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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Newsweek Sells for $1--What's Next?

I’m not one given to bouts of nostalgia, but when I heard Newsweek had been sold for $1 (and more than $50 million in liabilities) to billionaire Sidney Harman, it made me think back to when I worked there, and how I really came into my own as a photo editor.

I began freelancing at Newsweek in 1990, recommended by Karen Mullarkey, who knew me from a freelance stint I did at Sports Illustrated when she was the DOP. This was the first time I was really on my own as a photo editor, and I found myself the freelance cover photo editor. As the cover photo editor at Newsweek you had to handle the domestic cover and three overseas editions. Strangely enough the overseas editions were easier because Newsweek had staff and contributing photographers around the world, and you also had agencies to rely upon. This was the first time I felt over my head in a job, but the staff was so helpful and friendly I soon got the rhythm and had a great time.

I came back as a freelancer in 1991, working on special issues, including "When Worlds Collide," the centennial anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage, done in collaboration with the Smithsonian. I was given total free rein to research this anyway and anywhere I wished. I donned white gloves to look at ancient manuscripts, dug into library and university collections, and photographed pre-Columbian artifacts. It was an amazing project, and a multi-award winning one as well.

One of my biggest shoots at that time was for a cover story, "The Science of Sports" (why does a curveball curve, etc.). I hired Mark Seliger to shoot the cover and five inside images, and we chose Bo Jackson, then one of the biggest name in sports, and two sports at that (football and baseball). After weeks of negotiation, discussions of props, prop building and art direction, I flew out to Kansas City (where Jackson was) with Mark and a crew of four or five (can’t really remember) and waited for the prop truck to arrive at our rented studio. We worked all night to set up each shot, slept 2 or 3 hours and then waited for Bo Jackson to show.

Of course he arrived late, wasn’t in a very cooperative mood, and when he walked off the set, both Mark and I had to firmly insist he continue (it was pretty amazing to go up to a huge, muscled football player and demand he get back on set and basically shut the fuck up—I was exhilarated!). I don't think these two shots have ever been seen before.

The shoot ended up being great, the most expensive I had done, and yet it never ran. Why? Well that same day, a dictator named Sadaam Hussein invaded a little country called Kuwait. Little did we know what would happen next. Thank you Mark for being such a dream to work with.

In 1992 I was hired on staff by Guy Cooper, and worked on the Back-Of-The-Book section (BOB in magazine parlance) which covered everything from fashion to science to law to food to education and beyond. About half of each years covers were in my section, and one of the best issues I worked on was “A Week In the Death of America” about murder around the country. I hired Eugene Richards to ride around the city with a police band radio waiting for a murder scene he could shoot. I also hired photographers around the country like Bryce Lankard in New Orleans, Jeff Lowe, Stephen Shames, Jeff Mermelstein, Anthony Barboza. We photographed a gun show, a victim rights group, a minor incarcerated for murder and more.

This was one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever worked on, and as you can imagine, the logistics were intense. In fact, we didn’t even have a cover image until the very last moment. That kept me biting my nails up until deadline. But the project won multiple awards, and still remains one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I was able to hire anyone I wanted, shoot anyway I wanted, and do anything I wanted—total control and total creative license. What a dream for a photo editor! As a result I really was able to stretch out and learn how important picking the right photographer for the right assignment was. I learned how to art direct and visualize stories for a magazine format, and worked with the best editor ever, Aric Press, who trusted me to give him fantastic images for our section’s stories. I worked with a wonderful photographer, Jeff Lowe, who was an amazing creative problem solver. Jeff could reimagine a mundane subject into a beautifully compelling image.

I did some of the first photo illustrations Newsweek had ever used; I shot stories with Holgas, in sepia, with big sets, and with great photographers. Newsmagazines used to be an amazing proving ground for photo editors where the craft of photo editing was learned, and the best were able to contribute new visual ways of story telling to the audience. That’s what Newsweek was for me.

But newsweeklies have been way too slow to change with the times, and fell victim to the belief that photographs didn’t compel people to buy and read the magazines--people were more interested in the writing. Well, since by the time the magazine is on the stands people already know nearly all there is to know about a particular story, unless there is something offered that your audience cannot get elsewhere, they will pass you up. Great photographs are the unique added value to offer an audience. Great photographs can tell a story without words, and can impart new information, deep emotion and subcontext that is frequently missed in the text due to mediocre editorial.

Now would be the time for Newsweek to step back into the limelight as a visual storytelling publication—whether on the Web, on iPad or in paper form. You cannot get a jump on the news, but you can go so much deeper into stories around the world through the use of photography. And there are so many amazing stories being told by photographers that you don’t have to go far to find them. You just have to give them a platform.

Here’s hoping the new owner is smart enough to reinvent the magazine, break new ground and set it apart by the use of great photographic storytelling.

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Anonymous Michael Sebastian said...

Stella, great story and analysis. It's amazing. Unless the new owner just wants an expensive hobby, or a huge tax deduction, we have to assume he has something in mind for the magazine.

Is it too much to hope that he'll innovate along the lines you suggest?

Quite an anecdote about you and Mr. Selinger telling Bo Jackson to STFU. I saw him play baseball in (I think it was) Birmingham AL. He was one big dude, just huge--a slab of muscle. Quite intimidating.

Imagine, having a publication (in whatever venue) devoted to longer-form stories where the images are foremost, shot by photographers who can tell a story without words. Just the kind of editorial I'd love to shoot.

Thanks for posting this.

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous merritt hewitt said...

Just discovered your wonderful blog. Very interesting you have it in the blogspot format.

I'm in the first stages of seriously putting my photography out there. Latest is New York city street photography. Little presumptuous of me to ask you to check it out but please do--I've got an Eliot Spitzer on 5th Ave. He looks good. Thank you, good luck and take care. Merritt

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Liz.Blog said...

So cool to hear about your work at Newsweek. I "almost" worked there during Osborn Elliott's reign as Editor-in-Chief. (so far back I won't say the year) I really loved Newsweek, but decided after my 3 day trial I wasn't suited for the hierarchy there at that time. I cannot believe it sold for $1.

August 23, 2010  

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