Victor S. Navasky Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Journals of Opinion and the Work of Democracy: Conversation with Victor Navasky, Publisher and former Editor of The Nation, September 16, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Being an Editor

Did the fact that you are a writer/journalist make you a better editor when you became editor of The Nation?

It made me sensitive to the plight of the freelance writer, and I encouraged my colleagues at The Nation to keep freelancing for other publications so that they would get back to writers in a timely fashion, they would not brutally kill pieces that didn't work out, they would work to make pieces work if they had been given as honest assignments. When I was at the Times, if an article was rejected, [the writer received a check which] said, "kill fee," the internal jargon for ...

I'm sorry ... ?

"Kill fee," f-e-e. I said, "Why don't we change it to 'guarantee,' it sounds better." You guarantee a writer a third of the eventual fee if it doesn't work out.

In addition to making one more sensitive to the plight of the writer, you know what's involved in putting together a story, and you can give a writer guidance and suggestions as to how to go about researching. I began by arming writers with books and articles to read, just because that hadn't been part of most journalists' training and it's just something that I found natural, so I would do that. But they are very different skills.

We're meeting at a time when Roberts is up as a Supreme Court nominee and he's saying, "Don't pay attention only to what I wrote when I was working in the executive branch, because I'm going to have a different role when I'm on the judiciary." The same thing is true about writers and editors.

I remember writing an article about Ramsey Clark for the Saturday Evening Post when I was researching Kennedy Justice. I used to freelance, and I'd take assignments related to the book, and I had an assignment to write an article that was 3500 words and they only had room to print an article that was 2500 words. I went through this grisly experience where the editor said, "Okay, let's ... " and we sat down to cut, and the first 500 words he took out of it, he said, "I think this improves the piece. It makes it leaner and tighter and more pointed," and all that. And then he would say things like, "Gee, that's a nice grace note --' cut! ' -- too bad to lose it!" Or, "This is really going to wound your piece, there'll be blood on the floor --" cut! As the editor, you have to do this.

As a writer, you fight to protect your message and your space. You're not, first of all, conscious of all the other requirements, and secondly, you don't have the responsibility for achieving the balance that a good issue of a magazine has: one profile, one overseas piece, one humor piece, one this, one that. So, yes, those are different skills.

You were an editor at the New York Times Magazine, and the editor of The Nation. Those are two different publications, one at the heart of the center of the establishment, the other out on the left and a key voice of alternative opinion. Compare those two positions.

The first major difference was at the New York Times I sat in a huge room, like a classic newsroom, and one row in front of where my immediate boss, who was the articles editor, a fellow named Harvey Shapiro, sat, with a half-a-secretary behind me -- the other half, she worked for all the other editors in the magazine -- and if I had an idea for an article, my tendency would be I'd turn around to Harvey and say, "Harvey, what do you think about this?" and then he'd have to discuss it with his boss and then we'd have a committee meeting and it was very bureaucratic.

When I got to The Nation, my first day, I had what I felt was a good idea and I was sitting at the desk of Carey McWilliams, who was the great editor of the mag -- this old, huge wooden desk -- I had this idea and my first impulse was to turn around, and right behind me was this dirty old chicken-wire window and I saw my reflection in it. And that said to me, okay, you're now in for a very different kind of ride and the buck did stop there. That was a key difference.

The second one, as you suggest, was not the left so much but the independence of the thing, that we really were out there. The third was, Carey McWilliams had once said to me, and written, that the editor of The Nation is a captive of its tradition. I didn't realize quite what that meant, but what it turned out to mean in part was if you ran an article whose assumptions ran counter to the received wisdom of the left -- The Nation had no party line, and it was not the dogmatic thing that people think it is, and I'll talk about that in a minute -- but [for example], if you just assumed that integration was not a valuable thing, you would get slaughtered in the mail, the next issue. And so, there were a whole bunch of expectations. It didn't mean you couldn't do it, but you had to be prepared for what would come.

On the other hand, there are people who consider this magazine their lifeline, and that wasn't true about the New York Times Magazine. The New York Times Magazine had a lot of readers, but as I travel around the country and go to small towns in North Carolina, on every college campus I go to, there'll be one professor and some students, maybe more than one professor, who -- the local papers don't cover international affairs and barely cover national affairs, and the national press they don't trust, or the television that they see. They live every week to get this word, and they consider The Nation part of their identity. So, that's a special kind of responsibility.

Now at the Times it must have been harder to break out of the conventional wisdom, in comparison to what you just described at The Nation, which seems to be the conventional wisdom within the community that reads The Nation. One had to be careful about doing that, but talk a little about the Times. Was it easy to come up with a new idea back then about goings-on in the world?

They hired me after I'd been putting out Monocle, and I had written a lot for the Times, and so they had confidence that I could operate within their value system. But my first period there, I would suggest these ideas and they would get assigned, but then when the articles came in they wouldn't get published. I got taken to lunch by my friend and editor one day and he began to make a speech at me. I had thought we were just going to lunch, and it turned out to be my evaluation lunch.

The speech was something like, "Victor, at the magazine, no matter how good a writer you are, how nice a guy you are, how smart you are, we ultimately judge you by how many pieces you got in the magazine." So, I did a quick calculation and I said, "Well, by that calculation I'm batting zero." He smiled and said yes, and I started to say, "Gee, Harvey, why didn't you tell me?" and then I realized how stupid that was. Why else would I be there? So, he told me they were going to extend my tryout period. I hadn't even known I was on a tryout up to that point, but under their deal with the union you got a certain thirteen weeks and then they could extend it. So, they gave me a second thirteen weeks and I radically changed my ways. What I changed was not the ideas I would submit, but I noticed a colleague of mine would always attach a clipping from the daily paper ...

The New York Times?

... from the New York Times to his idea, and their idea was that the magazine was supposed to cover in depth what the daily covered only on the surface. So, instead of submitting ideas (and I used to submit a lot of ideas), I started writing them down on a yellow legal pad and every time something appeared in the daily paper about one of them I would clip it on. So, they got the same idea; they got it weeks later than they would've gotten it.

The second thing I did was if I had an idea that was at all offbeat, I would take a writer who had survived the system before, and just as I used to submit new writers -- I thought they hired me to bring my Rolodex in there and get new people on their list -- if the idea was at all adventurous, I would take someone who had survived the system, because once you had survived two or three pieces the presumption shifted from the presumption against you to the presumption in favor of you. All of a sudden, all of my ideas started sailing through.

Then there came a time when we both were comfortable with each other, and then I could suggest some things that were offbeat. I remember going to lunch with a colleague, Gerry Walker, and a great writer named Merle Miller, who wrote a best-selling book about Harry Truman [Plain Speaking]. We got to talking about a novel Gerry had written called Cruising which dealt with a gay policeman, a homosexual policeman, and there had been an article in Harpers by Joseph Epstein that had upset Merle. Out of the lunch it came out that Merle was gay and he had never told anyone before, and he was very upset and he wanted to answer this article by Epstein. I said, "Why don't you write an autobiographical piece for the magazine, talking about your own attitude towards your sexuality and use that as a way into the critique?" Gerry said, "They'll never buy that." And I said, "There's only one way we can find out," so we proposed it and they were intrigued. They knew Merle was a great writer and they said, "Let him try it, but make clear to him in advance it's a long-shot, because it'd be very different for us." Well, he wrote something that was irresistible, they couldn't not publish it. They ended up getting 2000 or more letters, more letters than they ever got for an article. He turned his article into a book, and that was a story with a happy non-ending.

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