AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — During an eventful 45-year career, Edward Kosner has held some of the most prestigious posts in journalism, as the editor of Newsweek, New York magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News. But when it came time to write his memoirs, he began on a jarring note.
"Oh, Ed, I feel so awful about this, but it's just not working," Kosner is told by the legendary Kay Graham, who has just fired him from his Newsweek post. It was the first major failure of his life — and a perfect way to begin a cautionary tale about the perils of survival in the modern media world.
"A true life is more illuminating than a cleaned-up life," he said on a quiet afternoon recently at the northern Florida vacation home he shares with his wife, novelist Julie Baumgold. "And I wasn't ashamed of the setbacks. They were of a piece with whatever success I've had."
That attitude makes "It's News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor," published this week by Thunder's Mouth Press, an unusual media memoir. Taking readers behind the scenes of boardroom skirmishes, Kosner poses questions that are eerily relevant, given recent turmoil in the newspaper and magazine world. It's largely an insider's account of the contemporary media scene, sparkling with cameo appearances by characters such as Woodward and Bernstein, Anna Wintour, Rupert Murdoch, Tina Brown, Norman Mailer, Madonna and Cindy Crawford.
"It's not like I've written a handy manual for editors, but all these experiences speak for themselves," said Kosner, 69, who jumped off the journalism bandwagon after leaving the Daily News three years ago and now focuses on writing books. "An editor's job is not just about managing people and making news deadlines. It's about maintaining standards."
Today, given the Internet's rapid growth and an uncertain economy, top-level editors also worry about their own survival. The era when print journalism was at the center of U.S. daily life, Kosner noted, "is fading, like an ice cube melting on a stove."
The author, who began his career at the New York Post and joined Newsweek in 1963 as a 26-year-old whiz-kid correspondent, has covered stories including the assassination of President Kennedy and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In the book, he's often his own worst critic, conceding that some have seen him as autocratic, dismissive and aloof. Others, however, have praised him as one of the finest journalists of his generation.
"Ed is a superlative editor, the best I've ever known," said political writer Michael Kramer, who worked with Kosner at New York and the Daily News. "He's a great nurturer of talent and a terrific wordsmith. He's moved easily between the worlds of hard news and pop culture, and that's an achievement." In the book's introduction, novelist Pete Hamill writes that Kosner's story "reveals some of the pain beneath the scar tissue inflicted by publishers, and yet expresses the sheer joy that can come to people who are working at a trade they truly love."
Kosner's professional life breaks down into four dramas. In each case, he took a plum job and did what he believed was excellent work. But he left each for varying reasons, including a vote of no confidence (Newsweek), a sale to unsympathetic new owners (New York), a weak bottom line (Esquire) and disagreements with an owner who had gone through four editors in seven years (New York Daily News).
At Newsweek, Kosner knew that Graham, who also owned the Washington Post, had a habit of firing her editors every three years. "So you begin to understand that surviving is not only up to you," he said. "It's the situation you find yourself in. And you can't be fatalistic, because that's destructive. You must try to be an existentialist and say: 'I know I'm going to fail. But I must act as if I'm not going to fail.' "
The young editor's star was rising in July 1973, when he created the famous Newsweek cover of the Nixon White House with a tape recorder superimposed on the roof, following disclosure of the president's taping system. That edition was named one of the 50 best covers of all time by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Two years later, Kosner shocked some of his bosses by putting an up-and-coming rocker named Bruce Springsteen on the cover, a move matched that same week by Time magazine. "Those pop cultural stories helped the newsweeklies grow," he said. "You couldn't always put the head of General Motors and politicians on the cover."
Four years later, however, he learned a bitter lesson about pop culture and office politics. In a week when Time had put the pope's upcoming visit to America on the cover, he chose instead a splashy cover story about "Alien" and other summer movies. As Kosner tells it, he had planned to put the pope on the cover when he arrived in New York several weeks later. But it was the last straw for Graham, who was frustrated by his managerial style. She fired him the morning the cover appeared.
Had the owner simply grown weary of her editor, as she had his predecessors? Or had he been too young, too brashly confident to see where he may have gone off course? During a dinner party months before, columnist Joe Alsop, a key Graham confidant, had taken Kosner aside and said quietly: "Don't let the magazine go soft, boy." Looking back, the author concedes that "my instinct — and my arrogance — led me to disregard the whispers." But he added that Graham had failed to communicate openly, saying: "She should have stayed with me." In her own memoir, written years later, Graham expressed regret that she and other deputies "didn't have the blunt talk with Ed that anyone under danger of dismissal has every right to expect and that can often be effective .He had a valid cause for complaint, since neither of us had ever fully aired our differences with him."
Nowadays, print journalism faces a crisis far more profound than the clash between hard news and entertainment coverage, and even some media war horses are trying new ideas. Time, which used to come out on Mondays, recently announced plans to appear on Fridays, for example. But it's unclear if such changes can stem the tide of readers moving to the Internet and away from print journalism. The only certainty is that once-proud news institutions are struggling for relevance, along with those who have spent years running them. On the day he left the Daily News in 2003, Kosner put the kibosh on staffers' plans for a newsroom farewell. Instead, he said a few private goodbyes and left — never to return.
"Without saying so out loud and trying not to be pretentious, I wanted my departure to be a metaphor of the transience of the journalistic life," he writes in one of the final chapters of the book. "One minute he was here, and then he was gone."
Looking back, Kosner said, he is intensely proud of his work and feels lucky to have seen so much. As he glanced out at the ocean, he chuckled when asked to name his most exciting career moment. "What's interesting is that in all the places where I had a lot of fun, I also had a lot of anxiety," he said. "In this business, they go hand in hand."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times