Mel Elfin, a journalist who led Newsweek’s Washington bureau for 20 years, during the height of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, and who later headed the annual college rankings guide for U.S. News & World Report, died Sept. 22 at a hospice center in Washington. He was 89.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his son, David Elfin.
Mr. Elfin had been a low-profile editor at Newsweek in New York before he impressed Katharine Graham, the new publisher of both The Washington Post and Newsweek, with a series of witty toasts in 1964 to an executive leaving the magazine.
“There is a made man,” one observer remarked in a Newsweek reminiscence of the episode.
The next year, Graham lured Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, Benjamin C. Bradlee, to her flagship newspaper as managing editor. Looking for a successor to Bradlee, Newsweek’s top editor, Osborn Elliott, pulled Mr. Elfin aside. “The job in Washington is yours,” Elliott said, according to a 2011 account in Washingtonian magazine. “I want you there Monday morning.”
A gruff, intense Brooklyn native and a truck driver’s son, Mr. Elfin had never worked in Washington before, but he brought a scrappy and aggressive jolt to the bureau as the magazine sought to challenge Time’s standing as the country’s preeminent weekly news magazine.
By all accounts a nimble talent-spotter, Mr. Elfin often scouted the Washington bureaus of regional newspapers in building a young, eager staff. Eleanor Clift, Gloria Borger, Howard Fineman, Anthony Marro, David Martin and Tom DeFrank were among the journalists he hired and who went on to have prominent careers at Newsweek or other news organizations.
“It was a powerhouse bureau,” Fineman, who became a senior Washington correspondent and a columnist at Newsweek and later a senior executive at the AOL Huffington Post Media Group, told Washingtonian. “Pound for pound, we were the best in the city.”
Through the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations and political turbulence of 1968 and the prolonged Watergate scandal during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s, Newsweek broke major stories of national importance. Mr. Elfin helped direct the magazine’s reporting at political conventions, accompanied presidents on overseas trips and appeared on television panels discussing the news.
Once described in a Post story as “famously acidic,” Mr. Elfin did not conceal his disappointment when reporters failed to meet his expectations. During one particularly heated discussion that echoed down the hall, a staff member reportedly told colleagues, “What will we tell their widows?”
Mr. Elfin had the support of Elliott and the ear of Graham, but he faced the weekly problem of persuading Newsweek’s top editors in New York that Washington stories deserved prominent play in the magazine. “His battles with New York editors were legendary,” Fineman told Washingtonian.
During particularly tense conversations, Mr. Elfin had the odd nervous habit of snipping off bits of his gray hair with a pair of children’s scissors. Yet he became so entrenched in the bureau that he once turned down Newsweek’s No. 2 editorial job in New York to stay in Washington.
He remained a confidant of Graham’s, often wrote her speeches and joined her at high-level social gatherings. Mr. Elfin invited Graham and Vice President Spiro Agnew to a dinner party, at which Agnew’s first words were: “This is a nice house, Mel. Tell me, how much did you pay for it?”
His parting words were an insult directed at Graham and The Post.
“What we all had for dinner was pure essence of Agnew,” Mr. Elfin and another journalist wrote in a post-dinner memo, according to Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History.” “It may or may not be reassuring to know that he doesn’t sound or act differently in a semi-private, semi-social situation than he does in public.”
Mr. Elfin’s sharp elbows and continuing turf battles with Newsweek’s editors led to his ouster as bureau chief in 1985. A year later, he moved to U.S. News, where he edited the weekly “Washington Whispers” column and helped shape the magazine’s editorial direction. He also became executive editor of the publication’s increasingly popular guide to the country’s leading colleges.
U.S. News did its first college rankings in 1983, but Mr. Elfin revamped the rating system and expanded the listings and accompanying articles. He and his staff measured colleges on their selectivity, academic reputation, graduation rates, diversity and faculty quality, continually refining their methods. The annual ratings became the magazine’s most popular issues and were expanded to a series of books and online offerings.
“When you buy a VCR for 200 bucks, you can buy Consumer Reports to find out what’s out there,” Mr. Elfin told the New York Times in 1997, the year he retired from U.S. News. “When you spend 100 grand on four years of college, you should have some independent method of comparing different colleges. That’s what our readers want, and they’ve voted at the newsstand in favor of what we’re doing.”
Melvin Elfin was born July 18, 1929, in Brooklyn. At New York’s Syracuse University, he majored in journalism, edited the student newspaper and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society before graduating in 1951. He received a master’s degree in American civilization from Harvard University in 1952.
He briefly served as an Air Force intelligence officer before beginning his journalism career with the now-defunct Long Island Daily Press, where he won a George Polk Award for a series on fraudulent mortgage practices.
He joined Newsweek in 1958 as a writer and editor for the “back-of-the-book” cultural sections and once traveled to New Hampshire in an unsuccessful effort to interview the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. He also served as the magazine’s education editor.
Mr. Elfin was a longtime Washington resident and a member of Adas Israel Congregation.
Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Margery Lesser, a political-science professor and department head at Hood College in Frederick, Md., of Washington; two children, David Elfin of Bethesda, Md., and Dana Elfin of Falls Church, Va.; and four grandchildren.
As the U.S. News college rankings gained prominence, some students, university officials and rival publications questioned the magazine’s methodology, which typically gave the highest scores to the country’s most elite schools. Mr. Elfin dismissed the complaints.
“We’ve produced a list that puts Harvard, Yale and Princeton, in whatever order, at the top,” he told the Times. “This is a nutty list? Something we pulled out of the sky?”