20 Longtime Smithsonian magazine editor Carey Winfrey’s history! PODCAST INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: Carey Winfrey, editor, Smithsonian

Carey Winfrey, editor, Smithsonian magazine
Carey Winfrey, editor, Smithsonian magazine

Blender. Newsweek. TV Guide. Forbes. Playboy. Mac World. Entertainment Weekly. Wizard. Business 2.0. Esquire.

These are the magazines I read as soon as they arrive in the mail each week or each month. They are frothy, entertaining reads, and I look forward to each new issue.

And then there’s Smithsonian magazine. I can’t remember when or why we started subscribing to Smithsonian. It costs more than most of the others, and it demands more of my time and attention than they do. But for several years now, whenever I give it my time, it pays me back several times over in richly detailed stories about worlds and topics I never dreamed I’d be interested in, let alone become fascinated with.

My wife and daughter have followed me into the pages of Smithsonian, and we probably talk about stories we’ve read there more often than anything else in the house. That’s why I jumped at the chance to interview Carey Winfrey, editor of Smithsonian magazine.

A lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps in the 1960s, Winfrey has since collected a series of damned impressive journalism credentials, including writing for Time magazine, winning an Emmy Award at PBS in 1974, reporting for The New York Times, and landing a job as editor-in-chief of Cuisine. He founded Memories magazine and spent six years as editor-in-chief of American Health. Before landing at Smithsonian in 2001, he spent several years as an assistant managing editor at People magazine.

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Mr. MEDIA/BOB ANDELMAN: Carey, welcome to Mr. Media.

CAREY WINFREY: Thank you, Bob, and why don’t we quit right now? I don’t think I can improve on your introduction.

ANDELMAN: Well, do you want to ’fess up here that you’re résumé is padded, and most of the stuff I mentioned is made up?

WINFREY: Inflated. I wouldn’t….

ANDELMAN: Inflated, inflated. All right.

WINFREY: No, it’s all too true, alas.

ANDELMAN: And, I have to point out, I left a lot of stuff out, because there is only so much time.

WINFREY: Just as well.

ANDELMAN: Carey, first question: the game is softball. On the field are teams composed of editorial staffers from Smithsonian magazine and National Geographic magazine. Who wins, what’s the final score?

WINFREY: National Geographic wins 47-6, because they rotate a different team in every inning, and so they’re fresh in every inning. They have about ten times as many people putting out that magazine as we do.

ANDELMAN: For people who have maybe only read a little of each or haven’t seen either one in a while, what’s the difference between the two?

CAREY WINFREY podcast excerpt: “The editor’s job is to say no, and we get something like 4,000 queries a year, so there are so many stories that don’t work. It’s almost hard to know where to start, but of course, we don’t do celebrities. Our readers have told us again and again that they don’t come to us for sports, although sometimes we’ll do an historical sports figure. We did a piece on probably the best-known baseball player to have died in WWI. We don’t do partisan politics, we don’t do current events, and we don’t do stories that don’t feel to us like Smithsonian stories. At some point, an editor’s taste figures in, and he or she may not be able to tell you what appeals to him or her about a particular story, and that’s part of the fun of being an editor is sometimes you can indulge your intuition without even quite being able to articulate it.” 

You can LISTEN to this interview with CAREY WINFREY, editor of SMITHSONIAN, by clicking the audio player above!

WINFREY: I would leave that to the individual reader, but I must say that I like the person who said that we’re the thinking man’s or thinking woman’s or thinking person’s National Geographic.

One big difference, I think, is that we do more with the arts and history than they do. They have better paper and fabulous photography that comes from letting their photographers go out in the field for many, many weeks longer than our photographers go out into the field. I think our text pieces tend to be a little more tightly edited, maybe a little more information-bent. But they’re a great magazine. They just won a National Magazine Award, very deservedly so. It’s a tremendous product. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they do it very, very well indeed. We enjoy competing with them with a much smaller group. We have to be quicker on our feet, quicker off the dime, a little bit more willing to jump on things. Because we are not as big as they are, we can turn stories around a lot quicker. We’re a little funkier, I think, a little less…

Hail to the Chief, John Leslie, Carey Winfrey, Mr. Media Interviews
Hail to the Chief by John Leslie and Carey Winfrey. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above!


WINFREY: I’m sorry?

ANDELMAN: A little less stiff?

WINFREY: Yeah, maybe. A little more agile, perhaps.

ANDELMAN: What’s the relationship between Smithsonian magazine and the Smithsonian Institution?

WINFREY: Well, we — as staffers — are Trust employees. We are not federal employees. We work for the Smithsonian Institution. They sign our paychecks, and we have about five or six pages in the magazine devoted to Institutional goings-on. We try to make them as interesting and journalistically sound as the rest of the stuff in the magazine, but there is kind of an Institution magazine within the magazine. Beyond that, we are interested in the same things that the Institution is interested in. We are of the Institution but not about the Institution, with the exception of those five or six pages, so we reflect the Institution’s interest in history, science, natural history, the arts.

ANDELMAN: So stories in Smithsonian magazine do not necessarily originate with things happening at the Institution?

WINFREY: Absolutely not, except for this one section which we call “Around the Mall.” All the rest of the magazine, the other 70 pages or so, are what our editors find of interest in those general subject areas. We try to be kind of an extension of the Institution. You know, when the magazine was founded 36 years ago, the then-secretary, C. Dillon Ripley, said the magazine should be about those things that the Institution is interested in, and founding editor Ed Thompson said, or “ought to be interested in,” and in that “or ought to be interested in” we have quite a large area to roam.

ANDELMAN: When story ideas come to you, what qualifies as something suitable for Smithsonian magazine?

WINFREY: Well, again, within those broad categories, but what qualifies is those stories that we think our readers would be interested in, those stories that engage us, those stories that sound like they’d be worth pursuing. For a long time, the magazine really prided itself on doing stories that you wouldn’t see anywhere else, and I think that’s a noble aspiration and a worthy aspiration. But I think we can do stories more thoughtfully and in greater depth and with our own reporting so that we can do stories that other people might be doing also, we just try to do them differently, more thoroughly, if you will. So it’s a matter of balancing stories that are both timeless with those that are a little bit more timely.

ANDELMAN: In preparing to talk to you, I was looking back over some issues, and I’m always struck by the coverage of things beyond the United States, but I noticed that two of the more recent stories that I really liked were the story on Mt. Rushmore, where you guys went behind the scenes, basically, if we can describe it that way at Mt. Rushmore, and then the story of the pardon, Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. They just captured the history of these things just a little bit differently.

WINFREY: Well, thank you. Yes. We were very pleased with the way both of those stories turned out. The Mt. Rushmore was written by one of our favorite cultural travel writers, Tony Perrottet, who has great sources in the West in the National Parks Department and has a great love of the outdoors, has done very interesting things for us on Yellowstone as well as Mt. Rushmore. He really gets behind the scenes, as you pointed out. And the pardon story was actually a book excerpt that we bought. For two years, we had a two-year option, and we bought it right after President Ford went into the hospital the first time, and while we were not at all, of course, rooting for his demise, we were prepared for it, and I think we had that story all edited, ready to go, and we dropped it into an issue about three or four days before the issue was due at the printer’s, so it allowed us to be a lot more timely than with our long lead time we are usually able to be.

ANDELMAN: Right. I mean, you are not going to turn to Smithsonian the way you would U. S. News and World Report for something that happened a week ago. That’s not really its style or its function.

WINFREY: No, but this book on the Ford Presidency and on Ford’s life was kind of a perfect Smithsonian story in that it allowed us to look at an historical event through the perspective and with the hindsight of 30 years and to try to understand it in a way that was not possible at the time. So that made it a perfectly valid story, and his death provided an excellent peg.

ANDELMAN: While I’m pointing out things that I really like about the magazine, the other thing that I always read and always study is the “Indelible Images” section. The latest one was this William Eggleston photo of the two women on the couch, and there was a great story behind it. And the other one I pulled out that I liked, I guess, was from May. This was after the church bombing, and there is a picture of an African-American family in the 1960s waiting to see if a daughter had survived this bombing. I mean, it’s just a tremendous approach to take these classic photos and then add a story to them, plus you have the ability to publish the photos so large that the detail is really visible.

WINFREY: Yes. It is a reader favorite, that department, and it is certainly a favorite of mine. I actually started doing that at Memories, and it was one of the very few things that when I came to Smithsonian I brought with me, if you will, because I liked it so much. First of all, I am very interested in photography in an amateur sort of way, but these classic, iconic, as you say, photographs very often have great stories behind them or have great stories since they were taken. It’s fun, sometimes, to tell what happened to the people in the photograph after the photograph was taken, whether it was a day later, a month, or 10, 20 years later. So updating them is a lot of fun, too. Glad you like that department. It’s certainly one of my favorites, if not my favorite.

Air & Space, Smithsonian magazine
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ANDELMAN: What kinds of story ideas do not make it into the Smithsonian? I mean, what kinds of ideas when you hear do you reject out of hand? What is not a good fit?

WINFREY: Well, you know, the editor’s job is to say no, and we get something like 4,000 queries a year, so there are so many stories that don’t work. It’s almost hard to know where to start, but of course, we don’t do celebrities. Our readers have told us again and again that they don’t come to us for sports, although sometimes we’ll do an historical sports figure. We did a piece on probably the best-known baseball player to have died in WWI. We don’t do partisan politics, we don’t do current events, and we don’t do stories that don’t feel to us like Smithsonian stories. At some point, an editor’s taste figures in, and he or she may not be able to tell you what appeals to him or her about a particular story, and that’s part of the fun of being an editor is sometimes you can indulge your intuition without even quite being able to articulate it.

ANDELMAN: What kind of balance are you looking to strike in the editorial mix? I mean, not every story that you run is pregnant with that history and heaviness.

WINFREY: That’s right. Balance and mix are really what I am thinking about most of my waking hours. First of all, we are a dual audience, male and female. We have to balance stories that are of interest primarily to men, which tend to be history and science, and stories that are primarily of interest to women, which tend to be the arts. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but the arts and natural history. We have to balance young versus old, because we have young readers as well as older readers. We have to balance, as you say, the heavy and the light, the long and the short, and I think the mix is probably the most important ingredient, and I’m juggling stories all the time. I’m working now on the July issue, and I haven’t decided everything that’s in it yet. We’ll continue probably to juggle that mix right up until the end of this month. This is May, we close July at the end of May, so juggling the mix is what I do most of the time.

You also mentioned domestic versus foreign stories. That’s an important part of the juggling, also. We have a big board here, and as the stories get laid out, we put them up on the board. Sometimes, when you put them up, you find that, oh, you’ve got too much this, too much that. I remember the classic example of two or three years ago. We put all the stories up on the board, and we discovered that three of them had a strong New Zealand component. Unfortunately, it was too late to do anything about it, so I wrote an editor’s letter sort of making fun of us for all of our New Zealand stories in the same issue.

ANDELMAN: Did every issue come with a kiwi?

WINFREY:Yeah, it should have. That’s an important part of it, trying to get the mix right

ANDELMAN: Speaking of that, you bring a very strong international journalism background to the job. How have your own experiences, whether as a Marine, or covering the mass suicides at Jonestown, Jim Jones, and you also did the ouster of Uganda dictator, Idi Amin. Do those affect Smithsonian stories because you’ve had that overseas experience?

WINFREY: Well, I think that any good magazine is ultimately a reflection of its editor’s interests as they are shaped and pushed and pulled by the staff’s interest, by the editor’s understanding of what the readers are interested in, so of course, when Dick Stolley edited Life magazine, he was accused of running stories about twins, of which he was one, and rabies — he had been bitten by a dog as a young man — in every issue. It wasn’t true by a long shot, but there were a lot of twins and a lot rabies stories in his issues.

I think one of the things that I have done with the magazine, is that I’ve emphasized photography. Not only do we try to have great photography, but we do a lot of stories about photographers, not only in “Indelible Images,” but we’ve done features on Alfred Stieglitz and people like that.

So as far as the foreign goes, you mentioned some of the high points or low points of my checkered career. I’m one of those people who knows very little about a lot of things. My interest and knowledge are very, very thin, but because of a vocational as well as an otherwise short attention span, I’ve been subjected to a lot of different places and people and ideas, none of which I ever got very deeply into, but I do know a very little bit about a lot of things, so I think the magazine reflects that. That’s why it’s such a perfect magazine for me, I think, because I am just a little bit interested in a wide variety of things and an expert about almost none of them.

ANDELMAN: It’s a pleasure to meet another member of the mile-wide, inch-deep club.

WINFREY: Exactly.

ANDELMAN: I think that serves journalists well, though, if you’re able to talk about a variety of things. I mean, that’s kind of what we do is we go out and we learn about different things on every assignment, so it seems to serve us well.

WINFREY: Exactly. What journalism does is allow those of us who not only are a mile wide and an inch deep in their interests but who love to learn new things the opportunity to do that. David Halberstam, who, as you know, died recently and was a mentor to a lot of us and a very generous journalist, always talked about what a privilege it was to spend a lifetime learning new things, and I think a lot of us share that view.

ANDELMAN: Before joining Smithsonian, you were an editor at People magazine. If you would, could you compare and contrast the cultures and the coverage of the two?

WINFREY: I’ve talked a little bit about People, which is a place that rescued me from academia. After editing American Health for about six years, I was offered the magazine director’s job at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, from which I had graduated 30 years earlier. I went up there for a year and discovered that I really was not constitutionally suited for teaching, that it required a kind of extroverted performance personality that I didn’t really have. I found that people who had less, I thought, journalism jobs and had done much less interesting journalism in their careers were much better teachers of it than I was. So after a couple of semesters, the editor of People came to me and asked if I would come up and be one of her deputies. I had worked at People one summer just as a fill-in after I left American Health and before I started at Columbia, and so I went up there. I went back to hands-on magazine work, and the amazing thing about People at that time, and I suspect still to this day, is the quality of the people doing it. The journalism was absolutely first rate. The ability of the magazine to respond very, very quickly. We would sometimes close a cover story in a matter of hours. Phil Hartman was killed by his wife in a murder-suicide, as I recall, on a Tuesday, and Margaux Hemingway was another, as it happened, suicide on a Tuesday, and by Tuesday night, we had 2,500 very well-reported, very well-documented words on those both tragic events.

So the quality of the people at People was a huge benefit, and the way the magazine could spring into action in a very short amount of time was very professional. We used to joke among ourselves that we were kind of like the Manhattan Project brought to bear on a comic book, and there was a lot of truth in that. The people there were very, very talented. The subject matter — after a while — I thought if I edited one more story about Julia Roberts I was going to have to jump out the window myself.

ANDELMAN: That’s a great place to end that line. How do you think Smithsonian magazine will look back upon and write about the Iraq war in 10 years?

WINFREY: Well, you know, we have written about the Iraq war on many occasions. (Train horn blows in background.) That’s my toy train I have in my office…. No. I am right next to the railroad tracks here in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D. C.

We have written about the Iraq war quite a lot, and many of the things that we have written have held up quite well. We started about three or four years ago before we ever went into Iraq, before we invaded Iraq, with a piece about the British failed experiment in nation-building in Iraq, which had more people in this town read it might have saved a few lives.

And then Andrew Cockburn wrote a terrific piece about the Shiites very early after the invasion in which he talked a lot about Sistani and about Muqtada al-Sadr, what key players they were. Many of the elements and the divisions and the problems that have come to pass were laid out in that piece that we did three or four years ago. And then we did a piece on the Kurds and their role as kind of power brokers. I don’t think you have to wait too many years. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done on Iraq, about five pieces in all, and Andrew Coburn is off to Egypt for us very soon to do a piece on Sunnis. I think our work on Iraq would stand up as being a telling set of brakes on some of our policy initiatives.

ANDELMAN: Do you have to work to keep politics out of the magazine? I know there is a separation there, but as you mentioned before, the paychecks come from the Smithsonian. There’s a perception, I don’t know how real, but the perception is that the Smithsonian is tied to the federal government. Is there a problem of politics ever touching the magazine?

WINFREY: There is a problem of partisan politics. We have to be very careful not to be seen to be taking partisan positions, by which I mean Democrat versus Republican. We can talk about politics, although we don’t talk about contemporary politics. I mean, we would not do a piece, a profile, for example, on Barack Obama or Sam Brownback. Because you’re right. The Smithsonian Institution gets most of its budget from the U.S. Congress. In fact, we supplement that budget. We make money for the Smithsonian Institution. We get no federal money whatsoever for the running of the magazine. We contribute money to the Institution. Just the opposite. So we are independent, but there is that perception, and there are enough people out there doing partisan politics that we don’t have to. I don’t really think, like sports, that that’s what our readers come to us for.

ANDELMAN: How long do you think the magazine will have to wait before it looks back — it’s hard to say, we’re a year before it ends — but before it looks back at the Bush administration the way it has Nixon or Ford or Clinton, the first Bush? What’s a reasonable amount of time?

WINFREY: Well, probably a generation. I mean, I think it’ll take a generation for history to render a fully developed verdict on the Bush administration.

ANDELMAN: A final question, Carey, and thank you for your patience today. Do you think that the print edition of Smithsonian magazine has a limited future, and are you making plans for an eventual transition away from print?

WINFREY: Well, let me just speak very briefly about magazines in general. I think that magazines will survive as print entities, and I think that there will be a kind of Darwinian fallout. I think the fittest will survive. I think other magazines will migrate to the Web, and we’re certainly investing in and looking at the Web. But I do think that the tactile pleasure of carrying a magazine and reading a magazine and turning the pages will continue for as far as the eye can see. Will there be as many print magazines? Probably not. Will magazines stay the way they are? Probably not, in the same way that television vastly changed radio and any new medium changes the one from which it grew. But I think magazines will be alive, and I think that Smithsonian stands a better chance than most of being one of those survivors, because it does provide real rich, thoughtful material to those of us who believe that a day in which you don’t learn something new is a wasted day. So I have high hopes for our magazine, even as I recognize the many challenges to print and even as I welcome the efforts that we are putting into our Web counterpart. That’s Smithsonian.com, by the way.

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