The New York Review of Magazines

Keeping Us Honest: Looking Back and Ahead With Three Editors of CJR

This is a picture of Stivers.

Newspapers are in turmoil. Magazines, whose advertisers are deserting them for the Web, are in trouble. Television networks, along with the rest of the press, are shutting down overseas bureaus. Digital media, which don’t fact check or copy edit enough, seem to lack traditional standards. And old business models aren’t working anymore. In other words, media, across the board, are facing traumatic times.

The Columbia Journalism Review, America’s—and perhaps the English-speaking world’s—oldest media monitor, is now fifty years old. Given its mission “to encourage and stimulate excellence in journalism in the service of a free society,” its moment may have arrived. In November 2011, CJR celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and published a 163-page commemorative issue. With twenty-six advertisements from noteworthy institutions—including The New York Times, NBC and Google—CJR grossed a record-breaking $240,000. And, late last year, the magazine hired a new editor-in-chief. With a new editorial leader, some new cash and renewed energy, CJR may be perfectly poised to “encourage and stimulate” new thinking in a journalism industry that is wrestling with the ethical, editorial and financial problems posed by the turbulent digital age.

The Columbia Journalism Review, first launched in 1961, describes itself as “both a watchdog and a friend of the press in all its forms, from newspapers to magazines to radio, television, and the Web.” Five decades ago, it was a plain booklet containing some articles, accompanied by a few cartoons and black-and-white images. It has since evolved into a full-fledged print magazine and website.

One way to examine the story of that evolution is through the eyes, experiences and insights of three of the Review’s most significant editors: its founding editor, James Boylan; its longest-serving staff member, Mike Hoyt; and the new editor-in-chief, Cyndi Stivers.

Beginning at the end—today—we walk through the wooden doors leading to CJR’s offices within the 100-year-old building that houses Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. We go past its units of gray cubicles and enter Stivers’ office. With stacks of papers covering her desk, CJR’s new editor-in-chief manages her heavy workload by juggling tasks and working long hours. Before assuming her new duties, she was the founding editor of Time Out New York, a past president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and a member of Barnard’s board of trustees.

Stivers became a CJR reader back in the 1970s, when she was an undergraduate studying English at Barnard College. “That’s not fifty years of reading it, but it’s been a pretty long time,” she says. After graduating, she worked at a variety of media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, VH1 and Martha Stewart’s satellite-radio program, in both editorial and business-related positions. “I feel I have a good perspective on the industry. I mean, I’ve pretty much worked in all media at one time or another,” she says.

Stivers enjoys writing, as well as editing. “I feel like I’ve written every day, all of my adult life, regardless of whether I was publishing it or not,” she says. “I realized that, while I love writing, editing could be just as creative if you pair a great subject and a great writer to elicit the best story possible.” She likes helping writers improve the quality of their work, but she tries not to interfere too much with a piece. “You should not hear my editing footprints tiptoe through the piece at all. I want the writers to sound like themselves, not like we manhandled them.”

Writers, as people, fascinate her. “I’m always interested in meeting people and finding out what makes them tick,” she says. “I can’t help myself. I feel so fortunate that we get to be nosy for a living. We get to keep learning for a living. We get to try on all these other careers and lives of the people we talk to for work, and get paid for it. Well, it seems like a real privilege to me.”

As the new editor-in-chief, Stivers’ initial efforts have been focused on the magazine’s Internet presence and its digital coverage. She wants to enhance the website by redesigning it and by adding material that enriches what’s already in print—like more podcasts and videos. She intends to add new blogs and to provide new content daily, or whenever news breaks. “If there’s something people are talking about in the world of journalism, CJR will weigh in,” Stivers says, “and invite its readers to do the same.”

Although the Web is a high priority, Stivers is not downgrading the importance of the print magazine. “We still have a passionate, devoted print-only audience, and we will serve them as long as it’s economically feasible,” she says.

When it was first published, the magazine was viewed as an experiment. The pilot issue of the Columbia Journalism Review listed several goals that its editors hoped to achieve. It wanted to criticize irresponsible journalism, praise sound journalism and serve as “a meeting ground for thoughtful discussion of journalism.” The magazine was departmentalized, with a section for each of the major forms of media at the time—newspapers, magazines, broadcasting and books. Its topics ranged from how effectively the press had covered the 1960 presidential campaign to what the largest newspapers had written about a certain day of the year.

During its fifty years, CJR has been led by a procession of editors. During Alfred Balk’s term (1969-1973), CJR became more reporting-driven. Kenneth Pierce (1973-1976) sought to emulate magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, increasing the depth of its articles. Marshall Loeb (1976-1979) moved the magazine in a direction that reflected his roots at Fortune and Money. Spencer Klaw (1980-1989) sharpened the focus on societal issues. Suzanne Braun Levine (1989-1997), who had been the first editor of Ms. magazine, was CJR’s first female editor. Roger Rosenblatt (1994-1997) had been editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and a commentator for PBS.

It was James Boylan, however, who was responsible for bringing CJR to life. After graduating from the Columbia Journalism School in 1951, and gaining some editing experience with an affiliate of The New York Herald Tribune, Boylan returned to Columbia to pursue a doctorate in history and to work as an assistant to Edward Barrett, the new dean of the journalism school. Conversations between Boylan and Barrett sparked the idea of creating a magazine dedicated to analyzing and evaluating the media. As Boylan wrote in the article he contributed to CJR’s anniversary edition, “The proposal might well have died on the desk of a more cautious dean, but Ed Barrett was adventurous, and saw a glimmer of a way to perform a service for American journalism (whether American journalism liked it or not) and at the same time to add a new dimension to the school of journalism.”

From the beginning, Boylan says, CJR has been written with an eye toward informing the general public, not just journalists. “We wanted the character of the magazine not to be like an ordinary scholarly journal with a lot of footnotes and all of that stuff. We wanted it to be accessible to the general reader, both within the journalism profession and outside it.” Although Boylan served two terms as CJR’s head editor (1961-1970 and 1976-1979), he says his early days at the publication were the most meaningful.

Although he was able to start CJR with the dean’s approval, doing so was not easy. In his first office—a compact space that was once a darkroom for developing photos—Boylan stewed over how to get CJR off the ground. Without any similar publications to use as a point of reference, he experimented with CJR until he was able to turn it into a respectable magazine. “We made errors, more than I like to think of, but it was a great opportunity,” he says.

Launching CJR in the 1960s, a time of major social and political change, brought its own set of challenges in terms of what the magazine should cover. “There were more issues than we could deal with in the Sixties, as you could’ve imagined,” Boylan says, but CJR’s approach to current events set it apart from the rest of the media. “What made the Review go is that we avoided the kinds of things that make some magazines boring,” he says. Boylan aimed to make every article as meaningful as possible. “I was able to pick out the major themes of the 1960s—civil rights, the Vietnam War—and relate journalism to those themes. I somehow worked them into the Review.”

Since his editing years, he has continued to stay involved with CJR and still writes a column of brief book reviews. After seeing how the magazine has grown, he believes it will continue to do well. “Overall I’m pleased,” he says. “It’s always been recognizable as CJR. That is, no one has ever come along and made it into something else.”

For about twenty-five years, Mike Hoyt, the longest-serving CJR staff member, has helped the magazine continue what Boylan started. Hoyt, who had previously worked for newspapers and magazines, came to CJR as a junior editor in time for the magazine’s twenty-fifth-anniversary issue. By the time the fiftieth-anniversary magazine was published, he was wrapping up his tenth year as its executive editor. “I’ve never grown tired,” he says, reflecting on his years as an editor. “Journalism touches on every aspect of life, so it’s not boring.”

Unlike Boylan, who considers himself a much stronger editor than writer, Hoyt enjoys editing and writing equally. “It’s very satisfying to turn a piece around into something stronger,” he says. Although Hoyt is in the process of transitioning out of his editing position, he plans to continue writing for CJR and honing his skills. “There’s landing stories and there’s launching stories,” he says. “I think I’m a very good lander and I think I’m a good launcher. Finding is the part that I’m now looking forward to spending more time on.” He welcomes the extra free time he will have to do more pleasure reading, since it will allow him to play a bigger role in conversations about journalism and provide more ideas on issues that could be of interest to CJR.

With its new editor-in-chief in place, CJR must contend with the principal issue that confronts all nonprofit entities—and that all magazines are facing during this recessionary period—having enough money to keep running. Acting publisher Dennis Giza is “cautiously optimistic about CJR’s financial status in the years ahead.” The magazine is financed mostly through endowments, philanthropic support and circulation-and-advertising revenue. Giza says that although it has been “a challenge each year to ensure that we earn or raise enough revenues to reach break-even,” the publication has been able to accomplish this for the past several years and should be able to do so in the future.

“Recent efforts,” he says, “include foreign-language editions, increasing advertising both in print and online, seeking sponsorships for CJR panels and events, and always looking for strategic partners who could both enhance our mission and provide help to our bottom line.” CJR has also signed a deal with Columbia University Press to publish a line of books. About the first of these, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that The Best Business Writing 2012 was “a riveting cross-section of hard-hitting investigative journalism.” These plans, along with new editorial leadership, aim to make CJR the most self-sufficient it has ever been.

As Hoyt passes the torch to Stivers, he is confident that the publication will be in good hands. “I have a lot of faith that CJR is going to go on for a long time,” he says. “The reason, I think, is because democratic conversation is so important, and the way that it gets lifted and made a better conversation is through good journalism. I think there’ll be enough readers that recognize our important mission and support it.”

Leave a Reply