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So What Do You Do, Cullen Murphy?

The Atlantic Monthly's editor on his job, his predecessor, and his side career in the funny pages.

- January 13, 2004

It's a cliché to call a magazine more respected than read, but, by the late '90s, the venerable Atlantic Monthly fell comfortably into that category. That started to change in 1999, when David Bradley, the wealthy businessman who already owned National Journal, purchased the magazine, brought in Michael Kelly to run it, and set about remaking the institution—without fundamentally changing it. The result was very much the same magazine, but also one that was suddenly vital, exciting, a must-read (at least among those who ever feel they must read analytic features running to 5,000-plus words). Kelly's right-hand man through this transition was Cullen Murphy, the managing editor since 1985. In the fall of 2002, when Kelly decided he wanted to go back to writing and reporting—he moved to an editor-at-large title—it was only natural that Murphy take over day-to-day operation of the magazine. Since then, Murphy has presided over a significant year and a half for the magazine, accepting two National Magazine Awards last May—one for general excellence—and being named Ad Age's editor of the year, while also coping with Kelly's tragic death while reporting in Iraq. Murphy spoke to from his office in Boston last week, discussing his magazine, his predecessor, and his career.

Birthdate: September 1, 1952
Hometown: Greenwich, Connecticut
First section of the Sunday Boston Globe: Ideas

The big news out of the Atlantic recently was the announcement of the Michael Kelly Award. It's a $25,000 prize, which is a huge amount of money for a journalism award. How did it come about?
The prime mover was David Bradley, who owns the magazine. David and Michael were exceptionally close. All of us felt Mike's loss grievously, and David wondered immediately whether there was something that we might do that perpetuate the values that Michael Kelly represented. Mike was a very courageous guy, a very outspoken guy, and there were discussions among a group of people in the company about what might be done. Eventually the shape of this award came into being. It's for a journalist who work exemplifies—it took a while to distill what the qualities of Mike's were that we were trying to honor, but I think eventually the language was something like "the fearless expression and pursuit of truth." We'll be having the first one of these awarded this spring, and submissions are already being accepted.

It speaks, partially, to what's been a whirlwind year or year and a half for The Atlantic Monthly. From Langewiesche's "American Ground," to the controversy over the jeans in "American Ground," to Mike stepping down, to Mike's death, to winning the two National Magazine Awards. What's it been like piloting the ship through all of this over the last little while?
I've been with the magazine for a long time. Mike came aboard in September of 1999, and it really has been something of a whirlwind since then, because so many things were happening in quick succession—most of them very exciting and one of them deeply tragic. If one leaves aside that deeply tragic thing at its core, Mike's death in Iraq, I'd have to say that I've found the last two years to be one of the most exciting periods in my career as a journalist. Thanks to the longtime contributors who continued to be with us, but also to people that Mike and David were able to bring into the magazine, and to people that we've brought in since I've been running the magazine, we've been able to do things that we were simply not ever able to do before, send people to places for longer periods of time, to places we thought we wouldn't be able to send people to, to run more pieces, to run pieces that we got later and closed faster, to bring a more modern look to the magazine, to focus our editorial content in a way that it hadn't been focused before to make it less eclectic but more like a spotlight trained on four or five main topic areas that we could really try to cover thoroughly. I think that the staff has been energized by all of that—editorially, it's been a truly satisfying episode.

Do you find it a challenge at all, being recognized in you own right as the editor of the magazine, working in the shadow of everything Mike did?
I recognize that it a challenge to put out a great magazine, no matter what the circumstances happen to be. And I don't have the particular concern that you suggest. It's not something that's on my mind. What is on my mind is the sheer task of continuing to put out a very fine publication with the resources that we have and the business climate that we have.

You took over running the magazine in 2002, and I want to talk about your path there. You seem like that rare case where things happened the way they're supposed to happen: You graduated from a good school and started working at a small, smart magazine, moved to a bigger one, started writing for the biggest smart mags, and then worked your way up at the Atlantic. Walk me through that.
It certainly was the case that I was lucky. When I was in college, someone had told me that there was an essay contest for a magazine called Change, which was a magazine of higher education. At that time, in the early '70s, it had a high profile in academe, at a fairly tumultuous time. It was an essay contest for students, and I wrote an essay, which I have never gone back to read for fear of terminal embarrassment. It won, it was published immediately, and it was run as the main feature article, which was a totally unexpected turn of events.

I had been fairly sure that some kind of writing and publishing was what I wanted to pursue—I had always written—but I hadn't had any plans at all, as most college seniors simply don't. This occurred in the spring of '74, and having this article written and accepted and published was kind of an entry-level exercise in, "Oh, so this is how it's done." It also introduced me to people at Change magazine, who were very kind to me, and when an entry-level job opened up in the art department, they hired me for that little job. It wasn't an editing job, but the idea was, "Put him on the staff and then we can see how we can use him, and meanwhile, he'll be doing a job that somebody has to fill."

I was doing layout work, but they very quickly gave me writing assignments, and I became an editor there. In the meantime, I started trying to write other places, like Harper's. A wonderful person who took an interest in my work at that time was a woman named Suzanne Mantell, who worked at Harper's, for Harper's Bookletter, which was an adjunct to the magazine but all about books, and she began publishing things of mine. Then I moved over writing for the regular Harper's magazine. Lewis Lapham gave me a huge break, for which I'm forever grateful—it was one of those key moments. I sent him a proposal for a very kind of strange article about some monks in Italy who were trying to put together the perfect Latin edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas, which I won't go into but was a very difficult task—and also, in some sense, a pointless one. And this has been going on for a hundred years, at monasteries outside of Rome and in Belgium and elsewhere, and I wanted to write about this. So I sent him a proposal, and, unbelievably, he sent me to do it.

I wrote a big piece—it must have been 15,000, maybe 20,000 words—and he published it. From that moment on, whatever I happened to be doing, I always had a parallel career on the side as a writer. The editor I worked with at Harper's, a very astute and remarkable editor named Debbie McGill, was eventually hired by the Atlantic, and that was around the time when Harper's was going through some changes, and I started writing for the Atlantic, got to know Bill Whitworth, and eventually there was an opening here, and Bill hired me as managing editor—this was back in the mid-'80s.

I skipped over a truly important part of my life, though, which was at The Wilson Quarterly, where, first of all, I met my wife, who was the managing editor, and also was exposed to an editor named Peter Braestrup, who's a former Marine, former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, had covered the Vietnam War, wrote a seminal study of press coverage of the Tet offensive, called Big Story. He was a wonderful, tough, funny, sometimes outrageous guy, who was probably the person who taught me more about how to really deal with lots and lots of copy fast, how to really get deep down into a piece and edit. He was very influential to me.

You talk about this seminal event, that you sent Lewis Lapham a pitch for a strange story in Italy, and he went ahead and sent you there and gave you 15,000 words to write it. Can that happen today? If someone who was not yet a well-known, big name sent you a pitch for a European story that was going to run at thousands and thousands of words, would you buy it?
Yes. And I don't mean that just as a perfunctory yes. I mean that as an emphatic yes, with a capital "Y." And I think you would get the same answer if you were talking to editors at comparable magazines. This is the kind of person and story that you have to put aside time to be on the lookout for. It's the seed corn of the whole business. There are wonderful writers coming into it all the time. That's what every old writer used to be, they were all unknown at one point, they all approached someone at some point with a really great idea, and expressed that idea, what they thought the potential of the story was, with terrific writing, and somebody recognized that there was potential there and took a gamble. You just have to be set up to do that or else you become kind of stale. If a proposal came to me for a story from someone I hadn't heard of but had reason to believe from the tenor of his or her writing that the material could be handled and the story struck as something that is really down our alley, and there seemed to be the promise of a fresh voice here, I would do that in a second. It's absolutely essential. Of course, I'm grateful that, in my case, my proposal happened to land on Lewis's desk on a good day.

I also want to talk about your sideline career, which is pretty interesting. Not every magazine editor is also a comic-strip writer. How'd that happen?
Well, it's an accident and not an accident, in a way. My dad, who is 84, was an illustrator before and after the Second World War, and then became a cartoonist in the late 1940s. So all my life, I grew up with cartoonists. Cartooning was in my blood, so to speak, and it was a world I was intimately aware of, but I never thought I would be part of it. I went to college, I studied medieval history, but again with no thought about "Prince Valiant" in mind, even though "Prince Valiant" happens to take place in the Middle Ages, broadly defined. My dad was doing "Prince Valiant" by then, and maybe the influence was in the other direction. Maybe "Prince Valiant," which I'd read all my life, influenced me to study the Middle Ages, but I really don't think that's quite the case.

Anyway, I got a degree in history, and around that time, when I was graduating from college, the man who had started "Prince Valiant,"' Hal Foster—he's just one of the great, classic cartoon illustrators, drew Tarzan—he had given up the drawing to my dad some years before and now was ready to give up the writing. So I began submitting scripts to him, thinking, "I do need to make money somehow, and working with your dad, in a way, is kind of fun." So I submitted scripts to Hal even when I was in college. In fact, I'm sitting here underneath the very first story that he took of mine and my dad's rendition of it. So after college, when Hal finally decided he was going to give up the strip altogether, he sold the strip to King Features, which employed my father, and they hired me as the writer. So, from the late '70s until now, and continuing, I've done the writing, working with my dad. I've got a half-done script on my computer right now, which is kind of ironic, writing about the Middle Ages on your laptop.

Do you know the numbers at all? Do more people read your writing in "Prince Valiant" or in The Atlantic Monthly?
Oh, gosh, I don't know. Actually, it almost certainly would have to be in "Prince Valiant," come to think of it, because it's in probably 300 newspapers, including things like the New York Daily News and The Washington Post, and there's millions right there. And The Atlantic Monthly, we have 450,000 subscribers and we sell upwards of 50,000 copies on the newsstand—about half a million.

Something for a magazine writer to think about, I guess.
That's right.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of Photo by Jodi Hilton. You can buy the Atlantic here.

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