Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Traveling mercies

They visit even magazines in transition

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

One year ago our small news shop went from producing a weekly magazine to producing a biweekly one. From 48 press deadlines per year to 26. From something like 25 editorial pages per week to about 60 every two weeks. In-house this was exhilarating-and terrifying. Were we football players it would be like showing up for a game to find the field had doubled in size while our downs had been halved to two. And we had little idea, despite comments from a reader survey, what the fans would think.

For those of us who for years wrapped our lives around a press deadline that came every seven days, we lost track of time and at first floundered in our week without a press date. As the Sabbath became "a sign forever" between Yahweh and the people of Israel, so 5 p.m. Thursday had been the post marking our six days of labor. Could we change and survive in a climate where bigger newspapers, better-funded magazines were weighed down by financial distress? In my first column of this new era I clung to the image of my younger self riding a sled downhill that often ended with a bloody nose.

How surprising this year of biweekly publication has been. Some bumps in the road we saw coming; others we did not. How to imagine that readers would be so faithful, with only a handful deciding that our biweekly format was not for them? How to predict a Democratic nomination battle that dominated our news cycles into June, the same time we learned on a Tuesday that editor in chief Marvin Olasky would have heart bypass surgery on Friday? Ever the resident planner/producer, Marvin sent 11 columns on surgery's eve, "in case I'm incapacitated for awhile."

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Marvin's robust recovery made me remember a theme from Anne Lamott's powerful (and slightly profane) book Traveling Mercies. Sometimes the things we do to feel safe fail us, and the open road (or open-heart surgery or someone crashing your calendar) is the only way to go. Robust recoveries come when things fall apart, and we weren't finished: The economic contractions increased but somehow our editorial team managed to grow by year's end.

And that brings me to two welcome additions: About eight years ago a teacher named Lee Pitts sat down to dinner in Florida next to WORLD founder Joel Belz (my brother-in-law). Their conversation would eventually prompt him to head to a graduate program in journalism at Northwestern. Lee landed a job with the Chattanooga Times Free Press and surfaced again when I received his name as the embedded reporter accompanying a National Guard unit to Iraq. The unit included Joel's son-in-law.

I emailed Lee with no knowledge of his dinner with Joel, hoping he could write for us when newspaper duties allowed. He told me that WORLD was one of the things that had inspired the journalist's dream for him, and, "now I find myself in Kuwait gearing up for a run across Iraq. Be careful what you wish for, I guess."

Lee filed daily reports from Diyala Province during a 2004-2005 deployment that cost his unit 14 lives-firsthand reports compelling enough to earn him a plum assignment as the paper's Washington correspondent upon return. In 2006 he took a position in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander. By late 2008 he sensed the end of a political era and I was pestering him (again) to write for WORLD. Inaugural events in Washington, I'm pleased to say, mark for WORLD the inauguration of a new Washington reporting team headed by Edward Lee Pitts.

The team includes another name familiar to some of our readers, Emily Belz. Some may be acquainted with her byline at worldmag.com where she has contributed in recent months. For this issue she follows around another Washington newcomer worth knowing, freshman congressman Aaron Schock. Emily came to us following stints at the Indianapolis Star, The Hill (a Washington daily), and freelance assignments with The New York Daily News. You may wonder if she also is related to Joel Belz: She is his niece. And my daughter. Emily was born during the first months of WORLD's publication-marking a coming of age for the magazine and a new generation of editorial talent to join our talented reporters in New York (Alisa Harris), Charlotte (Jamie Dean), Seattle (Mark Bergin), and San Diego (features editor Lynn Vincent).

Lee may say be careful what you wish for. I say, wish away. Who can focus on bloody noses when traveling mercies abound?

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