The Life and Times of AJR
ajr-cover-cropped
Credit: AJR
October 12, 2013


By Lori Robertson 

From American Journalism Review, November 2002

Back in the 1970s, a lowly grad student named Roger Kranz had a crazy idea and a VW bug. The rest is history.

AJR Cover Sept. 2010

Cover of AJR, September 2010

It’s been 25 years.Three different owners. Employees who have come and gone. Yet the long-running story of American Journalism Review (formerly Washington Journalism Review) is in many ways a stock story of life in the business: an eclectic bunch of characters, passionate about what they do, toiling away in crowded, messy, sometimes ramshackle offices to put out a publication they all believe in. All that and, at least in the earlier days, for low pay.

In the script of this saga, there are acts involving editorial arguments; plant-throwing; journalistic heroism; infestations of crickets and termites; floods; a pack of wild dogs (if you can believe it); and of course, celebratory beers after work.

Even though the magazine now has grants from big foundations instead of having to use the publisher’s car as collateral for a printing bill, money has always been an issue. AJR President Thomas Kunkel says that it is indeed true that if you want to make money with a magazine, don’t run a journalism review. “It’s a constant challenge,” says Kunkel, also dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which owns AJR. But the magazine is in better financial shape than in its earlier incarnations, and Kunkel doesn’t have to worry about losing the keys to his 2001 Toyota Camry–not right now, anyway.

Throughout the years, the staff’s dedication to the cause has remained steadfast. Work here is a mission–as well as a lot of fun. It has been, as cofounder Roger Kranz says of the early days, “like renting a barn and putting on a show every few months.”

Not to mention a sitcom.

Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Rieder likens the current staff to a small band of guerrillas publishing a magazine. (Minus the artillery.) Despite many changes at the magazine over the years, that has been a constant: a group of warriors, against all odds, putting out a journalism review.

And it all started with the sale of a yellow VW bug.

 

The premise : Young guy starts magazine. Merry mayhem ensues.

The plot : Roger Kranz was 23 years old in 1973, working on his master’s in communication at American University in Washington, D.C. It was the era of the Watergate hearings, and there was a lot of interest in the press, especially in the nation’s capital. Kranz started thinking about launching a journalism review.

 

Act One:  Two other major reviews existed at the time: Columbia Journalism Review and MORE. But Kranz says he “felt strongly that Washington, D.C., had more journalists and more newsmakers than New York and deserved its own publication.”

After graduation, he shelved the idea and went to work for Newsworks, a weekly D.C. newspaper. It folded in 1976. Kranz–along with friend and Newsworks colleague Valerie McGhee–decided to give the magazine a go.

That’s when Kranz sold his yellow Volkswagen for the cash, got a loan from philanthropist Stewart Mott to do some direct mail and wrote letters to people seeking contributions. He also recruited Peter McGrath to be a guest editor. McGrath, now a visiting professor at George Washington University, was doing some work for The Economist but essentially was between jobs.

Kranz and McGhee, McGrath says, “were having understandable problems raising money,” and they needed to create a prototype to show investors. McGrath did it in a short six weeks. He got paid, he says, but not much.

The first issue of Washington Journalism Review–that prototype–came out in October 1977. Cover stories: a feature by Edwin Diamond on Roone Arledge, who had recently been named president of ABC News, and one on the exploitation–monetarily, that is–of freelancers.

“Had they been able to raise money right away,” McGrath says of his short stint, “I probably would have continued the relationship…. But a guy has to eat.”

Somehow, remarkably, Kranz and McGhee managed to eat. Working out of a small second-floor office above an Irish clothing store in Georgetown, the two served as copublisher, art director, production manager and managing editor (Kranz), and copublisher and copy editor (McGhee).

“After the first issue, [advertising from] the second issue helped pay for the first issue and the third issue helped pay for the second issue,” Kranz says.

WJR published three issues in 1978 and five in 1979. By issue three, Kranz had recruited Ray White, media commentator for local Channel 9 and WTOP radio, to be editor and David Kidd to be assistant art director and part-time gopher. A few people who called up, expressed interest and believed in the idea were told to come on over. That’s how Kidd got involved. Florence Graves had left her job as managing editor at Tucson Magazine, moved to Washington and read about Kranz’s ambitions. She ended up working at WJR as an editor and once found herself taking White’s place when he was on a leave of absence.

“We weren’t paid for a long time,” says Graves, who went on to become founding editor of Common Cause magazine and who broke the story of U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood’s transgressions for the Washington Post. “But hey…the opportunity to be involved with something…a watchdog, someone watchdogging the press, especially the Washington press, I thought it was a fabulous idea, and I was excited to be a part of it.”

That office above The Threepenny Bit was “decrepit,” Kidd says. “We had mice and just kitchen tables, and it was kind of really haphazard, a rotten couch.”

Kranz, according to those who worked with him, was a force of nature–just what a cash-strapped startup needed. “He was a very interesting person, and I have to give him credit for making it all happen,” Kidd says. “You have to be very strong-willed, fairly big ego, don’t take no for an answer…. He’d come in to the printer, and he’d sit down and ask someone for a cigarette. And he’d start giving orders to people who weren’t his employees.” Surprisingly, they’d follow them.

“He’s a doer,” says White, a semiretired journalist and instructor. “He’s an idea guy, but he’s also a doer.”

“Flamboyant” is the word used by Chris Omohundro, account executive at United Litho, which has printed AJR for 24 of its 25 years. Omohundro was there the day Kranz walked in and said he didn’t have any money but needed to get the magazine printed. He threw down the keys to his ’66 Mustang (his mother had given it to him after he sold the VW) and said, “Here’s my security.”

United took the collateral, printed the magazine and gave the keys back to him. “I thought that was hilarious,” Omohundro says. And–“oh yeah, we got paid at some point.”

While the limited staff had a great time working for WJR, the magazine was in constant need of money. “I was living off of credit cards,” Kranz says, “and I believe I was a waiter and bartender during most of that period in Georgetown to pay my rent.”

In 1979, Henry Catto, who had been an ambassador under Presidents Nixon and Ford, approached Kranz with an offer to buy WJR. Getting out from under the monetary strain sounded like a good idea. Kranz sold that year to Catto, who would become chief Defense Department spokesman in President Reagan’s administration, and his wife, Jessica, who was part of the Hobby newspaper and broadcasting family, owners of the now-defunct Houston Post. The “sale” consisted of the Cattos assuming $50,000 in debt.

“It was more a financial relief,” Kranz says of his decision. He paid off some bills and bought a used car from Avis. “I was obviously very proud that it was going to continue.”

 

Act Two:  Magazine grows under Cattos. Finances, again, dictate a change. More merry mayhem.

Jessica Catto had grown up in journalism. The idea of running WJR appealed to her, but most of those she talked to about it thought she was out of her mind.

“I talked to Katharine Graham,” Catto says, “and I said, ‘You know, I don’t really know anything about magazines, and this is probably crazy.’… And she said, ‘Yes, it probably is, but if it’s something you want to do, learn about magazines.’ ”

Catto says the early issues were indeed learning experiences. “We did have, however, a serious commitment to creating a new magazine of substance,” she says. “Part of that concept was to assign talented writers to tackle the ethics, methods and business of journalism, a critical industry, in one [way] or another, to us all.” WJR gained new columnists, including newspaper finance guru John Morton on the business of journalism. (In a great sign of how some things never change, Morton is still writing his column for AJR on his 1934 Royal typewriter, born the same year he was.)

Catto, the publisher, created new sections, such as Movers & Shakers (now Bylines) on the comings and goings of people in the industry, and she began publishing 10 times a year. Henry Catto served as chairman of the board.

Kranz stayed on for a few issues. David Kidd became art director, and in 1982 Katherine Winton Evans replaced White as editor. The magazine also moved to better digs on Wisconsin Avenue in the Glover Park section of D.C., just north of Georgetown.

The space was much bigger, but still low-rent and barebones. The mood didn’t change. “I had a transmission in my office, that’s how big my office was,” Kidd says. He also kept parts of the 1961 Thunderbird he was restoring there. A bumper was in the common sitting area for years and no one ever complained about it. Out back was a view of the vice president’s residence, where the staff would see Barbara Bush walking Millie.

“It was sort of merry mayhem,” Catto says, “but very creative and hardworking and really very few people doing the work of many.” At the height, she says, the staff was 12 people. (That may have been the height. Now, it’s eight, full time, as well as a wonderful corps of freelance contributors.)

Catto, Kidd and Kay Evans were close-knit coworkers and remain friends. “That was the best job anybody ever had and some of the best times of our lives,” says Kidd, who stayed at the magazine until 1989.

WJR became a much more sophisticated product. What it did not become is a money-making venture. The Cattos started thinking about finding the magazine a home at a university. “The resources of a university were going to be larger, and the reach was going to be longer,” Jessica Catto says. That seemed to be “the best possible resolution for the magazine, which I dearly loved.”

Eleanor Merrill, then a member of the University of Maryland College of Journalism’s Board of Visitors (she now chairs it), knew of the Cattos’ intentions through her husband, Philip, owner of the Annapolis Capital and Washingtonian magazine. She called Reese Cleghorn, then the college’s dean, and said, “I have a crazy idea. Why don’t you get the Cattos to give you Washington Journalism Review?”

In May 1987, they did.

 

Act Three:  Crazy idea works. Interesting period in “the house.” New cast of characters, similar hijinks. (Wild dogs episode here.)

Now, just as Roger Kranz’s and Jessica Catto’s actions were crazy ideas that actually worked, Cleghorn’s decision was a bit of a leap. He made it cautiously.

Cleghorn spent several months undertaking a financial analysis, seeking help from magazine consultant Rick LePere and raising money. Cleghorn says he wanted to be sure the new owners “wouldn’t fall on our faces.”

The college raised $3.3 million, a portion of it from about a dozen news organizations that Cleghorn approached with the pitch that giving support was “statesmanlike.” The university made a substantial donation (not taxpayer money), and the Cattos also gave an undisclosed sum when they handed over the magazine. An endowment of $2.5 million was established, and the magazine became a nonprofit.

“I think the importance of the magazine was just evident to many people,” Cleghorn says of his desire to make it part of the University of Maryland. And the fact that it might not be around was “appalling.” Without the endowment, he says, the magazine wouldn’t have survived. With it, it has been a struggle at times. “You don’t expect a symphony orchestra to pay for itself,” Cleghorn says.

There is indication within the profession that the magazine is valued. Charles Overby, chairman of the Freedom Forum, says there’s little journalism criticism in print, “so having a credible journal of criticism that’s fair and balanced and practices the same values that it holds the daily media accountable to is important, and I think AJR does that.” Overby says he read AJR when he was an editor in Jackson, Mississippi, when he moved to a corporate position with Gannett and when he joined the Freedom Forum. “It has satisfied me from each perspective,” he says. “First, as an editor, I think editors are really looking for anchors, and it’s hard to find anchors. And I think AJR is an anchor when it comes to values in the profession and issues that editors really care about.” (The Freedom Forum thought enough of AJR to pay to insert its own magazine in the journalism review in the 1990s.)

James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute and a longtime newspaper editor, shares the feeling that the media need to be covered. “I rely on AJR for careful examination of issues facing journalism and for insight into who’s doing what to whom in the profession…. I think there isn’t enough knowledge about what goes on in our craft that we all care so passionately about and that even with AJR and CJR and Web sites like Poynter’s, there’s a thirst for as much knowledge as we can acquire.”

After Cleghorn became the magazine’s president, its leadership changed. Former NBC Washington Bureau Chief and “Meet the Press” moderator Bill Monroe was named editor, and Jim Broadwater, a former publishing executive at Texas Monthly and Saturday Review, became publisher.

Monroe, a subscriber to WJR, took the job, but not without skepticism. “I thought it was an interesting magazine when it first came on the scene,” he says. “I wasn’t sure whether it would survive or not.”

Thankfully, it did. Good thing he wasn’t a betting man.

Monroe, says former Associate Editor Mary Collins, had a knack for unorthodox hires (herself, with a master’s in Shakespearean studies, included). The result was more mayhem. “We were all very volatile; we had flashing tempers,” Collins says. “People were very passionate about the magazine and their work…and about proving themselves.” (This is where the plant-throwing came in.)

And the staff made another move: to nondescript office space just off congested Route 1 in College Park, Maryland.

In 1991, Monroe retired, and Rem Rieder, then executive editor at States News Service, took the editorship. Six months later, when Broadwater left the magazine, Rieder, who had held senior editing positions at the Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal and Washington Post, took on the title of senior vice president and responsibility for the business side. Rieder says that Cleghorn talked to 25 people at five news organizations about him and “hired me anyway.”

Rieder, while certainly not “flamboyant,” is a force of nature in his own right. “One thing that’s really great about Rem is that he’s so enthusiastic,” says former Associate Editor Suzan Revah. “It’s not a job for him, it’s life.”

The nearly 11 years that Rieder has been here have perhaps been the time of the most change. In March 1993, WJR became AJR, a switch that those at the magazine felt was appropriate and overdue, given its national coverage and circulation. Kranz, who now lives in Irvine, California, and is getting his credentials to teach middle school, thought the name change was a bad idea and told AJR so in a letter to the editor (it was his baby, after all).

The technology at the magazine has changed as it has for all of journalism. When Art Director Lissa Reynolds joined the magazine as advertising coordinator in February 1992, two months after Rieder, the staff was still pasting up each issue on boards. “I laugh when I think about it now,” she says.

It has also grown in heft–both in page count (from about 52 or 56 an issue in the mid-’90s to 72 and more now) and meatier stories–and gone all color.

The rather serious magazine also worked on its lighter side. Chip Rowe, associate editor in the early ’90s, launched Cliché Corner and added humorous quotes to the Free Press section. Rowe, who left AJR for an editing job at Playboy–of all places–says Rieder allowed him to have fun, once giving him three full pages for “Chelsea Goes to the Nurse.” A number of news outlets reported a rumor that Chelsea Clinton had told the school nurse, “Call my dad, my mom’s busy.” Rowe tracked down what really happened and traced the story’s evolution through the media. The effect: comical. The message: Don’t believe everything you read.

Rowe also notes the importance of fact-checking. Rieder “did get really irritated or angry when I misspelled Sulzberger,” he says. “He’s probably still talking about it.”

Uh, yes, he is. In Rieder’s first issue, Rowe wrote about “Arthur Sulzburger Jr.” taking over as publisher of the New York Times.

In 1998, AJR launched the Project on the State of the American Newspaper, an ambitious series of 18 pieces of 15,000 words each that scrutinized the industry much as newspapers examine other institutions. The nearly $2 million project was underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We used the words ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘unprecedented,’ and it really was both of those things,” says Kunkel, a former newspaper editor who back then was editor of the project. It contributed to the feeling that “the industry is at a turning point, and we’re not sure it’s turning in the right direction.”

In 1993, AJR’s offices moved into a slightly rundown 1950s rambler just outside College Park. When Rieder first met Cleghorn and Frank Quine, AJR vice president and J-school assistant dean, at “the house,” as it came to be called, there were seven post-doctoral students living in it, seven mattresses on the floor and trash from McDonald’s lying around. One guy was drinking beer. “It was like a refugee camp,” Quine says, (apparently one with beer), “but we envisioned how this would work.”

Rieder’s first thought was that Cleghorn and Quine had lost their minds. But then the senior vice presidential side of his brain clicked in: Rent at the university-owned house was a steal. And the irony is that the house–sans mattresses and trash, with new walls to make offices–became quite beloved. But not right away.

“That was probably the only time that I seriously thought about quitting,” Reynolds says. The staff was in a simple suburban office, “and then they were telling us we were going to move into this dilapidated rundown hippie grad student den of iniquity…with a Bob Marley poster still hanging on the wall!” (Art director’s note: not that there’s anything wrong with Bob Marley.)

Working in the tacky house–replete with a long wooden bar in the knotty pine basement, a much-loved deck in the backyard, a green-and-black-tile unisex bathroom and a homeless guy living in the nearby woods–“turned out to be the most wonderful experience,” Reynolds says.

It was like coming home, not to work, and it was also the source of nonstop drama. A turtle in the driveway; termites, a snake and crickets in the basement, not to mention a couple of floods; the annual AJR barbeque featuring microbrews and a live band; and the wild dogs that showed up one day in the field next door over by the National Archives.

Five years later, when the opportunity came for the magazine to be on campus in the journalism building, it was time for another move. No more barbeques. But no more crickets either. “It’s where we ought to be,” says Rieder, close to Kunkel and the journalism faculty and staff, and to the students, who are the pool for the magazine’s invaluable interns.

So the offices aren’t ramshackle–we even jokingly refer to our current era as “going corporate”–but there is still the camaraderie and passion for what AJR does.

The staffers embrace, or try to live up to, the “work hard, play hard” example set by Rieder. “If Rem isn’t the greatest boss, I don’t know who is,” Reynolds says, “not to mention the rest of the staff is like my family.” That brief, volatile plant-throwing phase is long gone.

Even the advertising guy is jazzed about the mission. “It was very different,” says Ernie Durso, vice president/advertising, of why he first got involved in 1991. “I think it had a very special purpose…. It had a reason, and so many magazines don’t, quite frankly…. It’s very special, and I think it’s important.”

And the money subplot? Rieder says thinking about the finances is “a constant part of my job…. It’s clear that a magazine of this type is never going to be self-sustaining.” It will need other revenue sources beyond advertising and circulation. AJR has received funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, as well as the Pew Charitable Trusts.

As for his next–25, perhaps–years, Rieder says the overall charge is the same, “to be the watchdog of the field.” His main goal has been “to make the magazine better each year than it was before,” he says. “And I think we’ve done that.”

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