Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006 12:00 PM
The Washington Post Magazine is 20 years old, and this week's issue is a tribute to two decades of great writing that has made the people, trends and institutions of our time come vividly alive.
Tom Shroder, editor of the Washington Post Magazine, will be online fielding questions and comments.
Tom Shroder: Thanks for looking in on this chat about the Magazine. I had a great time putting together the 20th anniversary issue, and I hope it was as much fun to read as it was to collect. I'll answer as many of your questions as I can.
Washington, D.C.: I hope David Finkel makes buckets of money. His writing is absolutely incredible, every time. Thanks for some amazing reads ...
Tom Shroder: Finkel and I have known each other for more than 30 years. We both worked on the student paper at the University of Florida (Go Gators!) in the early 70s. It's really weird to consider that the kid I hung out with in college would turn out to be one of the greatest journalists of his generation, one who manages to write about reality with the kind of impact usually reserved for fine fiction.
For all of that, he's not making Tiger Woods money, though if it were my universe, he would be.
Washington, D.C.: I'm not "in" on how magazines work, but very curious: do you solicit for pieces or just take freelance pieces as they're pitched? What about for special "theme" issues -- do you put the word out to the writing community that something's coming up or do you work from what you have by chance? How much of Post Magazine is staff-written and how much is freelance-written?
Tom Shroder: You know, we do all the above. We're kind of a guerilla army. We try to stay fast on our feet and keep adjusting our tactics. We just want to put out as good a magazine as we can each week, doing whatever we can think of to pull it off with the resources at hand.
Alexandria, Va: Bring back the page 3 girl!
Tom Shroder: You think that would work in Washington?
Washington, D.C.: Tom -- who edited the Magazine before you? How did you get the job?
Tom Shroder: Before me was Glenn Frankel. Before Frankel Steve Coll. Talk about your tough acts to follow. I came to the Post from Miami, where I edited Tropic magazine for the Miami Herald (a job I inherited from Gene Weingarten, believe it or not). I came to the Post in 1999 as Sunday Style editor, then became Frankel's no. 2 at the Magazine, until Frankel went back to be the London-based correspondent. I still had to compete for the job, and I got very lucky.
Gene...Ge,NE: You are, I am sure, receiving many posts regarding Weingarten. I hope very few of them are accusatory as we don't blame you for his hiatus. Not really. It's just that we pretty much see you through Gene's eyes. For the Weingarten chatters, you are, and will always be, Tom the Butcher. But we also know that Gene kids because he loves. Just go easy on him for awhile because he sounds like ready to snap.
Gene's stories in the magazine have been as memorable and heart-felt as any that have appeared. The Great Zucchini may be one for the ages. Could you, as his editor (and one-time underling), give us some insight into working with Gene? How would you characterize your working relationship with him, compared to other Magazine writers? What was YOUR favorite Weingarten story?
Oh, and what's he working on next?
Tom Shroder: Weingarten, ready to snap? Didn't Gene snap years ago? Possibly in the womb?
Gene hired me as his assistant editor at Tropic in 1985 when I didn't have a day of professional editing experience. I had been a writer and only a writer my entire career. We had an epic time over the next five years or so until Gene left for the Post, and we stayed in close touch until I followed nine years later. We give each other mega-crap all the time, most of it in fun, some of it with a tint of heat, but we're secure in our friendship and respect for each other's work, so it's not a problem. Mostly it's hugely fun. Just imagine a late-night bull session in the dorm with the smartest/nuttiest friend you've ever had.
Gene's now at work on something really groundbreaking. But it's a secret.
Laurel, Md: What, exactly, was "Planet Washington"?
Tom Shroder: Great question!!!!!! I never did understand what that title was supposed to mean. It was a generic label supposed to encompass the shorter features at the beginning of the magazine. We ended up renaming the front section First Things First, which was at least a little clearer in meaning.
Arlington, Va.: Did you give any thought to mentioning in the anniversary issue some of the difficulties the Magazine faced in its early going (most notably the charges of racial insensitivity)?
Tom Shroder: I did, right at the very top of the introduction. I put it in the context of what kind of odds you could have gotten if you had been willing to bet, after the first issue when a huge parade of demonstrators was tossing thousands of magazines back on the Post's steps, that the magazine would last another 20 years. I wish I could travel back in time with a huge wad of hundreds and place that bet.
Frederick, Md: So did you inherit TWO jobs from Weingarten?
Tom Shroder: I did indeed. A fact Gene is not shy of pushing in my face whenever he's trying to wheedle another poop reference in one of his columns.
UpMo, MD: Question about the WaPo magazine: Did the first article in the retrospective really have to be the one where the author takes a rip at GHW Bush for being a child of privilege? Is that old canard as offensive as Ms. Pelosi's skirt length on the front page? There have been hundreds of nearly Pulitzer Prize winning articles in the Magazine. Why that one?
Tom Shroder: I was trying to make this a time capsule, and this rare moment of intimacy in one of the very first issues with not only the first President Bush, but the person identified as "his 40-year-old son, George Bush Jr." seemed to fit the bill.
Laurel, Md: The Sunday Mag crossword is my favorite. Is it syndicated in other papers?
Tom Shroder: It is done specifically for us. I'm glad you like it. Does that mean you can actually complete the whole thing? If so, I am not worthy.
Washington, DC: I loved reading all of the excerpts. Any way we can get links to the full original articles, maybe all together at the end of the chat? There are many that I want to read fully, that was too young to catch in the early years of the magazine.
If those links are already there and I missed them - well, always a bit dense on a Monday.
Great issue--really showcases the breadth and depth of your writers.
washingtonpost.com: The online version contains links to the excerpts, by the way. See link at the top of this page.
Tom Shroder: Here's the link. I could spend the rest of the day reading these. They are amazing.
Alexandria Va: Why didn't you include an essay pertaining to 9/11/01?
Tom Shroder: I had one excerpt -- From Henry Allen -- in until the very last minute. Truth is, I had about twice as many great excerpts as I could fit, and it was agony deciding which to cut.
Washington, D.C.: Wow, I always wondered if anybody actually liked the Sunday Magazine crossword. I think it's impossible!
Tom Shroder: I've never been able to complete it, personally, but we get a lot of good feedback on it.
Washington DC: Are Magazine features syndicated? If so, do many other papers pick them up? Which articles (or types of articles) get reprinted the most?
Tom Shroder: All our staff articles go out on the Post wire, and many get reprinted elsewhere, often in condensed form. Weingarten's column is regulary syndicated in, I believe, a couple dozen large papers around the country.
Seattle, Wash: Excuse me for not asking a more relevant question ... but in your life's journalistic experience what has made you communicate to your audience (i.e. readers) unhesitationally? (I made up the word myself but if you know what I mean - it gets my message across).
Tom Shroder: At Tropic, Weingarten and I always used to tell writers who came to us with story ideas the same thing. We'd say: "This is a great idea to take a job as a pizza delivery man for a couple months and write about what you learn handing out pies door to door. It should be about the meaning of life." And we were only half joking. What I always want from the best writing, and the best stories, is to put one more little of glimmer of unserstanding about just what it is that's happening here, on this weird planet where we woke up one day to find ourselves.
Rockville, Md: I know this is business, not editorial, but why so many ads for furniture?
Tom Shroder: Over the years, the Mag has become what the folks on biz-side call a "home furnishings marketplace" -- a place that those advertisers know they want to be seen, where readers will be looking when they're thinking of furniture. I think the color and glossy paper is important when showing off beautifule sofas and settees and all. Anyone know what a settee is? Not me.
Washington, D.C.:"Tom Shroder: I could spend the rest of the day reading these. They are amazing. "
Agreed! and I HAVE spent most of the day reading them -- when I get fired for not doing any work here, can you give me a job?
Tom Shroder: I'm just glad I could do my part in improving productivity in the federal workforce.
Frederick, Md: How would you compare the WaPo Magazine with the NY Times Magazine, as far as mission, content, etc? Would you consider the NY Times the standard for Sunday magazines?
Tom Shroder: The NYT magazine is aimed at a thin slice of elite readers across the nation. Our magazine is aimed at the broadest possible audience in our Washington circulation area. We aim at the broadest possible audience here, but we don't do it by going for the lowest common denominator, but rather by trying to engage that thing in all of us across demographic boundaries who are curious about the strange workings of the world, and the ways in which we are all so different, and yet so much the same. We tend to do more pure story-telling than the Times magazine, a little stronger on the narative/analysis ratio.
Settee:"Anyone know what a settee is? Not me."
It's what a setter sets on. Duh.
Tom Shroder: But what if you have a Lab?
Re: Crossword: I love the Post's Sunday Crossword as well. Even manage to finish it once in a while!
Yesterday, however, I noticed in it what may be the first instance of product placement: Slate, e.g.? I suppose the Post didn't want to miss a marketing opportunity and say "Salon"?
Tom Shroder: Salon? Never heard of it.
Falls Church Va: With the Dwindling readerships of newspaper and most of material available on the internet, do you see any need for having a sunday magazine section that fondly covers trivial subjects about a star hockey player or a famous chef etc. After all this is available electronically. Can your writers do a more productive work. Thanks
Tom Shroder: As I've tried to say in some earlier posts, I think that subjects such as Alex Ovechkin and Michel Richard, when reported and written the right way, can be far from trivial. In both these cases, as it turns out, it is the story of how genius emerged out of extraordinary hardship and powerful reactions to family relationships, ie: the meaning of life. Though the decline of readership of the print newspaper is a big concern, these stories also go out on the web, and in total are read by an ever expanding audience.
Woof, Ore: Tom,
Have you thought about a version of Date Lab where the participants are dog owners, so that both the dogs and the owners are on blind dates? Obviously, one of the dogs would have to be a Lab.
Tom Shroder: Wait. Are you prepared to swear that you really live in a place called Woof, Ore., and that you are asking a dog-related question. Please let this be true. In any case, that is a fabulous idea. The dog owners/dogs double date. I'm on it.
For Liz, if you are producing: You know what Chat I'd like to see before Christmas? Another one of those "chat with the producers" hours so we can all tell you what we really think. Do it before Christmas -- we're not allowed to send you fruit baskets at the WP.
washingtonpost.com: Sorry to disappoint, it's Kim, not Liz, at the producer panel today.
Tom Shroder: Maybe we should do a tag team steel death cage match, me and Kim vs. Gene and Liz!
Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon, Mr. Shroder!
One of the things I used to look forward to in the Magazine were the letters to the editor. Were those fazed out due to readers being able to respond instantaneously over the Internet? Also, I could care less about the date lab and some of the other features that have taken up space in the Magazine.
Tom Shroder: Yeah. It got a little silly running letters about stories that had run months earlier. We send letters now to the main letters page in the Post, which can run much sooner.
Arlington, Va: Speaking of the brilliant David Finkel - is there any way to post the second part of the "For Better or for Worse" story? I was riveted until the "Part of I of II" tag at the end.
I loved reading these articles.
Interestingly, I noticed that many of the earlier stories tried to use an individual to illuminate a greater social trend. But with the benefit of hindsight, most of the writers' analyses of social trends seems limited, dated or wrong. It's a great time capsule to see what worried people in 1995 or 1986, though. The reporting and individual stories are totally vibrant and fascinating.
Tom Shroder: I love looking at daily journalism years later. It's funny, and humbling, to see how myopic we all are, and how unimaginable the future, any future, always is. Even if someone gets a lot of it right, there's going to be a context that's completely off.
Not sure what you mean about part II. That was all one article. I'll look into it.
Tom Shroder: Hey, thanks for participating in this chat. The copy desk is about to storm my office demanding copy. So I better be off.
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