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The Media on Speed

The editor of the Nation talks about trying to navigate the 36/7 world of news.

| Thu Apr. 20, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

You enter the nondescript grey building off a small street just east of Union Square, ride an oh-so-slow elevator up to the 8th floor, and pass into the offices of the Nation magazine, which just turned 141 years old. It is housed in a vast space. Imagine something between an enormous loft and an old press room with a warren of open, half-walled cubicles clustered at its heart and filled with toiling interns, fact-checkers, and assisters of various sorts. Around the rim of the room, the editors have their offices.

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Behind a modest expanse of glass, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine, is at her desk, her phone headset on, deep in conversation. In our speeded-up media world in which reporters are constantly sent onto TV as pundits just to get a little attention for increasingly desperate newspapers, vanden Heuvel -- remarkably composed in any talk-show setting -- has become the branded face of her magazine.

On her desk is a half-full in-box, but only, as it happens, because the rest of the desk is bursting with papers, stacks of them, one of which half-obscures her as she talks. Turning, she spots me at the door. Clad in a black jacket and dark slacks, she rises with a welcoming smile. She's smaller than you might imagine from the television screen and, refreshingly, lacks any evident sense of self-importance.

Her office is neat as a pin, clean as a whistle -- unless you check out the surfaces which are chaos itself: the desk, a riot of paper; the bookshelves, stuffed not only with books but with nesting dolls of every sort, including a Mikhail Gorbachev one, a box of "revolutionary finger puppets," and lots of framed photos. Every inch of the small coffee table near which she seats us is stacked with books, except where a Santa nesting doll ("I did an interview with a Russian journalist and he gave me this") resides near a Talking Clinton doll (with two buttons on its base, one labeled "funny," the other "inspiration").

I settle onto the sofa, place my two little tape recorders precariously atop one of the piles of books, and we begin. Her voice is soft and low, but the minute she starts speaking her face lights with animation and energy fills her small frame.

Tomdispatch: Tell me something about your daily life at the magazine. I'm sure you're understaffed, under-everythinged. But what's it like to spend a day as the Nation's editor and publisher, beginning to end?

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I begin the day by reading from three to five papers. By then I'm already so agitated… [She laughs.] Anyway, I start with the Washington Post, then I do the New York Times, then parts of the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian. Then I look at the Web. I'll read Tompaine, Commondreams, Romenesko, Tomdispatch, Juan Cole, Alternet, the Huffington Post, James Wolcott's blog, Jay Rosen's PressThink, sometimes Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo or the Daily Kos. Just kind of absorbing as much as I can. Then the trick is to be an editor who's outraged by what's going on, but remains humane and sane as a watchdog.

So you begin the week by thinking about what the lead editorial will be. That's short term. On Monday, you read the galleys of the articles section for the upcoming issue. You're on the phone talking to writers who are part of our community about what's on their mind and, of course, trying to find new writers. Then there's the rest of Nation life. Talking to our Web editor about what's going to lead the site, using our little radio studio to do a weekly one-minute Nation commentary for Air America, hammering out the details of the magazine's first-ever student journalism conference.

Then I'll write a blog entry, or a short riff for our new magazine blog, the Notion, or something for the Guardian's new blog, Comment Is Free, or maybe I'll talk to an editor here about a special issue like the one we're doing on media this summer. I'll speak with people who want me to talk at media or political events. I just got a call from [Sen.] Dick Durbin's office, asking if I'd be on a conference call tomorrow about the new Democratic security strategy.

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