Newsweek’s National News editor, Jon Meacham (who went on to become Editor) called me up to his office one day in 1998 and asked me if I could diagram President Clinton’s study for a story they were doing on Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The study was the little room off the Oval Office where Clinton “wasn’t” having “sexual relations with that woman.” I said, “I’ll give it a shot,” which was what I always said when I had no idea if I could pull something off.
I quickly discovered that this tiny room was one of the most private bits of real estate on the planet. I couldn’t find a single diagram of it anywhere, not from the White House, not from any books about the building and not even from the Library of Congress (they had helped me out before with an interior diagram of an ancient mosque in the Middle East I needed to go with a massacre story). Most diagrams of the West Wing just indicated a huge empty white space that somehow contained the presidential potty, dining room, pantry and study.
And even if I had been able to find a diagram of the room’s location and size I still had no idea what was in it, assuming that every new administration moved in their own stuff. I needed to speak with someone who knew those rooms intimately, who had actually been in them.
So Jon suggested I call his friend George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s former White House Communications Director and Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy who had left the White House shortly after Clinton’s second term began under not-so-pleasant circumstances. He was now teaching right up the road from us at Columbia University.
I called and explained to George what I wanted and he said to come on up. When I got to his office he spotted me in the doorway and held up a finger for me to wait a second while he wrapped up a phone call to a U.S. Senator. (I had no idea which one, but he kept saying “Senator.” I was impressed.) When he hung up he signaled me in and said, “Now what is it that you want?”
Once he understood George enthusiastically scootched his chair up to mine so that our knees were touching, my large sketch pad resting between us (although the dramatic tilt of the sketchpad highlighted the fact that my knees were considerably higher than his).
The first question I decided to ask him threw him off guard, but he lit up with a smile and it broke the tension between us. I asked,
“Can you set me up on a date with Dee Dee Meyers?”
Dee Dee was Clinton’s press secretary and a good friend of George’s whom I secretly had a crush on (I mean, check out those shoes!). He laughed and broke it to me easy: sorry, but she’s taken. We quickly got down to business and George did his best to describe and sketch out the rooms, but it was hopeless. He was getting frustrated at his inability to draw, and I was getting frustrated looking at the drawing upside down.
Then, George had a brilliant idea. Pantomime! He went over and stood in the doorway of his office, faced me and said, “Okay, see if you can follow this. I’m standing in the doorway that leads out the Oval Office into the back rooms.” He then walks into his office and says, “I’m stepping into a hallway. It’s about 15 feet long.” He quickly turns to his right. “I’m now looking into the bathroom. It’s about yay big” and he holds out his arms. “There’s a sink on the left, a toilet on the right.” He turns. “I am now walking down the hallway and passing Clinton’s campaign button collection on either side of me.”
That’s when I smiled. First of all, this was working! I was getting what he was trying to do and sketching madly, but mostly I was amused at George’s mechanical movements as he strutted down the imaginary hallway robotically moving his arms to indicate Clinton’s button collection.
“I am turning to my left.” (I could obviously see him do this, but I enjoyed how he was describing his every move. He was so in to it!). “It’s the door to the study” (here we go!). “The room is so big by so big.” He points as he says, “There’s a writing desk on my left with a small TV set on it, a credenza with family photos on it along the back wall and a rocking chair next to that. On my right is Clinton’s golf club collection leaning against the wall.”
It was just what I needed. After he finished his incredibly successful visualization we really had something we could work with and we quickly fine-tuned the details of the sketch. (Although I forgot to ask some things. You’ll notice on the sketch that I scribbled “Window, one or two. Confirm.” You’ll also notice that George’s (Steph’s) office is indicated on the far left and that the dimensions were expanded a bit later in the final graphic.)
Here’s the sketch made in George’s office at Columbia University and the images that follow show the evolution of the graphic once I returned to the office.
We had little pads at Newsweek that allowed us to sketch rough layouts quickly. Here I went for the diagonal look to give the graphic more energy on the page. I didn’t have enough detail to zoom in on the study, so I kept the image simple and broad. The little boxes with Xs indicated where the photos would go of various people who occupied offices.
I then colored it up a bit, keeping it monochromatic since I didn’t know much about the actual color of things. Besides, a whole lot of color can distract from the message.
So, the Titanic sank 100 years ago, and it feels like that long ago since I made my only Titanic graphic! So much has changed in how we do them.
I was working for the wire service United Press International in 1985 when they discovered the wreck of the Titanic. Prior to the 80s, UPI was pretty big with thousands of media subscribers and nearly 100 news bureaus around the world. Back then, UPI was to the Associated Press what Newsweek was to Time and Avis to Hertz: a pain in their bigger competitor’s arse. Things began to go badly in the 80s when newsprint costs skyrocketed and newspapers had to cut back one of their costly news agencies (most took both) and by 1985 UPI had already declared bankruptcy once. Before I left in 1986 I had worked under four Presidents and three owners.
My job was to create news graphics for these subscribers as fast as was humanly possible. If you think news magazines have it rough with their weekly deadlines or newspapers with their daily deadlines, think again. We had deadlines every minute. At any given moment some news organization was on deadline somewhere in the world, and they were constantly calling my department to find out if a graphic would be ready before they had to put their publication to bed. Being in New York, we shot for East coast deadlines first and when we missed those, we we went West with the sun: Central, then Mountain and if we were really late we hoped to make Pacific (Hawaii anyone?).
Breaking news graphics were always fun to tackle, particularly back then. You had to really work for your content. Information and visual references were often scarce and there was no internet to go running to. If phone calls and faxes (we got one of the company’s first, in 1980) weren’t doing the trick for you, you took off for book stores, libraries, government agencies…EVERYTHING, in a cab!
So, after telling you all this, I don’t recall how I got my reference for my Titanic graphic, but I do know that it was done in a matter of hours, early enough to make EASTERN deadlines! This was all done with non-repro blue pencils and rulers for drawing its single-point perspective (here’s my video tutorial on perspective, which is approaching 1,000000 views!), Rapidograph pens, ruling tapes and and an Apple Lisa computer hooked up to a typesetter. The final ‘mechanical’ was then shot under a stat camera, captioned (typed with a manual typewriter onto sticky paper, which was then peeled and stuck onto the print) and transmitted to subscribers using the Unifax II photo system. Great for photos but just awful for graphics. They came out a bit blurry on the other side, so graphics had to have large type and be almost all black and white, with very little pattern tints on them. Still, we did all right.
In 1999 I was invited to a meeting in Newsweek managing editor, Jon Meacham’s, office to discuss a double gatefold (two pages that unfold to open into a four-page spread) to kick off the primaries for the following week’s election issue. A few others were there, including political reporter Jonathan Alter, National News Editor Tom Watson and AME for Design, Lynn Staley. These monster information graphics were printed on Friday night, a day before the rest of the magazine went to bed, to prevent a bottleneck at the presses.
SWIMMING IN CONTENT
I was the Director of Information Graphics and my dept. would be producing it over the course of four days. As we brainstormed ideas for content, I doodled in the margins of my notebook (below) as everyone tossed out their wish lists for content. The final list:
- explain for each party’s challenges and a key issue that the Republican and Democratic candidates would need to address in each state (that’s 100 text blocks!)
- profile the frontrunners on each side
- explain Super Tuesday and Southern Tuesday
- what are key states to win and why
- include a glossary to define terms like ‘superdelegate’
- show a timeline of when each state is holding it’s primary or caucus
- show the number of delegates in each state and break down how many were pledged to a candidate or were superdelegates
- profile the Republican and Democratic conventions: how many delegates would be needed to win the nomination, where are they being held, when, etc.
- oh wait! Don’t forget the Reform party. Explain their convention and candidates
With such a hodgepodge of elements, I needed a framework that would, in effect, take the reader by the hand and lead them though it all. For the first time in my career, I used the a game board approach, something I had always avoided and felt was a cliché.
So sue me.
Lynn Staley brought in the great caricature artist (and terrific guy) John Kascht, from Washington, D.C., to do the illustrations. We put him up at the uber-fancy Essex House hotel on New York’s Central Park West a few blocks away (I stayed there hundreds of glorious nights during my decade at Newsweek when deadlines prevented me from getting home to Connecticut) and, though we had an office set aside for him to use at Newsweek, he preferred to work from his hotel room (it DOES have sweeping views of Central Park… and room service!). As usual, he did a wonderful job, particularly on such a tight deadline.
SO, ABOUT THIS CRYING THING
Managing Editor Meacham had stopped by my office on Friday when the graphic was due to make sure that it would be at the printer by midnight. Being late was not an option. At 11 p.m. the graphic was done and I was relaxed and thinking about heading home.
The gatefold was moving along the proofing and copy-desk pipeline as I tweaked minor details in QuarkXpress and Adobe Illustrator, like fine-tuning the rotation of the 100 text blocks and gently nudging the .5 line of the timeline and the circular icons that paralleled the game board.
I GET BAD NEWS
Just then, one of our graphics researchers came into my office and said,
“Karl, it seems they’ve updated the Democratic timeline and some of the states have switched around.”
I thought, in a panic, that even if only one state was out of place it would mean that half the graphic would need a complete makeover! The state would have to wedge it in between two other states and slide all of the others around the game board to make room. Icons would have to move, all the text blocks would have to be carefully rotated into precise position and the timeline would have to be completely re-done. My blood drained.
“How many states?” I asked.
“WHAT? How could we not know this?”
It was true. My fight or flight response immediately kicked in and my senses sharped, anticipating the brain challenge ahead. I flew to the door and called in our intern, Stephen Totilo, who was about as intelligent as a human being gets, and sat him next to me, asking him to help me solve this puzzle and tell me where each state was supposed to be. He was brilliant.
“Move Alabama up here…slide Montana down here…insert California here….”
At midnight, Meacham came in and asked if we were done with the gatefold. I told him. Without expression, he said,
“Just come find me when it’s done.”
My boss, Lynn Staley, came in awhile later with a look of unbridled concern on her face.
THEN, I GET WORSE NEWS
Two hours later, at about 1:30 a.m., an hour and a half past deadline, we were still working on it when the researcher came in and said,
“Uh, Karl, it looks like we have the SAME ISSUE for the Republican side.”
I stared at the researcher as resignation washed over me and my body went limp. Fire me now. No, forget it, I’ll just quit my job. Being late meant that there would be a bottleneck which would delay the printing of Newsweek and, since the same trucks around the country delivered Time and a jillion other magazines, it would delay their delivery, too, as drivers waited around earning overtime.
All because of me.
But this graphic wasn’t going to get done by itself, so Stephen and I kept slugging away at this train wreck, struggling to re-d0 in hours what had initially taken four days to do. My stress level was at an all-time high. As the hours passed, the world around me vanished, except for the God-like voice of Stephen the Intern and the minutia of the graphic on my monitor. There could not be a single error on this spread. My body was stiff as I mechanically obeyed the orders that were barking in my ear.
At about 3:30 a.m. Lynn burst into my office with the suddenness of Kramer entering Seinfeld’s apartment.
“What’s happening here??”
And that’s when it happened. As I spun my chair around to face her I said, choked up by my own words and tears firing at her with the explosive power of SCUD missiles,
“This thing is all FUCKED UP!”
And I swung around right back to work. Realizing the best action was no action, Lynn returned to her office. At 5 a.m., with briefcase in hand and Humphrey Bogart raincoat tied at the waist, Meacham popped his head in the door and said,
“I”ll be in my apartment waiting. Send it over when your finished.”
Meacham read everything that went in the magazine, of course. Several of my staff were poring over parts of the graphic as we finished them, checking carefully for errors. We were used to all-nighters.
We sent the finished graphic over to Meacham at 7 a.m. My phone rang shortly after.
“It’s fine. Nice job.”
What a guy.
VIDEO WITH ME TALKING ABOUT THE GRAPHIC, LIKE NOTHING HAPPENED
Here is a short Newsweek election promo video that shows me talking about the gatefold (at the 3:00 mark).