BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On the Media notes this week the death of Henry Grunwald, longtime editor at Time magazine, who steered that publication through the most dramatic changes since its founding in 1923. A Jewish refugee from Austria, Grunwald began his career as a copyboy, working his way up the journalistic ladder as a writer and editor, and was at his retirement in 1987, editor in chief of all Time, Inc. publications. New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent was himself a Time employee. He joins me now to reminisce. Dan, welcome back to OTM.
DANIEL OKRENT: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: What was Time magazine like when Henry Grunwald took over in '68?
DANIEL OKRENT: Generally it was still the publication that Henry Luce had founded, which is to say it was built more on the collection of reporting from other sources. There was a clear political agenda behind much of Time, and it spoke in an Olympian, almost corporate voice. Nothing was signed. This was what Time magazine said. These are the thunderbolts that it hurled down from Mount Luce.
BOB GARFIELD: So Grunwald's first step was, first of all, to open the tent and move it a little more towards the political center?
DANIEL OKRENT: Well, I think he took politics out of it, more than anything else. I don't think there was any particular ideological tinge to it either way. Beyond that, he introduced bylines - a truly radical thing, given the magazine had not had one in its 45 years of existence. He also did something really rare and special, and something that has disappeared, I think, from most of the publishing world today. He made it smarter. He took the culture very, very seriously. He thought the magazine would be at its best if it aspired to be at its readers' best.
BOB GARFIELD: He instituted several sections that paid specific attention to cultural matters.
DANIEL OKRENT: That's right. And he also brought in some writers, and, and promoted writers who were among the very best cultural commentators of our time, and the most obvious one was Robert Hughes, of course, but also Frank Rich - voices of real authority. Richard Schickel. I mean the list is a long and distinguished one.
BOB GARFIELD: What was he like as an editor?
DANIEL OKRENT: I do know from the stories told me by my colleagues who were his colleagues, he would have his hand in every piece in, in the magazine, and would scrawl on the page his questions, and only people who had been there for years and years could read his impenetrable handwriting. And he would be concerned about the smallest thing, to the really, you know, the largest issue that could possibly come up in, in a magazine - what was on the cover and how it was being presented to readers.
BOB GARFIELD: I saw, in Norman Pearlstine's appreciation in Time magazine, an episode where Grunwald was on his way to the opera and took the time to essentially re-tool an entire story while standing there with his opera cloak on. It's hard for me to imagine the current editor of Time magazine [LAUGHTER] donning a cape to go anywhere.
DANIEL OKRENT: I don't think so. They also don't serve Beef Wellington on beautiful serving carts on closing night the way they used to do 35 years ago as well. Now, it's pizza, if you're lucky.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe his most famous cover story, nearly 40 years ago, was titled "Is God Dead?" - and-
DANIEL OKRENT: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: --it was very controversial in its day, but especially interesting now, because it seemed to foreshadow, by decades, today's news magazines taking on the larger questions, because the smaller ones are just beaten to death, hour by hour, on cable news.
DANIEL OKRENT: Well, I think it was something of a precursor in the sense that that kind of story is an acknowledgment that, in the news magazine business, you have to do something that the newspapers are not doing - that you have to take a couple of steps back for a broader view of the culture and find things that are more along the line of large ideas and trends. And certainly, that's happening now, although today's news magazine finds a different sort of trend than the one that Henry Grunwald was noticing back in the '60s.
BOB GARFIELD: If you had to identify his single contribution that's most lasting, not only in the news weekly business but in all of journalism, what do you suppose that would be?
DANIEL OKRENT: Well, I'm going to answer a different question than the one you asked. I'm going to tell you the anecdote that I think should live forever and is a brilliant condensation of the reality of the news magazine business. One of the things that Henry liked to do would be go through a piece and he would circle words that bothered him or he didn't think were appropriate or phrasings he didn't like, and in one instance he circled the word "cummerbund," and wrote in the margin "Another word, please." And there isn't another word for [LAUGHTER] cummerbund. I thought that was pretty bold of him.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] You're right. That's a good answer. I withdraw the original question. Dan, thanks very much.
DANIEL OKRENT: You're very welcome. Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: New York Times Public Editor Dan Okrent, on the passing of former Time magazine editor in chief Henry Grunwald, who died last week at the age of 82. [MUSIC]