Clay Felker, the visionary founder of New York, died in July 2008 at the age of 82. He was the most influential editor of his generation. Today it’s hard to envision a magazine—or a newspaper—that doesn’t report, write and package stories using Felker techniques.
At Esquire in the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, Clay Felker was the forgotten editor as Harold Hayes was credited with taking the magazine through a renaissance; but Felker was the idea guy who assigned and oversaw key stories by Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and many of the “new journalism” writers.
Service or consumer journalism was institutionalized at New York, which Felker launched in 1968. Editors everywhere took from Felker all the consumer service features they could adapt to their own publications, such as The Passionate Shopper, The Underground Gourmet, Best Bets, Top Doctors, Weekend Getaways, et alia.
Felker was a strong advocate of two key packaging principles: a) Never hold your best stuff back; and b) Visuals drive the story.
One year, style editors Joan Kron and Priscilla Tucker were collaborating on a holiday issue with the theme, “A Christmas You Can Afford.” Gifts were classified by price—from $1 to $1,000-—with the high-end gift being a glamour portrait by Scavullo, the photographer who did all of the sensuous Cosmopolitan covers of the era. The editors arranged for Scavullo (and makeup artist Maury Hopson) to shoot Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of attorney general John Mitchell, often portrayed in the media as a shrew.
Felker agreed it was cover material, but he wasn’t going to waste Martha Mitchell on the gift issue, which would sell just as well with another cover. Instead, he would make her the cover story the following week. “But, protested Kron, “there’s no story to go with it.”
“Write one!” demanded Felker. And she did—fast.
Other Felker precepts to ponder:
Look for the “how” and “why” slant in topics. Readers are interested in the way things work and in why things are the way they are.
Don’t overlook the obvious. “If you are interested in something, probably other people will be, too.”
Get to the point quickly. “People today want information delivered in very short takes.”
Put a face on the story.
Open strong. “Be sure to get the conflict in the lede.”
Felker hated small pictures and reverse type—white type on a black or tinted background—which he considered unreadable and would allow it only if the type size was pumped up several points.
Another Felker canon was that every picture must have its own caption, right next to the picture. No multiple captions in dense blocks of typography. Captions had to have headers—witty two- or three-word boldface lead-ins to the caption.
Three words of Felker’s that many writers heard: “Make a statement!” Felker was also a master at helping writers sound more like themselves, not more like their editor. Another Felker dictum was: “Write like you talk.”
When a staffer seemed to be overworking a topic and holding up production, Felker would say, “Remember, Walter, it’s only a magazine!”
Never mess with the logo. “Jeeezuz Christ! Leave the logo alone! Don’t move it, don’t scale it, don’t make it out of needlepoint!!!”
He had strong ideas on color. “All things being equal, always choose red!” and “Never use a yellow tint! It looks like someone pissed on the page!!!”
Felker also believed that women are the best reporters, point of view is everything in a story, and good editors know how to ask interesting questions. “And then you find someone else to go out and find the answer. You just need to be able to find the questions.”
NOTE: After four years and 50 columns in this corner, I am going on leave to complete a book about Clay Felker. If you have any Felker recollections or experiences to share, I look forward to hearing from you—see below for contact information.
John Brady is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy that assists and critiques magazines. For information on his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his web site is johnbrady.info, or you may e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.