As WORLD celebrates its 2oth anniversary, here are some of my thoughts on some of WORLD's most memorable issues.
In point of fact, this was not one of my favorite issues. It launched me instead into a fit of despair. If only I could have known immediately what it took me the next few months to learn. But in retrospect, I have to call this a watershed issue.
Three years earlier, Nick Eicher had moved from St. Louis to Asheville to accept my invitation to take on the role of WORLD's assistant editor. So insightful, so gifted, so proficient, so agile was he at helping assemble each weekly issue that it made good sense just a few months later to promote him to the role of managing editor. To all of us, he quickly became WORLD's MVP.
And now, as summer was coming to a close in 1994, my MVP was in my office giving me the awful news that for a variety of reasons, he and his family had decided to move back to St. Louis. I panicked. I wasn't at all sure we could continue to publish the magazine.
"Don't worry," Nick consoled me. "I've figured out a way I can keep doing my job from a distance."
"Don't kid yourself," I answered. "You know how complex this assignment is, putting together hundreds of disparate pieces every week. It's hard enough to do it right here. How on earth can you do it from 600 miles away?"
"Nick," I remember telling him with a disbelieving and heavy heart, "even with one hand behind your back, you're better than most anybody else I'll find. But I have to tell you that I'll have to start looking for a replacement. The job is yours till I find that person-but I'll have to start looking."
If I tell you I looked for two weeks, I'm stretching the facts. Whether by sheer talent or just the need to preserve his job, Nick Eicher from that day on became one of the nation's premier architects of what has come to be called "virtual publishing." It was unheard of then to do what Nick did-electronically connecting reporters, writers, editors, fact checkers, proofreaders, designers, and photographers. Today, dozens of monthly, bimonthly, and quarterly periodicals do what he pioneered back then. I still know of no other weeklies that either attempt or achieve it.
For WORLD, it was one more key in a path to survival.
Marvin Olasky had already written more than a dozen pieces for WORLD by the time I met him for the first time in 1988. He and his family had been driving from eastern Virginia to their home in Texas; it was easy for them to stop by for breakfast on our mountain-surrounded porch.
It was by no means unusual in those days for us to "use copy first, meet author later." Even with only 24 pages, our weekly schedule produced a big appetite for good copy. The Olasky copy, we all realized, was unusually good. So we welcomed any dispatch that carried his return address.
Marvin had by that time authored several books on journalism and philanthropy. A graduate of Yale with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, he taught journalism at the University of Texas.
Our face-to-face meeting, however, began to set the stage for something more. Marvin was soon appointed to our board of directors. During the summer of 1993, he spent six weeks in Asheville tutoring our staff. He came back in 1994 for 12 more profitable weeks.
All that made it easy for me in August 1994 to ask him to become WORLD's full-time editor. I would take the role of publisher, I said, continuing to find the resources to back the effort and to give the editorial team the logistical support it needed. In September, Marvin said yes to my proposal. In October, our board approved the transition. In the Dec. 10 issue, WORLD's masthead announced the change.
I remember those dates fairly precisely because of what came next. As the brand new Republican-controlled Congress convened early in January, Newt Gingrich stood in the House chamber and startlingly called all its members to read Marvin Olasky's book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. "Hooray!" I cheered. "WORLD will become famous." "Bummer!" I thought next. "Marvin will become famous and find more important things to do than to edit our little magazine."
Over the next few months, Marvin Olasky did indeed become very well-known, profiled and quoted and called upon for personal counsel to a future president of the United States. But never once did he shirk his commitment to us.
To say that Marvin Olasky put a stamp of professionalism on WORLD magazine is one of those things that is true, but almost irrelevant. He is every inch a professional journalist. But the world has thousands of professional journalists. Only a handful-no, let's say that only one of those professionals-brings a worldview with the dimensions of Marvin Olasky's. This is not the place to define that worldview or to expand on all that it brought to WORLD. It is the place to note that when Marvin became its editor, WORLD found itself being led by a world-class thinker, writer, reporter, interviewer, wordsmith, teacher, traveler, conversationalist, and counselor. He was major league-very, very good at playing every position we threw his way.
For its first nine years, WORLD had always tried to dress well. And except for one stretch during our newsprint era, we usually succeeded. We even got occasional compliments: "I can't believe you publish every week and still manage to look that good," people told us surprisingly often.
But my brother Nat Belz, who for nine years had combined WORLD's weekly layout with his other tasks at the company, knew it wasn't good enough. So he recruited David Freeland, who had won awards as the designer of Tabletalk magazine, to come and work his magic at WORLD. For the May 6 issue in 1995, he did his first of several redesigns that have been subtle, elegant, and readable.
"David brought focus, precision, and authority to the weekly task of organizing WORLD's graphics," Nat says. "He could do that because he understood from the very start what WORLD's mission was-and he never merely pasted on his talents as an add-on." David prompted first-timers to take a second look at WORLD. Their visual feast, week after week, became part of WORLD's good reputation. He signifies also a host of other loyal professionals: assistant designer Rob Patete, longtime editor Steve Lutz, managing editor Tim Lamer, illustrators Rich Bishop and Krieg Barrie, along with steady contributors like features editor Lynn Vincent. They and others put in long and odd hours to meet the grueling deadline schedule that makes a weekly magazine.
It's ironic, I have always thought, that the news story for which WORLD is still best known in its first 20 years had nothing to do with politics or education or health coverage or the arts. For all our eagerness to reach out into all those and other "secular" journalistic beats, our big story was about the Bible.
That big story can be summarized by saying that we reported (1) that the New International Version was going to be released in a new and controversial version; (2) that the new version would be shaped in important ways by the feminist culture even more than by traditional textual standards; and (3) that plans for the new version had been carried out secretly. We referred to it, on our cover, as "the stealth Bible."
If the parties behind that Bible had responded to our coverage by saying that our story was essentially accurate, but that our attitude had been overly sharp, they might have won the day and hurt us badly. Instead, when they said loudly that we had lied, their false charges came back to hurt them and boost us significantly. WORLD came to be seen as a courageous David unafraid to take on Goliaths, even within the evangelical world.
The NIV Bible issue highlighted one of WORLD's assets: We are an independent voice. For a few, that independence made us a pariah. For many more, it made us a trustworthy source of truthful reporting. Our biggest story ever was also an affirming warning to us to be just that much more careful in assembling every future issue.