James Fallows

James Fallows

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 28 1997 3:30 AM

James Fallows

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       The big difference between weekly newsmagazines and other parts of journalism is the tyranny/oddity of the weekly schedule. At a newspaper, the tension rises during the day, but then it's over, and the presses roll, and you can go home and have a beer. At most monthlies, you're working on articles at different stages of completion for a couple of forthcoming issues at the same time, and no one week is that different from another.
       At a newsmagazine, each day of the week has its distinct personality, dictated by how many hours are left until press time. U.S. News goes to press on Friday night, so from Wednesday afternoon on, activities like "planning" or "extra reading" or "physical exercise" or "seeing the family" melt away, in favor of whatever is necessary to get pages off to the printer. Monday and Tuesday are the days when the pressure is off--and the trick is to avoid the temptation to blow them off altogether. Anyone who's worked for more than two months at a newsmagazine has seen at least one case of an issue being completely remade on the last day because of breaking news. Knowing that you could do the whole issue at the last minute, if you had to, can make it tempting to wait until the last minute for the always-vexing work of writing or editing or making big choices. One of the standard jokes of newsmagdom concerns a different national weekly (OK, Newsweek) where no writer wants to see his story on the lineup at the beginning of the week. Since everyone knows the plans will be torn up on Thursday, writers type away at Potemkin stories, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, until the last day--when the adrenalin surges and they really try for the stories that will actually appear.
       But it's Monday, and we're trying to use it to think ahead. The different sections of the magazine have their 10 a.m. staff meetings, throwing out ideas and possible assignments. We have a grand nearly-staff-wide planning meeting at 10:30, talking about the issue just behind us and hearing about stories lined up for this week. From then until 3 p.m., the kind of activities that get shoved to a Monday because there is no time on other days of the week: recruiting efforts for new staff members; resolving turf wars among existing staff members; lunch with four of our librarians, as part of a rolling meet-and-dine-with-the-staff project; discussion about new computer equipment we need. Half an hour of the work editors theoretically spend all their time doing: reading a projected cover story and suggesting changes.
       And then ... the stock market crashes! Actual news! If this were a Thursday or Friday, the solution would be obvious: Rush it on the cover. Now the drama of the next week is set, as we decide how to cover what is obviously real news--and cover it in a way that will still seem compelling a week from today, when our issue appears, and people have a week's worth of TV and newspaper reports behind them. Stay tuned.
       7 p.m. Drive home from work, find something from the refrigerator for dinner, warm it up and eat it while watching the TV news about the crash--I mean, "correction," as the president and all the newscasters say. My wife and younger son, a senior in high school, are away on a college visit. Plate on my lap as I sit on the couch, I think of Humphrey Bogart's line from The African Queen: "A man lives alone, he gets to living like a hog." Fortunately they're only gone for three days and get back late tonight.
       8 p.m. Take out my beloved laptop--the ThinkPad 560, first portable since the Radio Shack Model 100 a decade ago to show complete elegance of design--and plug into the ISDN line that connects me with the magazine's central computer. Spend the next two hours "top editing" a couple of articles from what we had been planning, until midafternoon, as the cover-story package for this upcoming issue. This assortment of stories will still run, unless in the next four days the San Andreas fault opens up and every famous person with an in-the-can obituary dies, and similar unignorable news pops up to complement the financial news of the week. But it will run inside, and might as well be taken care of before the end-of-the-week closing rush occurs. "Top editing" means going through a piece and asking all the "hey, wait a minute" questions that the writer and story-editor have not gotten around to dealing with, but of course always in the supportive and constructive spirit for which editors are famous.
       10:30 p.m. Get a call from U.S. News' owner, Mort Zuckerman, inquiring about how we're planning to cover the financial chaos. Ask him for market tips.
       11:00 p.m. True to spirit of advance planning, work through investigative piece planned for two weeks from now. Send back many supportive suggestions to the writer. Look through proposals, now appearing on the computer, for how to cover the financial story.
       12:30 a.m. Wife and son arrive. Happy family reunion. And so to bed.

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