Innocence and magic

A generation ago, when I was just starting out in publishing, my first boss walked into my office and handed me copies of the then-current issues of Time (where I was working) and Newsweek. “Look at these and tell me how they were put together,” he said. “I’ll be back in half an hour.”

I looked at the two magazines with a mixture of anticipation and panic. Just out of business school, I felt as if I had won the lottery to be working at Time. But a week into the job, I knew nothing about how magazines were put together.

I fumbled around with the two copies for 30 minutes, made lots of notes and hoped for the best. My boss, Bob Hughes, had worked in the railroad business before becoming an operations manager with both Newsweek and Time, and I knew he would be back on time.

As the half hour lapsed, Bob walked back into my office, settled in the one chair that fit in front of my desk and said, “Tell me what you know.” I went back to my notes and showed him what I had found.

He listened patiently for what felt like an eternity but was probably ten minutes. When I was done, he nodded, reached for the magazines and said, “Good effort, but … no.”

Bob picked up Time, flipped to the first bind-in insert card, folded the pages toward the cover and pulled the center of the issue apart from the staples. I’d been saving magazines for years, and he heard me gasp.

Laughing, not derisively, Bob said, “Relax. We can always make more.”

He went on to give me an extended lesson on how magazines are made and how you can figure it out even in a delivered copy. It’s an hour I remember to this day, one that changed how I look at printed publications.

Bob was always teaching someone something. In the short time I worked for him, he would stop me at least once a day with a quick, “Take a look at this.” Invariably, he would have found an example of something he already understood and wanted to be sure I did too, or something that surprised him and that he needed to share.

He took me on my first trip to a printing plant, an R.R. Donnelley facility in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Above the noise of the presses, he shouted at me to start at the back. “Everyone wants to look at the printed forms coming off a press, but if really you want to know about a printing plant, look at how well they handle the paper going in.”

As a boss, he had the precision of a railroad signal master and the curiosity of a child. I mean this purely: in the short time I worked for him, his eyes were always wide open.

A few months in, I made an error of omission that cost Time US$50,000 in a single weekend. By that time, Bob had taken a new role inside Time’s production group, and my new boss did not see it as a teachable moment. Bob sat quietly throughout the discussion, and when it started to turn ugly he said to no one in particular, “I’d have made the same decision if I’d been in Brian’s shoes.”

I’m not sure that’s true; mine was a rookie mistake. But he turned the meeting around and probably saved my career at Time Inc. (to the extent that it could have been saved).

Bob is retired now, and I don’t write this to put him on a pedestal or pretend that he didn’t have his eccentricities (he did). But he helped fill that summer, my first summer in publishing, with a sense of innocence and magic that many of us once felt for this business. I would like to have it back.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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