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Magazine war coverage: Time is the enemy

In an instant-access conflict, weeklies and monthlies must rely on their writers for fresh angles and analyses.

March 24, 2003|Lauren Sandler | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — It's no surprise David Remnick sounds a little harried this week. Within his duties as New Yorker editor, he's suddenly running a war bureau, fielding constant calls from his scattered platoon of six reporters in the Middle East, such as Jon Lee Anderson, who covered the war in Afghanistan, calling from Baghdad, and Isabel Hilton checking in from Jordan. The intensity isn't quite what it was during his decade at the Washington Post, but it's close.

"The magazine has been quite different since the Sept. 11 period, when we could hardly pretend the roaring '90s were still going on and we were responding to a period of crisis," Remnick says, and part of that change involved dispatching reporters to cover the region with a new focus. "But the all-at-once-ness now is the difference," he says, pointing out that the magazine came of age, in a sense, in its coverage of World War II.

But that war was a long one, something that could be covered by a weekly magazine in regular intervals. This war, says Peter Beinart, who edits the New Republic, another weekly, "could be done within two issues." And with the 24-hour news channels leaving even dailies in the dust, it's a challenge to determine how to add to what's being offered by the instant-response outlets that are saturating a news-hungry audience with constant coverage.

In addition to the half-dozen journalists who are on contract for the New Republic in the region, the magazine has sent Elizabeth Rubin -- a rising star after reporting from Afghanistan last year -- to file descriptive literary pieces from the region to add to the magazine's analysis from Washington. And the magazine is taking advantage of its Web site to fight the necessary wait for weekly publication and to run what Beinart calls "the stuff you have to read before the war is over." This includes two new glossy-print-caliber Web-only columns, a daily analysis of military strategy and tactics by Greg Easterbrook, and an ongoing diary by Iraqi dissident and "Republic of Fear" author Kanan Makiya about the conflict through his eyes. "It's how we get around being a weekly," says managing editor Sarah Blustain.

Of course, the challenge to monthly magazines is much greater. Most are closing their June issues now, editing stories that came in before the war began and that probably will hit newsstands long after this leg of the conflict is over.

"We don't let long lead times bother us. If we did, we wouldn't be working here," says Cullen Murphy, managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He's expecting stories from maverick writer P.J. O'Rourke, who will be "following his nose" for the magazine, as well as Michael Kelly, who won accolades covering the Gulf War for the New Republic. Until recently, Kelly was editing the Atlantic -- apparently he preferred desert sand and cammies to a desk and a suit. Kelly is with the 35th Infantry Division, the same division William Langewiesche has covered for the magazine in the past, and that sense of long narrative history is what the magazine is counting on -- Kelly won't aim to publish his current work until the late summer or early fall, says Murphy, "something with a long shelf life."

Even if wartime isn't the norm for magazines such as these, they're still where many people look for compelling narratives and careful analysis of world events. But what happens if you're editing a magazine that often represents respite from the heavy world to readers? How do you make sense of fashion spreads, celeb interviews and humor columns during these dark days?

At women's magazines, editors are working to balance an awareness of the conflict with couture, all within a three- month lead time. Elle is devoting a large amount of space to a lengthy book excerpt by an anonymous Basra-born writer who has spent the decade since her father was murdered by Saddam Hussein infiltrating terrorist networks here and in the Middle East. Other related stories are in the works for future issues. "Listen, I work at a fashion magazine, so I know we'll have 50 pages of fashion," says executive editor Laurie Abraham, "but it's part of our responsibility -- we write about what women care about, and while we haven't sent anyone there to report, that isn't just on the level of what we're going to wear tomorrow."

Crossing the gender divide to men's magazines, you'll find quite a high-school-corridor range of personas, perspectives and plans.

"Our war bureau consists of three dresser drawers stuffed with soft pornography," jokes Greg Gutfeld, who edits Stuff, one of the more laddish of the lad-mags. That's not to say he's not interested in covering that war -- sort of. "I want to know where you get a cheeseburger in Baghdad. I want to know the best bars. You're not going to find that in the New Yorker, are you?"

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