From AJR, September 1999 issue
Shifting Into Overdrive
The newsmagazines scrambled big time after learning close to--and in one case after--deadline that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was missing.
By Kelly Heyboer IT WAS A FEW MINUTES after 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday in Long Island. Editor in Chief Mortimer B. Zuckerman was just sitting down to a breakfast of cereal and skim milk at his summer house in East Hampton when the phone on the wall of the breakfast nook rang.
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
The caller was Brian Duffy, executive editor of Zuckerman's U.S. News & World Report, sounding very serious. He had been working the phones all morning gathering information from his home and quickly summed up what he knew for Zuckerman.
John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane had been reported missing on its way to Martha's Vineyard in what, if the worst had happened, could be one of the biggest stories of the year. But U.S. News had already gone to press. Not only had 1.8 million copies, more than 75 percent of the run, been printed, the first ones were in trucks on the way to the airports.
Zuckerman had two choices: Let the issue hit newsstands as is--with a soft news cover story on memory loss--while Time and Newsweek would surely showcase the Kennedy story. Or turn around the trucks, call in the staff and pump out a new magazine--in a few hours.
"I said, `It's going to cost you, and it's going to cost you big time,' " Duffy recalls. The printers estimated the reprint option would cost "in the six figures, well into the six figures."
On the other end of the line, Zuckerman, still staring at his cereal, didn't flinch.
"I just gave the go-ahead," Zuckerman says. "That's what we're about. We're a newsweekly, and we respond to the news.... You can't be a bean counter."
That began what Zuckerman calls one of the most extraordinary days in the newsweekly's 66-year history. The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. News ripped up and rewrote its issue in a little less than 11 hours. Similar scenes were unfolding in New York where the competition--Time and Newsweek--were also scurrying to mobilize the troops and redo their covers before the presses rolled early Sunday.
The Kennedy story, which broke pre-dawn on Saturday, July 17, with the first reports the plane was missing, hit the three newsmagazines at the worst possible time. U.S. News goes to bed late Friday. Time and Newsweek have Saturday night editorial deadlines and print early Sunday. All three managed to get Kennedy covers on newsstands by Monday.
Already struggling to stay relevant in a media age replete with 24-hour television news operations and instant access to information on the Internet, the slower-paced newsmagazines have found their niche is providing "context" to news events, with well-written, big-picture stories. But in the case of the Kennedy crash, the magazines were faced with doing both the initial reporting and the deep thinking in a matter of hours for stories that had to look fresh on the newsstand for an entire week.
Decisions were further complicated by the fact that many of those dictating coverage were also dealing with a personal loss. Kennedy, founder and editor of the political/celebrity magazine George, traveled in the same New York magazine circles as many of the top staffers of the newsweeklies. He was a personal friend of Walter Isaacson, Time's managing editor. He often lunched with historian and Newsweek contributing editor Douglas Brinkley, a George contributor. He ran into U.S. News Editor in Chief Zuckerman at parties, and the pair frequently talked shop.
In the sprint to put the breaking event into perspective, reporters and editors who were called in that Saturday found themselves thinking like magazine writers, but returning to their daily journalism roots. Newsweek veteran Kenneth Auchincloss rushed to Manhattan from Connecticut to write Newsweek's lead Kennedy piece in about four hours.
"It was quite exhilarating for newsmagazine people," Auchincloss says. "We're not usually under tight deadlines. This is a case where we were actually working like a daily newspaper."
Pushing deadlines and stopping the presses for breaking news events are not unprecedented at the newsweeklies. Newsweek pulled its cover when President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon on a weekend in 1974. More recently, all three magazines scrambled when Princess Diana died on a similar summer weekend, and President Clinton's impeachment vote and other Clinton/Lewinsky-related stories broke on Saturdays.
As usual, U.S. News had the roughest time when the Kennedy story broke. The magazine, the perpetual underdog in the newsweekly race, has a smaller staff and budget than its competitors and has been historically hampered by earlier deadlines.
I RONICALLY, U.S. NEWS MAY HAVE had the earliest word of the Kennedy crash, though it was not enough to stop the presses. U.S. News senior writer David L. Marcus, who attended Brown University with JFK Jr., heard a rumor late Friday or early Saturday that something had happened to Kennedy, perhaps a car crash.
"It was so unspecific that he didn't do anything with it," Duffy says. Marcus did call several U.S. News editors, but none received or responded to the news until morning. By then, the story was all over television, and most of U.S. News' issues had been printed.
"Reporters and photographers were calling me at home saying, `I have CNN on,' " Duffy says. By 8:30 a.m., Duffy was on the phone trying to reach his boss, U.S. News Editor Stephen G. Smith, who was traveling and was not immediately available. So Duffy had someone call the printers in California and Wisconsin and got Zuckerman's go-ahead to stop the presses and call in the staff to redo the magazine.
Calls went out to reporters, writers, editors, photo staff, copy editors and fact-checkers to assemble in the Washington, D.C., offices. The first reporters, arriving at the office between 9 and 10:30 a.m., were told not to waste time flying to Martha's Vineyard or the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, but to start working the phones. Deadline was 7 p.m. If U.S. News did not close by then, Newsweek, which uses the same printer, might bump it for its own press run.
U.S. News Design Director Rob Covey was at his 14-year-old son's swim meet Saturday morning when he got word of the crash. "I started calling my crew of people," he says. While the reporters gathered details for the story, the entire 11-page national section had to be dropped and redesigned for 11 pages of Kennedy coverage. A graphic with the doomed plane's flight had to be mapped out. A new cover had to be designed.
A story lineup meeting was held before 11 a.m., before Lauren Bessette's luggage had even washed up on the beach in Martha's Vineyard, giving the first real indication Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law were probably dead.
Covey, a veteran art director who has worked at the Seattle Times and the Arizona Daily Star, describes the atmosphere in the U.S. News office as frantic, but not panicked. "It was a blur," Covey says. "I know we were running later than they wanted us the whole time. Nothing was immediate, it was bumping and grinding."
While Assistant Managing Editor Brian Kelly and senior writer Kenneth T. Walsh wrote the lead story, senior writers Angie Cannon and Marcus put together a story on JFK Jr.'s life. Veteran political reporter Richard Reeves, author of "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," was asked to write a commentary. Senior Photo Editor Olivier Picard, who normally handles foreign news, happened to be in New York that afternoon and was recruited to help New York photo editor Natasha Lunn run around the city, gathering photos of Kennedy from different agencies.
Back at the office, as deadline neared, a debate raged over the cover. Which photo? Which headline? Should it be just John F. Kennedy Jr., or should his wife be included in the photo?
Duffy and Covey kept sending Senior Art Director Ken Newbaker back to the drawing board. "I think Rob Covey and I were driving him nuts," Duffy says. In the end, the argument that Carolyn Bessette should be included on the cover won out.
"There were a number of the staff who came in, both male and female, who basically said it would be wrong not to put her on the cover," Duffy says. "I must say it was a persuasive argument."
U.S. News was the only one of the three newsmagazines to include Carolyn on its first week's cover. It went with a black-ruled cover of John and Carolyn walking arm and arm, with the headline "The Kennedy Curse."
I N NEW YORK, NEWSWEEK EDITORS were also debating covers, trying to choose between two photos. In the end, they settled on a shaded profile shot of Kennedy looking very much like his father, with the headline "Again: A Kennedy Family Tragedy." Both Newsweek and U.S. News consciously stopped short of declaring Kennedy dead, leaving the door open, however slightly, for a miracle rescue.
Over at Time, editors raised some eyebrows by shutting the door completely and putting a smiling portrait of Kennedy on the cover with the simple text "John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.: 1960-1999." Next to an inset of 3-year-old Kennedy saluting his father's coffin were the words "Commemorative Issue." Inside was a 37-page package of coverage. Kennedy's birth and death dates were run on a black rule across the top of every other page.
Though Time could have stopped the presses and pulled the cover Sunday if Kennedy and his passengers were found alive, editors made their decision to write the story as if Kennedy was dead. The Coast Guard was still officially performing a "search and rescue" mission on Saturday.
The criticism of Time's cover choice had already started by the time the issue hit newsstands Monday. The New York Post ran a story on Time "declaring JFK Jr. dead." Reporter Paul Tharp quoted an unnamed Newsweek executive saying Time's decision was in "poor taste."
USA Today's Jeannie Williams quoted Time's Isaacson saying putting the death dates on the cover was not a difficult decision. "At one point today [Sunday], we were told that after 36 hours he was presumed dead," Williams quoted Isaacson as saying.
Isaacson and other top Time editors declined, through a spokeswoman, to speak on the record about how they reached the cover decision or to respond to critics' assertions that their choice was risky and in dubious taste. They also declined to give any details about how Time's staff mobilized to put out the extensive commemorative issue in about 24 hours.
The staff performed as they would on any other breaking story, says Time spokeswoman Diana Pearson. "We always have people [ready]," she says.
Bob Steele, director of media ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says "calculated assumptions" have always been part of headline writing. "My guess is the decision that Time magazine had to make that Saturday afternoon was not simple," says Steele, who teaches newsroom ethics seminars.
By choosing to declare Kennedy dead on its cover, Time editors may have been walking a fine line between a journalistic and a business decision, Steele says. Everyone assumed Kennedy was dead, so the magazine would look timely having its commemorative issue on the newsstand ready to sell.
"Common sense may support that decision, but there is a fair amount of risk to go that way. The likelihood they were wrong was very, very small. But the consequences of a miracle happening...could be embarrassing," Steele says. "Business values should not trump journalism values. Business values should not trump appropriate compassion."
Newsweek and U.S. News editors are careful not to directly criticize Time for its cover choice, but editors at both magazines are adamant they made conscious decisions early on not to assume Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law were dead.
"We purposely, late in the day, stepped back.... We didn't feel comfortable doing it," says Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham. With the plane missing less than 24 hours at deadline, all copy was written carefully to leave room "for a miracle."
A T NEWSWEEK, THE DAY BEGAN about 9 a.m. when Meacham got a call about the missing plane and immediately began calling in his top staff and dispatching reporters to Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Editor at Large Auchincloss returned from Connecticut to write the introductory piece. Sharon Begley was called in to write the main news piece. Evan Thomas phoned from the Boston Airport and was told to fly to New York and write a Kennedy profile.
"I did a story list by 10:30 a.m.," Meacham says. By noon, photo and design staffs were meeting to lay out a new issue, with 29 pages of Kennedy stories, graphics and photos. The photo staff, which Meacham called the true heroes of the day, sorted through thousands of images of the Kennedys and the Bessette sisters, before they settled on the images used in the issue. "Everybody went to their battle stations," Meacham says. "It was a wonderful thing here to watch the mighty Wurlitzer spin into action."
Early on, Newsweek editors decided to use their coverage of Princess Diana's death, which occurred on a Labor Day weekend, to help shape their battle plan. As with that story, they thought in terms of chapters to help tell the tale.
Auchincloss, who had been working all week preparing Newsweek's college guide, had to switch gears and write the introductory chapter, headlined "Charmed Yet Cursed." The three-page story, all in narrative voice without quotes, was supposed to set the scene and put the day's events in historical context.
Around 4 p.m., Auchincloss tucked himself into his office away from the bustle of reporters and editors, and found himself faced with quickly processing the developing drama and writing the kind of think piece that usually takes him a week. "I had to decide what I thought about this event," he says. By 8 p.m. he had a draft that began simply, "They were going to a wedding." It was after 2 a.m. before it was edited, trimmed to fit and laid out with photos.
By the time he went home, Auchincloss, a 33-year Newsweek veteran, was struck by the smoothness of it all. "Everyone went about their business. There was no sense of crisis, no sense of excessive rush," he says. "Group journalism is somewhat depreciated as a form, but it really works in a case like this."
W HEN READERS WENT TO THE newsstand on Monday, U.S. News had saved face with its 11 pages of coverage that stood up against the better-endowed competition. Time, with the most impressive package, was able to produce 11 stories, including personal pieces by former Time Washington Bureau Chief Hugh Sidey, historian and Kennedy insider Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan; an impressive Kennedy family tree; and a photo album. The package was led by one of Nancy Gibbs' trademark narrative pieces. Newsweek produced six stories and a timeline and managed to break some news with Jonathan Alter's scoop that Kennedy would have considered running in the New York Senate race if Hillary Clinton had not jumped in.
Only minor errors and typos slipped in. (U.S. News ran together two sentences in the second paragraph of the lead story. A Newsweek graphic put the New Jersey airport Kennedy left from in the wrong town.)
Newsweek's Meacham says the newsmagazines accomplished what was expected of them. "We're able to mobilize like this because our readers expect us to be ahead of the papers," he says. "I think in a way what the country expects of us is to sort of...put things in perspective."
In this case, the newsmagazines also found themselves competing with celebrity magazines. Like Princess Diana's death in 1997 and much of the coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky saga, the Kennedy plane crash was a personality story as much as a news story. JFK Jr. had appeared on People magazine's cover eight times (once billed as the "sexiest man alive") and seven more times in montages with other people.
People magazine reacted to Kennedy's death with the same zeal as any of the newsweeklies, though its deadline was not until Tuesday, three days after the story broke. Five top People staffers attending the magazine's special 25th anniversary business meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, were told to fly home immediately after word arrived that JFK Jr. might be missing.
People spokeswoman Susan Ollinick had just arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel when she and other top staffers were told to return to the airport. "I was there less than 24 hours, and I had to come right back," she says. "When something like this happens, you have to be where the action is."
People was able to rip up its issue and produce 41 pages of Kennedy coverage. The photo staff sorted through 5,000 Kennedy images in four days. The first issues were being printed Tuesday when news broke that the bodies of the crash victims had been found. So People stopped the presses, destroyed what had been printed (only about 1 percent of its 3.6 million circulation), and reprinted with the updated information.
"It is kind of looked at as a celebrity profile [magazine]," Ollinick says. "But we are very much news driven. We can react to news with the newsweeklies."
People's New York bureau chief, Maria Eftimiades, was able to get nearly 15 reporters and stringers on the story within hours after the plane was reported missing. Their mission: to unearth as much personal detail as possible. A summer intern was dispatched to the neighborhood near Kennedy's Manhattan loft to find shop owners who may have served John and Carolyn.
"A lot of my reporters worked all weekend or five days straight, and they managed to get an anecdote or a quote used," Eftimiades says. "We really look for details, small details the newsweeklies wouldn't be interested in."
After the weekly issue closed on Tuesday, reporters were told to keep working to put together a special tribute issue. Eftimiades kept a handle on the story by devising a giant chart in the hallway of People's New York office. She divided Kennedy's life into 12 chapters and spent her days marking every anecdote the reporters got to make sure no details got lost in someone's notes.
PRINCESS DIANA'S DEATH proved tribute issues are big business. People's tribute to Diana sold just under 2 million copies. Newsweek, which also produced an ad-free $5.95 Kennedy issue, sold 2 million copies of its Diana issue and saw its newsstand sales quadruple when the cover of its regular weekly issue featured the princess' funeral.
Life magazine, which had had Kennedys on its cover 54 times, also churned out a JFK Jr. commemorative issue in nine days. What's more, its regular August issue marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with a black-and-white cover shot of Jackie holding a young Caroline. "The August cover story is an eerie coincidence," says Allison Keane, the magazine's spokeswoman.
Life may have looked timely sporting its coincidental Kennedy cover the first few days after the crash, but within two weeks newsstands were glutted with Kennedys, from the newsweeklies to New York, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and even TV Guide. Most magazines say it will be several weeks or months before they can tell if all the effort to rush the story into print turned into higher newsstand sales.
Back at U.S. News & World Report, Editor in Chief Zuckerman says most people probably have no idea what the magazines went through to get their Kennedy stories out. "The people who read the magazine take it for granted," he says.
The day he made the decision to stop the presses and redo the magazine, Zuckerman spent an anxious afternoon in his summer house in the trendy Hamptons, calling the U.S. News editorial offices in Washington, D.C., twice to get updates on how things were going.
When he had suggestions about coverage or stories, the publisher was inevitably told someone had already thought of them, he says. At 7:30 p.m., he got another call from Executive Editor Duffy. They had missed the deadline by about a half-hour, but made it to the printer in time to hit all the newsstands by Monday.
"He said, `Mort, we did it,' " Zuckerman recalls. "I felt great.... You have a few moments in a year when you're tested like this."
Duffy says about a half dozen of the original 1.8 million copies, the ones with the cover on memory loss, have surfaced in the U.S. News offices. "Just souvenirs now," he says. They will be kept as reminders of what might have been.