by Jim Colton
I am sitting on a cold concrete floor of the photo studio on the 13th floor of 444 Madison Ave….home of the venerable news magazine Newsweek. It’s November of 1977 and I was recently hired away from my position as color picture editor for the Associated Press as the magazine was now venturing into including more color pages in their print run, other than their cover and the occasional insert.
I am surrounded by toys. New, in-the-box, unassembled toys. My job, on my first week at the magazine, was to assemble all the toys to be photographed for an upcoming issue on the “Hottest Toys for the 1977 Christmas season.” I have come from an environment where life itself is a deadline. Working for a wire service, you need to get the picture, get it out quickly…and move on to the next news hole needing art. And today, I am building toys. I am asking myself, “What the fuck did I get myself into?”
After the toys are fully assembled and photographed, I am approached by a rather large and jocular Irishman named Jim Kenney, the photo editor of Newsweek. In his trademark graveled voice he says, “Colt, you’re doing the International section.” This is truly where I began my 17-year, two-stint marriage with the magazine in an era when journalism mattered.
When 2012 comes to a close we will mourn the passing of Newsweek. It was announced in October of this year that the last analog version of the magazine will roll off the presses for the final time with their December 31, 2012 issue….in favor of…a digital version of the magazine called Newsweek Global. Many industry experts have blamed everything and everyone from the Editor Tina Brown to the economy and lack of ad sales to the Internet for its demise.
I have my own theories. I believe the magazine strayed away from its strengths as it searched for a rebirth in our changing times…simply for the sake of change…rather than for the sake of its readers and what their core subscribers actually paid good money to read. The nail in the coffin, in my eyes, was when a certain editor decided to turn Newsweek into the New Yorker….knowing full well there was a great risk of losing much of their 3.1 million subscribers. They lost more than half that with current subscriptions at around 1.5 million. So much for the first four letters of the magazine.
A piece of me will also die with that last issue. Of all the places I have worked in my career, never was there an organization filled with more talent than at Newsweek. I had the great honor of working for some of the finest editors, writers and journalists…anywhere…hands down! Some of the top editors I worked for: Ed Kosner (AKA Fast Eddie) was as decisive an editor as there ever was, Lester Bernstein “Come into my office so I can throw you out,” was a gentleman’s editor, Maynard Parker had more news sense in his little pinky than any journalist I knew.
But it didn’t start or stop there. All along the line from Assistant Managing Editors to section editors to writers and correspondents, the building was teeming with talent. The fabulous Peter Goldman and Jerry Adler were always two of my favorite reads. They were friends of the photo department, understood and appreciated our role and both were humble and personable…extremely rare personality traits for journalists these days.
But I can speak to best about perhaps one of the most dysfunctional families I’ve ever been associated with…the photo department at Newsweek. A more dynamic mix of personalities you could never put together…working during a period in our history where not only being a journalist meant something but when pictures mattered.
In its heyday, it was Newsweek…and Brand X (Time magazine) who also referred to us as Brand X. A greater weekly competition for images you could not ask for. We took great pride in beating each other’s asses visually. In the pre-digital world, it was all about getting the scoop on your competition and displaying the hell out of the images.
There was a weekly rush to the newsstand every Monday morning to pick up the latest issues of Newsweek, Time and occasionally US News & World Report. Who kicked whose ass? I’m sure it was the same for the line side editors as well…who scooped who on the news of the week?
At the photo helm at Newsweek was the aforementioned Jim Kenney and his also-Irish sidekick John Whelan….nicknamed “Willie.” Jim had a nickname for everyone; sports photo editor Dave Wyland was “The Coach,” photo researcher Tom Tarnowsky was “The Digger,” (Kenney thought he looked like an undertaker) and Traffic Manager Kevin McVea was “The Juvenile Delinquent,”…well…because…he was!
Jim and John were the patriarchs of this dysfunctional family….and there wasn’t anything that all of us who worked for them wouldn’t do if they asked us. That would include hearing, “Colt, you’re going to Grenada!” This constituted loading up a Learjet with six photographers, a correspondent and myself and attempting to infiltrate the island (which we did) during the US invasion of Grenada, complete with press restrictions. An F-16 fighter pilot joined us as we neared our destination and told our pilot that we would be treated as “hostile,” if we reached Grenadian air space. We obliged by landing in Barbados.
Later, when Washington staff photographer Wally McNamee was confronted by a US soldier after making it onto the island on a small hired boat, he informed the grunt that he worked for Newsweek. The soldier said, “Newsweek? I subscribed to that magazine and I never got my fucking calculator!” McNamee calmly went into his photo bag, pulled out a Newsweek calculator and said, “Sergeant, we have been looking for you everywhere. I now present to you your calculator.” You just can’t make this stuff up. McNamee’s images wound up on the cover that week.
During those 17 years, I also had the great honor of working with some of the finest photographers in the world. James Nachtwey got his first magazine assignment with us and spent many years cutting his teeth in Central American and the Middle East. I could always tell a Nachtwey shoot from anyone else’s…images deftly composed and perfectly saturated. But with this responsibility also came great sacrifice…losing brilliant photographers and wonderful human beings like John Hoagland and Olivier Rebbot. Their contributions to our industry will never be forgotten. My only solace is that John’s son Eros has followed in his father’s footsteps and has become a brilliant young photojournalist.
Other seasoned photojournalists that got their feet wet at Newsweek included Peter Turnley, Arthur Grace, P.F. Bently, Andy Hernandez, Mark Peters, Christopher Morris, Anthony Suau, all who complimented our staff photographers Wally McNamee, John Ficara, Larry Downing, Susan McElhinney, Ira Wyman, Lester Sloan, Bernard Gotfryd, Robert McElroy, Jacques Chenet and Jeff Lowenthal. And there were dozens of other freelancers who grew up with us as well. It was a brilliant age for photojournalism….one that I was proud to be part of and sadly, with the advent of digital photography, Instagram, Flicker and iPhones, one that I don’t think will ever be possible again. No longer is there the need to plot a path that includes Learjets and Concordes….no time needed to process the film…or edit the slides over a lightbox. Oh my, how far we have come!
But that’s how we rolled in the pre-digital era. Film had to be shot, developed, and physically carried back to New York or to our printing plants. I flew on the Concorde seven times…as a film courier to meet our deadlines… I even used to pay people to hand carry packages of film right at the airport! Imagine what the TSA would do today? In 1985 my Concorde flight was met at JFK by a helicopter which then took me and my one frame of President Reagan placing a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bitburg, Germany, directly to our pre press facility in New Jersey on a Sunday to be used as the cover appearing on newsstands the next day. A similar frame I edited earlier that day in London went with a correspondent on a separate Learjet to Switzerland for the Newsweek Overseas cover.
There was also a certain lifestyle that we all lived. We worked hard and we played hard. I cannot tell you about the alcohol consumption post deadline or at parties celebrating one event or another. It was our way of letting loose after a job well done. And oh how we loved to scam an unsuspecting co-worker. When a post Jim Kenney Director of Photography was desperate to get film from Europe on an impossible deadline, they inquired about chartering the Concorde! With the help of the aforementioned juvenile delinquent, Kevin McVea, we called the Director of Photography, pretending to be a representative of Air France, telling them that the charter was “All Set,” at a cost of $160,000 US Dollars. I can still hear the scream from the office…..”KEVIN!!!!!!”
Many of us got to experience working at Newsweek when the magazine was still vital….when it meant something to the people who got it in their mailboxes. So when that last issue of Newsweek rolls off the press at the end of the year, I will raise a glass to all of my brothers and sisters in the industry, who had the great fortune of working for such an incredible magazine during and equally incredible time in our history. Cheers!