In the six years that I've edited WORLD, lots of homeschooled kids have asked me to write a column explaining what an editor does on a typical day. I've always escaped by explaining that such a column would have too few words and too little interest. I sit in a chair overlooking the Texas hill country, with a Macintosh PowerBook on my lap and a Bible within reach. I communicate with reporters, editors, and others largely by email. When there's free time, I work on columns or book chapters. Very busy for me, but not much to write home about.
But last week brought an unusual day. My laptop had broken down and the repair folks had already taken 10 days with it, with no end in sight. No problem, since I had transferred my big folder of work in progress to my wife's PowerBook and used it while she embarked on Austin spring cleaning, a February activity. But then her computer flamed out and also had to go to the shop. For the first time since 1994 I was without a laptop, naked amid my technological dependence. Susan, concerned about my workaholic tendencies, smiled and said, "God's given you an enforced fast from WORLD." My immediate response was, "Good idea. Maybe there's a column in that." But I had no laptop to write it on.
Delegating some WORLD tasks, we headed over to our local blood bank for a pint-donation date; giving blood is the one compassionate task that I'm actually good at. While doing my duty eating cookies afterward to rebuild strength, I read an article about Newsweek's editor, who has a staff of 300 writers and editors capable of transforming the entire magazine in 36 hours when there is late-breaking news. WORLD has a full-time equivalent staff of 11 writers and editors, and I'm thankful and amazed that we survive from week to week.
On the other hand, smallness has its privileges. Forty of Newsweek's top folks meet to decide on their cover story and where things should go in the magazine; at WORLD, managing editor Nick Eicher and I have made those calls for the past six years, with advice from Bob Jones, Mindy Belz, Ed Veith, Tim Lamer, and David Freeland. We've been free to do what we wanted, within biblical constraints, sometimes making mistakes, sometimes hitting things right. But with Nick and our handful of others I've sometimes felt not like a peon within a ponderous organization but like Shakespeare's Henry V proclaiming, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
The fast from WORLD didn't last long; back home, this was a good opportunity to plow through some piled-up faxes of letters to the editor. I wanted to respond to the thoughtful letters but was laptop-less, so it was time to try to find out about my computer. Two hours of frustration later, my Macintosh was still in the twilight zone, but I had had time to think about the meaning of customer service.
Homeschoolers, here's a business lesson: It's crucial for companies to define who their customers are-and that's not as self-evident as might first appear. At broadcast stations and many publications, advertisers are the most important customers. The editor's goal is to corral viewers and readers so that they'll be available to see or read an ad. But at World, here's our pledge: Our readers are our primary customers. We think about them as we select stories and decide where to place them in an issue.
Publications, like people, do not live on bread alone. World, thank God, has been profitable for the past three years, but the purpose of our caloric intake is to give us energy for other pursuits, not just more time to eat more. I had time while hanging on the phone to pray that we do all things in a way that increases respect for the God we serve. I also had time to be thankful for our advertising and marketing folks, the unsung heroes who purchase and pack the parachutes we use to invade enemy territory. (If they don't do a good job in purchasing and packing, even the most intrepid reporter has a hard fall.) We root and pray for them.
I had time that day to think about World next week, next month, and next year, but my addiction was put into perspective that evening by the arrival of a church member's one-year-old son whom Susan occasionally cares for. He has cerebral palsy. Why was he born that way? So that, we pray, God's mercy will shine forth. Maybe so we'll all learn to trust God, whether with small things like computers, medium-size things like magazines, or big things like lives.