Off the Record

On Tuesday, March 25, Condé Nast editorial director James Truman named GQ executive editor Jim Nelson as the magazine’s new editor in chief. Mr. Nelson, 40, replaces his old boss, the retiring Art Cooper, who’s been at the helm of the magazine since 1983.

Mr. Nelson’s hiring is an affirmation for Mr. Cooper, who sources said was pushed into retirement by Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse. Both Mr. Nelson and fellow executive editor Michael Hainey interviewed for the job. But from the beginning of the search, sources said, Mr. Cooper privately pushed the Condé Nast editorial director to select Mr. Nelson.

Naturally, a big part of Mr. Nelson’s job will be to work and get along with GQ publisher Ron Galotti. Sources at Condé Nast said that Mr. Galotti and Mr. Cooper had an uneasy relationship, that Mr. Galotti had wanted a more outgoing editor-one that would be more willing to schmooze with advertisers than Mr. Cooper has been in recent years.

For his part, Mr. Galotti-who said the decision to hire Mr. Nelson was entirely Mr. Truman’s-said: “The only thing I wanted was an editor who could produce a great magazine.

” GQ is not broken,” Mr. Galotti said. “This is about Jim taking it to the next level.”

Not unexpectedly, Mr. Nelson said he felt he would get along fine with the former Mr. Big.

“I actually like Ron,” Mr. Nelson said. “There’s all kinds of legends about Ron, but when you get to know him, you find he’s honest and blunt, and I like those qualities.”

Though Mr. Cooper’s GQ -a mix of celebrity profiles, style advice and reportage-received four National Magazine Award nominations this year, it was considered by some within Condé Nast to be in need of new oomph. According to Condé Nast sources, both Mr. Truman and Mr. Newhouse have expressed a desire to shorten the articles in the magazine and add more service and even more fashion to the publication. (A Condé Nast spokesperson said Messrs. Truman and Newhouse were unavailable for comment at deadline.) While GQ has a circulation of 800,000, Dennis Publishing’s Maxim currently has a circulation of 2.5 million, and Stuff (also owned by Dennis) and FHM , published by EMAP, both have circulations over one million.

However, Mr. Nelson-formerly a writer for CNN and an editor at Harper’s in the mid-1990′s-said that in his conversations with Mr. Newhouse and Mr. Truman, both wanted to have an “open” conversation with him about his ideas for the magazine’s future.

Mr. Nelson, who described himself as a “music head” and “news junkie,” said he felt the magazine needed to sharpen its fashion and service coverage while making the magazine “more timely.”

“I do think we spend a bit too much time in that kind of timeless nostalgic thing,” Mr. Nelson said. “And my inclination is to make it more of the moment, to be engaged in the culture.”

Five days into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, on March 24, Daily News editor Ed Kosner was on the telephone, explaining why his paper had suddenly abandoned-after much fanfare-a brief afternoon special edition it had published for two days.

Mr. Kosner said the second Gulf War had begun to move at a “glacial pace” that didn’t merit the News devoting extra resources to an additional paper at the same time it was spending so many inches on the war in its regular edition. Mr. Kosner assured that if something “significant” happened, like a battle for Baghdad, the News would return to the afternoon presses.

A moment later, Mr. Kosner put the phone on hold as he conferred with a member of his newsroom staff. When he returned, Mr. Kosner announced: “I guess the battle for Baghdad has begun. I just heard.”

So much for the “glacial pace.” Once again, Mr. Kosner-like every newspaper editor these days-was struggling to find a way to keep his publication relevant in a war that was unfolding in real time on television. It hasn’t been easy. At times newspapers have shown their age, struggling as a horse-and-buggy medium trying to deliver news of war fought at the frenetic speed of a PlayStation 2.

“I think this is a remarkable time to be a news junkie,” said Susan E. Tifft, former associate editor of Time and co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times . “You’ve got real-time war coverage on television, and you’ve got the Internet for play-by-play. Then the question is: What role do newspapers play?”

Sensing they’ve been outflanked, some newspapers have tried to play the real-time coverage game themselves. The New York Times -along with its sister paper, the Boston Globe -entered into a broadcast arrangement with CNN to have their correspondents speak on air. As for the Internet, The Wall Street Journal , The Washington Post and The Times all devoted new energy to breaking news on their Web sites, in several instances forcing the networks to follow their leads.

But such innovations can be problematic. Web stories in particular have put papers in the uneasy role of having to scoop themselves. In the March 22 edition, Times reporter Dexter Filkins wrote a wonderfully vivid and moving account of what he called the “muted joy” in the Iraqi town of Safwan after the arrival of U.S. troops. But Mr. Filkins’ account was actually a reheated rerun from his initial Web posting the day before.

What papers have done more successfully, Ms. Tifft said, is to provide context to television’s visceral war opera. On March 20, The Journal -which on a normal news day can be counted on to provide a singular, definitive story on a particular news event-gushed out copy. It questioned what the war’s effect would be on the world economy, spoke to veterans of D-Day, and profiled P.F.C. Aaron Wilder and Capt. Andrew Sparkman, men in charge of keeping track of and distributing batteries to members of their respective units. Meanwhile, The Washington Post -the only one to jump a non-war story about the tobacco farmer who parked (and wouldn’t remove) his tractor from the D.C. mall from the front page-told the story from inside the Beltway, and from reporters embedded with the First Battalion, the Seventh Marine Regiment, the 82nd Airborne Division and the Raptors helicopter crews in charge of rescuing downed U.S. pilots.

Then there’s The Times , which under executive editor Howell Raines has taken a “flood the zone” approach on everything from the war on terror to the controversy surrounding the Augusta National Golf Club. The Times has been playing the part that one would expect: with over 10 pages of coverage, including military analysis from Michael Gordon and a status check of the city’s heightened defenses by William Rashbaum and James Barron. Bernard Weinraub, normally the paper’s Los Angeles–based national cultural correspondent, had three stories on one page alone, in which he profiled U.S. Army Col. Steven Boltz and Queens dentist Capt. Cynthia V. Brito, and wrote about the demand for rosaries and Bibles before the start of war.

“Sandstorms swept through this camp today,” Mr. Weinraub wrote, “adding to the misery, the grime and the somber mood.”

Not surprisingly, some of the best print reportage has come from Baghdad, where TV cameras are scarce. The Times ‘ John Burns-who tried to leave the capital city with photographer Tyler Hicks, only to return after being blocked by government officials demanding bribes-has ably captured the fears and spectacle of a city under siege. The Washington Post ‘s Anthony Shadid has also performed exceptionally well. Writing in the monthly, March 24, Post , Mr. Shadid described a day in the edgy life of a middle-class Sunni Muslim family from Baghdad that hated Mr. Hussein and had grown to hate Mr. Bush. The following day, he wrote on civilians in a Baghdad hospital whose homes and lives had been torn apart by a stray U.S. cruise missile.

“There are no soldiers in my home, there’s no gun in my home!” shouted one boy quoted by Mr. Shadid who had lost his mother and another relative in the attack. “How can God accept this?”

Scenes like these offered a sobering corrective to the premature euphoria of the war coverage. Television was not alone in its early excitement about a quick end to the fighting; newspapers were hyped up early on as well. The Washington Post raised hopes for a weekend finish when it reported that some officials believed Mr. Hussein had been either injured or killed in the first U.S. attack. After the initiation of the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Baghdad, the next day’s Daily News characterized the spectacle as “Awesome!” and later described U.S. troops being “warmly welcomed” to the chants of “Ameriki! Ameriki!” That same day, The Times ‘ James Dao described the Navy SEALs “swooping silently” to capture Iraqi oil wells (but acknowledged the measure “clearly held nearly as much public relations value” as it does military value). Meanwhile, on Friday, March 21, the New York Post said the U.S. was “socking” the enemy and declared: “Saddam’s men helpless as allies seize key cities.” But by Monday’s paper, both the New York Post and Daily News displayed images of dead American soldiers.

Underestimating the difficulties of war is an American tradition. When Confederate and Union soldiers met for the first Battle of Bull Run, the engagement brought onlookers from Washington’s cultural and social elite who felt the war would be over in days.

Even after Sunday’s grim reports, some journalists kept confident. “The war was going very, very well,” said New York Post editor in chief Col Allan. “The media very well may have given the impression that the entire nation of Iraq could have been won without casualties, which I always felt was nonsense.”

Asked if he felt in any way responsible for this perception, Mr. Allan said he didn’t, because “it did go very well in the first two to three days.”

Ever the optimist, Mr. Allan held out hope that print would keep its place in the war coverage.

“Television is very good at keeping people up to date,” Mr. Allan said. “We can’t compete with that; we don’t even try. But look at still pictures. These are images people don’t have any time to study on television. People have time to look at them in a newspaper to study them.

Said Mr. Allan: “That’s the advantage of the medium.”

There’s only one occasion when Ann Coulter, the right-wing pundit and author of Scandal: Liberal Lies About the American Right , will turn away from the war coverage on her beloved news network of choice, Fox News.

“When I hear Brit Hume say those disheartening words, ‘We now turn to our panel,’” she said. “I love those guys, but during a war I want facts and film footage of the war, not political analysis.”

With so much information pouring in from every major TV network and one-horse blog, not even Ms. Coulter can keep her attention focused on just one news outlet-even if it is the one she considers the most “fair and accurate.” Since this high-speed, all-access war began, everyone has become their own de facto news editor, able to troll TV or the Web for any nugget of new information-or even just images of stuff getting blown to kingdom come-that advances the story of Gulf War II.

The concept of the Information Age is passé; this is the Attention Age, where anyone can construct the story for themselves, hardening an ideological stance or fleshing out some rough portrait of reality by simply flipping and clicking.

One thing is certain: There’s no single cable-news channel, newspaper or Web site that can present the whole story.

As a result, everyone has some radio program or Web site to recommend to supplement the usual media outlets, either with news or context. PoliticalwriterChristopher Hitchens-who on Friday, March 20, was preparing to fly to Kuwait to cover the southern front of the war for a week-said he looked for information on the various Web sites of the Iraqi National Congress and the Kurdish mission to the U.N., particularly the PatrioticUnionofKurdistan (http://www.puk.org/).

“It’s been possible to keep oneself informed and to try and keep one’s head during a fairly swelling and clichéd debate,” he said. “I think people should become readers rather than remain as consumers, and attempt to form conclusions of their own and not wait to be given permission by authority or by anyone else, actually.”

Cullen Murphy, editor in chief of The Atlantic , likes the WBUR radio program On Point , with Tom Ashbrook and Jack Beatty, as well as the Pentagon’s DefenseLink Web site (http://www.defenselink.mil/) for basic facts. William Saletan, political writer for Slate, hits the C-Span site (http://www.c-span.org/) for a roundup of the official line. David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker , said he had “a friend who is always sending me things to read in Le Monde and Liberation, which is extremely helpful.”

Terry Atlas, assistant managing editor of U.S News and World Report , reads the Web sites of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (www.csis.org) and GlobalSecurity.org, which has detailed satellite photos. Mr. Atlas agreed that people were able to keep ahead of the mainstream media by panning the Web for news.

“I heard that one of the families of the American P.O.W.’s first found their picture on a foreign Web site long before it was broadcast on CNN,” he said. “It shows that we can go out there and find the information.”

For old-school ideologues like Lewis Lapham, editor in chief of Harper’s Magazine , avoiding certain media is as important as seeking others out. He sticks to European newspapers, criticizing The New York Times for being “too focused on the troops, not on the Iraqi people. I happen to get more information from The Guardian than The New York Times . The news over there shows closeups of collateral damage and injured civilians. In the States, all we see are the fireworks. It’s a lot like a video game.”

For Ms. Coulter, of course, fireworks are the pinnacle of the news cycle. She said she enjoyed listening to the “Shock and Awe” campaign on the radio because “hearing those bombs go off and the raw terror of the reporters watching from across the Tigris river was like listening to War of the Worlds .”

While watching and listening to bombs explode may lead to a certain kind of clarity, it’s not the sort that Thomas Friedman, the Times Op-Ed columnist, said he looks for. For instance, he avoids TV coverage altogether.

“I think it’s really dangerous to get caught up in the day-to-day coverage, let alone the hour-by-hour,” he said. “The difficult thing about writing a column is not getting intellectual whiplash. The war is bad one day and so everything is a mess; or you write it the day some major Iraqi division surrenders and you think, ‘Wow, this is going to work.’”

Aside from the “saturation coverage” in his own newspaper, Mr. Friedman said, “I find The Financial Times ‘ coverage really smart. I read the Beirut Daily Star . I read Al-Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper, to give me the flow of where the Arab debate is. I’m constantly surfing the wires-and my own contacts and friends. I’ve just been to Paris, and I try to get my news as tartare as I can.”

Steve Brill, the Newsweek columnist and author of After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era , said the single best hour of TV coverage he’d seen came from Tim Russert’s cable show-because of the analysis and perspective, not because of breaking news.

“They were so good in terms of sorting things out and explaining what the Pentagon and C.I.A. really think,” he said. “It was the best hour that’s been on TV in the last 96 hours.”

Still, Mr. Brill has been glued to the TV like everybody else. Just as the 1991 Gulf War made CNN so dominant, he said, this war is making or breaking news organizations.

“In terms of TV, I’m shocked to say that I think MSNBC and Fox have done surprisingly good jobs,” he said. “With CNN knocked out, CNN doesn’t have the advantage. This is a terrible turning point for CNN.”

He said his “four staples” for news on the Web were CNN, MSNBC, “a little bit of Drudge” and The Times of London.

With everything moving so fast, the Newsweek columnist admitted, “I don’t know what the hell Time and Newsweek can do in this situation. It’s a tough job for a magazine.”

“You kind of do become your own news editor,” said Bob Woodward, The Washington Post ‘s assistant managing editor and author of Bush at War. “There is a randomness to what we can actually know. I use the Defense Department Web site (www.defenselink.mil), which is great for transcripts on briefings. The State Department Web site is worthwhile (www.state.gov). As Rumsfeld said, ‘You’re only getting slices of it.’ The same goes for me and the public.”

-Joe Hagan with Gabriel Sherman