A Fond Farewell to a Great One  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2007

A Fond Farewell to a Great One   

AJRs managing editor joins USA Today.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's hard for me to imagine AJR without Rachel Smolkin.

For the past five years, Rachel has had at least one major feature article in all but one issue of the magazine. And for the past 20 months she's been AJR's managing editor.

But I'm going to have to get used to it: Rach is leaving AJR to become an assignment editor on the national desk at USA Today.

It's a great opportunity for her. She'll be overseeing the legal team, which includes the Supreme Court and Justice Department reporters, at the nation's largest-circulating newspaper. And with the profound changes in progress at the court and the turbulence at Justice, what an exciting time to be doing it.

I've been in journalism management positions for 32 years. I've enjoyed the hell out of almost all of those years. And one of the reasons is the great relationships I've had with editors and reporters. I've had the opportunity to work with and befriend an absurdly large number of very talented, committed and all-around terrific people.

Put Rach in the top level of the pantheon.

When Rach made the switch from freelancing to managing editor, I had no doubts about her as a journalist. I had been editing her work for a long time, and I was quite familiar with her intellectual curiosity, her scope, her relentlessness, her ambition, her sophistication, her care (the woman alphabetizes her fact-checking material), her writing talent, her overall money-in-the-bank reliability.

What surprised me is the way she plunged into all the other aspects of the job. She quickly showed her affinity for management, for working with writers, supervising other editors, honchoing the interns. And it quickly became clear she was quite interested in how all the rest of it worked--the advertising, the circulation, the production. When there was a meeting in New York City of the committee Gene Roberts set up to raise money for AJR and CJR, Rach let it be known she wanted to be there, too.

That, however, wasn't the biggest surprise. I quickly realized that I had no idea how much fun we were destined to have together. The nonstop riffing, the one-liners, the endless laughs--they will be as hard to replace as the journalistic wonderfulness. As Rach said when someone jokingly talked about hiring us both, should that happen, we would no doubt have to be separated.

Not long ago we were at a schmoozefest in Washington and someone was inevitably bemoaning the fact that journalism wasn't fun anymore. Rach turned to me, somewhat puzzled, and wondered what it was that we'd been having all day.

But even more important than the repartee--is anything really more important than the repartee?--was the work. The longer Rach was with the magazine, the more ambitious her undertakings became. One of my favorites was "Adapt or Die," an article in the June/July 2006 issue that explored the efforts of newspaper companies to survive in a rapidly changing media world. The piece won an Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism from the National Press Club.

Issue after issue, she aimed a bright spotlight on critical issues facing the field. Whither the New York Times Co.? What's likely to become of the nightly network news and the weekly newsmagazines? Why didn't the Tribune Co.'s vaunted synergy strategy work? How do newspapers decide whether to publish sensitive national security stories based on classified information? What's the deal with Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News main man Brian Tierney? What can the mainstream media learn from Jon Stewart?

It's no shock she twice won the Rowse award for body of work and three times was a finalist for Penn State's Bart Richards award. When AJR won Syracuse's new Mirror Award in the general excellence category this year, one of the judges went out of his way to tell us how much he and his fellow judges had been impressed by her work.

In her swan song--for now, anyway--in this issue (see "Justice Delayed"), Rach explores what went wrong in the media's runaway coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape case that wasn't. There were some factors that complicated the situation greatly, particularly at the outset. Allegations were coming not from anonymous sources and shadowy leaks but from a prosecutor, on the record. (It reminds you of Bob Woodward's point that far, far more spurious information has been disseminated on the record than anonymously.)

The holes in the case, however, became clear fairly early (lack of physical evidence, an exceedingly shaky accuser). But with some sterling exceptions--among them Joe Neff & Co. at Raleigh's News & Observer, blogger KC Johnson and National Journal's Stuart Taylor--much of the media moved awfully slowly, if at all, to correct the record.

The episode is a painful lesson in the need to avoid overly credulous coverage, to pursue alternative explanations, to follow indications that the popularly accepted narrative doesn't hold up.

Like we needed another one.

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