From the Editor: Curveballs at the Un-Magazine

From the first issue 40 years ago, Smithsonian has blazed its own path through the media landscape

Founding editor Edward K. Thompson guided the new magazine through its first decade. (Howard Sochurek / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)
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“There was a simple rule,” says Paul Trachtman, an editor from 1978 to 1991 and a contributor still. “Something had to be happening. There were places that editors thought were interesting and Thompson always said, ‘What’s happening?’ And if you couldn’t answer that question, you couldn’t assign the story.”

“He looked like a hog butcher, but he was one of the few geniuses I’ve ever been close to in my life,” says Timothy Foote, who had known Thompson at Life and joined Smithsonian for a 17-year stint as an editor in 1982. “It’s because of him that the whole thing worked.”

Edwards Park, an editor, wrote about his boss for the tenth anniversary issue: “[Thompson] smiles puckishly when pleased and glowers stormily when not. His office memos are collectors’ items. To one staff member after a dismal showing: ‘Your colleagues are aghast at your performance. You say it will improve. We await.’”

After ten years, Thompson handed the editorial reins to Don Moser, his deputy and a former Life colleague. Moser “pushed for higher-quality writing, better storytelling, writers who know how to ‘let the camera run,’” Jack Wiley, an editor under Moser, would later recall. “The aim always was to surprise the readers; present them with a story they had seen nowhere else and were unlikely to see in the future.”

“I brought in some new writers,” says Moser. “I pushed a little more to do some food-related stories and sports stories. But there was no big change, because [Thompson and I] both came from the same place and pretty much saw eye to eye on what ought to be in the magazine. I always felt that you have to give people what they expect. They expect history. They expect nature. They expect science. And then you’ve got to throw some curveballs at them.”

“Writers were always asking Don what he was looking for,” says Connie Bond, an editor for 19 years. “He would say to them: ‘That is your job to figure out.’ How could he tell you what he wanted when he wanted you to surprise him with something he hadn’t seen a hundred times before? He would say, ‘Get acquainted with the magazine yourself and then surprise me.’”

“We thought of ourselves as the un-magazine,” recalls Jim Doherty, also an editor for 19 years, beginning in 1983. “We prided ourselves on our singularity. We had a niche—and we were the only one in it. We refused to join the herd, chase celebrities, report trends, do what other magazines did. Our copy went on and on, often taking detours from the main narrative to explore esoteric and sometimes quite complex matters. And any subject was fair game, from square dancing to truck stops, from sports to music to education to ballet to art to science, you name it. We did not follow the pack. We followed our instincts—and our noses.”

Moser doubled Thompson’s decade-long tenure and took the circulation to two million, where it remains today.

Richard Conniff has contributed to the magazine for 28 years, including this issue (see “Meet the Species,”). In 1997, three articles Conniff wrote about moths, giant squid and dragonflies won a National Magazine Award in the Special Interests category. “The thing that was great about the magazine, and still is,” says Conniff, “is that it has a breadth of interest and a curiosity about the world.” Some years ago he proposed a story to an editor at another magazine about a new event in Chicago—a poetry slam. To which, Conniff says, the editor replied: “‘The bleep in the street doesn’t give a bleep about a bleeping poetry slam.’ So I took the idea to Doherty at Smithsonian, who said, ‘Sure, go for it.’ The story we did helped turn the poetry slam into a national event.”

Conniff says Smithsonian’s basic premise remains unchanged: “I still think there’s the same editorial curiosity about the world, the same willingness to take on subjects that are quirky and revealing in small ways or large—that’s still what the magazine is all about.”

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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