James Fallows

James Fallows

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 29 1997 3:30 AM

James Fallows

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       Here is my theory of what it takes to be happy (as I am) in newsmagazine life, despite the relentless pressure of its schedule and the normal human activity it forces you to lay aside. What was great about my previous life, as a writer for the Atlantic Monthly (which I'd been from 1979 until last fall), was the freedom to travel where and when I wanted, to arrange each day as I chose, and most of all, to see things firsthand and learn what it was like to ride in an F-15, or see the Burma-Laos border, or talk with the people who came up with questions for the SAT. What's hardest about leaving the reporter's life is no longer seeing things for myself. I spend my day hearing about what other people have seen, but can't come back with, "Yeah, but that's not like what I just saw in south Texas."
       The main offsetting satisfaction is the fundamental joy of running a publication, which, like being captain of a ship or even coach of a pro team, is one of the great challenges and privileges you can have. The editor-as-captain image often comes up: You're trying to get to a far-off destination, but moment by moment you're tacking or veering or worrying about the boiler or sending someone to the brig. You deal with an endless stream of small decisions that individually may not much matter but that someone has to resolve. While it would be great if all these decisions were wise ones, what often matters most is simply that you decide something--should this story be four pages or six? does it need a photo or a drawing? should it come before or after this other story?--and do it in a reasonably prompt and consistent way.
       If you wanted to complain--which of course I never do!--you could think of the resulting process as a dream in which your legs are endlessly spinning but you mainly kick up sand and don't get anywhere. That is because it is so hard to spend more than five minutes on any one task or subject, or to control what you will be doing five minutes from now. But if you wanted to appreciate the sense of full engagement that comes with this kind of job, you could think of each of the five-minute encounters as a step toward a goal that is surprising each time it's attained. That goal is to coordinate the efforts of two-hundred-plus people, with a whole range of talents and temperaments, to make a specific thing each week, under the daunting pressure of time.
       Here is what that process meant on Tuesday--which, remember, is one of the two low-pressure days of the week:
       The Big Main Goal I had set for myself was to work carefully through the longest story we're now planning for the upcoming issue. It's by a writer I respect on a subject I care about. We were considering it as a cover story for the week after next, but (with a bunch of changes!) it will go well in the Stock Market Aftermath series that, of course, we'll have to feature in the next issue.
       In my previous life I would have sat down with this piece and a pencil, and come out two hours later with a bunch of suggestions. In this life ...
       8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Sit in bed with the ThinkPad and the ISDN line, reading dispatches about the Hong Kong markets and so on, as we think about what kind of market package to put together for this week.
       10 a.m. Get to office. Next hour passes in a blur of phone calls and "do you have a minute?" drop-bys at the door.
       11 a.m. Start reading the Big Piece.
       11:20 a.m. Stop, and go to a big powwow in the art department to discuss what the point of various market pieces should be, and what length, and with what illustrations, and which artist to use for the cover. Briefly shed a tear about the brilliant cover we had commissioned for this issue but probably will have to dump because of the market news.
       11:40 a.m. Visit from a writer who found my supportive critique of an article yesterday to be less supportive than the writer had hoped.
       11:50 a.m. Recruiting conversation with another editor. Hotshot talent has just hit the market; interested in joining us. We are interested too ... and then we hear the asking price.
       12:00 p.m. Another personnel matter: moving allowances and so on for a staff member coming back from overseas.
       12:05 p.m. Because we're using up some future cover-story prospects this week, possible cover drought impends. One strong story has had legal complications. Talk with a lawyer about how to resolve them. Send appropriate instructions to the writer and story-editor.
       12:15 p.m. Back to the Big Piece.
       12:20 p.m. Another writer who found comments insufficiently supportive shows up at door.
       12:30 p.m. Back to the piece.
       1:00 p.m. Time to go to the cafeteria for another scheduled lunch with library staff members.
       2:00 p.m. Back to office and Big Piece.
       2:15 p.m. Conference call with four editors and writers to review lineup of the market pieces. Right writers on the case? Right allocation of space? What if the market--gasp--completely recovers? Is it still interesting then?
       2:35 p.m. Back to the Big Piece.
       2:45 p.m. Talk with editor and writer about a smaller piece for this week, explaining what my supportive comments meant.
       3:00 p.m. To a conference room to talk with small "design committee," collecting ideas for a variety of long-hoped-for adjustments in the magazine's design. Talk over procedure, substance, and pacing for their plans.
       3:20 p.m. Talk with owner, Mort Zuckerman, about a hot, possible recruit (not the one from 11:50), then talk with recruit himself.
       3:40 p.m. Back to the Big Piece!
       3:55 p.m. Long phone call with publisher, Tom Evans, about a variety of this-week emergencies and longer-term plans. He sounds as if he is on a train.
       4:15 p.m. Get briefing package about deposition tomorrow. Read and sigh.
       4:20 p.m. Back to Big Piece.
       5:00 p.m. Phone call from Fred Drasner, partner with Mort in directing the magazine, about various budget matters. He sounds as if he is on a plane (he is a pilot).
       5:10 p.m. Send message to author and supervising editor of Big Piece, telling them I'm almost done.
       6:00 p.m. Finish comments on Big Piece.
       6:15 p.m. Talk with photo editor about the endless battle of nature: the one between words and pictures for the fixed amount of space in each issue. Reach harmonic compromise.
       7:00 p.m. Drive home, having cruised through the second floor (where most of our writers are based) to look for reports and ask a couple of questions and be supportive.
       7:20 p.m. Dinner with wife!
       8:30 p.m. Plug in the laptop and the ISDN line and work through the first of three stories for the next issue.
       9:45 p.m. Son home from work on high-school paper. Expresses no interest in going into journalism.
       10:15 p.m. Back to the ISDN line.
       11:30 p.m. Done with stories. Time for a beer and for my secret vice of escapist reading (to be revealed later). Tomorrow we start again.

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