The Smithsonian has a dreamy new magazine | Bleader

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Smithsonian has a dreamy new magazine

Posted By on 05.05.15 at 12:30 PM

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Last fall Victoria Pope landed her latest dream job. This is good news. Who knew dream jobs in print journalism still existed?

I'm not sure if Pope has ever had a job in the business that wasn’t one. Some 40 years ago she quit a job in fine-arts publishing in Boston to take her first. A couple of writers for Time magazine were starting up an alt weekly called Illinois Times in Springfield, Illinois, and they asked her to sign on. "I loved fine arts publishing," Pope told me during a recent exchange of e-mails, “but I wanted to be a reporter, and that is what I got to do day in and day out in Springfield. I especially enjoyed reporting in the small towns, Pittsfield and Quincy and so on."

One adventure followed another. She worked awhile for the daily in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and then on the UPI foreign desk in New York, and then she freelanced in Vienna and found herself covering the rise of Poland's Solidarity movement in Gdansk. Thanks to an Alicia Patterson fellowship, she was present in central Europe as the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989. Later she was in Moscow a couple of years, and back in the States she became executive editor of U.S. News & World Report and managing editor and then deputy to the editor in chief of National Geographic.

These last jobs were big ones but not as dreamy. They were tarnished by what Pope called the "uncomfortable realities" of contemporary journalism. "I had to tell many journalists they no longer had their jobs," she said. "The only very small upside of that dreadful duty was seeing how noble most people are; how they manage to preserve their dignity even when the walls come crashing down."

As an aside, let me comment here that there's little room for false dignity in print journalism. (The TV anchor desk is different.) The job is undignified: it means asking questions that can sound very stupid, snooping around and getting dirt under your fingernails, sticking it to people who probably deserve it but were nice to you. Any dignity that still sticks to you is baked in, which might be why journalists can hang on to it when they're laid off.

At any rate, Pope might have stayed at National Geographic until she retired. But she didn't.

The "chief content officer" for Smithsonian Enterprises' media group—its magazines, books, cable TV show, and what have you—is Barbara Rehm, former managing editor of National Public Radio News and someone I met in the 70s in Chicago when she was a UPI reporter. A few weeks ago Rehm dropped me a line. Harking back to "that marvelous old UPI crew in the 70s when we were all young and the world just opening to us," she introduced Pope to me as one of the marvels, "an extraordinary editor . . . and a beautiful soul."

And now, Rehm explained, Pope has created something beautiful for the Smithsonian, a new quarterly by the name of Smithsonian Journeys. "I know. I know," Rehm wrote. "It seems crazy to head out into the print market during these times, but as always, I live in hope." I expressed some interest and she put a copy of the first issue in the mail.

What's a dream job if you've already done everything? In Pope's case it was the invitation to invent a new magazine from scratch and then run it. Smithonian Journey magazine's first issue, hot off the press, focuses on Paris, though not the Paris of the first-timer who eats a crepe, sees a museum, and hikes the Pont des Arts to check out the other bank. One long article in Smithsonian Journeys sets out to discover and assess today's African-American artistic community. Another traces today's Paris back to public works projects of the 17th century. Smithsonian Journeys unveils the city's Turkish baths, and it examines the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the one museum an old Paris hand probably has never visited. Much of the photography is archival—and it's terrific.

In a forward, Pope tells her "discerning readers" that the Smithsonian is committed to global cultures "through its scientific research, museums, and travel and cultural programs," and the magazine is a new way to serve the mission. Its sober inquisitiveness reminds me of Pope's old haunt, National Geographic, its visual elegance of DoubleTake, a quarterly originally affiliated with Duke University that was launched in 1995, won prizes galore, and ten years later went under.

As Pope's discerning readers are the sort of travelers who take Smithsonian-organized tours, she picked the brains of tour guides while putting Smithsonian Journeys together. They want to dig deeper into history and culture, the guides told her. That's what she says she'll do. She promised me that the Smithsonian Journeys tour business won't be telling her what to publish, but she's counting on synergies with it, and also with the Smithsonian Channel, which the Smithsonian and Showtime operate together.

"It's from this confluence that I think a strong business model can emerge," she says. "Meanwhile, I am keeping down costs as best I can and hoping for strong newsstand sales."

When Pope speaks of business models I fear she speaks a second language—not a romance language either. By this point she must be an old hand with budgets; on the other hand, she confessed that her career has had its darker days, and she recalled that when she was in Bonn, Germany, writing business stories for the Wall Street Journal, "I was a disaster at earnings reports, and though I tried I never got any good at it."

Never, in any era, did young reporters shrug on trench coats and head overseas to write earnings reports. But wanderlust is sated at a price. "I hope to God careers like yours aren't a thing of the past," I told her. She's not so sure they aren’t. "I feel sad when I talk to young reporters," she replied. "They get little mentorship and few opportunities to go anywhere, even Quincy on the Mississippi."

Quincy being a town she covered, a long time ago, for Illinois Times.

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