The New York Review of Magazines » Features http://nyrm.org The New York Review of Magazines Mon, 28 Jun 2010 15:19:22 +0000 en hourly 1 Back From the Dead http://nyrm.org/2010/06/28/back-from-the-dead/ http://nyrm.org/2010/06/28/back-from-the-dead/#comments Mon, 28 Jun 2010 15:04:48 +0000 Marvin Anderson http://nyrm.org/?p=2708 Vibe is alive and hip-hopping.]]> By Marvin Anderson

After Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, people around the world paid homage. He was a black icon who sprouted out of rubble and crossed racial boundaries in ways unlike any of his musical predecessors — a feat that was, in its own way, duplicated by Vibe magazine. In the infancy of their careers, both struggled to grow in a demanding marketplace. Both redefined their images to reach a diverse group of fans.

And both died in the same week.

On June 30, 2009, Vibe’s staff learned that the magazine it had lovingly nurtured was folding after 16 years. It had climbed to a high position in the crowded music magazine industry, elbowing competitors out of the way as its circulation rose to more than 800,000 by the end of 2008. But as the recession increased in severity, Vibe was hit hard. Circulation and ad sales dwindled. Staff reductions and other budget-cutting tactics by the owners, Vibe Media Group, were not enough to keep the magazine alive. When its closing was announced a year ago, circulation numbers had shrunk to little more than 600,000, The New York Times reported.

Danyel Smith, who was Vibe’s editor when the end came, e-mailed a letter to various media outlets: “On behalf of the Vibe content staff it is with great sadness, and with heads held high, that we leave the building today. We were assigning and editing a Michael Jackson tribute issue when we got the news. It’s a tragic week in overall, but as the doors of Vibe Media Group close, on the eve of the magazine’s sixteenth anniversary, it’s a sad day for music, for hip hop in particular, and for the millions of readers and users who have loved and who continue to love the Vibe brand. We thank you, we have served you with joy, pride and excellence, and we will miss you.”

Vibe was just one of 428 magazines that closed in 2009 (according to MediaFinder.com), but for a generation of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and neo-soul music lovers, it was a shocking loss. Vibe had been a platform dedicated to their lifestyle, a voice for a previously overlooked segment of magazine readership.

It began in 1993, when Quincy Jones joined with Time Inc. to create the publication. “You had a lot of thriving black culture,” said Emil Wilbekin, one of the founding editors. “There wasn’t anything to really cover that world. You had bits and pieces dedicated to this, but you never had a magazine dedicated to this. We were creating something that was culturally moving the needle.”

What started as a small venture turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with not only a thriving magazine, but award shows and multimedia components as well. The publication launched in the midst of hip-hop’s rise and it chronicled its evolution — and its assimilation into the pop-cultural mainstream.

Vibe helped to legitimize the culture,” said Erik Parker, former music editor at Vibe. “The music was legitimized by the record sales, but Vibe did a good job of putting this on the map.”

As Vibe grew and hip-hop was recognized as a genre, not just a phase, competing publications appeared, but Vibe was always a step ahead with its professional page design, crisp photos and exclusive access to artists. By the time the millennium arrived, Vibe had grown into something that was more than a magazine. It had become a quintessential part of the culture it covered and a recognizable brand.

Vibe to the hip-hop community is like Meet the Press for a place of political discourse,” said Parker. “It’s a measuring stick for culture.”

The news of its demise caused a stir in the power center of  the music community, where some of its greatest fans — writers, publishers and media moguls — work. They refused to let it stay in the grave.

Rumors of a relaunch started almost as soon as the death notice had been posted, beginning with Quincy Jones, who talked about repurchasing the magazine. Ultimately, however, it was a private equity fund, Intermedia (which also owns Soul Train, and Latino and gospel music channels) that bought Vibe and all its assets in August 2009 and immediately relaunched it – online. Then, on Dec. 8, the magazine reappeared in print, as a quarterly.

The 120-page relaunch issue had singer Chris Brown on the cover 10 months after a physical brawl with his former girlfriend Rihanna, an R&B and pop singer, led to his arrest and, eventually, a plea-bargain sentence of community service and probation. Some readers and journalists thought it was risky for Vibe to return to the magazine racks with a cover subject who was tainted with reports of abusing his ex-girlfriend, but Vibe’s new editor, Jermaine Hall, saw the Brown cover as the perfect setup for success: something dramatic, informative, with a sexy element. “I wanted to give the guy a chance to apologize and give him a chance to tell his side of the story in a place he feels comfortable,” he said. Although he declined to release specific sales figures, Hall said, “The numbers look good.”

He also said the magazine is performing well online, at Vibe.com, with help from social media like Facebook and Twitter. Again, however, he would not reveal specific numbers. Before Vibe relaunched, said Hall, “The magazine was the focus and the website was secondary.” Then, just one person was dedicated to the website, but now, Hall said, he has a team of five people working on the site and related social media.

As for the print magazine, the new owners are planning to increase the frequency to six issues for 2011, but not beyond that. “That’s where we need to be for now,” Hall said, as he rubbed his brow. His eyes were slightly red and fatigue was written on his face. Bringing an iconic magazine back from the dead is hard work.

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Behind Enemy Lines http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/behind-enemy-lines/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/behind-enemy-lines/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:02:30 +0000 Ali Gharib http://nyrm.org/?p=1826

By Ali Gharib

In a nondescript office building on 16th Street in Manhattan, Nir Rosen is pruning his new book. He rests his bulky frame on the floor as his editor peppers him with questions. They’re in the process of cutting down the manuscript from about one thousand pages to five or six hundred. “I just wrote down everything I had,” says Rosen, smiling behind a dense black goatee, face fringed with a little stubble on his cheeks and neck. “I think it’s going to be better than the last one,” he offers, referring to his debut book on the Iraq War. Wearing jeans, a maroon T-shirt and an Adidas warm-up jacket, Rosen seems more relaxed than he probably ought to be — his second book on the war, which he’s covered for most of the past seven years, is more than a year and a half overdue.

He has made a career of staying relaxed in situations when he shouldn’t be — cool enough, for instance, while visiting a charred and blood-soaked Iraqi battleground in the summer of 2003, to notice a single deflated soccer ball. That image, used in a resulting Time magazine article, is an example of Rosen’s abilities as a war reporter — from a single, throwaway line, the reader immediately imagines the fighters kicking around the ball the day before the bloodshed. It’s only one of the innumerable telling details observed first-hand and then reported by Rosen in publications ranging from Mother Jones to The Atlantic.

He writes long in an era during which even the The New Yorker rarely publishes stories of more than than 10,000 words — he produced double that in a Boston Review piece on Iraq’s civil war. Commenting on Rosen’s stories, his editor at the Review, Deborah Chasman, says with a laugh, “They’re long. They start out longer.” It’s quintessential old-school magazine writing — lengthy, detail-rich scenes and blocks of analysis — but what makes his work unique is often the hook: “If you propose something crazy,” says Rosen, “they’ll accept it.”

Sitting in the same room as Rosen, listening to his low, thoughtful speech, you don’t get the feeling he’s so crazy — not until he regales you with stories of his travels. Take his journey two years ago into Afghanistan’s war-ravaged south. It started as the sort of Hollywood elevator pitch that gets a freelance writer an assignment in four words: “Embed with the Taliban.” It ended with an article — published in the October 2008 issue of Rolling Stone, clocking in at more than 8,400 words and titled “How We Lost the War We Won” — that is a harrowing tale of a highway laced with craters and smoldering truck carcasses, leading to a Taliban-controlled enclave of wind-worn mud huts where, in a dangerous climax, Taliban fighters detain Rosen. After a few days, a high-ranking insurgent official checks in from Pakistan and orders his release.

Rosen regards the story as a “failure” because he wasn’t able to “embed” with the fighters. He intended to capture the Taliban in action — going on patrols and raids, and rendering services — not to be captured himself. But he’s undaunted. “I’m sure I’ll do it again,” he says, with a cautious grin, “but when I think about it, I get panic attacks.”

Despite the gonzo assignments, this is serious war journalism, providing America with the rarest of perspectives on its numerous ongoing wars: the other side of the conflict. Reporting extensively from Iraq, Rosen gained access to both the Sunni insurgents and anti-U.S. Shia militia of Muqtada al Sadr. The Taliban experience speaks for itself. He has tried to embed with Somali pirates and failed — twice. Nonetheless, Rosen gets closer to more disparate active enemies of the United States than any other reporter working today.

He first tried to become a journalist in 2000. He traveled to Serbia after two years of dating a native and picking up the language. Then just 22 and, by his own admission, “foolish,” he was arrested at the border for trying to re-enter on a single-entry visa. His cellmates, a gang of neo-Nazis, did not take kindly to Rosen. But, thinking quickly, in a move literally stolen from a Val Kilmer movie, he splashed himself with water to simulate perspiration, did pushups to raise his heart rate and cut his own forehead. Complaining to the guards that he was sick, Rosen was taken to the hospital and then spent the rest of his 10 days in the clink in cushy conditions sipping coffee and watching television.

Rosen wrote that hospital duty was a “charmed life.” Considering all the situations he’s slipped into and out of over the ensuing years — not to mention his professional successes — the phrase is something of an understatement. Rosen, now 33, has been detained five times, mostly by non-state actors.

Charmed or not, his life began in Manhattan, where he was raised by a father from Iran and a mother from Jerusalem. He went to the High School of Music and Art, where he met his future wife; they have been married for five years now and have a three-year-old son. After high school, he attended American University, where he studied pre-law. But it didn’t agree with him, and he dropped out. He got an unpaid research job with Scott Armstrong, a former investigative reporter for The Washington Post and the founder of the National Security Archive, and he worked at nightclubs to make ends meet. Both jobs would prove fortuitous. Armstrong had contacts. And at the doors of the clubs, Rosen met members of D.C.’s large Middle Eastern population and built up a store of knowledge about that part of the world.

When the invasion of Iraq became imminent, Armstrong hooked him up with Time and Rosen headed to the region for take two of his journalism career. He fibbed about his reporting experience, overstated his grasp of Arabic, and on April 13, 2003, three days after Baghdad fell, he arrived in the country where he would spend the bulk of his time over the next seven years.

Rosen’s rise to elite war correspondent — and to his unique position in the journalism profession — was sudden, if not meteoric. Just six days after his arrival, he had his first byline in Time on a piece called “Marines Cast as ‘Mongols’ in Baghdad.” The story recounted an incident that foreshadowed the oncoming disaster for the occupying Americans: With no maps, a Marine platoon had haplessly interrupted a massive Friday prayer ceremony spilling onto the street in the Adhamiya district. None of the soldiers knew Arabic, and they couldn’t read the banner that said, “We reject foreign control.” The Iraqis began to stand up, put their shoes on and become visibly angry. Rosen sprang into action: “I ran to advise the Marines that Friday prayers was not a good time to show up fully armed,” he wrote. “They referred me to their lieutenant, who appeared oblivious to the public relations catastrophe he might be provoking, and merely responded, ‘That’s why we’ve got the guns.’” The tale says much about American hubris and lack of preparation, as well as about the Iraqi resistance organized around the mosque — the imam preaching that day had compared the United States to Baghdad’s Mongol invaders of yesteryear.

But Rosen had misgivings about his professional arrangement. He says he felt that Time focused too much on the English-speaking elites of Iraq. And his editors wanted him to write stories about the atrocities of the previous regime — he cites an assignment to profile a woman raped by Uday, the notorious son of the fallen dictator Saddam Hussein. “In postwar Iraq, and everywhere in the world — I hate to use the word the ‘street’ — but I thought that was much more important.”

Rosen’s view of his work hints at an attitude of transparency that is relatively uncommon in his sort of reporting. In Baghdad, he quickly befriended a group of Iraqis of his age group. “They ended up being very useful,” he says. Eventually, they started introducing him to people in militias. His access and stateside profile began to rise in tandem, culminating in an article for the July 5, 2004, issue of The New Yorker, a nearly 5,000-word story detailing life in insurgent-controlled Fallujah in the aftermath of a major battle there in April. In early May, U.S. forces withdrew and, soon after, Rosen went in. The strength of Sunni fighters at the time Rosen visited was demonstrated after he left, by the Second Battle of Fallujah in November and December — the heaviest urban fighting Marines have engaged in since Vietnam.

For the story, Rosen tells me, he reluctantly agreed to his editor’s request to tip his hand in how he got around Fallujah. “I was able to avoid being taken hostage or killed because I speak Arabic and have olive skin and black hair and, when asked, I said that I was Bosnian,” he wrote. “More important, I was traveling with a Palestinian who had helped the resistance leaders during the fighting.”

His appearance is something Rosen dwells on. “I have a huge advantage over other Western journalists,” he tells me, pointing at his face. “How I look.” The first time I met him, briefly, at a think tank conference in D.C. in 2008, he was dapper in shiny black shoes, jeans, black blazer and white shirt — the top buttons undone, exposing a little chest hair. Since then, I’ve seen Rosen sporting everything from chin-length curly locks to a shaved head, from a tight goatee to a full beard (which he grows out when he wants to travel inconspicuously in Afghanistan). He’s tall and large — he was once a club bouncer, after all — with huge biceps and a barrel chest.

But his intimidating size belies his amiable nature. As we eat lunch at Chipotle by Union Square — Rosen orders a steak fajita with double veggies and double meat — he seems genuinely happy to talk. Asked if he travels with security in war zones, he says, “My smile is my security,” flashing a charming ear-to-ear grin. Rosen made his initial street contacts in Baghdad by approaching locals his age. “People want to talk to you if you’re nice,” he says, peeling back the fajita shell and eating its contents with a fork. He then built the relationships by becoming friends (he kept in shape, he says, by going to the local gyms with his new acquaintances). No wonder his list of contacts is so extensive.

Rosen also maintains a large network of friends among the mainstream and progressive press, and in government and the military, as well as in hotspots abroad. While he views embedding as a potential compromise of journalistic independence, he has done it nonetheless. In 2009, he was given a copy of a dossier on him drawn up by a military contractor as part of the embed process. His Rolling Stone article, it said, was “highly unfavorable to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan … portraying the situation as hopeless and doomed to failure.”

Rosen concurs with the assessment and commends the military for accepting his application despite the report. He says, however, that he was empathetic with U.S. soldiers in the war, whom he notes he has much more in common with than their adversaries. Those adversaries, though, remain the bread and butter of Rosen’s reporting. What sets him apart is not his embeds with U.S. forces, but those with the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, and his attempts at embedding with Somali pirates and, coming soon, with Mexican drug cartels.

Rosen’s street-level friends in the parts of the world he covers prove most beneficial to his unique writings, introducing him to people they know in various militias. “I doubt they read my stuff,” Rosen says of the often-violent underground groups he covers closely, as we sit on a park bench in Union Square after lunch, with birds chirping and dog-walkers strolling by. “The people that would behead me probably don’t have LexisNexis.” But friends who put him in touch with some of the less savory characters, he says, vouched for him.

He declines to place himself precisely in the political spectrum but adds, “I’m closest to anarchist, I guess.” One thing is certain, though: Rosen is unabashedly against foreign occupations of nearly any sort — especially those of the sort the United States conducts. He admits that some of his views are “extreme” and “angry.”

At a forum at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in late February, before he gave a talk on counterinsurgency, I said hello to Rosen, who was dressed in a tight, pink Polo sweater and khakis. “I just got back from ‘liberated Baghdad’ yesterday,” he told me, thoroughly drenching the phrase with sarcasm. Later, during the question-and-answer session, Rosen declared that while 9/11 was a tragedy, the U.S. reaction was more tragic. “How many Afghan civilians do we have to kill before we realize we are the terrorists?” he asked, speaking softly into a microphone. The audience was older than a typical journalism school crowd, and a few people gasped and muttered to themselves, though no one objected aloud.

Despite the unique insights in Rosen’s reporting — many stateside policymakers read his work — his close contact with enemies of the state has led to harsh accusations. In a long piece for U.P.I., reworked for The Atlantic, Rosen made a case for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Neoconservatives howled: “No wonder Rosen has such great access to the Baathists and jihadists who make up the Iraqi insurgency. He’s on their side,” The Weekly Standard’s Scrapbook feature said about him.

He has also paid a professional price. In April 2008, when asked by then-senator Joe Biden what could be done to improve the situation in Iraq, Rosen replied: “As a journalist, I’m uncomfortable advising an imperialist power about how to be a more efficient imperialist power. I don’t think we’re there for the interests of the Iraqi people.” He then, however, went on to say that U.S. withdrawal could ignite ethnic tension, acknowledging the dangers of pulling out. Rosen thinks the “imperialist” quip cost him a lucrative job as a contributing writer at the The New York Times Magazine.

Despite his left-wing inclinations, Rosen has still grown into a respected war reporter, writing for a long laundry list of top publications — virtually every major rag read by anyone who’s anyone in Washington. The Times Magazine, Time, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Salon.com and Harper’s have all published his work. “He probably has more sources in the insurgency than any other American reporter,” acknowledged The Weekly Standard while in the same breath accusing him of being a traitor.

“A lot of these people who are debating what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing it more from an ideological perspective — they’re severely hampered by their lack of detail,” says Steven Clemons, a foreign policy thinker at Washington’s New America Foundation, where Rosen was once a fellow. “I think it’s that granular on-the-ground awareness that makes Nir more difficult to discount. He’s seen and heard Muqtada al Sadr. While he’s got his views, which are clear and distinctive, his real sword and armor is his appreciation for the facts.”

Clemons is right. Rosen has gotten the stories, and he’s not beholden to his ideology. Ahead of this winter’s Iraq elections, many pundits were making dire predictions of a new round of open sectarian warfare. Rosen demurred, writing a spate of articles declaring that the civil war was over. But his evidence, culled from walking the streets, was still boldly critical of U.S. policy — the ethnic cleansing of many neighborhoods had been successful, leaving monolithically sectarian neighborhoods unlikely to produce conflict. So far, his theory has been borne out. The election and the slow process of forming a government have gone down with little violence.

His fearless independence allows Rosen to do things like embed with the United States’ enemy. He’s beholden to them for his safety; he gets permission from clerical authorities, militias and even Taliban defense ministers to roam freely. But he is not a propaganda tool. He maintains a critical eye and, later, reports honestly on what he saw.

Rosen’s “sword and armor” have also attracted the attention of the United States’ own warriors. Military and intelligence types read his work, Rosen says, beaming with pride that his efforts get noticed. Attention from power circles clearly matters to him. He says he has little interest in writing for magazines — GQ is an example he uses — that are not likely to be read by policy makers.

“I want to get [U.S. Gen. David] Petraeus and [left-wing professor Noam] Chomsky to blurb my book,” he half-jokes. “It’s hard to criticize my facts because I’ve gone places where other people with my politics haven’t.”

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The Most Widely Read Magazine in the World http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/the-most-widely-read-magazine-in-the-world/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/the-most-widely-read-magazine-in-the-world/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:52 +0000 Joel Meares http://nyrm.org/?p=1504 The Watchtower a mass-circulation empire.]]>

By Joel Meares

It’s the first Saturday of March and a perfect day for Jehovah’s Witnessing. The sky is clear, the air is crisp and a fresh copy of The Watchtower, stamped March 1, 2010, is ready to be distributed.

At least, I assume it’s a good day for Witnessing; this is my first time. Frank and Lydia Tavolacci — from a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Glendale, Queens — have invited me along for a morning of door-knocking in their mostly residential neighborhood. A longtime recipient of the Witnesses’ famous “good news” wakeup calls, I jumped at the chance to see what it’s like on the other side of the door.

The day begins at the small, red-brick Kingdom Hall on Glendale’s Myrtle Avenue, where about 40 Witnesses gather in couples and families. Some thank Jehovah for the blessed day, others thank him for the coffee that got them here by 9 a.m. A few quick hellos in the Hall — a trapezoidal room with churchlike rows of chairs, a churchlike stage but no churchlike iconography — and the Witnesses head downstairs to arm themselves.

Their ammunition is The Watchtower and its companion magazine Awake!, each sitting in piles on a bench in the beige basement-level hallway. At first glance there’s not much difference between the two — both are flimsy, pamphlet-like 31-page monthlies, each colorfully adorned with photos of smiling faces and illustrations of Biblical happenings. But while Awake! is an attempt at a general interest magazine — travel and science stories, with a Witness twist — The Watchtower is strictly Biblical, its contents a doctrinal guide to Witness beliefs. March’s cover boy — a bearded scribe writing at a desk awash with golden light — sits over the cover line: “The Bible, Is It Really God’s Inspired Word?” Inside, a table of contents provides the answer. Page 4: “The Bible Really Is God’s Inspired Word.” Page 8: “Why You Can Trust the Biblical Gospels.”

Frank takes six copies of the English-language Watchtower, while others select from of piles of Romanian, Italian and Polish editions. Every month, nearly 40 million copies of The Watchtower are printed in more than 180 languages and sent to 236 countries. There are no subscriptions and you won’t find it on newsstands, but it’s still hard to miss. Thanks to the efforts of Witnesses like the Tavolaccis, The Watchtower is the most widely distributed magazine in the world, with a circulation of more than 25 million. Last year, the world’s 7.3 million-strong Jehovah’s Witnesses spent 1.5 billion hours knocking on doors and “street Witnessing” — stopping folks in parks and on streets — to preach the “good news” with a copy of The Watchtower. Its closest competitors are AARP The Magazine (circulation 24.3 million) and Better Homes and Gardens (7.6 million). It doesn’t hurt that The Watchtower has been free since 1990, with the option of a small donation.

Armed with their copies, Frank and the other Witnesses at the Glendale Kingdom Hall head back upstairs for a pep talk. “Elder” John Juels leads the 10-minute session from the stage, offering tips on how the congregation might keep doors open this morning. Frank Tavolacci calls it “a little bit of rah rah rah.”

“Raise a topic of interest,” suggests Juels, a short, bespectacled man in a bright orange tie. He invites a young blonde, “Sister Rachel,” up from the crowd to the stage for a role play. After a quick knock-knock and some polite doorfront introductions, Juels says the government is a hot topic right now, so Witnesses might raise the spectre of Governor Paterson to keep their bleary-eyed targets listening. “The government of Jesus Christ is coming,” he tells his mock door-opener. “Certainly God would do a better job than some of the people we have today.”

After a prayer, the group divides into pairs to tackle a block of Queens for the morning. I join the Tavolaccis to cover the block directly next to the Kingdom Hall. The two Glendale locals have dressed for what they call “the best volunteer work there is.” Frank’s wearing a checkered beret, gray suit and orange tie, and Lydia has wrapped herself in a chic, ankle-length black coat, her long blond hair tucked under a black woolen cap. Both are 40, gregarious and equally endowed with the kind of thick “Noo Yawk” accents you might expect to hear heckling the umpire at a Yankees game.

Their first door belongs to a large, two-story brick home on the wide and leafy Union Turnpike. Stepping up to the door, Lydia switches off her BlackBerry and tells Frank to get Psalm 104 ready in his black leatherbound Bible. Hers is a little tatty from use. Passages are highlighted, verse numbers circled and dozens of bright orange and pink sticky notes peek out from pages. Lydia is out on “field service” for at least two hours every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Ringing the bell, she asks Frank to hold The Watchtower so it is visible to whomever should open the door. Nobody does.

After three minutes, she rings again. She always rings twice. Again, nobody answers. On a piece of yellow paper called a “House Call Card,” a Witness couple working in tandem with the Tavolaccis notes the address and writes “NH” next to it, for “not home.” Other codes include “CA” for people who ask Witnesses to call again, “B” for busy and “C” for when a child answers the door.

And so it goes. NH, NH, NH. “It’s not a chore,” Lydia insists, as they move on to a woman who dismisses them with a curt “I’m Catholic.” “I mean, it’s not something you want to do, but it’s an important thing to do and it’s something you can do for God. You’re saving people’s lives.”

Frank and Lydia get their chance at the second-to-last house on the block. Amanda, a teenager with pulled-back frizzy brown hair opens the door wearing pajama pants decorated with pictures of milkshakes and the words “Shake it baby!” She is in the mood to talk. “Do you believe the Bible is inspired by God or just written by man?” asks Lydia in a sweet, slow elementary school teacher’s voice. “Inspired,” answers Amanda, after taking a moment to think.

They talk for five minutes before Lydia returns to the sidewalk and takes a purple-covered diary from her bag. On the top leaf of a pad of heart-shaped sticky notes inside, she writes down the scripture they discussed and which Watchtower edition she left behind. She promises to return next Saturday.

“I want to come back with a good question,” she says, clearly excited by Amanda. “Like, ‘Do you think we’re living in the last days?’”

While some magazines have religious followings, few have actually started religions. The Watchtower did just that. Back then, it was Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, so named by its founder, the writer and preacher Charles T. Russell. A former assistant editor of the Second Adventist magazine The Herald of the Morning, Russell released the first edition of Zion’s Watch Tower on July 1, 1879. It looked much like a newspaper of the time, with two columns, simple headlines and no images. Inside, readers learned that “we are living in ‘the last days,’ ‘the days of the Lord.’”

Russell, a charismatic Pennsylvania preacher with a big graying beard and an even bigger bank account, amassed followers in the years leading up to 1879 through public speaking tours and writings in newspaper columns and the Adventist magazine. He began questioning Adventist doctrine when the world failed to end, as it had predicted, in 1878. Russell used the monthly Zion’s Watch Tower to expound a new brand of Christianity to small congregations of Bible Students, as Witnesses were then known, mostly in the Northeast.

The new brand, familiar to many today from television exposés and house calls, taught that Christ would return to Earth in 1914 to govern the world, destroy nonbelievers and leave Witnesses to transform the planet into Paradise. It was revised in the 1930s, when the religion adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses, to teach that Christ did return in 1914 — he was just invisible — and that within a generation Armageddon would finally arrive. Witnesses now take a less specific approach to the end of the world.

Today, The Watchtower is the flagship publication produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The magazine and other literature is published by their not-for-profit corporation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania; Witnesses also use another not-for-profit corporation in the United States, named the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., which is responsible for printing and distributing the magazine. The Tract Society’s catalogue includes the two magazines, a ballooning collection of books and brochures and The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the religion’s official Bible. As of this year, 165 million New World Translations have been printed since it was first published in 1961.

The mammoth operation is funded by donations, mainly from Witnesses leaving anonymous contributions in boxes titled “Worldwide Work” at the back of Kingdom Halls. The money is funneled to the U.S. world headquarters to fund the publishing empire, as well as disaster relief. Just how much moolah makes that journey is unknown — as a religious organization, the Tract Society does not have to file an annual return with the IRS — but in 2001, Newsday listed the Tract Society as one of New York City’s 40 richest corporations, with revenues of $951 million. Last year, a report stated that the Society had pulled in $125 million for the fiscal year ending in August.

Manhattanites might recognize the Tract Society’s headquarters from the skyline to their east — a pair of stout beige towers nudging the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and the shore of the East River in Brooklyn Heights; squint and you can see the word “Watchtower” stamped across their peaks. The Brooklyn Bethel, as the faithful call it, also functions as the religion’s world headquarters. Here, the nine-member governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses pulls the sect’s doctrinal strings and steers its publishing enterprise. All members of the governing body claim to come from the “little flock,” an anointed class of 144,000 Witnesses who will ascend to heaven upon Armageddon; other Witnesses will have to be satisfied with paradise on Earth.

Few non-Witnesses are allowed inside the Bethel headquarters and you’d be forgiven for conjuring fantastical reasons as to why — the anti-Witness publishing industry rivals The Tract Society’s in size and includes among its titles The Orwellian World of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and 30 Years a Watchtower Slave. But the day I visit, Brooklyn Bethel is less Airstrip One than Pan Am corporate headquarters circa 1965. In the lobby, a dull-painted plaster globe — the size of a boulder Indiana Jones might have to outrun — spins forlornly. Along maroon-carpeted corridors, cheery men in snug dark suits apologize for being too rushed to stop and chat. Everywhere, everyone asks you to stay for lunch.

Despite the absence of a masthead and bylines, The Watchtower is no immaculate conception. Each edition’s journey to your door begins a year ahead of publication at a meeting of the nine-member Writing Committee in the Writing Committee Conference Room, a boardroom dominated by a long polished wooden desk and two mammoth Sony flat screens on the wall; more Vogue Living than Mother Jones.

James Pellechia is one of the magazine’s writers and a member of the Writing Committee. Dapper in a dark gray suit, dark gray vest and even darker gray tie — all under wispy gray hair — 66-year-old Pellechia is a third-generation Witness. His grandparents converted in 1908 after migrating from Italy to Roseto, Pa., and he came to Bethel in 1982 to join the Writing Department. He and his fellow committee members choose the theme of each Watchtower issue and the articles it will feature. “It’s for Witnesses but also for the public,” Pellechia says of The Watchtower. “For people who would be interested in what the Bible would say about subjects like child-rearing and how to keep marriages united.” The magazine might focus on infidelity in May, homosexuality in June and earthquakes in July. Articles might answer questions like “Should you be honest at all times?” and “Has God left us?” (Yes, and no, in case you were wondering.) Each article is littered with scriptural references, which function like hyperlinks, directing readers to Bible pages for further reading. The committee also decides questions and answers for the special “study” editions of The Watchtower produced specifically for Witnesses already in the flock to study at Kingdom Halls every week. The number of study editions printed is undisclosed.

The Watchtower then comes together like most magazines, Pellechia explains. A writer is chosen as a “Compiler,” functioning like a magazine editor, and an assignment editor distributes briefs to writers — there are about 20 on staff. Copy is fact-checked, copy-edited and rewritten as it moves through the 70-person Writing Department. Illustrators and photographers, at a Witness training campus in Patterson, N.Y., provide the images.

Writers live with about 1500 other Bethel workers, including cooks, secretaries, cleaners and committee members, in five buildings throughout Brooklyn Heights. Meals, accommodation and an allowance are provided to keep the focus on God’s work. One Witness-occupied residential tower on Wilson Street might be the best deal in New York, housing 500 Witnesses, a library, a medical center and a dining room. Witnesses call it the “Towers Hotel.”

Despite rumors to the contrary, women can write for The Watchtower, but not on scriptural matters. “That’s what the Bible indicates according to our concept of it,” says assignment editor John Wischuck. “If they wanted to write something about dressmaking, a sister could do that. It might be in another case that she interviews another woman and writes up her life story. That would go through an editor or a rewrite.”

Before the magazine is sent to a facility known as Watchtower Farms, in Wallkill, N.Y., and to 16 other production centers across to the world — to be printed, bound and packaged for distribution — the Writing Committee takes a final look. “All nine of us read it,” says Pellechia. “Each one sees the previous writing committee member’s marks and either adds to it, reinforces it, or, once in a while, may change it. We need to ensure it is in agreement with our doctrine, scripturally.”

Of course, the magazine does not always agree with itself — or past versions of itself — on these matters. Early in its history, for example, The Watchtower told followers that the mischievous men of Sodom and Gomorrah would be resurrected. In 1988, an article in The Watchtower reversed this position. “Our publications are not infallible,” Pellechia says. “Certain Bible texts, certain doctrine, may need adjustment as more information is researched and understanding grows.”

David A. Reed, a critic and former high-ranking Witness, wrote in his book, Jehovah’s Witness Literature, that “much like a collection of White House news releases written during successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the Watchtower Society’s books and magazines reflect the sect’s changing leadership over the years.”

In an e-mail to me, Reed wrote that he stopped reading the magazine in 1999, a year before Don Alden Adams became the religion’s leader. In general, Reed says, today’s Watchtower and the religion behind it are far different from their earliest incarnations. “In terms of internal organizational politics, or religious positions, they are more conservative now than in the days of founder C.T. Russell. The Witnesses are now a tightly controlled, disciplined group, which they were not under Russell.”

The most tightly controlled aspect of the Witnesses’ publishing arm may be the names of Watchtower authors. No Tract Society publication has carried bylines since the early 1940s, because, according to assignment editor Wischuck, the “glory should go to God.” Pellechia expands on that: “There were about 40 writers of the Bible and for the most part, people who read the sacred texts may or may not have known who wrote that information. The material should stand on its own merits and attention should be focused back on the word of God rather than the individual.”

This sort of fifth-person approach to writing means The Watchtower can read like a textbook rendering of the Bible; big on plague and pestilance but short on the simple, beatific prose that marks its source. Former Witness Kyria Abrahams describes the magazine she read growing up in a Kingdom Hall in Pawtucket, R.I., as “extremely boring.” “They were pretty much all on the same theme,” she says today. “‘Why does God allow blah blah blah?’ ‘Is blank okay?’ And you know that it isn’t. For the most part, it was written at a fifth grade level.”

Abrahams, now 36 and living as a writer in New York City, parted with the Witnesses 11 years ago. She courted her own “disfellowshipping” by cheating on the husband she had married at 18. “I wanted out of the marriage so bad that I ended up just having an affair,” she says. “I was so entrenched in the idea of the religion that it was like I was somehow playing by their rules in order to leave.”

Abrahams has not spoken to her father since she left the religion, and has not heard from her mother in three years. She probably won’t hear from either ever again after the release of her acerbically funny account of her life as a Witness, I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed, last year. In the first chapter of the book, she reveals that her Jewish grandmother became a Witness after discovering a copy of The Watchtower on top of a trash can. In the third chapter, she describes her own experience with the books and magazines produced at Bethel. “My children’s books alternated between Dr. Seuss rhymes and tales of how sinners would scream and gnash their teeth at Armageddon,” she writes.

Like the Tavolaccis, Abrahams did her duty, door-knocking three times a week in her teens with a close friend named Kathy. She would do anything to get out of it — only pretending to ring the bell, encouraging Kathy to take long coffee breaks — and remembers many slamming doors. But it was a man who played along that stings her memory most sorely. After Abrahams told him she’d be happy to accept a small donation, he looked at her disdainfully and said, “I bet you would,” before handing her some change. “He saw right through me,” says Abrahams, who was 14 at the time. “I was totally aware that I was just this really annoying, weird person at the door, and I didn’t even know what I was talking about.”

Today, she sometimes sees The Watchtower in the back of a cab or in a doctor’s office. “I will pick it up and look at it for nostalgia,” she says. “It’s still the same as it was when I was a kid — nothing shocking, nothing weird. I would think that I’m going to get a big laugh out of it, but I just end up being sad and put it away.” No Witnesses have knocked on her door since she left her religion, husband and family behind.

But there are those who look forward to the familiar ring of the doorbell on a weekend. I joined Frank and Lydia Tavolacci on their fifth return call to 81-year-old Dominic Bonura’s small one-bedroom walkup in Glendale. The couple makes several of these return visits to people they’ve met while door-knocking every week. “What took you so long?” Bonura asks cheerily, opening the door.

Bonura’s wife died 12 years ago. “She was the most gorgeous thing you ever saw,” he says as we take our seats in a small living room cluttered with portraits of grinning grandchildren. A former butcher and sometime boxer, Bonura’s thin-skinned hands have been knotted by carpal tunnel syndrome. Resting on his knees, they look like large, crushed spiders.

He is dressed as if he were expecting us — polished shoes, pressed pants, a navy button-down all buttoned up — and he has a lot to say. He cuts Frank short before he can discuss the last readings he left. “This carpal tunnel is killing me, Franky,” he says huskily, stretching his arms and fingers out in angry defiance. “I tried to lift a two-pound weight the other day and it hurt so bad I wanted to go somewhere and croak. I’ve been disgusted with people in the world and with myself. I’m not going to lie to you Franky, I didn’t read a scripture, a Watchtower or an Awake!.”

Frank moves over to Bonura, crouches beside him and asks him to read from a Bible page stamped with extra-large print. Bonura pulls a pair of glasses from his pocket and loudly and clearly reads from the book of Isaiah. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” He lowers the Bible.

“When a father is holding a little boy’s hand, how does that little boy feel?” asks Frank.

“He feels safe and protected,” answers Bonura, his face softening. Reflecting on his recent tough times, he says, “Satan might have grabbed me by the shirt, but he doesn’t have me by the heart.”

From here, Frank talks with Bonura about his wife, his daughter and the stresses of staying cooped up in his apartment. Frank explains that “All scripture is inspired, not half, and not a quarter. God’s word can help us with any principle of life.” This is the message of the month’s Watchtower cover story.

Before we leave, Bonura stops Frank. “I was just thinking about that little guy in the street, Franky, holding his father’s hand. If he let go, it wouldn’t take a second for a car to sweep him away.” He pauses. “He can’t let go.”

“And he hasn’t let you go,” says Lydia from the couch. “Dom, we’re here.”

Bonura then turns to me and tells me to write this down, word perfect, with an exclamation mark. “There’s nothing like the truth, nothing!” he says. “These people, this organization, are beautiful. You can trust these people with your life.” He looks at Lydia. “You keep coming back like a song.”

“You know who encourages us to come back,” asks Lydia. “Jehovah.”

The Tavolaccis make tentative plans to return next Saturday before heading downstairs, leaving Bonura alone with his thoughts and a copy of The Watchtower.

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Then: Dickens and Dostoevsky; Now: People and Us Weekly http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/then-dickens-and-dostoevsky-now-people-and-us-weekly/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/then-dickens-and-dostoevsky-now-people-and-us-weekly/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:48 +0000 Zachary Sniderman http://nyrm.org/?p=1808

By Zachary Sniderman

What do the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens and Henry James — serialized in such class periodicals as The Russian Messenger, All the Year Round and The Atlantic Monthly — have in common with People, Us Weekly, Star and the other celebrity gossip weeklies stereotypically associated with exploitation and junk journalism? The answer: a shared literary genre. It turns out that from their pithy opening sentences to their human dramas (and their gripping cliffhanger endings), whether they know it or not, today’s gossip weeklies have borrowed an incredibly successful formula — the one that kept readers returning week after week — pioneered by illustrious literary predecessors.

On the surface, contemporary gossip weeklies appear to be simply reporting celebrity news. (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt shared a romantic dinner for two!) But beneath the surface, it is not merely the story of a date-night dinner. It is the latest installment in the long-running suspense story of “Brangelina,” complete with all the tricks of a more-than one hundred-year-old trade.

Serialization hit its apex in the 19th century, drawing in writers as different as Dostoevsky, Dickens, James, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, to name but a few. Individual chapters or installments were printed regularly in well-respected periodicals until the story was finished. But the stories that appeared were not arbitrarily carved out of finished novels. Serial authors wrote a new chapter every month or week, updating the story as it developed, adding details that would keep readers hooked. The longer a story ran, the better, since authors were paid each time they were published. This is partly why Dickens’ novels are so long: More chapters equaled more cash. Serialization is still wildly profitable. People raked in more than $900 million in 2009, according to Magazine Publishers of America. Us Weekly and Star were not far behind.

Although there was no single formula for writing a successful serialized novel — and the great writers certainly took their liberties — there were basic themes, character types, plot twists and, of course, the golden rule of serialization: Always, always end on a cliffhanger. Will Oliver Twist escape London’s gutters? Will the brothers Karamazov actually kill their father? These were the cliffhangers that kept readers reading.

Take Dickens’ Great Expectations, a novel about country boy Pip’s aspirations to make it as a gentleman and woo his beautiful, albeit frosty, love, Estella.

Chapter 1-3 – A dangerous mystery envelops the hero: Pip, a poor boy, meets an escaped convict who threatens his life and demands Pip help him.
Chapter 11 – The mystery deepens, a tragic flaw is revealed: Pip steals food for the convict. The police arrive at Pip’s home. Pip is overly trusting and naïve of the world. He blindly loves rich girl Estella.
Chapter 15 – A friend is betrayed; the problems worsen: Pip’s sister is viciously attacked, becoming an invalid. It’s believed Orlick, Pip’s peer and fellow apprentice, is responsible.
Chapter 18 – A truth is revealed, changing the hero: Pip receives a large sum of money from an unknown benefactor. Pip travels to London to become a gentleman.
Chapter 22-26 – A tragic flaw leads to ruin. A hero haunted by transgressions of family: Pip misbehaves in London’s high-life out of naïveté and jealousy for Estella.
Chapter 34 – Tragedy in the family: Pip’s sister dies.
Chapter 38 – A love rejected: Estella is courted by another man; Pip is heartbroken.
Chapter 39-55 – A fall from grace; the hero is destitute: The convict was Pip’s benefactor! They meet but the convict is arrested and sentenced to death. His immense wealth reverts to the state and Pip loses everything.
Chapter 57 – At his lowest, the hero finds support from those he wronged: Pip, now penniless, falls ill and is tended to by his poor family whom he had forgotten.
Chapter 58 – The hard road to reclaiming respect: Pip attends a humble wedding ceremony, showing newfound respect.
Chapter 59 – Seclusion gives rise to new ambition; the hero must prove himself alone: Pip goes into business with an old friend. He spends 11 years gaining moderate wealth.
Chapter 59 – A hero does not meet Herculean expectations: Pip returns home to find Estella divorced and with children. They resolve to be friends, but perhaps now they can finally be together?

Now take Tiger Woods, the story of a premier athlete’s salacious fall and his fight to reclaim his beloved family and beautiful, albeit distant, wife Elin Nordegren. Below is a week-by-week turn of events from the Tiger Woods story, according to People.com’s hooks, headlines and cliffhangers.

Prologue – Success and happiness for our hero: Tiger Woods, golf mega star, is happily married and on a lengthy winning streak.
Week 1 – A dangerous mystery envelops the hero: Tiger crashes his car and questions swirl around how he got his injuries. “In the background of [a 911] call, a woman is heard screaming, ‘What happened?’ The caller responds, ‘We don’t know what happened. We’re trying to figure that out right now.’”
Week 2 – The mystery deepens, a tragic flaw is revealed: A cocktail waitress claims Tiger had an affair with her; he withdraws from a tournament due to injuries. “‘Hey, it’s Tiger. I need you to do me a huge favor,’ Woods allegedly said in one voicemail. ‘Can you please take your name off your phone…’ Woods is facing scrutiny over a rumored affair with a New York club hostess in the wake of his one-car accident in Florida last week.”
Week 3 – A friend is betrayed; the problems worsen for our hero: Tiger’s friend says he regrets introducing him to now-wife Elin and more women claim they had affairs with Tiger. “Alleged Tiger Mistress Angry About His Other Women.”
Week 4 – A terrible truth is revealed, changing the hero: Tiger admits infidelity and puts his golf career on hold. “Woods, 33, previously apologized for unspecified ‘sins’ and ‘transgressions.’ A string of women have now come forward claiming to have had affairs with him.”
Week 5 – A tragic flaw leads to ruin. Our hero is haunted by familial transgressions: Tiger loses his first sponsor, Accenture, because of his tarnished image. Perhaps his father’s infidelity is to blame for Tiger’s faults? “Report: Dad’s Cheating Ways Tortured Tiger.”
Week 6 – A love rejected: Elin plans to split from Tiger; she is spending Christmas in Sweden without her husband. “On Thursday, workers began moving large items … out of the couple’s home in Windermere, Fla., and Nordegren was seen giving them instructions, according to the New York Post.”
Week 7 – A fall from grace. The hero is destitute: Tiger’s mother is angry and disappointed in her son. Tiger drops out of the public eye, and loses another sponsor: AT&T. “Where In The World Is Tiger Woods?”
Week 8 – At his lowest, the hero finds support from those he wronged: Tiger appears on the cover of Vanity Fair, Elin will stay with her husband but keeps her distance; Elin’s attention is on her kids. “Tiger Woods’s Wife Focusing On Kids.”
Week 9 – The hard road to reclaiming public respect: Tiger loses free cars from General Motors, which he endorsed until 2008, and rumors spread that he has checked into sex rehab. “Buzz: Is Tiger In Mississippi Sex Rehab?”
Week 10 – A shamed hero makes amends: Tiger plans a press conference to publicly apologize; Elin will stay with her man, for now. “Can Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren Save Their Marriage?” “Inside His Struggle.”
Week 11 – Seclusion gives rise to new ambition: Tiger returns to sex therapy and announces plans to eventually return to golf. Gatorade drops Tiger as a sponsor. “‘[People] go to work 8 to 5 and go home to have a life with the family. Tiger can’t do that,’ [his mother] said, also noting that his return to Buddhism ‘will make him a much better person.’”
Week 12 – A shattered family begins to mend: Tiger is home from rehab, but will Elin stay? “Was It Enough?” A three-page spread on whether his public apology to his family, friends and fans was enough to win her back. “‘Tiger still has a long way to go, and Elin knows that,’ says her friend. ‘She will stay around to see what happens in terms of public support and endorsements. But if it weren’t for the kids and for their future, she’d already be long gone.’”
Week 13 – A momentous event to determine the hero’s future: Tiger announces he will play at The Masters tournament — a prestigious contest he has won four times. “It’s Official: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Golf.”
Week 14 – The hero must prove himself: Elin will skip the tournament, just as she skipped his past press conferences. “Source: Elin Nordegren Doesn’t Want To Attend The Masters.”
Week 15 – A hero does not meet Herculean expectations: Tiger finishes with a respectable but personally disappointing fourth-place in The Masters tournament.

People’s March 1 cover states: “Elin’s Painful Choice: New Scandal, New Details… Tiger’s wife weighs the ultimate question: keep him or dump him?” The actual article starts with Elin dolling herself up the day before Valentine’s Day as Tiger lives alone in rehab. The peace between the two is fragile, friends say, even as Tiger’s mistresses continue to make news. He has forsaken his own friends to make a new start. Elin, a child of divorce herself, is protecting her children from the same fate. The story’s last section returns to the cliffhanger: “The big question Elin has to figure out: Is Tiger genuinely remorseful or just trying to clean up his image? … “It is up to her to see if she can believe in him again.”

It is a story of love, fame and betrayal. One of the world’s greatest athletes is heartsick as his wife contemplates whether they can ever have a future again. Written by… a team of journalists based in Orlando and New York.

Of course, gossip weeklies don’t just write about Tiger Woods; each set of celebrity dramas contains a unique storyline. Take Brangelina, for example. There’s no real news peg if they went on a romantic dinner — so why is it splashed on the covers? Years of updates on their courtship, marriage and day-to-day life have conditioned readers to care. Cliffhangers like “Will they stay together?” are answered next issue when we learn Brad bought Angelina’s meal. Some development of the story appears each week: New details are added, new photos are taken and new insights are provided. Each week is a new installment.

The heroes of modern day serial novels, like Brangelina and Tiger Woods, fall victim to the same high human dramas that characterize classic literature. Hero with a tragic flaw? Jake Pavelka, the star of the latest season of ABC’s popular reality show The Bachelor, seemed perfect in every way, but “mistakenly” chose Vienna to be his wife. Us Weekly claimed: “Jake’s Mistake — as Vienna lies to Jake about a boyfriend, [previous contestant] Ali gets her sweet revenge.” Rags to riches? Find any story about Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, two teens that have had astronomically rapid rises to fame. Unattainable romantic interests? The desire for a will-they-won’t-they relationship is satisfied by Twilight lead stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. “I wish them all the happiness in the world,” said Rob’s aunt in Star. “I know for sure it’s a true love match!”

But are gossip weeklies really serialized novels? Is Tiger Woods really a modern-day Great Expectations? Do the gossip magazines even mean to ape an entire genre? Doesn’t intent matter? And if all of this is true, do those magazines now qualify as high art or are they still just exploitation? All this and more to be answered next issue….

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I Am Woman, Hear Me Blog http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/i-am-woman-hear-me-blog/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/i-am-woman-hear-me-blog/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:28 +0000 Susie Poppick http://nyrm.org/?p=1749 By Susie Poppick

Last May, Slate’s newly launched women’s blog DoubleX published an article titled “The Trouble with Jezebel: How the Gawker Site Is Hurting Women,” criticizing Gawker’s spin-off-blog-for-girls for being — essentially — anti-feminist. The blogosphere exploded.

Jezebel responded with posts titled “Who You Calling a Bad Feminist?” and “Faux Outrage over Slutty Feminists Is F-cking Hurting America.” The blog Feministe posted: “Actually, attacking women is hurting women.” Turner Broadcasting’s TheFrisky.com countered that Jezebel actually overdoes it with “knee jerk cries of misogyny and sexism.” And Ann Friedman of the ad-supported Feministing.com laid into DoubleX directly in a piece titled “The Trouble with Double X,” published on The American Prospect’s website.

Some, such as women’s lifestyle website BitchBuzz.com, denounced the controversy itself, while others, like Rebecca Traister at Salon.com’s feminist blog Broadsheet, rejoiced. “I could not be more pleased that there is an argument between multiple female writers of multiple ages and experiences and multiple platforms all arguing about what feminism means,” Traister wrote. “This is what it means.”

This eruption of debate, which unfolded over just three days, reveals how the web has democratized feminist media. Any woman with a computer and an Internet connection can start a blog and call herself a feminist, leading to not only a proliferation of more obscure blogs and personal websites, but also a rich ecosystem of more mainstream feminist blogs and e-magazines, including Jezebel, Feministe and others named above. This complex online landscape has not only increased dialogue and disagreements about the meaning of feminism but has also influenced the very topics covered by the sites. Though they post on some more serious, traditional feminist issues, the sites increasingly reflect Internet-age values, with more stories on click-enticing pop-cultural events and personalities than, say, sexism in the workplace. It is telling, for example, that the blogs and e-magazines above have had more to say about Tiger Woods’ affairs than about how healthcare may affect women.

Writers and editors at these sites argue that the “Internetizing” of feminist dialogue is a positive development in the movement; it allows feminists to have more inclusive debates and apply their lens to topics that more readers may find interesting or relevant to their lives. But old-guard feminists worry that those of the Internet generation are spending too much time attacking each other and discussing celebrities, and not enough time defending women’s rights. The reality is somewhere in between.

Founded 38 years ago on the eve of Roe v. Wade, Ms. Magazine is considered by many to be the grandmother of feminist publications. The magazine, which was the brainchild of a team of editors that included Gloria Steinem, has traditionally focused on political issues affecting women. Current Ms. Magazine senior editor Michele Kort said she disapproves of the trend among many online publications of criticizing other feminist organizations, because it takes the focus off of protecting feminist political causes threatened by conservatives. “We say, ‘Take your fight to the right,’” Kort said.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of Ms. Magazine’s co-founders, said feminists today take for granted the rights their mothers earned. “Today’s generation thinks it has the luxury of focusing on Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problem and so-and-so’s belly-button ring,” she said. “I have so little patience for that discourse while women’s reproductive rights are being threatened by right-wing backlash.”

And while some online feminist publications, such as Feministing.com, devote more space than other blogs to political discussion, Pogrebin said virtual words do not amount to change: “Exchanging outrage on the Internet gives the illusion of activism. I want to ask, ‘Why aren’t you out on the streets?’”

But feminist bloggers said their online commentary, whether about politics or fashion, is more than just virtual chatter. Dodai Stewart, Jezebel writer and deputy editor, said she feels that turning her feminist focus on pop culture is “both fun and important,” that gender norms about how women should dress or act often have insidious cultural — if not political — repercussions.

“I’d rather be writing about Teen Vogue than abortion,” Stewart said. “An era is often defined by pop culture and media, and products so aggressively marketed toward young women can have a real effect.” Just the act of discussion can cause change in people’s perception of what are and aren’t acceptable messages for young girls, Stewart believes.

With eight-figure monthly page views and the category headings “Sex,” “Celebrity” and “Fashion,” Jezebel might be the best example of a feminist site that uses pop culture to draw readers. But even Ms. Magazine has felt the pull of the digital world and its fascination with the hyper-current. The new Ms. Magazine blog, launched this past March, includes a post on the iPhone application Tiger Text, which allows cheating spouses to delete sent and received texts from their cell phones, an analysis of how the characters on ABC’s Lost conform to stereotypical gender roles, and a piece that questions Lady Gaga’s status as a feminist icon: Is she or isn’t she?

Kort is more optimistic than Pogrebin that the pop-culture topics covered by the Ms. Magazine blog will serve a higher purpose than pure entertainment. She said she hopes it will be able to court younger generations using more light-hearted posts as a gateway to more serious writing. “Maybe they’ll be drawn by the cultural commentary but stay for the other things,” she said.

There is a reason that such commentary is so attractive to readers. Given the speed of blogging, feminists can dissect mutable pop culture trends as they happen in real time, complete with YouTube links. Were the Super Bowl ads this year especially sexist? Feministing seemed to think so. Was Mo’Nique’s Oscar win a step forward or backward for black women? The Ms. Magazine blog had “mixed feelings,” since her character in Precious was so stereotypical and negative.

It is difficult to calculate exactly how many feminist e-magazines and blogs exist on the Internet, but in addition to the few dozen best-known websites, there are hundreds — and likely thousands — of personal or regional feminist sites; Bust Magazine’s website alone lists links to more than 150 feminist blogs, and blog directories like BlogCatalog.com list hundreds more.

Despite the satisfaction of reading hyper-current feminist analysis, readers have showed some loyalty to (and patience for) the few dozen feminist print periodicals sold nationally. Though leaner and less frequently issued than it has been in past years, the now quarterly print edition of Ms. Magazine lives on with a circulation of 110,000, subsisting on a blend of grant money, donations, newsstand sales and subscriptions. Seventeen-year-old Bust Magazine has more than 100,000 readers and 14-year-old Bitch — which managed to get readers to donate $75,000 last year so it could stay afloat — is a survivor, with a circulation about half that of Bust’s.

Still, the allure of the online is potent. Blogs can be launched on a whim, with little or no overhead, and may therefore begin with a looser premise than would be financially feasible for a print publication. When Slate first launched its DoubleX blog, intending to give its female writers a space of their own to discuss topics especially interesting to female readers, the writing team wasn’t sure what to write about, said co-founder Hanna Rosin. The staff wondered, “Do we write about our kids?” she said. But then Hillary Clinton announced for president and suddenly everyone had an opinion. “Each woman’s lens became central,” Rosin said.

Even the sparring between feminist blogs is not to be dismissed, some feminists said, because it helps keep everyone in check. Despite the backlash “The Trouble with Jezebel” generated, “It wasn’t intended to be the voice of DoubleX against Jezebel,” said Rosin. While the piece, written by Linda Hirshman, criticized Jezebel for not taking feminism seriously enough, similar charges have been leveled against DoubleX. Rosin was once called out by a conservative blogger for being superficial when she commented that Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller and Project Runway contestant Louise Black look alike.

Still, compared with Ms. Magazine and feministing, DoubleX is less concerned with political change and more focused on cultural analysis, Rosin said. “We take this post-feminist world and try to figure it out. We take what women wear and ask what it means … We take everything issue-by-issue.”

The very term “post-feminist” is objectionable to Kort at Ms. Magazine. “Just as we aren’t in a postracial America, neither are we in a postfeminist America,” she said.

Some perspective on such disagreements was offered by professor Ellen Dubois of the University of California, Los Angeles, an expert in the history of American feminism. “The discourse is exciting,” she said. “Feminism has an important historical tradition of having contradictions built into it. For example, it promotes equality and is meant to represent women, but by some accounts makes the category of ‘women’ meaningless.”

The feminist analysis popularized by Ms. Magazine has spread, not only to the online world, Dubois said, but also to magazines that were once more traditional, like Mademoiselle and Ladies’ Home Journal. “Feminist perspectives have spread into the mainstream,” she said, as women have showed they are no longer content with just “thin fare.” Still, this change does not mean that it’s time to give up fighting for women’s rights. “Like any standard of social justice, there is a constantly receding horizon with feminism; each generation has new aspects to discover.”

While online feminists may sometimes be too politically complacent, as Pogrebin suggested, their new brand of digital activism adds serious feminist counterpoints to important debates shaping our cultural identity. Jezebel’s feminist critiques of the fashion industry may seem trivial today, for example, but they actually are part of a much older philosophical tradition dating back to the days of Amelia Bloomer. Though her mid-19th-century biweekly, The Lily, was primarily a vehicle for promoting protofeminist ideas about women’s education and rights, Bloomer still found space to criticize the unyielding skirts of the Victorian era in favor of her comfortable namesake trousers.

As the Internet expands the pool of participants in and topics available for feminist scrutiny, it is becoming clear that not only the personal, but also the pop cultural, is political.

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A League of Their Own http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/a-league-of-their-own/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/a-league-of-their-own/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:23 +0000 Ellen London http://nyrm.org/?p=1995

By Ellen London

One magazine proclaims itself the “first undergraduate magazine and the oldest literary review in the nation.” The second prides itself on being the “oldest continually published collegiate literary magazine in the country.” The third concedes the gold medal while touting its value as the “country’s second-oldest college literary magazine.”

They are the Yale Literary Magazine, The Harvard Advocate and The Nassau Literary Review, respectively, and they are the literary bastions at the Ivy League’s “Trinity”: Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities.

The difference between their claims to be “first” and “oldest” is a matter of semantics, but the variations in the content and character of the magazines themselves are as great as the differences between the storied institutions that they represent. A look inside the pages of these magazines and the offices in which they are put together offers a glimpse into the Trinity’s literary scene at its best — and, sometimes, its worst.

We begin at the “oldest literary review in the nation.” The Yale Literary Magazine is a biannual publication produced, of course, in New Haven, Conn. The publication process is long and brutal, and its climax takes place in the dead of night.

“We’re very selective,” said this year’s managing editor, Zeynep Pamuk, a junior majoring in ethics, politics and economics. Pamuk assumed the position at the beginning of this school year after being chosen from about 25 other staff members by last year’s senior editors. Poetry is the primary focus of the magazine, and Pamuk and the rest of the staff are charged with whittling some 150 verse submissions down to the six to eight that will be published in an issue.

The spring-issue madness begins in early February, the deadline for poetry submissions. For two nights, Pamuk and the rest of the Yale Literary Magazine staff hole up in their office from 7 p.m. until midnight, taking turns reading each of the finalist poems out loud and discussing whether or not it should be published. Each poem gets twelve minutes of discussion, no more and no less. “I have no idea how other literary magazines do it,” Pamuk said, “but we have a lot of tradition here. This is our system, and it works.” By the end of the second night, the foundation for that season’s YLM is established.

The arduous process of selection is not surprising for a magazine with a long history of publishing innovative poetry. Ample page space is allotted to each poem, and a typical issue also includes one or two short stories. Text rules here — there are very few visual elements and some issues are printed entirely in black-and-white — although the magazine is looking to move in a more “visually interesting” direction with its artwork and design (“’visually interesting,’ as opposed to ‘attractive,’” Pamuk emphasized).

The fall 2008 and spring 2009 issues were produced as a two-part series exploring the state of poetry. Both were printed in an extra-large format. The fall issue was built around the concept of a tombstone, using a gray Romanesque font to express the idea that “poetry is dead,” explained Pamuk. As the optimistic antithesis of the fall issue, the spring number featured colorful lettering and graphic illustrations suggesting that “poetry fights back!”

Like the process for choosing each issue’s poems, the process for selecting new staff members is cutthroat. New editors are chosen by the current editor-in-chief and two senior editors at the end of each school year, and the new editorial board takes over the following September. The senior editors are hired from within: Existing staff members indicate which position they are interested in and why, and then interview with the current senior editors. None of the staff of the Yale Literary Magazine is paid, but the prestige that comes with a spot on the masthead is reason enough for the literary hopeful to apply.

A few hours north on Interstate 93, in Cambridge, Mass., The Harvard Advocate takes a more balanced approach to its editorial content. Established a few years after the Yale Literary Magazine, in 1866, The Advocate has a long-standing tradition of printing lengthy nonfiction and fiction pieces — along with poems and artwork — by a diverse group of students that has included such literary giants as Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac and T.S. Eliot.

The exterior of The Advocate’s office at 21 South Street is unassuming, a New England-style colonial house painted white, with pine green front doors that open into a long, narrow hallway, off of which the magazine’s editors and business managers keep their offices. At the end of the hallway is a staircase leading to more offices above.

By day, the office space is like any other, cluttered with papers, notebooks and discarded Starbucks cups. But by night, and especially on weekends, the house is transformed into one of the most exclusive and boisterous party spots on campus.

“There’s red wine everywhere, cigarette smoke hanging down from the ceiling,” recalled one recent Harvard graduate, who wishes to remain anonymous because of his friendship with members of The Advocate staff. The offices where editors read submissions and mark up manuscripts by day become dens for “you-can’t-even-imagine-what” by night, said the former student. The second floor is emptied for dancing; “Love Generation” and the Talking Heads play on a loop.

On a campus where the social scene is defined by private clubs, the late-night scene at The Advocate is intellectually exclusive. “If you walk into a party there and don’t know Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos,’ you’re not going to have a fun time,” said the ex-student. Most of the parties have literary themes, like “Dead Russians” or “Bohemian Chic.” No matter the theme, the dress code is almost always black on black.

The Advocate is a breeding ground for Harvard’s elite, both academic and social. “It caters to people who want to be part of that group,” said the ex-student, suggesting that the magazine’s staff cares more about the scholarly aura of the magazine than about who might actually read it. “It’s not about promoting the work of young authors. It’s designed to promote itself.”

The Advocate comes out four times a year and it often has a theme. The winter 2010 “Bestiary Issue,” for instance, features writings and illustrations about science and animals. Whatever the theme, a few characteristics remain constant: abstract literary references, gratuitous Q&As and literary works in translation.

For example, the table of contents for the winter 2008 issue includes a translation of Cicero’s Academica and Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura,” as well as Dante’s “Purgatorio XXVI,” translated by frequent contributor Chris van Buren, an Italian literature major who graduated magna cum laude from the university in 2008. Similarly, the fall 2007 issue features poetry accented with Italian: “Moto,” an original poem also by van Buren, follows a motorcyclist’s journey dove Bocaccio fu nato (“where Bocaccio was born”).

Recent issues also include a feature about the relocation of the headquarters for the United States Office of Homeland Security, a historical account of the flooding of four towns in Western Massachusetts and an interview with film director Robert Thalheim.

The diversity of work in The Advocate extends to the artwork, which is printed in highly saturated color and often takes up entire pages inside the magazine. All in all, the magazine resembles The New Yorker, with poetry and artwork interspersed between longer pieces of fiction and nonfiction.

The magazine claims to be distributed on five continents: “No place is too remote for the Advocate to reach. You too, wherever you are, can enjoy the magazine,” boasts its website. At $35 for a one-year subscription (four issues), The Harvard Advocate is pricier than the Yale Literary Magazine, which costs $15 for its two annual issues.

The Advocate’s 14-member editorial staff is composed of four content boards — poetry, fiction, features and art — each with its own editor. The names of executive board members past and present are inscribed in gold on wooden plaques, with female names becoming more frequent in recent years. The walls of the Advocate office glitter with more than one hundred of these plaques.

According to the first editor of The Nassau Literary Review at Princeton University — founded as the Nassau Monthly in 1842 and renamed by its undergraduate staff in 1930 — the primary object of the magazine was “to afford a medium through which young writers might publish incognito their first lucubrations to the world.” In those early days, manuscripts were submitted under pseudonyms or initials, and rejections were often publicly announced and derided. This practice began to wane after student newspaper The Princetonian, founded in 1876, encouraged authors to claim ownership over their work. By the 1890s, all of the magazine’s submissions were bylined.

The years between 1912 and 1917 are considered by Princeton historians to be “The Golden Age” in The Nassau Literary Review’s history. Edmund Wilson ’16 (editor at Vanity Fair and The New Republic, book reviewer for The New Yorker) was at the magazine’s helm, and among the staff members was his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17.

Recent issues of The Nassau Literary Review are similar to those of The Advocate in their diverse, interspersed content — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photography and art reprints — but are less lavish. Covers are in black-and-white; inside, readers find few illustrations and little use of fancy type. The content has a decidedly sentimental quality, and the magazine occasionally reprints work by former contributors, as in the spring 2003 issue, which featured four early poems by Fitzgerald that had first been published nearly eight decades before.

What artwork there is in The Nassau Literary Review is mostly clumped together toward the back of the book, and it includes photography and reprints of paintings. The magazine is not as outwardly academic as The Advocate, but also not as avant-garde as the Yale Literary Magazine. Much of the work explores themes of love, loss and family through personal narratives and intimate poetry. For example, in a vignette titled “The Elegy” in the spring 2003 issue, author Margaret Johnson describes her first funeral:

Then Bobby’s boots came to me, brown with dirt beneath the cuffs of a seldom-worn suit. His funeral suit. I replayed the boots walking beneath his burdened shoulder hours earlier, his hand on the coffin handle someone would save as though she had cherished it. I hope that he felt her in there, her small weight cached inside the massive wooden chest.

The tone and brevity of this piece lend the issue a poignancy and sense of immediacy that can’t be found in the other literary magazines.

Also in the 2003 issue are a poem called “After the Argument” by Melissa Galvez, about a fight between two lovers, and “For my Grandfather, Ben Schimer,” by Jay Katsir. The effect of these personal explorations is that The Nassau Literary Review reads more like a diary than an academic journal. An extremely articulate diary, of course.

In the end it might be most useful to think of these three literary magazines in terms of the people that they represent.

The Yale Literary Magazine is the angsty poet, a pathos devotee who thrives on pushing the boundaries of what to publish. As managing editor Pamuk said, it’s a magazine that evokes art but doesn’t claim to be art, an innovative platform for all media — but especially poetry — that gets out of its own way.

The Advocate would be cast as the erudite social climber, self-conscious of its own academic heritage while unabashedly perpetuating that image. It’s the well-heeled scholar who works hard but plays even harder — dressed as Nabokov with a glass (or two) of fine red wine in hand.

The quiet intellectual brooding in the corner is The Nassau Literary Review, a man of few words, but those words are profound. This writer provides a byline only because it’s customary to do so, living in the realm of ideas instead of in the pursuit of fame.

It’s probably best that each magazine has developed its own way of claiming to be “first” or “oldest.” For on that matter, as on most others, they certainly wouldn’t be able to agree.

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A Passion for Poetry http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/a-passion-for-poetry/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/a-passion-for-poetry/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:20 +0000 Spencer Bailey http://nyrm.org/?p=1865 By Spencer Bailey

Vijay Seshadri, a poet and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, met a physical therapist at a party several years ago. She asked him the standard get-to-know-you questions. What’s your name? What do you do? He told her his name is Vijay and he writes poetry.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re Vijay Seshadri.”

Seshadri had published a poem called “Aphasia,” about a language disorder, in the April 12, 2004, issue of The New Yorker — at the time, his tenth to appear in the magazine. By coincidence, the physical therapist worked daily with stroke-ridden patients, many of whom had suffered from aphasia, and was a New Yorker subscriber. The poem had hit home.

As Seshadri tells it: “Here was someone who had never read poetry, but she subscribed to The New Yorker, and she saw this poem, and it was about her job. She cut it out and taped it onto her refrigerator.”

In the small world of poetry, this is a familiar narrative. Says Alice Quinn, executive director of the Poetry Society of America and The New Yorker’s poetry editor from 1987 to 2007: “There’s a long lineage of poems attached to the icebox with a magnet. I’ve gone into countless homes and seen New Yorker poems on iceboxes.”

What underlies Seshadri’s account is the fact that The New Yorker and several other widely read magazines — The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, The Nation and The New York Review of Books continue to publish poetry, as do a slew of smaller literary publications, such as Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review and Boston Review. What’s more, they all plan to keep on doing so, despite dwindling advertising revenues and reduced editorial space across the board.

“I’m all gratitude that any sort of mainstream institution is keeping an investment in poetry,” says Dan Chiasson, poetry co-editor of The Paris Review. “What would happen if The New Yorker canceled publishing poetry? Probably not much, actually, but there’s a commitment.”

In this year’s March 15th issue of The New Yorker, an Edward Koren cartoon shows a scruffy, bearded poet sitting with his laptop, coffee cup in hand. A group of seven suited executives are standing in front of him. The tagline: “We’d like to take a majority position in your poetry.”

Koren’s cartoon is intended to be satire, of course. But if those were executives from Condé Nast, say, which owns The New Yorker, it wouldn’t be far-fetched; the magazine published 116 poems in 2009. At about four poems a page, that makes 29 pages, which means, with a circulation of roughly a million, The New Yorker prints approximately 29 million pages of poetry annually. That constitutes a considerable corporate commitment to verse. The same holds true, on a smaller scale, for other national magazines: The New Republic, which published 48 poems last year; The Nation, which published 29 (along with 45 more by the magazine’s “Deadline Poet,” Calvin Trillin); The Atlantic, which published 21; and Harper’s, which published nine (or 11, if you count two versified letters to the editor).

Printing poems, no doubt, comes at a large cost. But the cheapest aspect is paying the writers for their work. “$100, $200, $300 tops,” says Grace Schulman, a professor at Baruch College who was poetry editor of The Nation for over 30 years. “The money you get from a poem is really an honorarium.”

Why do these magazines continue to publish poems? Because it’s a die-hard tradition, say eight current and former poetry editors. “If they give it up, then the heart and soul of The Atlantic or The New Yorker will just be transferred into a different dimension,” says Don Share, senior editor of Poetry Magazine. “Sort of like a migration of the soul. The soul will still be there, but maybe the body will look a little different. People probably wouldn’t want their money back if poetry disappeared from their pages,” he adds, “but I think they’d miss it.”

The tradition of poetry in national American magazines is long and illustrious. The Atlantic, for example, has published Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, who, in 1915, had three famous poems — “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken” and “The Sound of Trees” — appear in the magazine and, during the next half-century, 28 more. Today, The Atlantic’s current poetry editor, David Barber, is keeping the tradition going. Last year, he published poems by the former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins — popularity-wise, perhaps a modern-day counterpart to Frost — Maxine Kumin and Mary Jo Salter, as well as a number of lesser-known poets. The magazine’s rich poetic legacy is important to Barber, but even more so, he says, is its widespread readership. “The existence, or persistence, of poems in what we might call general interest magazines — and the prominence of certain literary magazines — suggests that there is a niche for poetry, and that poems can still appeal to that semi-mythical beast the common reader.”

Poetry has the ability to resonate with readers in a way that a 4,000-word feature simply cannot. “It’s a nice counterweight to the long essay,” says Peter Gizzi, the current poetry editor of The Nation, “because it’s a demonstration of another engagement with language.” Like most poets and editors, Gizzi says he’s pleased to see poetry on the pages of these publications. But he believes that not enough space is devoted to the form and that there should be more than two or three poems per issue. “The weight of the poem can hold its own,” he says.

The growing number of creative writing and M.F.A. programs at colleges and universities — an academic phenomenon that began in the 1940s — also helps explain the long-standing appearance of poetry in print. The number of such programs grew to 52 by 1975 and, over the next decade, to 150. By 2004, there were more than 350 programs across the country. “We live in a time when there are more writers than ever,” says Gizzi.

Other poets and editors argue that more magazines — like Esquire, say, or Vanity Fair — should publish poems. (Esquire used to print verse, in the mid-20th century, when James Dickey and John Hollander served as poetry editors there, but eventually stopped. “I am trying to get Esquire to open up its pages and give more space and more authority to the poetry that we print,” Dickey wrote in a letter in 1971.) The problem, they say, is not that the six major magazines with verse need to publish more, but rather, there aren’t enough publications that do. “I think Vanity Fair should publish poetry,” says Seshadri. “It’d be great, and I don’t see why they don’t, because certainly poets don’t cost very much. I think Esquire could do that, too: Say we are representatives of a literary civilization and a literary sensibility.”

For Gizzi, the reason poetry is not included in certain general interest magazines is simple. “Poetry is not celebrity culture,” he says. “As John Ashbery once said: ‘To be a famous poet is to not be famous.’”

Even within publications that do print poems, the space allotted to them is limited. Nowadays, it’s rare for a poem to occupy more than a quarter — or, at most, half — of a page. Still, there are exceptions. The New Yorker, for example, published a four-page commemorative spread of 10 poems by John Updike in its March 16, 2009, issue. The magazine also annually publishes “Greetings, Friends!,” a page-long, light-verse Christmas poem by editor Roger Angell, who wrote it for about 20 years, took a decade off, and then started it up again two years ago. Before that, Frank Sullivan wrote it from 1932 until 1974.

Other magazines sometimes make extra room, too. Though The New Republic is known for squeezing its poems into the smallest of spaces — “the thinnest gutter,” jokes Seshadri — the magazine gave two-thirds of a page to Michael Dickman’s “Shaving Your Father’s Face” in its Nov. 4, 2009, issue. And Harper’s, in April 2009, gave three pages to “The Cloud Corporation,” a 35-stanza poem by Timothy Donnelly, the poetry editor of Boston Review and a professor at Columbia University.

Donnelly admits that he never expected to see “The Cloud Corporation” published in a magazine like Harper’s, but after an editor at the magazine asked to see some of his work, Donnelly sent it over anyway — along with about 20 other poems. “I thought that maybe it would help give a sense of the spirit of the other poems I had sent,” he says. Within a week, the Harper’s editors told Donnelly they had chosen the long one. He was thrilled.

No matter how rare publishing such an epic piece may be, doing so serves a valid purpose — for editors and for poets: The work is more likely to get noticed. Consider Donnelly’s 192-line poem “Globus Hystericus,” which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of The Paris Review. After its publication, Donnelly says, he received dozens of e-mails and handwritten notes, most of them flattering. But not all of the responses were positive — proof that not only do people read and care about poetry; they also often react to it emotionally. One anonymous e-mail Donnelly received had the header: “Globus Hystericus; Fecus Maximus.” “In other words,” says Donnelly, “shit.”

In the e-mail’s opening sentence, the sender wrote: “Never before have I read a poem that so incensed and riled me that I felt compelled to write to the author of such driveling trash.”

“I knew I should just dismiss it,” Donnelly says of the e-mail, “but it did sour me a little bit. I was cut deep down. It took me about a week to completely flush that from my system.”

For Donnelly, publishing “Globus Hystericus” was a lesson in both the power of appearing prominently in a magazine and the importance of distributing poetry to a large population. As he puts it: “Having your work read by a great number of people increases the chances of you seeing what a poem will do, of someone finding your work, seeking out the opportunity to let you know it sucks.”

The resounding belief among editors and poets is that as long as there are magazines, poetry will be found on their pages. If poetry doesn’t continue to appear in print, though, they say that it will simply transfer over to the web. Slate, for example, which began publishing poetry in July 1996 — and shortly thereafter, audio podcasts of poems — has remained devoted to the art form since its inception. It’s an editorial formula, according to many editors, that has found much success. As Robert Pinsky, Slate’s poetry editor and a former U.S. Poet Laureate, quipped via e-mail: “Apparently, the magazine business is in trouble: Maybe if Time or Newsweek published a classic poem every week — something by Robert Herrick or Anne Bradstreet or John Keats — they would seem less outmoded?”

For poets, moving to the web is a small change and one that does not present a big challenge to previous publishing models. Pinsky points out that he and his assistant still read stacks of submissions and choose only a select few to publish. “Just like print,” he writes, adding that the only difference with the web is “its vocality, its immediate reader-response cycle, its instant and wide distribution, and its long availability.”

It can be argued that poetry is more vital today than ever before, because people are faced with the media’s never-ending news cycle. “The publication of poetry is essential in our time,” says Schulman. “Particularly in our time with electronics, with the news reaching us so fast, and changing like a kaleidoscope every day. It gives us lasting values and imprints on our consciousness truths that simply do not appear in the day-by-day rush of events.”

As Quinn puts it: “Poetry invites a slowing down and turning inward.”

With more writers and readers — and, well, more poetry — than ever, the culture of verse in American magazines remains viable. While poetry readers will continue to be a small but distinct demographic — a demographic that posts its favorite poems on refrigerators; a demographic that occasionally writes hate mail in response to poems; and a demographic that labors over lines and stanzas for the possibility of a $100 paycheck — this verse-happy bunch is here to stay, and because of them, so is the publication of poetry in print magazines. At least for now.

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Illustrating Man http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/illustrating-man/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/illustrating-man/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:15 +0000 Suzanne Weinstock http://nyrm.org/?p=1959 The Week.]]> By Suzanne Weinstock

Fred Harper’s first experience with caricatures nearly got him killed by a mob of angry football players. He sketched a popular girl in high school asleep and drooling on her textbook and a buddy posted it in the bathroom. Seeking revenge, the players tried to drag Harper down a flight of stairs. Not that he was well-liked to begin with. “I was antisocial. I didn’t know how to talk to people, so I would just draw,” Harper says. “I didn’t drink, I didn’t party with anybody and I just creeped people out.”

Today, despite growing long hair, getting in shape and inking himself with an abundance of tattoos, Harper, 43, still comes across very much like the school geek, with small oval glasses and a self-conscious awkwardness developed during his years as an outsider. He makes his living as an editorial illustrator for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Bank Technology News. His main gig is drawing the covers for The Week, possibly the only major magazine other than The New Yorker that still consistently uses cover illustration.

Although Harper is a relatively successful illustrator, his profession has lost much of its luster, as magazines have moved away from artwork and increased the use of photographs. What was once a booming and lucrative career today offers diminished financial rewards. “Now it’s hard to just say I’m going to be an illustrator and that’s all I’m going to do. Basically I’m a dinosaur,” Harper says. “If The Week wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be making a living.”

As of 2008, there were nearly 220,000 artists — about 10 percent of which were commercial artists, such as illustrators — working in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. That number has plummeted from 308,000 a decade ago. Artists’ median annual income has remained static at roughly $41,000, after adjustment for inflation.

The history of editorial illustration is even older than the printing press. Woodblock illustration began in Europe around 1400 and became cheaper and easier after movable type arrived about midcentury. On-the-scene reporting during the American Civil War (1861-1865) brought illustration to prominence, and technology advances brought about what was characterized as a Golden Age of Illustration around 1880. “A newly literate public, released for the first time from the constant drudgery of work, avidly consumed the unprecedented number of periodicals being published during this period,” Helen Goodman said in a 1987 article in Women’s Art Journal. High-speed presses and halftone plates meant magazines were not only numerous but could be produced and sold cheaply. Illustration-rich publications included: Life, Harper’s Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, McClure’s, The Century, Collier’s, McCall’s and Vogue.

Illustration was lucrative and highly in demand. “Illustrators in the early part of the 20th century were really like our celebrities today,” says Vicki Morgan of the illustration agency Morgan Gaynin. Illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle and Edwin Austin Abbey were stars. “People made a lot of money.”

An illustration school in 1905 advertised that students could make $25 to $100 per week in the profession. That’s roughly $600 to $2400 in today’s money. But by the 1930s, advances in photo reproduction sparked illustration’s slow decline, which accelerated in the 1950s when television started eating away at the number of periodicals.

However, healthy careers in editorial illustration hung on for a couple more decades. In the early ’60s, when illustration veteran Robert Grossman started his career, and on through the ’70s, work was still plentiful. “One time I went past the newsstand and there were five magazines, all with artwork on the cover by me!” Grossman said. “But now if you go to the magazine stand, it’s a really rare one that has art on the cover.”

Illustrators continued to command healthy fees. Many magazines still had six to seven full-page illustrations per issue, Morgan says. Assignments for two-, full- and half-page images were plentiful and made up a big part of her business in the early ’70s. A full page might fetch $900 (more than $4,000 today); and a spread, $1,200 ($6,000).

How times have changed! “Illustration’s not prevalent like it was,” Morgan says. “Now it’s a spot or a quarter page. Occasionally a full page.” One of Morgan’s biggest clients recently told her he gets about $800 for a full-page illustration today, the equivalent of less than $200 in the early ’70s. “I don’t think you’re going to make a great living doing editorial illustration.”

Those are the facts of life and art that Fred Harper faces. He says he has been drawing since he was 6. “I started stalking weird-looking people at the mall where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. I would follow somebody, wait for them to sit down, then I would go around the side to get a good profile shot, and I would sit there and draw them.”

He had the lofty ambition of becoming a theme-park portraitist, and he actually did work as an amusement-park caricaturist during college. He came to editorial illustration circa 1997 after comic book work dried up as that industry contracted. On the plus side, comic book work taught him about storytelling; on the negative side, his job was penciling and inking, and so he hadn’t worked with color in years.

Harper put together a portfolio of three images and took out an ad on page 200 or so of the Directory of Illustration, a book of work samples from illustrators seeking assignments. “The first day [the directory came out] The New York Times Magazine calls me and says, ‘Would you like to do a cartoon for us?’ I thought it was a trick question!” He got $400 for his second cartoon — somebody throwing up on a priest.

Slowly he built his portfolio and began to gather more assignments. It has come either from people who are already familiar with his work or in response to marketing himself by sending out samples. When he gets a call from a publication’s editors or art directors, he accepts the assignment if he is available on their deadline. The magazine or newspaper sends over the article for him to read, sometimes with instructions about what they are looking for. He responds by submitting an average of three sketches and, if he gets the go-ahead, he produces a final image.

Five months after his first Times Magazine cartoon, Harper got a call from Sports Illustrated that resulted in one of his most nerve-racking assignments. The requested composition had eight faces in it and his illustration had to be approved by multiple art directors as well as the editors and writer. Harper submitted eight sketches, far more than the usual three. “I apparently caught her on her last nerve,” he said of the art director who was his primary contact. Harper told her he would drop off the requested sketches at 3 p.m. but was 15 minutes late. “When I got there she was all red-faced and pissed off. I walked out of the building thinking I’d be happy if I get paid,” Harper said of the job. He assumed that was the end of his Sports Illustrated career, but three months later he got another call (the testy art director had been fired) and ultimately got a recurring gig illustrating “The Scorecard,” a regular front-of-book feature.

A few years later he became one of four rotating cover artists for The Week, where the owner — the eccentric, potty-mouthed billionaire Felix Dennis — is committed to maintaining cover art. One by one, the other artists dropped off, until only Harper remained. It’s good, steady work, but he laments the change in the covers. “They used to let me do my interpretation, which usually had an opinion in it, but now their goal is to be as neutral as possible, which means I’ve got to do a very bland illustration. I don’t need to think.” Although, he adds mischievously: “Sometimes I sneak my own things in the background.”

Harper knows he is extremely fortunate to still be doing covers. Grossman recalls doing a cover for Time in 1968 depicting an American and a Russian on the moon during the space race. Forty years later, Time called, asking him to recreate the image but update it by including a few other countries that had ventured into space. “I was kind of excited. I thought I was going to be on the cover of Time magazine again — and it turned out to be a tiny little spot,” Grossman says.

For many years now, the conventional wisdom in the magazine world has been that photos sell better than art. Grossman used to do about three cartoons a week for Us Weekly. When Bonnie Fuller took over as editor-in-chief in February 2002, one of the first things she did was eliminate the cartoons. By the end of the year, circulation rose by 17.3 percent. Numbers like that spell doom for illustrators. And it doesn’t help that more and more cheap options have become available to art directors over the years, thanks to stock imagery and digital tools.

Harper recently lost his regular work with Sports Illustrated shortly after upgrading to a more expensive apartment in Manhattan’s financial district. He did 50 illustrations for “The Scorecard” but hasn’t gotten a call from SI since the feature underwent a redesign. “I’m not comfortable with just one magazine being my main thing,” Harper says. “I call publications, I e-mail samples and I do postcard mailings. I buy lists of companies looking for illustrators and I make giant mailing lists. I get stamper’s cramp.”

On the surface, it appears that editorial work pays moderately well, he says. But as a freelancer he covers his own healthcare costs and overhead costs like art supplies, and the money goes quickly. Illustrations can usually be sold just once because they are specific to a story. At 43, he won’t consider marriage or a family because of his unstable income stream. “I’m not interested in getting married. I have a career. I’m focused on that and I’m waiting until I can do some stuff that can generate longer-term income.”

There are still magazines that buy artwork, but they’re buying less of it, and they’re not raising the prices they’re willing to pay for it. Looking back at the ups and downs of his career, Harper says: “I got into illustration I think at the end of a time when you could still get in traditionally and say, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do — give me a job.’”

There will always be illustrators and there will always be work for them, but magazines are no longer a place where they can become stars.

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Big Isn’t Always Better http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/big-isn%e2%80%99t-always-better/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/13/big-isn%e2%80%99t-always-better/#comments Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:09 +0000 Dustin Fitzharris http://nyrm.org/?p=1910 The Advocate’s case, downsizing may actually spell success.]]>

By Dustin Fitzharris

In 1978, two years after graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago, actor-playwright Charles Busch returned to New York City, his hometown. He had attempted to start a theater company in the Windy City, but that, he says, ended in a “bitter squabble.” At a loss, he decided to create a career for himself as a solo performer. Busch, now internationally renowned, was still an undiscovered talent in 1979, but The Advocate, the oldest continuing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (L.G.B.T.) publication in the United States, recognized his work and did the first review and interview with him.

The Advocate was the best way for a gay artist to be introduced to the national gay community,” Busch says. “It gave this young solo performer a credibility and importance that was instrumental in my career. The Advocate continued to support my progress, as it has so many gay artists.”

Now, 42 years after its first issue, The Advocate is available in print only as an insert in another gay publication, Out, which focuses on entertainment, fashion and beauty. All single-copy distribution ceased in 2009. Some may look at this as a failure. I see it as a success. Here’s why. (And full disclosure: I’ve written for The Advocate.)

First and foremost, because many of the issues that The Advocate pioneered are now routinely covered by the mainstream press. Among the stories the magazine covered first were “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and same-sex marriage. Now those issues are often found on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Furthermore, in 1996, The Advocate featured a story about gay rights groups moving into corporations and using media strategies to funnel their messages to the public. Today, this happens routinely and papers no longer feel the need to report on a company offering same-sex benefits. The Advocate was the first publication to deliver a print interview with Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old student who was tortured and murdered in Wyoming for being gay.

In the late ’90s, the magazine reported on Hollywood’s use of more and more gay characters and gay-themed plots. Fast-forward to 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, a story about a relationship between two cowboys. It went on to nab three Academy Awards, proving how far the public’s attitude toward the gay community had come since 1993, when The Advocate felt the need to write about the film Philadelphia, in which a homosexual lawyer battled AIDS and discrimination. Going even further back, in 1975 singer Bette Midler was the first celebrity to be featured on The Advocate’s cover. At the time, Midler’s team advised her against it, even though she had a huge gay following.

Of course, in 1979 the magazine also covered the assassination of Harvey Milk. And AIDS, from its advent in 1981, has been a deeply personal topic; The Advocate has lost — and continues to lose — staff members to the disease.

I first discovered The Advocate when I was in junior high. I would go into the bookstores in my suburban town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and see the magazine on one of the upper shelves of the magazine rack, often too high for me to reach easily. If no one else was around, I would struggle to grab a copy — I was nervous about being seen with a magazine that was identifiable with the gay community. I remember looking through it and seeing images of gay people and gay couples, photographed in an endearing and honest way. It made me realize that who I am is acceptable. I believe this is still extremely important for younger people living outside major cities who wrestle with their sexuality and feel that they are alone or need to feel ashamed.

Although there were other L.G.B.T. publications before The Advocate, it was the first to take off nationally. It began as a local newsletter in Los Angeles, published by an activist group known as Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE). In 1969, the publication began to distribute nationally. That was a historic year for the L.G.B.T. community. In the early morning hours of June 28, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Fed up with years of persecution, the gay community finally fought back against the police and took to the streets. The Stonewall riots are often cited as the start of the gay rights movement. The Advocate was there to report the story.

Jon Barrett, The Advocate’s editor-in-chief for the past two years, still believes in the magazine’s power. Although mainstream publications now cover L.G.B.T. issues, The Advocate wants to be the touchstone for these sources to turn to when they want to know more about these issues. “Now, more than ever, I think we are a place of conversation,” Barrett says. “The things that people are hearing about on the web or on TV, they need a place where they can analyze them.” It’s fair to say that for L.G.B.T. issues, The Advocate has been that place all along.

Another reason I see the magazine as a success is because of its increasing online presence. In the past year, the site has tripled its online readership, with monthly unique visitors numbering close to 500,000. And in February, the magazine launched a monthly hour-long TV news-magazine show, The Advocate On-Air, which is being streamed on Advocate.com and will air on the here! network. Most recently, The Advocate signed a deal with NBC, making it the first L.G.B.T.-oriented publication to partner with a major network. Advocate.com will utilize NBC resources to produce daily news segments that will run online and on The Advocate On-Air.

Barrett says it would be a mistake to expect the print edition to fade into the background. “The magazine is the pillar that holds all of these other things up. If we had decided to get rid of the print publication, I think we would’ve just become another website.”

The Advocate has survived in the turbulent economy and is still around for the community beyond print. “Young people might never pick up a print magazine again,” says Barrett. “The Advocate is more than just a magazine.”

What is it then? The world’s leading gay source and that is something to celebrate.

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Friendlier Skies http://nyrm.org/2010/05/12/friendlier-skies/ http://nyrm.org/2010/05/12/friendlier-skies/#comments Wed, 12 May 2010 15:01:51 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley http://nyrm.org/?p=2265 By Jeff Dooley

In November 2006, Adam Pitluk, who is now the executive editor of American Way magazine, went into a job interview with Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine. He sat across from his interviewer, Jay Heinrichs, Spirit’s editorial director. Heinrichs presented Pitluk with a hypothetical: If you could have any job in all of media, what would it be? Pitluk looked Heinrichs in the eye and told him with a straight face that his dream job was to become the editor of an in-flight magazine. “And he laughed,” Pitluk remembers.

Heinrichs can’t recall the interview three-and-a-half years later, but he has a good idea of what it was about Pitluk’s comment that made him chuckle. “It is kinda funny,” Heinrichs says. “You don’t expect that people would dream as small children of becoming editors of in-flight magazines.” At least at the time of Pitluk’s job interview, in-flights were hardly seen as the pinnacle of magazine journalism. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that they were about as appreciated as the barf bags with which they shared seatback pocket space. It was hard not to feel bad for your fellow passenger who forgot to bring reading materials and was left to flip through features like “5 Things to Do in Akron, Ohio.”

But these days, a few of these magazines are trying to change the way you think about in-flights. And why not? At a time of great uncertainty for the magazine industry, in-flights have some good things going for them. There are some 15 in-flight magazines currently attached to U.S.-based carriers, as well as countless titles for international and foreign airlines. The big five “legacy” carriers (United, American, Continental, Delta and U.S. Airways) are among them, as well as Southwest, another major
airline. Almost all of the work is outsourced (except at American Airlines, which has an in-house division) to custom publishing companies, many of which produce several different in-flights. The magazines enjoy the advantage of having distribution and circulation costs taken care of, and they can claim readership numbers that would make even the largest of newsstand titles jealous: anywhere from 3 million to 7 million readers every month (readership figures are drawn from surveys; airlines have many more passengers who don’t read the magazines). To make the deal even sweeter, many of these readers, particularly business travelers and vacationers with expendable income, are part of demographics that are very desirable to advertisers.

So, several of these magazines are looking to make the most of these advantages by offering something new and improved — a product that no longer settles for providing travel tips and being a voice box for its airline, but instead produces a level of journalism that can start nipping at the heels of the major newsstand magazines. The in-flights, you might say, are ready for takeoff.

To get to the editorial offices of United Airlines magazine Hemispheres, you have to travel to a sleepy stretch of Jay Street in Brooklyn, just two blocks from the East River and one block from the Manhattan Bridge. Once inside the building, you take the elevator up two floors, make a right at “Cha Cha’s House of Ill Repute” day care center, then proceed to the nondescript door at the end of the narrow hallway. The Time-Life building, it is not.

The office space is divided down the middle by white bookshelves stuffed full of back issues. On the left sit the staffs of Go and MyMidwest, two other in-flight magazines (for AirTran Airways and Midwest Airlines), produced by Ink Publishing. Ink is an international company based in the United Kingdom that produces more in-flight magazines than any other publishing house (29 in total), including titles for Jazeera Airways, Ryanair and VivaAerobus. To the right of the bookshelves, next to a pair of black leather couches and a small white table, the Hemispheres staff does its work.

Here you find Aaron Gell, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, working at his desk. Gell was the executive editor of off-beat culture magazine Radar when it folded in October of 2008, during “the beginning of the end of magazines,” as he puts it. A short man with dark hair, a dark brown beard and deep blue eyes, Gell has written cover stories and profiled the likes of Shannen Doherty, Shakira, Mark Wahlberg and Beyoncé. His “work-has-appeared-in” list includes Vanity Fair, New York and GQ.

Across from Gell sits Mike Guy, Hemispheres’ executive editor. Guy has been an editor at Rolling Stone and Details, and after his editorship had a writing contract with Rolling Stone that expired “right about the same time everything went downhill in the industry,” he says. He is tall and slender, with a cheery disposition and left-swooping, long-sideburned dirty-blond hair. Guy and Gell were both out of work when they responded to an ad on a media website seeking editors for Hemispheres. Some 2,000 people applied, and both Gell and Guy were invited to interview with Michael Keating, Ink’s executive creative director. Going into the meeting, neither had particularly high expectations of what the job would be like, but that soon changed. “I came away from the meeting thinking, ‘Hey, this could actually be fun,’” Gell says.

The fun part was being given the task of rethinking and relaunching Hemispheres. Keating wanted it to break away from the tired in-flight magazine formula and engage the passengers United Airlines was trying to target: higher-educated, higher-income travelers. That meant throwing out the vapid wine and golf columns, and becoming more discriminating about what constitutes a good travel feature. Their new editorial rule: “A place is not a story.”

The changes have been noticeable. The November 2009 issue featured a pair of well-written essays, one on the indie kids-movie trend, written by a veteran film critic, Gene Seymour; and the other, by Jason Gay (a former Rolling Stone editor and current correspondent for GQ), about his nostalgia for the days when the football team at his alma mater — the University of Wisconsin — was terrible. That issue’s lead story, written by New York Times contributing writer Edward Lewine and illustrated by the artist Kako, took a close look at what the Acai berry craze is doing to the Amazon rainforest. The December issue had an engaging story on female boxers training for the 2012 Olympics, and in April, Hemispheres rolled out an interesting article about a naval hospital ship that aided victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The quality of the writing, art and photography is a cut above what most people have come to expect from an in-flight magazine.

Changing expectations was also Delta’s goal when it rebuilt its Sky magazine from the ground up in April 2009. MSP Communications and Pace Communications (whose current clients include Spirit and U.S. Airways magazines) competed for the right to produce Sky. The team at MSP, including executive editor Sarah Elbert, put together a complete, fully-bound prototype, with a revamped look and new vision, and won the contract. “This is a brand new magazine,” Elbert says. “We wanted to redefine it, to move it past the stale reputation it had in the past.”

The upgrade is most apparent in the magazine’s art and page design, with shorter items and charts calculated to pull in readers who are just flipping through the pages. In the features section, there’s a new emphasis on timely issues and newsmakers. A recent issue contained a section on the White House that included interviews with several top staffers and President Barack Obama himself (though it’s worth noting that the interviews consisted of mostly softball questions pitched via e-mail; they weren’t exactly grilling the president on healthcare policy).

Sky’s offices are located in Minnesota, and while the members of the editorial staff don’t have resumes to match those of Gell and Guy at Hemispheres, they do strive to pull in top freelance talent. They signed up New York Times media columnist David Carr to interview Anderson Cooper for their January issue, and they offer a competitive freelance rate starting at $1.75 a word (Hemispheres offers $1 a word, sometimes less).

The plan is simple: Produce a better magazine, and the readers and advertising dollars will follow. While it’s too early to tell whether this new approach is paying dividends for Sky and Hemispheres, anecdotal evidence — such as reader letters — seems to indicate that people are enjoying the improvements. The editors at Sky quite literally see their magazine as competition to the newsstand titles — they’ve begun circulating for-sale copies in certain markets.

In at least one editor’s opinion, the changes being attempted by some of these magazines are nothing new. “In-flights have been trying to change people’s opinions of in-flights since the Wright Brothers,” says Spirit’s Heinrichs. “I think a lot of the in-flight magazines think they’re breaking new ground just by not running the reviews of resorts that read the same all the time, and articles on how the trendy drink of the year is sake.” He continues: “Don’t get me wrong, they can have some great stuff, but there are limitations.” Working within these boundaries is a challenge this new wave of editors has embraced however, to improve the overall quality of their publications.

“At its core, this isn’t really a revolutionary idea,” Pitluk says. “We’re just trying to make people more interested in reading our magazines.” Pitluk took over the top spot at American Way in October 2008 following a reshuffling at American Airlines’ custom-publishing unit. American Way is the only in-flight that publishes twice-monthly, and Pitluk has moved from having celebrity covers every issue to having them every other issue — with travel-related covers in between — in order to avoid the perception that the magazine is trying to “out-People People magazine.” Michael Woody, art and editorial director at American’s publishing unit, says he has been particularly impressed by Pitluk’s ability to take the results of reader surveys, gain an understanding of the types of people who are reading the magazine and apply it to the editorial pages.

All in-flights have to accept their airlines’ involvement in editorial decisions as part of the business relationship. Ultimately a publication has to satisfy its airline. The extent of this commitment varies, but the process typically includes meetings with airline officials who may critique the magazine. In-flight editors know they need to stay away from any material that may be offensive or strongly negative, and they certainly will not print anything that reflects poorly on the airline industry. They are well-aware of who pays the bills.

Lunchtime for Gell and Guy does not include meals at trendy restaurants charged to the company expense account. On this particular day, they’re at a sandwich shop with Layla Schlack, a Hemispheres senior editor, and Erin Giunta, the photo editor. They discuss the differences between working for an in-flight versus working at other magazines. “I think everybody’s really happy here,” Guy says. “And that’s in an industry that’s just historically fraught with misery and, what’s the word? Backbiting?” The consensus at the table is that a small staff size helps. Like most in-flights, Hemispheres has fewer than 10 full-timers, making their closing nights a far cry from the hair-pulling marathon sessions that Gell and Guy have experienced at larger magazines. Despite the prestige and excitement those jobs may have provided, both men are content to work at a very different kind of magazine during these perilous times in journalism.

“It’s true that, at the moment, people at newsstand titles are scared to death,” Gell says. “We have this cushion in terms of our distribution — we’re not worried about newsstand sales. That makes it a lot more fun, and I think at a magazine where people aren’t having fun, it’s really reflected in the content. There are areas where you can still have fun as a journalist. This was a place where I wouldn’t have expected to have fun, but it’s turned out to be that way.”

As Gell pushes a small, white bowl of unfinished French fries toward the center of the table, Guy picks up the thought where his boss left off: “It’s hard to find the intersection of earning a living wage and doing what you want to do,” he says. “And I thinkthis is one of the few places where you can have that right now.” He pauses for a moment, then begins to grow animated, a grin forming on his lips. “We actually do pay a dollar a word. We actually do pay people reliably. We have 7 million readers,” he says, his volume rising, his smile widening, “It’s the perfect storm!”

The staff of Hemispheres bursts into laughter. And why not? The idea that people might have fun while working at an in-flight magazine doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.

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