Among last week’s list of National Magazine Award finalists was a title unknown to most New Yorkers: 5280, the city magazine of Denver, made the cut in two categories. But the byline on those stories was not so new: Both were by Maximillian Potter.
Mr. Potter, 33, abandoned New York in 2003, after being chewed up by the magazine business. He had been fired as a GQ staff writer by newly installed editor Jim Nelson, then had seen a pair of major pieces commissioned and rejected by Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone. Those killed pieces ended up in 5280.
“It’s taken me all the self-control I’ve been able to muster in the last couple days not to send Jim Nelson an e-mail,” Mr. Potter said on the phone from Colorado.
The message had gotten through to some Manhattanites anyway. “We were such dorks,” said one editor from a magazine that had rejected Mr. Potter’s work.
This is the first time the 12-year-old 5280-the title refers to Denver’s elevation-has been a finalist for a major award, and this is the first time Daniel Brogan, the magazine’s editor and publisher, had even entered a major journalism contest.
Mr. Potter seemed to be on a more conventional path to the ASME’s in 2003. GQ editor Art Cooper had just given him a substantial raise and a hearty attaboy, he said. Mr. Potter was a rising long-form feature writer with a penchant for enterprise work. As a GQ staffer, he wrote one bold and much-talked-about piece eviscerating no less a media titan than AOL Time Warner editorial director John Huey.
But after Mr. Nelson took over, Mr. Potter was summoned to his office. “I thought he was calling me in to give me a pep talk, to say ‘You’re one of my guys for the future,'” Mr. Potter said. Instead, Mr. Potter was fired. “I swear on my life this is exactly what I said: ‘Jim’-I was in his office-I said, ‘Jim, I think we both know this has nothing to do with my professional ability, and I think history will prove that.'”
In an e-mail to The Observer, Mr. Nelson explained that he wanted more editors on staff and fewer writers. “And despite the fact that I liked Max enormously, I didn’t think GQ was the right place for his talents to flourish. Though the decision to let him go was difficult-I didn’t make any of those decisions lightly-I also felt certain he would land on his feet.”
He did. But first he landed in Amish country, 60 miles outside of Philadelphia, with a wife, two young sons and a creeping panic about his ability to make a living freelancing. His first apparent breakthrough came from Men’s Journal. The magazine wanted a piece about the Air Force, which was then embroiled in allegations that it had ignored sexual-assault claims and institutional misogyny for years.
Mr. Potter found a short clip about Douglas Meester, an Air Force Academy sophomore accused of rape, a claim stemming from a drunken night with a classmate. “I called the family and had three months of conversations with the alleged rapist’s father,” Mr. Potter said. “In the court of public opinion, locally and nationally, this kid was being presumed guilty. And I thought, ‘Well, O.K., let’s take a look.’ The more I got into it, what became evident to me-in my opinion, at least-was that this kid was innocent.”
In its awards-ceremony bios, ASME will describe the piece, which is nominated in the reporting category, this way: “Denver’s 5280 magazine sent Maximillian Potter to cover a rape at the Air Force Academy. Instead, through dogged and painstaking reporting, Potter uncovered an Academy plot to scapegoat a cadet and ‘prove’ it could ‘get tough’ on a crime it had largely ignored. 5280’s reporting exonerated the cadet and led to high-level dismissals.”
But that’s hardly how it happened. It was Men’s Journal deputy editor Tom Foster who commissioned the story, and Mr. Potter spent six months reporting and writing it for the national magazine.
The story was midway through the fact-checking process when Mr. Potter encountered another managerial change: Top Men’s Journal editor Bob Wallace was out, and Michael Caruso was in. Mr. Caruso promptly killed the story, said Mr. Potter and a source at Men’s Journal. (Mr. Caruso didn’t return a phone call from The Observer yesterday.)
Mr. Foster-who wouldn’t comment on Mr. Potter’s saga beyond congratulating him-called with the bad news, and Mr. Potter relayed it to his subjects.
“When I told the Meesters, they were crushed,” Mr. Potter said.
Mr. Potter said Mr. Foster recommended that he offer the story to Rolling Stone. Mr. Potter passed the story along to Will Dana, one of the magazine’s deputy managing editors. He said Mr. Dana liked the story and passed it around to other senior editors at Rolling Stone, who ultimately passed on the piece. Mr. Dana also declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Mr. Potter had responded to a Mediabistro listing for a senior writer job at an obscure Colorado magazine. Mr. Brogan, who had maxed out his credit cards in 1993 to start 5280, was looking for a serious investigative journalist. When Mr. Potter explained his trials with the Air Force Academy piece, Mr. Brogan agreed on the spot to run it-even though his magazine had no lawyer on retainer to vet it. “Conduct Unbecoming” ran in the February/March 2004 issue.
“Maybe I was naïve to publish the piece under those circumstances-I don’t know,” said Mr. Brogan. “I’m a journalist myself. I’d like to think I know a good story when I see one.”
Mr. Potter choked up when he talked about the risk that Mr. Brogan took in publishing that piece. A few months ago, he said, a government subpoena landed on his desk, demanding his notes from the story in connection with another alleged rape case. “Dan Brogan didn’t blink,” he said. They rebuffed the subpoena, hired a pricey lawyer and won.
While working on the Meester story, he said, he learned about Army Pvt. Nolan Stites, a Colorado Springs native who entered basic training in the summer of 2000. Weeks after starting, Mr. Stites showed signs of serious depression. After some time on suicide watch, Mr. Stites threw himself from a third-story window.
Mr. Potter tracked down Richard Stites, the boy’s father. His son, Mr. Stites said, had been berated, isolated and misdiagnosed. The writer went to the family’s house and watched as the boy’s parents unrolled a quilt they’d stitched out of their son’s old T-shirts. Mr. Potter cried right there in the living room, he said.
Mr. Potter pitched the story to Men’s Journal. No dice. He pitched it to Rolling Stone’s Mr. Dana, who assigned it. Months later, Mr. Potter recounts, Mr. Dana called back: They no longer wanted the story.
At that point, Mr. Potter concluded it was time to give up. Mr. Brogan, Mr. Potter said, was the “anti-them, the anti–New York magazine editor.” So he gave the second piece to 5280, moved his family to Denver and put Manhattan behind him.
“I just decided, I’ve had enough,” he said. ” I’ve had enough of New York horseshit, of the petty politics, the perfume-ad pressures, the volatility-I’ve had enough of it all.”
“In truth,” said Mr. Brogan, “I think the public would have been better served if both of those pieces had run in magazines with the kind of readership and circulation those guys have. But I was thrilled to publish them.”
“Private Stites Should Have Been Saved” ran in the magazine’s June/July issue.
Mr. Potter is now the executive editor of 5280. His office is right by the back door of the small operation, so he answers the door for pizza and mail deliveries himself. “We’re not long on pretense here,” said Mr. Brogan. “We’re pretty casual and informal.” So, the opposite of what you might find at some magazines in New York? “Absolutely.”
Résumés have been flooding in since the ASME nominations announcement, Mr. Brogan said. For Mr. Potter’s part, he’s just enjoying the ride.
“Immediately and selfishly-look, I’m not gonna lie to you-I’m very happy to achieve a little vindication,” he said. “But the bigger picture-and I was just talking to Dan about this the other day-the bigger picture is, it’s scary. It’s frustrating. I’m not an anomaly. There are a lot of talented writers trying to do exactly those sorts of stories, and they’re not getting the chance.”
Four decades ago, in the reign of George Lois, the position of Esquire design director carried the power to revolutionize the visual vocabulary of magazines. Last month, John Korpics bailed out on the job for a gig at InStyle.
“I was surprised,” Esquire editor David Granger said last week, over the phone. Mr. Granger used the word “surprised” more than once in discussing Mr. Korpics’ departure for the celebri-fluffy fashion title. As of this week, the formerly legendary job of directing Esquire’s art belongs to David Curcurito, 36, lately of American Express Custom Publishing.
Mr. Granger said that he’s hoping Mr. Curcurito will provide “idea-driven photography” for the magazine. “There’ll be an idea behind most of our covers, and there’ll be bold type that expresses a few simple reasons to buy the magazine,” Mr. Granger said.
Recent Esquire covers have not been obviously concept-based-unless “Scarlett Johansson has a nice rack on her” counts as a concept.
So what does “idea-driven” mean to Mr. Curcurito? “It would be pretty amazing to recognize the celebrity aspect second,” the new design director said, “and just look at something and say, ‘Holy shit, what the hell is that thing?! I have to put that in my hands.'”
Hello there, Ms. Johansson!
Mr. Granger said that Mr. Curcurito will be working on a September redesign for Esquire. “We will definitely be rethinking the front of the book,” he said. “For the last six months, I have been working with all of my editors to come up with new ideas …. I have a file folder that’s 50 pages thick. We’ll sit down and talk about every one of those ideas and see what works for us.”
Mr. Curcurito said the front of the book “needs more entry points” and “some quick hits.”
“My goal is to make people buy this magazine-that’s the bottom line,” he said. “I want to concentrate on selling this magazine on the newsstand, and there are rules to selling magazines.”
Mr. Granger said that the magazine had never abandoned its creative legacy. “When you’re talking about 40 to 45 years ago-which is what you’re talking about-there were whole different expectations for magazines,” Mr. Granger said. “I mean, a magazine didn’t have to compete with things like television. So people’s entertainment options were like, ‘Well, I could sit down and read a magazine,’ or ‘I’ll sit down and read a book.’
“And so, while it’s true we only do two or three stories of any length in any issue, with the stories we do, we’re trying really hard to do things that are the result of inspired thinking and the result of some stylistic experimentation.”
Esquire is now in competition with the hyperstimulating likes of Xbox games, Mr. Granger said. “My push … for the last three years is to be really entertaining,” Mr. Granger said. “To do little fun things, whether it’s in the front of the book or to make sure there’s a heavy fun quotient throughout the magazine.”
Mr. Curcurito said his own fun quotient had been in decline when Hearst editorial talent director Eliot Kaplan called to see if he’d be interested in the job. “I was just about ready to give up on publishing altogether. I got burnt on it,” Mr. Curcurito said. “I told Granger, ‘If I don’t get this job with you, I probably won’t go back into magazine publishing.’ We went out to lunch, I did a huge test for him.”
Now Mr. Curcurito said he hopes to bring some other new names to the pages of Esquire. He would rather use unknown photographers, he said, than have to wrangle the industry’s big names into the magazine.
“Sometimes working with prima-donna photographers just sucks,” he said. “I’d rather not deal with the attitude when there are 100 other people out there that are just clawing their way up the ladder.”
On Monday, March 21, Campbell Robertson started at the New York Times metro desk as an intermediate reporter, on general-assignment duty. Mr. Robertson is 28 years old and a native of Montevallo, Ala.; for the previous three and a half years, he’d been working at The Times as a news clerk, answering phones and making copies.
Historically, the scrappy news clerk angling for a promotion has been a Times tradition: Arthur Gelb, Joe Lelyveld, Al Siegal and platoons of other fabled Times persons began their ascent through the West 43rd Street hierarchy at the bottom.
But Mr. Robertson’s promotion is an anomaly at today’s Times. In 1995, The Times introduced the Intermediate Reporting program, known as “8-I,” which became the paper’s entry-level gateway. Reporters in the 8-I program are put on an extended tryout for up to three years. Since then, the paper has explicitly stipulated that news clerks shouldn’t expect to win a reporter’s desk. To date, only seven have made the jump, the most recent some 18 months ago.
“Generally, we do not promote clerks to reporting jobs, and we inform them that they should not expect to advance to a reporting spot,” associate managing editor Bill Schmidt wrote via e-mail. “If [clerks] have a desire to pursue reporting, we advise them that they would do better becoming a reporter at another newspaper and then coming to us with two or three years of experience and a sense of feature style.”
The 81 assistants and clerks on staff mostly do clerical work, assisting editors and reporters. In their free time, they can pitch editors stories as freelancers, and they are occasionally called on to string for reporters.
“I just ignored what everybody was saying for so long,” Mr. Robertson said of his advancement. “It might have been wildly inadvisable.”
Mr. Robertson arrived at The Times in July 2001 after a year teaching English in Morocco. Before that, he spent a year and a half after graduating from Georgetown working as a paralegal in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. He had read The Times every morning, he said, and harbored “this vague journalistic desire.”
A few months after he started, Mr. Robertson began stringing for “Boldface Names” quasi-gossip columnist Joyce Wadler. “He’s terrific,” Ms. Wadler said of Mr. Robertson. “Everybody likes him. Campbell is an informed and wonderful writer.”
Having found a willing advocate in Ms. Wadler, Mr. Robertson then sought out the advice of Frank Rich, who gave him guidance on filing regional theater reviews for the Connecticut and Westchester Weekly sections. An amateur illustrator who once designed safety manuals for an Alabama paper mill, Mr. Robertson contributed illustrations to The Times in a November 2003 Metro section cover and inside the city section.
Along the way, he spent three weeks in the “cop shop” at 1 Police Plaza, and since September he’s been filling in at The Times’ Long Island Weekly section in Garden City for reporter Vivian Toy, who had been out on maternity leave.
Among his first jobs as an official reporter will be to take over “Boldface Names” from Ms. Wadler, who the Daily News reported will be shuttling over to the home section to write features. Mr. Robertson, who will fill in for Ms. Wadler starting April 1, said he’s not the official “Boldface” replacement.
“It’s not my permanent gig-I’m just filling in,” he said.
Metro editor Susan Edgerley said she offered Mr. Campbell his job because of the journalistic dexterity he’d demonstrated. “He did terrific work-that’s a good enough reason to hire someone,” Ms. Edgerley said.
But Ms. Edgerley emphasized that the move doesn’t mark another revision of Times hiring policy.
“This is not a change. We don’t want anyone with the hope of becoming a reporter to come here to clerk and have his or her heart broken,” she said.