National Magazine Award Finalists

The New York Observer today has a very moving article recognizng the two National Magazine Awards finalist nominations 5280 won last week for articles written by Maximillian Potter, executive editor of Denver's glossy city magazine, 5280. The awards are in the Reporting and Public Interest categories. It describes how Max went from being a New York writer to moving to Denver and writing for 5280.

Mr. Potter, 33, abandoned New York in 2003, after being chewed up by the magazine business. He had been fired as a GQ staff writer by newly installed editor Jim Nelson, then had seen a pair of major pieces commissioned and rejected by Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone. Those killed pieces ended up in 5280.

Max gives a lot of credit to 5280 publisher Dan Brogan. As I was reading Maxmillian describe Dan's support, I was nodding my head in agreement. I've been blogging daily for 5280 for several months now (here's last week's group of posts), and Dan and I confer by e-mail a few times each day and evening. He is as supportive as Maxmillian describes. He's also incredibly gracious. He has never refused to publish any of my posts, even the opinionated ones, and when criticism has come in about a few of them, he has reminded the critic that 5280 is a magazine and writers have opinions. If he edits my posts, it is with such a light touch that I don't notice. On the other hand, when I'm stuck looking for a word or pithy phrase, the kind that don't come naturally to lawyers, he's always got one ready when I ask.

I hope you will read Maximillian's articles. They are top-notch. My hat is off to him. The first is Conduct Unbecoming, about the rape trial of an Air Force cadet everyone assumed was guilty. From the Observer article linked above:

Mr. Potter found a short clip about Douglas Meester, an Air Force Academy sophomore accused of rape, a claim stemming from a drunken night with a classmate. “I called the family and had three months of conversations with the alleged rapist’s father,” Mr. Potter said. “In the court of public opinion, locally and nationally, this kid was being presumed guilty. And I thought, ‘Well, O.K., let’s take a look.’ The more I got into it, what became evident to me—in my opinion, at least—was that this kid was innocent.”

The magazine describes the article as:

In its awards-ceremony bios, ASME will describe the piece, which is nominated in the reporting category, this way: “Denver’s 5280 magazine sent Maximillian Potter to cover a rape at the Air Force Academy. Instead, through dogged and painstaking reporting, Potter uncovered an Academy plot to scapegoat a cadet and ‘prove’ it could ‘get tough’ on a crime it had largely ignored. 5280’s reporting exonerated the cadet and led to high-level dismissals.”

But, there is so much more to the story behind it. After Men's Journal, which originally had commissed the piece, backed out, and Rolling Stone wasn't interested, Maximillian approached Dan and 5280.

Mr. Potter had responded to a Mediabistro listing for a senior writer job at an obscure Colorado magazine. Mr. Brogan, who had maxed out his credit cards in 1993 to start 5280, was looking for a serious investigative journalist. When Mr. Potter explained his trials with the Air Force Academy piece, Mr. Brogan agreed on the spot to run it—even though his magazine had no lawyer on retainer to vet it. “Conduct Unbecoming” ran in the February/March 2004 issue.

... Mr. Potter choked up when he talked about the risk that Mr. Brogan took in publishing that piece. A few months ago, he said, a government subpoena landed on his desk, demanding his notes from the story in connection with another alleged rape case. “Dan Brogan didn’t blink,” he said. They rebuffed the subpoena, hired a pricey lawyer and won.

Maximillian's second award-winning article, Private Stites Should Have Been Saved, followed the same route. Again, from the Observer:

While working on the Meester story, he said, he learned about Army Pvt. Nolan Stites, a Colorado Springs native who entered basic training in the summer of 2000. Weeks after starting, Mr. Stites showed signs of serious depression. After some time on suicide watch, Mr. Stites threw himself from a third-story window.

Mr. Potter tracked down Richard Stites, the boy’s father. His son, Mr. Stites said, had been berated, isolated and misdiagnosed. The writer went to the family’s house and watched as the boy’s parents unrolled a quilt they’d stitched out of their son’s old T-shirts. Mr. Potter cried right there in the living room, he said.

After Men's Journal and Rolling Stone declined the article, Maximillian sent it to Dan and 5280.

Mr. Brogan, Mr. Potter said, was the “anti-them, the anti–New York magazine editor.” So he gave the second piece to 5280, moved his family to Denver and put Manhattan behind him....“In truth,” said Mr. Brogan, “I think the public would have been better served if both of those pieces had run in magazines with the kind of readership and circulation those guys have. But I was thrilled to publish them.”

Since the award announcements, 5280 is getting a lot more resumes. Maximillian, while grateful for the vindication, says:

It’s frustrating. I’m not an anomaly. There are a lot of talented writers trying to do exactly those sorts of stories, and they’re not getting the chance.”

My last e-mail from Dan was this morning at 9:00 a.m. while he was on the train to the B-concourse of Denver's airport, en route to Hawaii for Spring Break with his wife and son. I had just emailed him the news of the outcome of the Lisl Auman decision. While on that 60-second train ride, using his Treo, he put up a post on 5280 letting readers know about the decision and linkng to my TalkLeft coverage.

Here's hoping for some more Dan Brogans - hands-on, talented publishers who are journalists in their own right, willing to trust their writers and take a chance on material that MSM publications won't touch. I'm proud to be a tiny part of the 5280 family.

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    Re: National Magazine Award Finalists (none / 0) (#1)
    by cp on Mon Mar 28, 2005 at 08:46:19 PM EST
    i'm shocked! i assumed lawyers took a class in "pithy phrases" in law school. i believe it was part of the curriculum, at the schools i was considering. lol of course, i could have been mistaken, that might have been "pissy phrases". it was soooooo long ago!

    Re: National Magazine Award Finalists (none / 0) (#2)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 09:58:53 AM EST
    He definitely sounds like a lost breed. May there be more of him.