Breaking News: The Perils of a Quarterly

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

We stopped what we were doing on Tuesday, November 30, even though we were in the final harried days of getting the winter issue done. Word had come down that Tyrone Willingham, after three seasons as head football coach, was being fired. The press conference was being carried live on local TV, so we turned on the little set in our office and watched.

There are benefits to doing a quarterly publication, but timing can be a problem. We had three days to get the issue packed off to the printer; a month would pass before our readers would receive the issue in the mail. By then the Willingham story would be old news.

Of course, the Willingham story blew up in the press and became a story we had to do. It got even bigger when the University president, Father Monk Malloy, CSC, criticized the decision. He was our winter cover story—a cover story that would have no mention of the latest, and perhaps most controversial, episode of his presidency. We were bummed, but our production schedule prevented us from doing justice to the whole complicated affair.

As expected, we heard from readers—some wanting to express their opinions on the coaching situation and others criticizing us for omitting the incident in our winter issue. But we don’t carry letters unless they refer to articles in the previous issue, and we couldn’t turn the story around so quickly.

As a quarterly, we can’t handle some subjects with the timeliness of other media. We can, however, take the longer view and put our unique signature on those stories or set them in a context not possible in the immediate surroundings of breaking news. This story was particularly tricky because it dealt with sensitive issues, ones which had ignited a media storm and caused heated disagreement within the family. We tried to cover the story in a manner appropriate to the editorial positioning of this magazine. It’s in this issue—another edition of the magazine in which timing proved yet again to be a challenge.

We first approached George Weigel, a prominent biographer of the pope and an authority on Church affairs, last October about doing a piece outlining the promise and problems that would confront the Church in the days after Pope John Paul II has passed away.

We got the article in January, saw immediately that it had cover weight, took it through the editing process (always a collaboration of writer and editor) and had it moving into page proofs, with art and headlines, for a March 3 deadline for printing. In February the pope fell ill and was hospitalized. While much of the article would stand well over time, the first few pages would need to be rewritten if John Paul II passed away prior to publication. We broached the subject with the author, who informed us that, should the pope die, he would leave the next day with an NBC film crew to be their voice in Rome. He would not have time for us.

As I write this, I have just finished the football feature and we have less than three weeks until the magazine goes to press. The pope seems to be doing better, Charlie Weis is now on campus, and we’re all hoping for the best.

[Editor’s note: As should be clear, this essay for the spring print issue was written before the death of Pope John Paul II.]