This article was originally published in our May 1996 issue to commemorate our 35th anniversary.
In the beginning was Townsend.
He hit Atlanta like a force of nature; ebullient, cherub face, buzz-cut hair, and calling everyone “Dear Heart.” He came out of Lanett, Ala., and like many green, small-town Southerners come to town, his ambition was in inverse proportion to the size of his hometown. All Jim Townsend wanted was to edit a world-class magazine.
In the beginning there was also Opie.
Opie Shelton was the prim, rectitudinous, bow tie-wearing executive vice president of the chamber of commerce, and he had decided the chamber should publish a magazine. The magazine would be called Atlanta, and it would feature articles written mostly by chamber staffers, black-and-white inside with maybe a two-color cover; a nice drumbeating, horn-tooting little handout that would show off the city and promote economic development. And somewhere down the road, if Atlanta grew as much as some people were predicting, there might even be an occasional four-color cover.
Opie hired Townsend, gave him a tiny office and turned him loose.
But Townsend wanted more than a cubbyhole. He wanted a staff of writers and photographers, and he wanted to do the sorts of stories no chamber magazine in the country would consider doing, so he needed money, more money than Opie could imagine. He needed ads.
There was nothing in the budget for an advertising person, and although most editors would faint at the thought of crossing the line that divides the worlds of advertising and editorial, he quickly became a one-man band, temporarily turning his full attention to sales. Townsend drafted a rough sketch of a four-color ad that he figured he could sell to C&S Bank, a business then at the top of the corporate food chain in Atlanta. He took the ad to the ad agency for First National Bank of Atlanta, a close second in the food chain, and said in effect, “See what C&S bought for a year? You’re going to be behind the competition unless you do something in this hot, new magazine. Now, it just happened that I saved a spot for you. You can have a four-color ad inside the back cover.”
Then he went to C&S officials and told them First National was under contract but that he had saved the inside front cover for C&S, and, by the way, here’s an idea for the ad.
That’s how C&S and First National Bank signed contracts for four-color ads.
John Moore Jr., whose employer, Stein Printing Co., produced that first issue, laughed as he sat upstairs in his rambling north Fulton home, thumbing through a dusty first edition. He shook his head and said, “The enormous gall of the bastard.”
Even though there was Townsend’s grand vision and Opie Shelton’s nervous rectitude, in the beginning, fortunately, there was also Moore. There might never have been a first issue had not Stein’s sales director run into Townsend while making a call at the chamber of commerce. It took only moments of conversation for Moore to realize that he was talking to a dreamer who had no idea how to manufacture that dream. He agreed to meet Townsend for lunch at The Riviera motel, then at the intersection of Peachtree Street and I-85.
“He crossed himself and said a blessing,” Moore remembers. “And I said to myself, ‘What kind of editor do we have here?'”
Stein was more anointed than hired by Townsend to be his magazine’s printer. As publication time neared, Moore ran page proofs on five different paper stocks, using various inks. He was searching for a combination that had never been put together. The new magazine had to push technology; it had to be the best of everything.
In May 1961 the first issue of Atlanta hit the streets.
It was a 58-page bombshell.
Looking back at the stories in that first issue and from the vantage point of 35 years, one might have difficulty understanding the impact of the magazine. There was a piece about expressway construction, the growth of the skyline and the importance of the textile industry. Up front was a column called “Behind the News,” soon changed to “Town Talk”— a blatant rip off of The New Yorker‘s “The Talk of the Town.” Opie had a breast-beating column saying the purpose of the magazine was “. . . to be a top salesman for the top city of the top nation in this little old world of ours.”
There wasn’t much substance, but the magazine looked great. The front and back covers were four-color, and inside those covers were four-color ads and a 16-page signature in which four-color was available for editorial. The density and gloss of the color was astonishing. Color that rich could come only from laying down more ink on a page than was believed to be possible. A variety of typefaces fave the book an unusual, even a distinctive feel.
Townsend had borrowed the art director from a graphics company, a dormant genius named Bob Daniels, who created a revolutionary design. Throughout the country, art directors and graphic artists and writers and photographers leafed through pages with the awe of shepherds who had found the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This shimmering, iridescent thing came from a chamber of commerce?
“No other magazine in the country, except for McCall’s, which owned a printing company, was doing all the things we did in that first issue,” Moore said.
With a single issue Townsend had done what most editors take months or even years to do: He had established the magazine’s character and identity. Atlanta was a nationwide model, not for just chamber magazines, but for city magazines.
Opie was in shock. He held the magazine as if he didn’t quite know what to do with it, looked up at Moore and in a plaintive voice asked, “Can we afford this?”
“Dammed if I know,” Moore said.
Townsend was only warming up.
He had Bob Daniels write to the most famous graphic artists and designers in the country and offer them the opportunity to have their work showcased on the cover of Atlanta. To these people, who were usually paid thousands of dollars for their work, Daniels offered $200. That’s how Milton Glaser, one of America’s pre-eminent designers, came to design the cover of the November 1961 issue.
In those early days everything the magazine did was golden. Within six months Townsend was making the stories as good as the artwork. Over the next few years Reg Murphy, Reese Cleghorn, Furman Bisher and other apprentice legends from the Atlanta newspapers were writing for the magazine. Constitution editorial Page Editor Gene Patterson, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, did a profile of Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr.
The papers provided Townsend with good writers, and Townsend provided the writers a place to stretch their wings and showcase their work in a magazine whose prestige seemed to grow by the day.
In addition to searching out writers, Townsend was still selling advertising. One day he sold 21 color pages in a single issue to wholesale distributor Ben Hyman. What John Moore calls the “Ben Hyman issue” came out in October 1963. Shortly after Christmas that year, Moore visited Hyman and found him happily wandering among almost-bare display cases.
A wiry photographer-writer named Bill Diehl, who nearly 20 years later would become a best-selling novelist, did several photo spreads for the magazine. Diehl, assisted by a young man named Jack Lange, was then running a photography lab. Diehl had flown 29 missions as a ball turret gunner in World War II, been a reporter for the Constitution and was surprised by very little.
Townsend liked Diehl’s photo spreads and stories so much he eventually hired Diehl as managing editor. Diehl had to shoot and write one story per month plus book and movie reviews.
The magazine was getting a lot of comments about the innovative ads C&S was running on their inside cover. Bob Daniels asked a willowy young blond who was doing the ads for the bank to do some stuff for the magazine. Her name was Anne Rivers, and her first byline was for the running copy that went with a photo spread on Atlanta’s entertainment scene. Rivers was a small-town girl on her first job in the city and, unlike Diehl, was surprised by almost everything.
“Townsend thought I wrote the best froufrou of anyone he had ever seen,” said Anne Rivers Siddons, whose income from fiction is now measured in millions of dollars. She freelanced regularly until Townsend hired her as a senior editor in 1964.
“He paid me half what I was making and I had to work twice the hours. I would have paid him to work there.”
Those were halcyon days at the magazine. With the exception of Ralph McGill, Townsend was the only editor in town of any consequence. He was a very big man in a city that was beginning to be known all over the country. If someone offered him a story idea that he liked, he would say, “Write it down, Dear Heart. Write it down.”
When Bill Diehl and Anne Rivers and Bob Daniels and Betsy Fancher, another lyrical staff writer, went into a restaurant, they were recognized as “Townsend’s people,” and there was no greater accolade.
Diehl remembers: “Townsend would fly to New York to make a speech, and he would rent a Learjet. In New York we were treated like kings. Harold Hayes, at Esquire, and Clay Felker [who would later found New York] . . . all knew the magazine.”
Mills Lane, the charismatic leader of the C&S Bank; Ivan Allen Jr., the soon to be nationally famous mayor; and Ralph McGill often wandered into the magazine offices to chat with the staff. McGill joined staffers after hours at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off Forsyth Street.
One day McGill turned to Diehl and uttered the magic words that many newspaper and magazine writers long to hear: “You should be writing fiction.”
“McGill was the first person who ever told me that,” Diehl said.
The fame of the magazine continued to grow, and Atlantans couldn’t wait for the next issue. But they usually did, as it was always a week or so late. “Would you rather have it on time, or would you rather have it great?” Townsend is supposed to have said.
In the summer of 1964 the June and July issues were combined so the magazine could get on schedule. The next month it was late again. But no one seemed to care. It was all part of Townsend’s genius, part of his eccentricity, part of the mystique that contributed to the unquenchable thirst people had for the magazine.
The mid-’60s were glory years. Remer Tyson, Jack Nelson, John Pennington and other reporters at both the Journal and Constitution—then separate newspapers—wrote hard-edged stories for the magazine that balanced the obligatory boosterish chamber material.
Vernon Merritt III, a gifted young photographer, was shooting poignant, evocative photo spreads for the book, one an extraordinary spread on ordinary rain. VM3, as he was known, had been beaten in Notasulga, Ala., during a civil rights incident and had his camera taken. But he hid the film in his shoe and came out with startling photos. Even though he was well-recognized and well-disliked in Selma, he returned to shoot pictures of the famous march there.
Perhaps his best work, and one of the best examples of what a chamber magazine with more ambition than budget could do, was in January 1966 when the magazine published VM3’s photo essay of a young Georgian officer in Vietnam.
VM3 took a bullet in the back while he was there and by a fraction of an inch missed being paralyzed.
By nature, Townsend possessed the greatest attributes any editor can have: He could spot talent, nurture it and give it a place to grow. He had a stable of stars, and he could pull stories out of them they didn’t know where there. If he ever put pencil to paper and edited any of those stars, that event has escaped notice.
For many magazines the early days are dominated by the question of whether or not the magazine will survive. But survivability was never an issue with Townsend’s magazine. The sole purpose of Atlanta, as Opie never tired of saying, was to promote the city. Townsend was constantly torn between promoting the city and publishing what he thought should run in a world-class magazine. He turned to an unfamiliar confidante with his problems, one that arrived in a bottle.
Diehl was with Townsend the first time the editor, by his own admission, ever had a drink. It was at Emile’s, a haunt of Atlanta’s journalistic set. “He ordered a scotch and Coca-Cola and I said, ‘Townsend, whatever you mix with scotch, it should not be Coca-Cola.’ So he had a scotch and water, and that was his drink from then on.”
Townsend and whiskey became best friends.
Perhaps because of the pressure, perhaps because of the drinking, or perhaps because Townsend had a Messiah complex and wanted to feed the masses, he took more and more pleasure in hosting long, lavish—and wet—lunches. He thought nothing of inviting 15 or 20 people to lunch at Top O’ Peachtree, Townsend’s favorite watering hole, and picking up the tab on his chamber of commerce credit card.
His fame as a magazine editor had grown to the point he was editing magazines in New Orleans and Cincinnati. He frequently chartered a Learjet and dashed off across country to consult with city fathers about starting a magazine. Time called him “the father of city magazines.” He spent so much time at Antoine’s, in New Orleans, that he had his own waiter—Sammy—a perk reserved for the biggest of big spenders.
One day Townsend invited Moore to lunch at Top O’ Peachtree, and Moore noticed that Townsend had switched to vodka. He told the waiter, “Bring me a vodka martini. And I want you to just whisper the word vermouth over the glass.” When the drink arrived, Townsend took a sip, glared at the water, and said, “Big mouth.”
Moore noticed also that Townsend no longer said a blessing before his meal.
As he remembered that day, Moore became silent. After a while he sighed and said, “Townsend brought the three-martini lunch to Atlanta.”
The story that best illustrates the growing distance between the chamber and the magazine involved Bill Diehl. Diehl was shooting a story called “The Iron Men,” about construction workers at the new bank building going up at Five Points, a block from the Commerce Building. As he has often done in pursuit of a story, Diehl was flirting with danger. He was at the top of the 41-story structure, cameras hanging around his neck, walking the girders while staffers at the magazine looked out the windows in awe. He returned to the magazine filled with exhilaration of the great story and the great photographs he had taken.
When he got on the elevator, Opie, accompanied by several prominent businessmen, were there. Diehl was wearing a dirty jacket, sweater and old pants, and cameras were slung around his neck and his hair was tousled. Opie asked Diehl to come to his office. He shut the door and with tight lips that paralleled the line of his bow tie, said, “This is the chamber of commerce. You can’t ride the elevator dressed like that. Next time, ride the freight elevator.”
Diehl’s foot suddenly started to itch, and to stop it, he tried tapping the floor. Then it began itching so badly he had to take off his shoe. There was a big hole in his sock. “Opie saw the hole and really went ballistic,” Diehl said.
Diehl took a leave of absence from the magazine, and his lab assistant, Jack Lange, was hired as a temporary seat-warmer. Townsend’s deterioration accelerated.
The magazine was being published later and later. There was talk of combining another issue. Once, when everything had gone to bed except Townsend’s column, Moore called. “Come by the house and pick it up,” Townsend said.
But the column had not been written.
“He talked it to me,” Moore said.
Asked if he meant Townsend had dictated the column, Moore laughed. “No, he talked it. He threw out a sentence here and a sentence there, and I tried to gather the essence of it. Then I went to the office and wrote it.”
Townsend’s time was drawing to an end. What had been a bombshell in the beginning was now the standard. The sparking confluence of an idea, a man, a time and a city that resulted in Atlanta was being forgotten in the light of Townsend’s drinking and financial excesses. The chamber was forking over a reported $150,000 a year to subsidize the magazine. On one charge card alone, Townsend had run up more than $100,000 in expenses for Learjets and fancy meals and booze.
“Townsend saw the blade descending,” Diehl said. “That’s when the heavy drinking began.”
In March 1967, after almost six years at the magazine, Townsend wrote his last column, announcing his resignation from the magazine he was born to edit.
He had not only created a magazine, he had put together a staff that was hot-wired for glory. Diehl went on to write Sharky’s Machine, the first in a series of best sellers. In the book is a scene where the hero is called on the carpet and his foot starts itching and he starts tapping, but when he takes off his shoe, there is a big hole in his sock and his boss goes ballistic.
Anne Rivers Siddons became a best-selling novelist. One of her books was Downtown, the story of a young woman on her first job away from home, working for a city magazine in Atlanta in the ’60s.
VM3 became a staff photographer for Life, and Bob Daniels became art director for Esquire.
Everyone who was there in the beginning sees that time through a different lens. Perhaps because their backgrounds were so different, Diehl and Siddons have a fundamental difference in how they remember. For Diehl they were years of joie de vivre. Siddons, as Downtown indicates, saw more of Townsend’s dark side.
But they agree on one point. “I’ll never have anything like that again,” Siddons said. “During that time we were invincible. All things were possible.”
“If I could sell those years for a million dollars, I wouldn’t do it,” Diehl said. “Those were the glory years, man.”
Townsend has been called an alcoholic and a dream-weaver, a song and dance man and a hustler. He was all of those things. But he was also a man who did what he set out to do: He stole fire from the gods and put it between the covers of a magazine.
And that is why, no matter how many best sellers Anne Rivers Siddons and Bill Diehl may write, they will always find special glory in being known as “Townsend’s people.”
Opie promoted Jack Lange to editor.
Times were changing in Atlanta. The Vietnam War was heating up. The civil rights movement was at its peak. College students were demonstrating all over the country. The edge, the attitude, the unsettling changes affecting the country were being felt in Atlanta. Primal changes were taking place in the American psyche, and it must have been unsettling and confusing to Atlanta businessmen, and to Opie, to see flags being burned and the war criticized and to hear the incendiary language of the day.
Opie wanted some stability at Atlanta. He must have figured that someone who had been running a photographer’s lab, someone whose primary chore as managing editor had been taking care of Townsend during his binges, someone as soft-spoken, low-key, and well-mannered as Lange would be a safe editor, one who would understand this was a chamber magazine designed to promote Atlanta.
Lange was brainy and visionary; a man of tremendous idealism who considered being editor of Atlanta more of a calling than a job.
He was also having problems with his back, his marriage and the bottle.
“It was understood that our mandate was to promote the city,” Lange said. “But that’s pretty vague. We used words like quality and high caliber, and to us that meant adhering to high journalistic standards. Opie and the magazine committee at the chamber heard those same words, but they saw a magazine that looked good and promoted the city in direct terms.”
For a few months Opie had no cause to worry. Lange hired Reg Murphy, former Constitution political editor, as his managing editor. Murphy had freelanced many pieces for the magazine but had the newspaperman’s difficulty in adjusting to the long lead times of the magazine. And to some he had not quite grasped the magazine’s format. “When we read Reg’s copy, we always knew we would find the lead somewhere down around paragraph eight,” said a person who was there.
One of Murphy’s stories referred to a “flag-snapped autumn,” and when a staffer asked, “Reg, what the hell is a flag-snapped autumn?” Murphy became angry, possibly because he didn’t know.
Murphy soon returned to the Constitution—as editor—and Lange hired Bill Winn as managing editor. Winn was a former Atlanta Journal reporter and had the newspaperman’s contempt for chamber of commerce people. He had shaggy hair and was a bit unkempt. But behind that facade beat the heart of a crusading reformer. His hero was Ralph McGill, and he wanted to publish stories about race and about the changing South.
John Moore didn’t understand Lange and Winn. “Their idea seemed to be that it was a good story if it made the chamber mad.”
In journalism vernacular, the book began to “harden up,” and an almost schizophrenic mix of articles began appearing. Next to a puff piece about economic development there might be a long thoughtful piece by Winn about Georgia’s dying small towns. An issue in which Opie’s column fawned over Ivan Allen Jr. as the “indispensable man” might follow a presidential poll the magazine had commissioned the political science department at Georgia State College to conduct. Winn wrote pieces on the Okefenokee Swamp and the Indians of North Carolina, while Opie wrote a paean to the president of the chamber as “. . . the type man who is building a better city for all of us.”
Bill Diehl wrote a tribute to the fliers of the 8th Air Force, the only time he has written about his wartime experiences.
Opie thought the piece, when considered against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, was too anti-war and demanded that Diehl change it. Diehl refused. Lange, who blithely ignored the fact he published a chamber magazine, insisted the piece run as Diehl had written it. After a standoff of several days Opie backed down.
“That was the most powerful piece I ever wrote for the magazine,” Diehl said. “It was my favorite.”
Work at the magazine sometimes came to a standstill when Townsend wandered in, almost always drunk and forgetting he no longer was editor. On one occasion he roamed the halls, waving his reading glasses, calling staffers into an office for story discussions. Leaving the office, he fell in the parking lot, where he crashed his head against a car bumper. He was hauled away in an ambulance, bleeding and crying for attendants not to strap him down.
Lange and Winn began hitting hard on racial stories. Winn remembers Opie’s response: “Over and over he said to us, ‘You will lose your credibility if you keep running that kind of article.'”
They responded in the September 1968 issue by running a fashion spread in which one of the models was state Rep. Julian Bond—whom the WASPy chamber considered a fiery revolutionary—wearing a cashmere turtleneck and a coat from Saks.
“That one sent Opie around the bend,” Winn said.
In looking back at the editorial content and comparing it with Opie’s columns of the time, one can sense the beginning of a simmering tension. Lange and Winn were dashing off in a new direction while Opie was trying to hold on to the old ways. The tension began in 1968 and boiled over at the end of 1969 with one of the most celebrated events in Atlanta journalism.
Reese Cleghorn wrote a long, moving obituary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Betsy Fancher wrote a two-part story Dr. Donald Gatch and the dirt-poor area of coastal South Carolina where he worked. The newspaper reporting team of Steve Ball and Bob Cohn wrote a powerful piece entitled “Phooey” about the vacuum caused by the lack of leadership on the part of then Gov. Lester Maddox. Ball and Cohn wrote a piece about a conversation between Augusta segregationist Roy Harris and Julian Bond that was picked up by The New York Times Sunday magazine.
Winn wrote a piece about W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South and put it in the context of the ’60s. Reese Cleghorn wrote about Leander Perez Sr., of Louisiana.
“Every time the magazine came out, my anxiety level rose,” Lange said. “Opie called me to his office and chewed me out over almost every issue. Several times he liked the issue, but then he got phone calls from chamber members who found something they didn’t like and I got chewed out anyway.”
But Lange was a good soldier and took all the heat from Opie even though Winn was behind much of what Opie disliked.
“John Moore advised me to walk more softly,” Lange said. “He knew the players. He had been around.”
In the spring 1968 issue of Columbia Journalism Review was a survey of city magazines that said Atlanta was “. . . not yet sassy enough . . .” The chamber responded by saying CJR had no idea what the original intent of the magazine was. Lange and Winn, however, took this as an admonition to get sassier.
Winn announced in December 1968 that the magazine was sponsoring a fiction-writing contest.
A two-part series about the Caribbean began in January 1969. Four writer-photographer teams from the magazine traveled 14,000 miles visiting 13 islands. The magazine, with considerable understatement, said this was “. . . probably the most ambitious overseas undertaking ever attempted by a city-based magazine.”
The chamber had imposed rigid cost-accounting practices by then, and the writers were wrestling with the difficult chore of reconciling every penny of their advance money. After the Caribbean trip one of the writers came up about $200 short in justifying his expense account. He finally listed it as the cost of buying a sacrificial goat for a voodoo ceremony in Haiti.
Part of the enduring legend of the magazine is the amount of money spent for that project. Talk about town at the time was that the international debts of several of the countries written about could have been settled with what Atlanta spent. Neither Lange nor Winn remembers the amount. “We spent substantially more money on that than we should have,” Lange said. “I got a lot of flak.”
In February ’69, after Ralph McGill died, a column in the front of Atlanta read, “It is one of those tragic and dark ironies of the South that it rejects its best-educated and most-qualified leaders, preferring the rhetoric of demagogues to the reason of learned men.”
Opie began criticizing the length of staffers’ hair. Not only did Winn not get a haircut, he bucked Opie on the chamber practice of having women employees—no matter their professional standing—answer the telephones at the front desk when receptionists were away. Winn declared that Editorial Assistant Marianna Kaufman would no longer answer the phones.
In April 1969 Opie’s column revealed that a survery had been taken of magazine readers and that those readers—who were mostly chamber members—preferred regular departments on business in Atlanta. They wanted fewer article on fiction and dance, and they least preferred departments on art, books and movies.
Lange and Winn ignored Opie’s survey. The magazine announced that nearly 600 entries had been received in the fiction contest and that not only would the top three winners be published, but that in coming months some of the other stories would also be published.
Sometime about then Lange began to lose his wrestling match with the bottle.
In the November 1969 issue, Opie got a lot of things off his chest. In looking back, it is easy to realize he was probably espousing the views of not only the chamber, but also of many middle-aged Americans as confused and angered as he by the turmoil of the ’60s.
He wrote the media were telling it “. . . like they thought it should have been” and that people had not protested media excesses because they feared it was they who were out of step.
Then he added people felt a growing anger about the “. . . deception which was foisted upon them” by media manipulating the facts with a “constant diet of hogwash.”
It was obvious he was not excluding his own staff in the critique and may have been telegraphing a punch that would soon knock out Lange, Winn and most of the editorial staff.
In that November issue, jarring in its discontinuity, was the first place winner in the short story contest. Tom McHaney, a 32-year-old professor at Georgia State University, had written a piece entitled “Autometaphorical Fragment.”
Perhaps McHaney best explains the piece: “It was very Faulknerian. All sentence fragments. Very outré for a chamber magazine”
It ran just as he wrote it. “I was into the purity of the text,” he said. “I did not allow them to change anything.”
In December came an excerpt from The South and the Nation, a hard-edged and critical book about the South by Pat Watters. There was an excerpt from a Huey Long biography and an interview with John Dos Passos.
And, oh yes, the second place winner in the fiction contest.
Written by Allen Payne Rowntree, a Jesuit, it was called “The Swim to the Other Side of the Bayou Vermillion.” The story began with a naked man rising to urinate off the porch of a house while his girlfriend, pregnant by the man’s best friend, begged him to stay in bed. This fellow had been paid $10 for his first homosexual experience, spent time swimming naked across the bayou, uttered “goddamn” a few times and engaged in a vivid sex scene involving “hot thighs.” At the end of the story the man’s best friend shot off his own penis with a .38 caliber revolver and bled to death.
“John Moore came in and said he thought it would be best if I resigned,” Winn said.
In fact, both Winn and Lange quickly resigned, and almost everyone on the editorial staff soon resigned or was fired.
A note in the February letters column said publication of the short story “. . . was one of the reasons for the separation of the editor and the managing editor from Atlanta Magazine.”
Lange and Winn felt the pain that only the young and idealistic can feel when they are thrown out of a job they love. Nothing in life can ever again hurt as much.
“None of us could get a job after that,” says Winn. “It cost me many years of my professional life. Jack Lange has never recovered.”
Lange, today a devoutly religious man who is long since triumphant in his battle with the bottle, says, “It took me a long time to recover from the sense of failure and loss.”
Today Winn is unrepentant about the fiction contest. “It was not a bad idea. Nobody in the South was doing anything to promote Southern fiction writing or encourage new writers.” His only regret is that “I probably cost Jack his job.”
Winn later edited Goodlife magazine. And when he traveled to his offices in New York and socialized with other national magazine editors, many editors remembered his time at Atlanta. “People would come up to me and say, ‘God, those were great years for Atlanta Magazine.'”
He paused. And when he continued, there was a bittersweet note in his voice.
“They all remembered. They all remembered.”
The day after Opie ran off Lange, he announced that Norman Shavin would be editor, so it is obvious the two had been talking. The appointment was a surprise and a shock to perhaps everyone but Shavin.
While he had written frequently for Townsend, Shavin had appeared perhaps only once in Atlanta for the three years of Lange’s tenure. He wrote a newspaper column that consisted of snappy little one-liners and produced “The Atlanta Century,” the newspaper’s historical look at the Civil War period in the city.
Shavin made two significant contributions to the magazine, two things that neither of the previous editors had been able to do. First, he recognized Atlanta was a chamber magazine—not a city magazine. He understood that the chamber did not want journalism; it wanted cheerleading. Some say that understanding came easy, that he was not burdened with journalistic ideals that made being a cheerleader an onerous job. Second, and this was his greatest contribution, he brought editorial and financial stability. The editorial schizophrenia ended. The personal flamboyance of Townsend and the troublesome crusading of Lange was over. There would be no more Learjet charters and no more fiction contests. Atlanta was a chamber magazine.
Former Articles Editor Frank O’Neill wrote in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that one of Shavin’s first editorial decisions was to remove from the January 1970 issue an essay on the famed black philosopher W.E.B. Du. Bois and an article on Atlanta’s Black Image Theatre, stories Lange already had in production, and replace them with a story Townsend had printed in 1961 that forecast economic growth in Atlanta.
In the spring of 1971 the printing contract was up for renewal, and Moore, who had been a shadow editor of the magazine from the beginning, decided not to submit a bid. His company had lost more than $250,000 per year on the contract for the past 10 years. But Stein had made up that amount many times over in new business acquired because of the Atlanta contract. Moore and Stein Printing, without whom the magazine would have been an altogether different creature, were gone. It was a major juncture in the evolution of the magazine.
Editorially, the magazine continued to go through an equally significant change.
Shavin began an “Inside Business” column that was little more than a bulletin board to list names of chamber members and local businesses.
In March 1971 Shavin moved his column from the back of the book to up front and did a column called “Toot” in which he boasted about his magazine. In September he wrote a column praising Charles Crowder, the new executive vice president of the chamber. In December his column began, “Hey, world, look at us!”
Almost overnight the magazine’s magnetic appeal to top writers vanished. “If he ever had a vision for the magazine, I never knew what it was,” said Anne Rivers Siddons, who returned for a year as an editorial associate.
Shavin began scheduling what his staff writers openly referred to as “suck pieces”—long optimistic drumbeating pieces developed in concert with the advertising department. Staffers quickly learned the formula: Keep it positive and get quotes from all chamber members involved. The distance between editorial and advertising—in magazine publishing a divide as important as the division of church and state—disappeared.
Many story ideas came from the advertising director, who sent Shavin notes saying advertising would follow if a story were done about a certain company. Shavin did not bother to hide this. He simply wrote “Do it” on the ad director’s memo and passed it along to a staff writer.
In the July/August ’71 issue of CJR was a story that said if Atlanta readers matched places and things in the ads with places and things in the editorial copy, “. . . those who find a 90 percent correlation can go to the head of the chamber.”
Perhaps because they were so frustrated professionally, the staff engaged in guerilla warfare against the chamber. Some of the warfare was benign, such as the ongoing contest to see who could incur the most bizarre item on an expense account and get it approved by the chamber. Diane Thomas won when she did a story on tattoo parlors and had a little pink flower tattooed in an area she could not show. She was reimbursed $10 for this little bit of artistry.
Some of the warfare was accidental, though Crowder did not take it in that light. One day he marched a cluster of VIPs down from the chamber offices on the 13th floor to the magazine offices on the 11th floor. One staffer had his back to the hall and did not know that Crowder and the VIPs were listening to him deliver a rather learned discussion on the proper method of igniting flatulent emissions without causing bodily harm.
The there was the incident of the cup holders. The chamber had red cup holders in the coffee room and the magazine had white. Crowder decreed that magazine people would not use red cup holders. Not only did a magazine staffer bring down a half-dozen red cup holders, he threw them out onto the roof of the Palmer Building next door. Crowder looked out his window at the end of the hall, saw the red cup holders scattered across the roof, and sent out a memo saying the perpetrator, once discovered, would be fired.
A few days later several dozen red cup holders were on the roof.
Crowder sealed the windows of the magazine office. The cups still rained down. He began lurking in the fire escape and peeping through the small window trying to catch the guilty party. Eventually he gave up.
Shavin and advertising director Ron Hill approached the chamber in 1977 about buying the magazine. The chamber was interested. The official line was that the chamber had brought the magazine as far as it could go as a chamber publication and that if it were to grow and prosper, it would have to become privately owned. But the truth is that the glamour of publishing a magazine had long since worn off. The magazine was an expensive and—until Shavin took over—constant tribulation.
When Tom Casey, who ran the Atlanta office of a New York publishing company called Communication Channels Inc., hear in September 1977 that the magazine might be for sale, he tried to call Tom Hamall, executive vice president of the chamber.
“Nobody would talk to me,” he said.
So he went to see Dick Kattel, president of C&S Bank and president of the chamber. Kattel called Hamall. Within a few days CCI had cut a deal.
Word got out that CCI had bought Atlanta and was moving its corporate offices to Atlanta. The company put out 26 trade and business publications, among them such titles as Solid Waste Management, Shopping Center World and Pension World. Atlanta would be the company’s first consumer publication.
For Atlanta staffers embarrassed at the possibility of working for a company that published obscure trade magazines, all the publications were synthesized in one magazine: Solid Waste Management, which they referred to as “Shit Monthly.”
CCI paid $325,000 for Atlanta, The magazine’s circulation was about 20,000, and some 15,000 of those were chamber members.
At the press conference announcing the sale, Joe Shore, owner of CCI, made a speech about being involved in Atlanta’s business and civic life and said the new headquarters would be in Sandy Springs. Asked why he was joining in white flight and moving a city magazine out of the city, he was nonplussed. Jesse Hill Jr., a black insurance company executive and president-elect of the chamber, tried to hide his amusement. Dick Kattel came to Joe Shoe’s rescue with the weak explanation that Sandy Springs was considered part of Atlanta.
In January 1978 Shavin wrote a column about the relatively obscure publishing company and in the front of the book predicted an “economic impact . . . of major proportions” the company would have on Atlanta. He also wrote a “Media” column praising CCI. The next month he ran a picture of Tom Casey, the new associate publisher of the magazine, but neglected to mention that Casey was Joe Shore’s son-in-law.
The Atlanta Gazette, an alternative newspaper, said Shavin would have about six months to prove he could put out a consumer magazine.
“We gave Norman everything he asked for,” Tom Casey said. “We felt he should have the freedom to create a product consumers would buy. But we weren’t getting the creative stories we expected. We were still getting chamber stuff.”
Shavin lasted six months.
June 1978 was his last column as editor. It was a bewildering, confusing column in which his head pays tribute to his two index fingers, his typing fingers, referring to Shavin as “The Boss” and recalling his years at the magazine.
Casey recommended a friend, Lee Walburn, to Shore as Shavin’s replacement. Walburn, who in 1978 was an executive at Oglethorpe Power Corp., was a sometime contributor to the magazine. Walburn wanted the job. He said he had always thought of being editor of Atlanta as the of a lifetime. But when Shore found Walburn was making about twice what the job paid, he decided Walburn would not be happy and wouldn’t hire him.
Walburn understood. When Casey asked who he thought should be editor, Walburn gave him a name. Casey asked Bill Diehl the same question. Diehl gave him the same name.
During World War II when Winston Churchill was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty, a job that again placed him in command of his beloved navy, a message went out from Admiralty offices in London to British ships around the world: “Winston is back.”
The rejoicing that greeted the message was echoed in the summer of 1978 when writers and photographers and readers around the South got the word: “Townsend is back.”
Casey knew of Townsend’s drinking problem. But he brought Townsend back for one reason: The best writers in the South would come running when he called.
“Even if Townsend was operating at only 10 percent, he was unbelievable,” Casey said. “He was a national icon in city magazines. He could bring in the people who wouldn’t write for Shavin.”
Townsend was an alcoholic. And the yet undiagnosed cancer that would eventually kill him, the cancer he would come to call “Louie,” was gnawing at his body. But he still had the magic. He reached out to his people, to those who had made Atlanta great in the beginning and headlined Bill Diehl on the cover with an excerpt from Sharky’s Machine, later made into a movie. Anne Rivers Siddons’ novel The House Next Door was also excerpted.
There were other Townsend people who had become marquee names. Paul Hemphill, a novelist who was writing for many national magazines, was in the book. Lee Walburn freelanced a piece about Jim Minter, then managing editor of The Atlanta Journal. Larry Woods, a tough-edged freelancer, did a minute-by-minute piece about a riot at the state prison in Reidsville.
But the piece that more than any other showed what Townsend could do began when he called Pat Conroy, a best-selling novelist, and said he needed a piece for the magazine. Conroy, who does not type, brought in a story written on a yellow legal pad and told the managing editor, a somewhat prissy type who had been left over from chamber days, that this was the piece Townsend wanted. The ME looked at Conroy, looked at the legal pad and sniffed. “We don’t accept manuscripts unless they are typed and double-spaced.”
It is reliably reported that Townsend went ballistic. In November 1978 Conroy’s piece, titled “Anatomy of a Divorce,” was published. It remains the most celebrated piece ever printed in the magazine. Ten years after the story ran, Reader’s Digest paid about $9,000 to reprint it. Today Atlanta still keeps copies on hand to mail out, as requests continue to come in from around the world.
Townsend’s reincarnation lasted only five months. But he had done what no other editor in America could have done. For a brief shining moment he and his people had recaptured the glory.
The Shore family and CCI were finding Atlanta to be more trouble than they had expected. As the only consumer magazine in a stable of more than two dozen trade and business publications, it was something of a prizewinning show horse in a herd of donkeys. Like most show horses, it was expensive, required constant attention and needed a firm hand on the reins.
To Shore the accolades were okay, but not as okay as being profitable. The trade magazines were turning respectable profits but not Atlanta.
Larry Woods, a former newspaperman and correspondent for Time who had become Townsend’s top assistant at the magazine, was promoted to editor. His name first appeared on the masthead as editor in December 1978.
Woods was deep of voice, direct of eye and hard as granite. He did not like the direction the magazine had gone under Shavin’s eight years and five months as editor. And he did not like the image that Shavin stamped on the magazine. “The magazine was pretty. But it was coffee-table,” Woods said, delivering what to a journalist is the supreme insult.
Townsend had been on the way to turning the magazine around but had not been there long enough to prove to Atlanta writers that the magazine was a place where they would want to publish.
His problem was compounded by the chamber’s attitude. “The chamber still considered it their magazine,”he said. “Our hardest job was to break away, ever so gently, from a chamber magazine to a city magazine. Plus, we had to make money.”
“He saw the magazine as a Palm Beach sort of publication,” Woods said. “Upscale, slick. And he was worried about what people said. He wanted to cater to the Palm Beach crowd in Atlanta.”
Woods visited Clay Felker, the editor of New York, and talked with the editors at Texas Monthly, among other publications, about what Atlanta should do. “I saw this as a grand opportunity. We could be hard and newsy and funky and fun and sassy.”
Woods brought an institutional memory of both the city and the magazine to his new job. He remembered that the magazine had seized the attention of the country during the ’60s, when the newspapers abrogated their responsibility in covering civil rights. “Atlanta covered the civil rights struggle better than the newspapers. The magazine did more in-depth coverage of people such as Dr. King than did the papers. The papers were playing off the ‘City Too Busy to Hate’ theme.
“Atlanta Magazine gave this city chutzpah before anyone here knew how to spell it,” Woods said. He was determined to continue that legacy.
For an editor with his background who was working in post-Watergate times, the most obvious way to do this was with hard-nosed stories.
He assigned numerous investigative pieces and paid for them in advance. It is the nature of such stories that if they don’t work out, they can’t be fixed by an editor the way a profile or a survey or a service piece can be fixed. An investigative piece either works or it doesn’t. Many of those Woods assigned didn’t work out.
At a time when he was under tremendous pressure to make the magazine profitable, he built up a big collection of unpublished stories. Tom Casey says Woods spent more than $50,000 on stories that never ran.
Because Woods wanted to harden up the book, he did not want to devote a lot of space to stories he considered frivolous. Things such as fashion. But Joe Shore had decided the magazine should have a fashion editor and hired Alix Kenagy. He gave her far more space in the book than Woods thought necessary.
Woods published such articles as one on sex and the Unitarian church, a William Schemmel piece on South Africa and a William Bradford Huie story on James Earl Ray, all hard-edged.
He ran into trouble when he asked novelist Stuart Woods to do a piece about the local restaurant scene.
“He wrote about all the waiters being gay, not about the food,” Casey said. “We told him the piece had to be rewritten.” Casey said it was the only time the owners ever threatened to kill a story unless it was rewritten. The article was redone, but judging by the tone of several letters it elicited, it still annoyed a lot of people.
Woods started the now regular “Best and Worst” issue.
“Joe Shore liked the concept of publishing the ‘best,’ but he didn’t like the ‘worst,'” Woods said. “It scared people to have a worst in Atlanta.”
Occasionally there were newspaper stories reporting that the chamber of commerce was disappointed with a story published in the magazine or with the direction the magazine had taken. “Every time that happened, we traced it back to Shavin,” Casey said. “He was calling friends at the newspaper and telling them the chamber was upset.”
One day freelancer Maxine Rock told Woods she had friends who were gay and who were trying to raise a child. It sounded like a poignant story to Woods. “Go to work,” he told her. “There was no grand design to cause trouble,” he said.
Woods liked the piece so much he decided to make it a cover story. Art Director Peter Hudson wanted a photo of two men holding hands, with a child in the background. Atlanta talent agencies would not allow their clients to be in a picture illustrated by what they thought would be a controversial story. So Hudson wound up using his daughter on the cover.
When the March 1979 issue came out, Shavin did not have to call the paper and tell them the chamber was upset.
“The chamber came down on me like I was Sherman’s illegitimate son,” Woods said.
“It was controversial,” said Woods. “Joe Shore almost fainted. He called me and said, ‘We’ve got to draw in our horns.’ And I said, ‘No, Joe, we have to keep our horns pointed and striking.'”
Part of the apocrypha of the magazine is that Woods was fired because of that story. “It may have been part of their reasoning later on,” Woods said. “But I was there almost a year after that cover ran.”
Woods’ vindication came a few weeks later when Time came out with a story about gays in America and used essentially the same cover art that Atlanta had used. “If Time was copying Atlanta Magazine, that was an acknowledgement from out there that these upstarts in Atlanta were taking shots no one else had done,” Woods said.
Woods’ problems grew. While he was pushing to make the magazine harder, Alix Keagy, who reported to Joe Shore, was running big, lavish fashion spreads and taking up room Woods wanted to use for more substantive stories.
“Then Joe Shore began making deals to put advertisers on the cover. I’d find out from the art director or from Joe what the cover was going to be. Picking the cover is the prerogative of the editor,” Woods said.
“They made a deal to put Eastern, which was sponsoring a fashion show, on the cover. It was a deal made behind my back. It was the worst form of hustling in the world.
“I went to Joe and I said, ‘Joe, if you sell the cover to Eastern, you’ll sell to Ace hardware.’ It was an untenable position for an editor. But Joe was the publisher, and he was paying the bills, so I resigned.”
Woods is now a senior correspondent at CNN, and his show, Across America, is seen around the world by millions. Even so, “I miss the magazine. It was like giving birth to a new child every month. I could look at it and hold it and say, ‘This is what I did.’ I’m proud of that time. I’m proud that those magazines are in libraries. And one day I’m going to take my grandson down to the library and show him all those issues, and I’ll show him his paw-paw’s name as editor. I’m proud of that.”
What Woods did not know was that Joe Shore and Tom Casey had anticipated his resignation. For months they had been talking to Jack Lange, the editor of Business Atlanta, another CCI publication, about how Atlanta and how it was doing and how Lange might do things differently.
“Jack was our backup guy for Atlanta,” Casey said.
But this time around was different for Lange.
“The first time was in the ’60s, that strange and difficult and wonderful time in this country,” Lange said. “It was a great time to be alive and to be passionately involved. I had a great passion and zeal and commitment. The second time was in the ’80s. It was a different world and a different city, and I was in a different place. It was hard for anyone to find much passion about anything. I was never able to recapture the zeal and the passion we had the first time out. Or anything even close to it.
“The first time I was in love with the magazine,” Lange said. “The second time I was doing a job.”
Lange wrote a column about “redefining” the magazine. He had envisioned Atlanta as a magazine “. . . you can come to regard as a friend.” He said he wanted readers to consider the magazine a friend who “. . . shows up around the first of each month and says something like, ‘There’s been a lot going on since we last met. I have some great stories to tell you . . . So sit down and get comfortable. This might take a while.'”
The column showed that Lange had some residual idealism about magazines. It also showed a lack of understanding about the sea change beginning to take place in journalism. Because this might have been the last time an editor—any editor—would believe he could get a reader to sit down and get comfortable and spend a lot of time on a magazine.
Novelist Paul Hemphill was senior editor for a year. “I was drinking a lot of liquor then,” he said. “Jack was dry, and he was trying to help me.”
Hemphill remembers that one day not long after he arrived, he went down the hall to meet Joe Shore. On the wall of Shore’s office were the covers of Atlanta published since he bought the magazine. And on each cover in grease pencil was a number—the percentage of newsstand sales of that issue. Shore asked Hemphill if he recognized the common element of the magazines with the highest numbers.
Hemphill studied the wall. “Women in bathing suits,” he ventured.
Shore nodded. “Broads,” he said.
“We didn’t have a tightly run shop,” Hemphill said. “We bought an awful lot of stories that never ran. A figure of $70,000 comes to mind.”
After a year Hemphill returned to writing novels, and Bill Winn returned to the magazine as senior editor.
“We were in the magazine business the second time, trying to find an audience, concerned with readership, advertisers, and our place in the market,” Winn said. “It was very commercial by then.”
As he had the first time, Lange put out some good magazines. Then Lt. Gov. Zell Miller wrote a moving and passionate piece about mountain speech. David Nordan wrote often on politics. Neil Shister, a correspondent for Time, wrote a piece on deejay wars in Atlanta. Pat Conroy was back in the magazine with an excerpt from The Lords of Discipline. In October. 1980 the magazine published a piece by Lee Walburn titled “The Meanest Man Out Here.” It won the magazine its first national award as a city magazine.
Bill Winn, who believed a city magazine should not be bound to stories in the city for which it was named, and who could intellectualize a weather report, did a long piece about the Silk Stocking Strangler in Columbus, and wrote, “What the strangler has done to Columbus is to magnify the stress of urbanization.”
But in the midst of substance colliding regularly with commercialism, several things happened in 1981 that made the year a succession of ironies.
First, on Sunday, April 5, at 10:22 p.m., Jim Townsend died, symbolically ending an era.
His last days were filled with the pain of fighting “Louie.” He would phone Bill Diehl, whom he called “Willy,” and in the middle of the conversation begin screaming, “Willy! Willy! Willy!”
Townsend’s last job had been at Atlanta Weekly working for Editor Lee Walburn. Walburn told him that novelist Terry Kay had an idea for a story about a white dog, but it was such a personal story that Kay wouldn’t write it. “You get him to do it,” Walburn ordered.
“One Friday I get this call from Townsend,” Kay said. “I picked up the phone and heard, ‘Kay? Townsend. Listen, I want that story about that goddamned white dog, and I want it by Monday.’ So I did it.”
The story became a best-selling book called To Dance With the White Dog and an Emmy-wining movie for Hume Cronyn, who starred with his wife Jessica Tandy.
A sweet irony of Townsend’s last days is that Diane Thomas, who is an editorial associate sued the chamber for gender discrimination, was commissioned to write a retrospective of the magazine for the 20th anniversary issue. She called Townsend and read it to him. The piece was shaking in her hands because she did not know how he would react. Townsend cried and told her she had brought back the early years. “All I wanted to do was put out a magazine that reflected this town,” he said. “I wanted them to read it and say, ‘Lord, Lord.'”
Townsend died before the anniversary issue hit the street. Twenty years earlier, to the day, he had been waiting for the first issue of the magazine to be published.
A third bit of irony is that not long after Townsend died, Joe Shore sold CCI to a British company. Atlanta would be sold three more times in the coming years, but never to anyone from Atlanta or even from the South. Like Blanche DuBois, it would be dependent upon the kindness of strangers.
Atlanta was one of 28 publications involved in the sale to the Brits, and if it were broken out separately, the sale price was about $2 million.
Overseeing the magazine for the British became the responsibility of B.J. Kotsher. If there is a Dark Prince in the history of the magazine, it is Kotsher. He had been CCI’s counter, a No. 2 guy whose career had been cost control for trade magazines. He was not fond of the Shore family nor anything the Shore family liked. And to Shore and Tom Casey Atlanta had always been special.
Kotsher’s cold eyes focused on magazine. It is apparent that he saw no difference between Atlanta and, say, Pension World. He did not like it that Atlanta had six or seven editors, while each of the trade magazines usually had only two. Nor did he like it that trade magazines were profitable and Atlanta was still losing money. He wrote a column saying the magazine would not publish stories “. . . for the sake of controversy.”
Profitability became a crucial issue. Kotsher cut the staff, cut the budget and raised the ad rates.
Jack Lange remembers: “One day I found that even though I was editor, it was the director of the trade magazines who would be doing the hiring and firing for Atlanta Magazine. I was bitter about that. But I was also relieved. I just thanked God I had a better job to go to, and I got my stuff and left.”
In early 1983 freelancer Neil Shister began dropping in on Tom Casey and seeking advice. He said Kotsher wanted him to become managing editor of Atlanta.
Casey laughed and told Shister that he knew how. Kotsher worked, that Kotsher was getting ready to fire the editor. That meant if Shister came on as ME, he would be moved up to the editor’s job with maybe a $1,000 raise. “I told him to wait until the editor left and then come in as editor for maybe $10,000 more,” Casey said.
That’s what happened.
Shister’s first issue as editor was August 1983.
Shister’s personal philosophy, plus the financial restraints placed on him by Kotsher, resulted in a strange and destructive turn for the magazine. Shister, like his editorial predecessors, was not a businessman. He did not realize until much later that the British were trying to get CCI and its magazines—especially Atlanta—in shape to sell. “I was playing in a game the end of which had already been decided,” he said.
Casey put it another way. He said the British carried their colonial philosophy into the purchase of CCI. “They pumped them up, made them look good, sucked off the profits and then ran, leaving an empty shell.”
But that was all a few more years down the road.
Shister went into his new job with the determination of a person who thinks he can make a difference. “Jack Lange’s book had no commercial vitality,” Shister said. “I had to make the book hot. My mandate was to juice up the newsstand sales and make it a more commercial product.”
Shister’s can-do attitude conflicted with Kotsher’s budget cutting. “I had to rely a lot on women writers—married—people who had always wanted to write,” Shister said. “But we did nifty concept stuff.”
Shister said his model was the Esquire of the ’60s and People in its early days. “We had a lot of emphasis on personality.”
In talking with Shister about his time at the magazine, one gets the impression he thinks people in Atlanta don’t appreciate the contributions he made to magazine journalism. “I was the first non-Southerner to edit the book. My point of view was different.”
Shister liked being editor of Atlanta and gloried in the social cachet of the job. He was devoted to playing tennis, and at night he drove to parties in his big, company-provided car. He is best remembered as the editor who began the trendy “with-it” stories. His first significant issue was in November 1983, with a cover story on the hottest lawyers in Atlanta.
“Suddenly we had an issue that did 80 percent on the newsstand,” he said. “It was unprecedented. We milked the concept. Every three or four months was an issue of the ‘hottest’ or the ‘most’ or the ‘best.'”
The best neighborhood bars in town, a cover story on a day of indulgence, that sort of thing. WAGA-TV nightlife reporter Peter Bannon—anyone out there remember him?—did a piece about the essence of Atlanta’s nightlife. The 50 people who make Atlanta special, best brunch in town, Atlanta trendsetters and the life of a top model.
Shister is not so enthusiastic today about those issues as he was at the time. “The nadir was a piece about the hottest single people in town,” Shister said ruefully. “Now all of that is a cliché,” he hastens to add. “But not in Atlanta at that time. We were inventing it, not ripping off what everybody else was doing.”
He ran a feature story on the world-class cars driven by teen students at Westminster. “In the annals of journalism it was not great stuff. But in the annals of pop journalism it was different.”
Stuart Woods did a piece about the glories of being glamorous that began with him sucking breakfast cereal out of his teeth and clipping his toenails. This may have been an attempt at humor.
Shister ran a cover story on power and wanted the artwork on the cover to be of a clenched fist. “Kotsher said it was fascist and made us pull the cover,” Shister said. “But he missed the big picture of what it took to make the magazine work.”
Shister assigned freelancer Michael Hinkelman to do a profile of Ed Elson, a wealthy businessman who owned a string of newsstands and who was the most important person in Atlanta as far as distribution of the magazine was concerned. Hinkelman’s piece wondered if Elson’s success was due to business acumen or his political connections.
The story was edited and cut and altered to the point that Hinkelman didn’t want to be associated with it. “I told Neil that I could live with a puff piece but not with a suck piece,” said Hinkelman. “I told him to take my byline off.”
Ed Elson was and is a genuinely nice man. But he does not walk on water as the story would have the reader believe.
“We couldn’t afford to alienate Ed Elson,” Shister said. “He controlled our distribution. In retrospect, I did the reader a disservice. It was not my grandest moment.”
Perhaps even more crucial to Atlanta was “the suit.” Art Director Sheryl O’Connell commissioned a collage to illustrate a story about the hard-drug scene in Atlanta. In the middle of the collage, surrounded by assorted drug paraphernalia, was the picture of a black man who happened to be from a prominent Atlanta family. The photo was used without permission. He sued the magazine and collected.
Shister said the suit was particularly bad, and it came at a time when “the company was obsessed with every penny.”
The magazine ran a nearly full-page apology plus another full page correcting and retracting the piece.
“From then on we were gun-shy as hell,” Shister said. “And Kotsher hated the art director.”
Kotsher cut the editorial and business staffs by a third. Even though he had upped the advertising rates, ad revenues dropped to $1.7 million and circulation dropped to about 45,000.
One July at a party celebrating the Peachtree Road Race, Shister was approached by Nathalie Dupree, who wrote a food column for the magazine. “I hear the book is for sale,” she said. Shister laughed and told her she was wrong. Another time clay Felker called from New York. He had heard the same thing.
When the magazine was sold, Shister was among the last to know. Metro Corp., which owned magazines in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, had bought Atlanta. At the meeting that day when Metro Corp. executives came in and announced the sale, Shister asked one of the Metro Corp. executives, whom he knew and considered a friend, if he wanted to go out on the town that night. “He said, ‘I have plans,'” Shister remembers. “That was not good. Here the new owners are in town, and they have plans for the evening that don’t include me.”
Shister learned he had been fired after it had been announced on a local radio station.
“It was the low moment of my life,” Shister said. “I showed up at the office that day thinking my biggest decision would be where I was going to have lunch. I was angry. I hd done a good job. It was the best job of my life.”
In the summer of 1987 Metro Corp. hired Lee Walburn for the job he had long wanted. One. of the first things he did was send the retired Joe Shore a note saying, “See, I told you I would work for less money.”
From the beginning Walburn has been a bit defensive in his job as editor. He believes that some dismiss him professionally because he was once a sportswriter and dismiss him personally because he is, as he puts it, “a rube from the mill town of LaGrange.”
Those who have worked for Walburn say his work ethic is overdeveloped and his nurturing gene is missing. But about one thing there is no doubt—he is in charge of Atlanta magazine. One person who thought his friendship with Walburn and his title at the magazine gave him certain authority suddenly found himself out of a job. “Walburn has got to be the only stud horse in the pasture,” he said later.
More staffers have been fired or forced to resign by Walburn than by any other editor in the history of the magazine.
Walburn brought to the magazine a set of qualifications possessed by no other editor. His professional background alone made him better qualified to take over the job than any of his predecessors, as he had been editor of Atlanta Weekly when a national publication voted it comparable to the Sunday magazines of The New York Times and The Boston Globe. But it was his business background that made him different. He had owned one of the top-billing public relations agencies in town and had been a senior executive with Oglethorpe Power, where he had been responsible for, among other things, strategic planning, personnel and budgets. He understands management by objective and all the arcane corporate lore that, even if it had been known, would have been disparaged by most previous editors.
For the first time in Atlanta’s history a businessman-editor was running the magazine.
Walburn needed everything he had ever learned about business. Magazine publishing was undergoing rapid change, and never again would there be the time Lange had written about so idealistically several years earlier, a time when an editor could ask the reader to imagine the magazine as an old friend who had a story that would take a long time to relate. It was the beginning of the Interactive Age, the beginning of a time when people demanded to be entertained and demanded to have their information in short takes.
Since Walburn became editor, the magazine has been sold twice—in 1989, to American Express, and in 1993, to Emmis Publishing, of Indianapolis—and each time the new owners kept him as editor. This may be unprecedented in magazine publishing. A new owner comes in with a new publishing philosophy, advertising and editorial staffers are pushed out, the smoke clears and the dust settles, and there’s Walburn, like an indestructible cockroach, crawling out of the rubble with a tag around his neck that reads EDITOR.
He is now the longest-serving editor in the history of the magazine.
Those who think his longevity is due to a bubbly personality do not know him.
When American Express bought the magazine, an executive was sent down to check out the old editor and see if he might be work keeping. The questions grew intense and personal. Walburn began simmering. Then the AmEx executive asked Walburn about his personal worth. Walburn’s chin jutted out—which, his friends will tell you, is a dangerous sign—and he said, “Let me tell you something. I’m not wealthy. But I’ve got enough kiss-my-ass money set aside that I don’t have to take any more of your questions.”
Some AmEx employees still refer to financially comfortable executives as having “kiss-my-ass money.”
“They kept me because they know how much I care about this magazine,” Walburn said. “No matter how big of a pain I am, they know I have the best interests of this magazine at heart.”
Walburn’s background enabled him to do three things. First, and most important, he kept ahead of publishing changes that were more revolutionary than evolutionary. Second, he remained in firm control of the magazine’s staff and budget. Third, under him the magazine and its writers have won more than 100 regional and national awards, far more than at any comparable time in the past 35 years.
When Walburn first became editor, he worked in ideal circumstances. Herb Lipson, who owned Metro Corp., ended the magazine’s years of exile in Sandy Springs and moved it back to Atlanta. Almost overnight he more than doubled the editorial staff and pumped in enough money to push circulation. up to around 66,000. He told Walburn there would be no sacrificed cows.
One of Walburn’s first issues carried a stories that caused the magazine’s biggest advertiser to jump ship. Lipson never said a word. Within a year the magazine’s ad revenues had climbed from $1.7 million to around $3.7 million.
Walburn began searching for that magical and elusive mix that gives a magazine its voice. Art Harris wrote a piece about the suicide of a newspaper reporter that even today is mesmerizing. Bill Shipp began writing hard-nosed political columns. Tom Junod wrote a piece wondering why Attorney General Michael Bowers was always spoiling for a fight. Junod and Melissa Harris wrote “Surviving High School,” a story that won the national Sigma Delta Chi Award for public service in magazines and also was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for public interest. Vincent Coppola began a nationally recognized series of stories about AIDS. Emma Edmunds won the National Headliner Award for consistently outstanding feature writing by a magazine writer.
Editors trying to find the right type of stories and art are not unlike Macbeth’s witches tossing ingredients into a bubbling pot. Some work and some don’t. With the advantage of hindsight, some of Walburn’s efforts appear whimsical, such as his never-ending search for great barbecue. Some appear confusing, such as the fictional “Wayward Boye III” byline he toyed with for awhile. And some appear to be prompted more by loyalty to friends than by professional considerations. Walburn has written two columns—one as a freelancer—about his idol, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Executive Editor Jim Minter. That Minter may be worth two columns is not the point. The point is one of appearance.
The same is true with his urologist, who has published two prostate-related books and another on sexual dysfunction, topics not exactly in the mainstream of Atlanta literary efforts. The books have gotten significant mention in the magazine. Walburn also wrote a column about the doctor’s “city slicker” adventures as a cowboy.
The annual “Best and Worst” issue has at three times been embarrassingly bad, usually when it sprawls out of control with nonsensical categories designed solely to include the name of yet another advertiser or potential advertiser.
These criticisms may be petty when one considers Walburn’s decisiveness in changing things that don’t work. He canceled the brilliant, national award-winning book reviews of Phil Garner and the incisive arts columns of Jerry Schwartz, in part because of budget restrictions but also because few were reading them. Since Opie Shelton’s first readership survey, nearly 30 years ago, Atlanta editors have known readers were not interested in news about the arts. But editors—until Walburn—kept the columns in one form or another.
Walburn probably edits stories more tightly than any editor in the past. From concept to research to writing, he is involved. Both staffers and freelancers who try to defend sloppy prose by saying, “But it’s interesting,” find his editing theory is simpler. Just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s relevant. He is merciless in slicing from stories all that is irrelevant.
Working for AmEx, which paid about $8 million for the magazine, was many ways even more exhilarating than with Metro Corp. AmEx used such innovations as self-renewing subscriptions to push circulation up around 80,000. The plans AmEx had for Atlanta were grandiose, but the magazine was losing about $2 million annually and AmEx decided to cut its losses and return to its core business. Atlanta was for sale.
Walburn was in New York when the news broke that the company which publishes Peachtree magazine appeared to be the high bidder, with an offer of about $2 million. About the best thing that can be said for Peachtree is that it is dramatically different, in principles and content, from Atlanta.
Walburn took an early flight home and walked into a meeting already in progress between AmEx, the broker who was searching for a buyer, and Peachtree management. Atlanta had just won another gold medal for general excellence from the City and Regional Magazine Association, so Walburn was walking tall. When the Peachtree owner asked Walburn if he knew any reason why Atlanta could not continue to be successful, Walburn said, “I can only think of one.”
“What is that?”
“If you people buy the magazine.”
This changed the tone of the meeting. After a few more salvos were fired back and forth, the Peachtree owner said, “Might we assume you will not work for us?”
“Not for one f___ing minute.”
This changed the tone even more.
Then Walburn’s people, each of his staff writers, without consulting him, went into the meeting and told the AmEx representative that they would resign if the magazine were sold to Peachtree.
This changed the tone so much the meeting ended.
AmEx was surprised at the depth of feeling about who owned the magazine. Usually, whoever has the most money wins.
Gov. Zell Miller wrote AmEx and, while he did not express a preference about who bought the magazine, talked of the history and tradition of Atlanta.
In the end, AmEx sold to the low bidder, Emmis Publishing, for $150,000 in cash and the assumption of a $483,000 unearned subscription liability and a $250,000 annual lease with four years left to run.
“American Express liked our style,” said Deborah Paul, a vice president of Emmis Publishing and Walburn’s boss. She said she kept Walburn as editor because “he does a spectacular job of adjusting to the market. He is flexible.”
Walburn needed to be flexible under Emmis. Not since Kotsher had the budget and the staff had been cut in such a drastic fashion. Today, the staff is the leanest it has been in many years. But it was surgery that saved the life of the magazine, says the editor.
Facing the smallest staff and the tightest budget since he had been editor caused Walburn to react in the way his friends expected—with hardheaded mill-town determination. He wants to prove—to himself—that he can put out a good magazine not only at a time when publishing is undergoing rapid changes but also under extremely difficult conditions.
Prickly even on his best days, Walburn insists on putting his imprimatur on the magazine, a trait three different owners have patiently endured. Mill-town pride comes out when he says, “I’ve had some hellaciously vigorous discussions, but I’ve never been dictated to.”
Today critics contend Atlanta is a big ball of puff pastry containing little of substance, the same criticism leveled not only at the local newspapers but also against many general-interest magazines. Walburn talks about the magazine as if it were printed on stone tablets. The magazine is not as bad as its critics say and not as good as Walburn believes.
Much of the substantive editorial material published by the magazine—such as Richard Shumate’s outstanding reporting in a piece about religious gays—is simply lost in the froth of service pieces.
Today is a difficult time for most city magazines. The difficulty is compounded in Atlanta because, for one thing, Atlanta Magazine has more than a dozen competitors when once it had one or two. Second, the metropolitan area is composed of 10 self-centered county fiefdoms, which are in various degrees hostile toward the urban core, making it much more difficult for the magazine to balance suburban and urban issues and lifestyles. For national ad buyers, city magazines are no longer a primary option, as they were in the ’80s. Atlantans are fickle where subscriptions are concerned. Few national magazines have a significant subscription penetration here. Unlike the days when Joe Shore told Hemphill that magazines with “broads” on the cover had the highest rate of newsstand sales, sex no longer sells in Atlanta. At least not on a city magazine. Celebrities, with a few exceptions such as Halle Berry and Harmon Wages, do not make a magazine jump off the shelves.
In Atlanta service sells. It is the service covers that make a magazine move.
Traditional journalists might not like this, older magazine readers might not like this. But that’s the way it is.
Walburn doesn’t like it either. But he has met the changes as a businessman. His staff must prepare written goals every year. As far as can be determined, he is the first Atlanta editor to have a mission statement, annual editorial plans, rigid guidelines for writers and editors, a syllabus of what every Atlanta article should contain (it has been taught in college journalism courses) and a demanding set of ethical standards for writers. (Before his doctor publishes another prostate-related book, perhaps Walburn should reread the part that says the magazine “should ever be used as a way to promote personal friends.”) His 1996 mission statement talks of Atlanta as a “source for lifestyle information” and as an “interpreter of people, issues and events.”
The best proof of whether all this works is the magazine itself and how well it does on the newsstand. The percentage of magazines sold on the stand is called sell-through, and, as newsstand sales are impulse purchases, sell-through is considered the best available barometer of how each issue attracts readers. The national average for sell-through is about 45 percent. The sell-through for Atlanta, until recently, has been about 55 percent.
The magazine’s recent innovation of putting multiple images on the covers has raised the sell-through an additional 5 percent, an astonishing jump. Editorially, Walburn now looks for shorter stories with a “single focus” along with service stories that provide the reader with “multiple entry points,” catering to ever shorter attention spans.
The magazine’s circulation is 55,000, and the goal is to push it up to 70,000 within two years. Last year advertising and ancillary publications income were up 37.5 percent. Were it not for the burdensome $250,000 annual office lease and the nearly 60 percent increase in paper costs within the past three years, Atlanta would have made a respectable profit last year, for the first time in its 35-year history.
At 35, relatively old for a magazine, Atlanta is still in the game and still scrappy. It exists in a city and in a world that is altogether different from when Townsend began his romantic adventure.
Walburn worshiped Townsend. “What’s missing in me could be found in Jim Townsend,” Walburn said. “He had the ability to inspire, to create a sense of adventure, a sense of romance. I’m much too serious for my own good and for the magazine’s good.”
“There’s not a lot of apocrypha about the magazine now,” he said. “People don’t tell stories about me. I am not a character. But I do have more than eight and a half years of heart equity in this magazine.”
Sometimes, when Walburn is walking the woods around what will be his retirement home, in the mountains of Northwest Georgia, trying to thrash out a problem at the magazine, he has an idea or a quick insight and hears the voice of Townsend echoing down the decades. “Write it down, Dear Heart. Write it down.”
When he returns to the office, he plots how to keep the magazine on the road to healthy recovery and how to stay one step ahead in this Interactive Age. He dreams of the mythical romance between editor and reader, the romance that is Jim Townsend’s legacy . . . the romance of simply being editor of Atlanta Magazine.
This article was published in our May 1996 issue.