a short story! Impressive considering that it's just one page long.
       5:15 p.m. through 6:30 p.m. Glued to the phone on secret activities. To be revealed only when Bob Woodward tells us who Deep Throat is.
       6:30 p.m. With Lee Rainie again. Budget questions, decision for cover stories over next two weeks, personnel redeployment, other stuff.
       6:45 p.m. MaryAnne Golon and Jerry Sealy reappear. Moral decision. Do we use a little tiny part of the previously scheduled gorgeous cover on our breaking-news cover? We make a decision. See the results for yourself on the newsstand on Monday.
       6:50 p.m. Ten more minutes of secret activity on the phone.
       7:00 p.m. Read one of the stories contending for extra space in next week's issue. Decide that this is one that can be held. Pick up the phone to call author and tell him--naaah, will do it tomorrow.
       7:10 p.m. Pick up a meal ticket and join the Chow Line--the queue of people who will be working late into the night and thereby qualify for a gala free meal brought in by a local restaurant. While looking over the array of sandwiches, wonder if Henry Luce ever ate dinner from a plastic box. Compare notes on corporate dining habits with Damon Darlin, "News You Can Use" czar.
       7:20 p.m. Settling down for serious Sign Off Trail traveling, sandwich on my desk, Beach Boys playing on the CD. Comforting sounds of my youth.
       Through 10 p.m. One story after another on the Sign Off Trail. Hope that endless exercise of the critical faculties ("What exactly is the point here?") does not permanently stunt creative ones.
       10:00 p.m. More good news! Another delightful story for following week pointed out to me. Feel happy. And a good one for this week too! Joy knows no bounds. Phone call from a prized employee who has decided not to take attractive job from rival organization. Hallelujah. Rumor that someone else we want to keep is being recruited by alien forces. Write note to myself to send out truth squad tomorrow. Phone call to publisher, Tom Evans. Phone call from owner, Mort Zuckerman. Goodnight call to wife and son. Feel well connected to all significant figures in my life.
       10:30 p.m. Signed off on everything that is signable at the moment. But then--the ever-changing life of the news hound!--there is a story that needs some more substantial changes. And it is ... the Big Piece I know about so well. Discuss it with Jim Impoco, business editor, who is lurking in New York. Decide that I am the guy to make the changes. And that is what I have been doing until ... Midnight.
       Midnight. Linc Caplan (special projects editor), signing off the last of his articles in what would have been the cover package, appears at door putting on his sweater, asking how much longer I will be. Interest is partly humanitarian; partly, he wants a ride home. I suggest he take a cab.
       1:55 a.m. The present. I will leave the building by 2 a.m.
       (Picture of person asleep at 2 a.m.) This is your brain.
       (Picture of person with raccoon eyes sitting in front of Atex terminal at 2 a.m.) This is your brain at a newsmagazine. Any questions?
       One more day.

James Fallows is the editor of U.S. News & World Report.