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So What Do You Do, Jim Kelly?
The top editor of Time magazine on running a newsmag and the burdens of the red border.- October 21, 2003
Jim Kelly has one of the great jobs in American journalism—running Time magazine as the newsweekly's managing editor—and he also had one of the toughest acts to follow. He eased into the editor's chair at the start of 2001, replacing Walter Isaacson, the attention-grabbing managing editor credited with rejuvenating the newsmagazine genre for a soft-news era and keeping Time squarely in the middle of the publicity map, with such events as the magazine's star-laden 75th-anniversary party, in 1998. For the last two years, as the country has moved in a more hard-news direction, Kelly has ably steered his large staff, producing a National Magazine Award-winning special issue just two days after the September 11 attacks and overseeing gripping coverage—with breathtaking photography—of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On a recent Tuesday—newsmag editors only have free time in the early part of the week—Kelly spoke to mediabistro.com about his career at Time, the magazine's history, and the importance of the red border.
Hometown: New York City
First section of the Sunday Times: Front section
So you've got one of the great, important, Halberstamian Powers That Be jobs in American journalism. Was it always your dream to be the managing editor of Time?
I've certainly always wanted to work at Time, ever since I was in high school and I would read it during lunch break. I'd go up to the library and look at Time, and look at The New Yorker and New York magazine. Those are my three favorite magazines. In college I read it basically as an excuse not to do my schoolwork. I went to college at the time of Watergate, and that of course was a very hot news story. I think if there's one cover story that made me really want to work at Time it was a cover story on John Le Carre. It was such a smart take on one of my favorite writers. I thought if it was the kind of place that you can cover politics as well as do cover stories on novelists, it was not a bad place to work.
So did you start at Time right out of school?
I worked briefly for Bill Bradley when thinking about running for the U.S. Senate, but that didn't last very long—well, Bill lasted very long, but I didn't last very long there. I started at Time 25 years ago.
I was a writer for eight years, and then I became the foreign editor for three years. I had a great run, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and Gulf War number one. Then I began top editing various sections and became deputy managing editor in 1996 and managing editor in 2001.
At a place like Time, such a well oiled machine, where the writers know exactly what they're doing and senior editors keeping their sections running, how much of your day-to-day is actually editing and how much do just end up dealing with corporate stuff?
That's a good question. In the early part of the week is when I try to do the meetings with the publishing side. If I have to meet an advertiser or make a brief speech at a lunch, I try to do it on Tuesday or Wednesday. There's a reception tomorrow night at the Smithsonian for our White House photographer, Diana Walker, so I'll go down to that. But Thursday and Friday are the days that I basically live here at the office. I close the door and read every story in the magazine before it appears, sometimes several times. I look at all the layouts, proof all the photo selections.
It's kind of a two-and-a-half-day rolling close, where whenever people have a story that's finished or a layout that's final they come to my office and I look at it. I'm here Saturday until about 6 pm, pretty much for the end of the close.
Time has won several photo awards in the last year or so. Was it a conscious decision of yours to bump up the prominence of the photos in the magazine?
I think 9/11 was a turning point for us in terms of how we view photographs at Time. Our 9/11 issue was put together in 36 hours, and we decided we would lead the magazine with a dozen of pages of photographs and then do one story, just simply one story about that day.
What I wanted to create was a magazine that not only would read vividly two days after it came out, but would read vividly 10 or 20 years later, that this was what it felt to be alive that day. And that was told very well photographically. And then the war in Afghanistan proved to be—it's a fairly colorful place to have a war, so many photographs came out of that. And then we decided, based on that, that we would handle the Iraq war as much photographically as possible. Then the photography that was presented to me exceeded, far exceeded, my high expectations. We have a terrific photo staff, so we just started leading the magazine every week with 20 to 24 pages of photographs, which was unusual. No one else was doing it.
You make it sound almost accidental, this decision to go with larger photo spreads—something driven only by the quality of the photos you had available. But it seems like maybe it's also an answer to the whither-newsmags question, that the reason to read Time on top of the Times is because you can do this beautiful, lush photography.
I think you're right. I think that photojournalism is one way that we distinguish ourselves. But, also, what we have found is that news is a newsmagazine's best friend. The more the papers write about Iraq, the better it is for us because it helps sell the audience on the story. Iraq is big news; you have to pay attention to it. But it also allows us, since we only have to come out once a week, to really pick the places where we want to devote our resources. We don't have to cover the breaking news they have today. You know, the president can give a speech on Monday and The New York Times has to cover it and put it on their front page Tuesday. We can mention it in whatever way we like because we're coming out a week later. One of the advantages we have coming out once a week is that we only and mostly do just one story on Iraq, so we get really good, we hope, at picking a story that has real depth and that adds something, because we don't have to cover the day to day stuff.
Given that news is a newsmagazine's best friend, how do you make the decisions about when to go hard with the covers and when to go soft? In the last two weeks, for example, with "Mission Not Accomplished" and the Plame leak covers, you've gone much harder than Newsweek has.
You know, there are many fun parts of the job, and the most fun part is figuring out what the cover is every week. That decision is often made Friday night or Saturday, and by that time obviously the stories are in and you're picking between two, sometimes, two completely different covers. Like any good news organization, we try to plan ahead and the cover story last week, the "Mission Not Accomplished" cover, was a result of two months of reporting in Iraq and a few weeks of reporting in Washington. It just seemed to be the right moment to run it. It could've conceivably run the week before. It could've conceivably run the week after. But we went with it the week we did because it was in the air.
Last week's cover, with the Plame leak, we just thought it was a great juicy tale. But that issue of the magazine is interesting to look at it because you do have the Plame story as the cover story, but there are many other stories in the magazine that show the enterprise of the magazine and show the tricky thing I have to do, which is to show breadth and depth at the same time. If you look at the five-page story on how gays are treated in Wyoming five years after Matthew Shepard, the nine-page story on the energy scam, the four-page story on Chechnya, the four page report from Iraq, the four-page arts lead on the making of Clay Aiken, they all dive deep into those specific areas but they have very little in common. Frankly, to have an investigative piece on coal and a profile of Clay Aiken, there aren't a lot of magazines that can afford that kind of diversity.
How does the sort of iconic tradition of Time magazine influence what you do, if at all?
I take the red border very seriously. But one of the great things about being editor of Time, it does allow you to be a generalist. It allows you to look out there and say, "This politician, this trend, this Hollywood movie, this society story; they all can be covered in Time." On the other hand, any cover story that has the red border around it has got to be the best possible story you can write on that subject. I don't get a lot of leeway—"Well, this story isn't so hot, but what the heck let's put it on the cover"—so the stories week after week have to be executed at a fairly high level no matter what the subject is. The red border, for me, is first of all a tremendous asset. Along with the National Geographic yellow border it's one of the most recognizable magazine brands. But a story has got to be awfully good to deserve that red border.
Do you ever worry, though, about putting something like yoga on the cover and giving these trend stories the imprimatur of being on the cover of Time magazine?
I know what you're saying, and, yes, it's something to worry about. It's something you have to be concerned about. I mean, the science of yoga actually turned out to be a very good story, very well executed by Richard Corliss. When we did our meditation cover a couple of months ago, done by Joel Stein, that also was a wonderfully written, tremendously researched story. It was not something written off the top of Joel's head. Though obviously there's a big difference between the science of meditation and the George Bush cover in July, they both are executed very well, great reporting and wonderful writing. And that's how I have to fill the mission of the red border.
Has it been challenging to run the magazine through the company itself being such a big story for the last year or two?
I don't think most readers associate Time magazine with AOL Time Warner or with AOL. Time has been around for 80 years. By the time the merger took place, it had its own very strong identity.
Internally has it been difficult to manage your staff, through the buyouts and the stock price collapse and so forth?
I think what has helped us is that we've been so aggressive about covering our own company and that has given us the credibility that you don't always find in magazines that are owned by other companies. I think anyone running a magazine, anyone running a website, in the early part of the 21st century has a set of business challenges that they've got to meet and consume a chunk of their times. I've had more fun than I've had recently, and I've also had less fun, and we'll get through it.
Yeah, you guys at least have the consolation that you're pretty sure you're going to hang around for a few more months.
That's true. Oh, let's say three months.
In fact, this is the 80th birthday year now. Any big birthday plans?
We're still recovering from the 75th.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.
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