In 1981, as a junior journalism major at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Free Press, Larry Hackett (COM '83) spent his time hunched over typewritten drafts of articles, snoozing his way through copyediting class and, on one memorable occasion, being arrested for trespassing at Boston University Police Department in pursuit of a hot story. Nearly three decades later, Hackett returned to campus for a visit, this time as the managing editor of People Magazine, one of the most sparkling jewels in Time Inc.’s media crown.
In the years between paying for all his time at the FreeP by getting a D in copyediting and helming a multimillion dollar bidding war for exclusive U.S. rights to the first photographs of Brangelina’s twins, Hackett has plowed through the media ranks. He graduated from BU in 1983 and went on to report for the Morristown Daily Record, a 40,000 circulation daily in New Jersey, then moved on to the Newark Star Ledger. Next, Hackett took up residence at the New York Daily News, where he spent eight years “covering everything from the Branch Davidians in Waco to Woody Allen to the Oscars.”
For the last 12 years, Hackett has reported for work at People Magazine, where he was promoted to managing editor in 2006. With his silvery hair and crisply tailored suits and ties, Hackett is ranked by Mediaite as the world’s 15th most powerful magazine editor. In a recent stopover at COM, Hackett sat down with journalism major Kase Wickman (COM '10). He said he enjoys captaining the 3.7 million circulation magazine, whose blend of celebrity news and human interest stories “gives readers something they’ll enjoy without rotting their teeth out.” Visiting his alma mater, Hackett took a moment to reflect on his career, the media scene and which celebrity baby is the cutest.
KW: Why did you want to become a journalist?
LH: I had come the first day of my sophomore year in 1980 here at BU, I walked into the Free Press, said I wanted to work here. They gave me a story, which was covering a student government hearing. Came in, wrote it up, and the next day it was on page one, and I thought wow, I get ego gratification, I get to meet interesting people, and I don’t know if there’s anything else I can do. It appealed to my sort of low-level sense of ADD, in that every day is different, and you’re basically having conversations and exploring your curiosity. It seemed like a great way to make a living and make a career.
KW: And so you were writing for a number of years. Do you prefer writing or editing, and how did you get into editing?
LH: I got into editing to do something else. I liked being a reporter and it was all in newspapers then. I think I was a better writer than reporter, but I think I was ambitious, and thought that the idea was that you had to become editor. At least for me, I wasn’t going to become a columnist, I wasn’t going to become a superstar reporter. I think I recognized that my skills weren’t that good for that, but I think I saw something in editing that I could be good at as far as organizing groups of people and having ideas about the approach and maybe leading groups of people, so I went that way, and I think that’s worked out ok.
KW: You majored in journalism and there’s been a lot of debate in the last, well, forever, about whether journalism is a worthy major. Is J-school obsolete?
LH: I wouldn’t say it’s obsolete. I will confess, I spent most of my time working at the student newspaper. In fact, if anybody looked at my transcripts, they’d discover that some of the grades I got here in journalism school weren’t so great. On the other hand, you can’t teach people curiosity. If you’re not fundamentally curious and don’t enjoy discovering other people or things or something that you can then communicate to somebody else, then you shouldn’t be in this field… If you want to be a tennis player, you should play a lot of tennis. If you want to be a journalist, you should spend a lot of time learning, doing, exploring and hanging around with other journalists, so I’m not opposed to the idea.
KW: And how do you keep up standards of integrity and quality? You’re a TIME Inc. magazine, but you also share space with supermarket gossip magazines and tabloids.
LH: It can be difficult sometimes to do that, because it’s tempting always to cut corners and to perhaps produce a cover story that may appear to be more sexy and salacious or fantastic, but the fact of the matter is that it isn’t. And my role is to maintain the long view, the idea that our honesty and integrity and faithfulness to facts that have gotten us to where we are now… If you stick with that, readers will come to you over and over again.
KW: What’s your definition of news? Is it what sells magazines, or is it spinach, what people should know but may not necessarily crave?
LH: I think news, to use your food metaphor, is spinach—I usually use broccoli, but we’ll use spinach for your purposes—as well as candy. One of the things people I know maybe criticize the magazine like People for is that it’s not important. I don’t know if it always has to be important. If it’s interesting or amusing or exciting, or even escapist, there’s nothing wrong with that…I think it means something that may amuse you. And then may entertain you. It’s up to the reader and up to those who consume the news to decide how much of that they want.
KW: You said that People is a mix of celebrity, news and human interest. Do you think that a new magazine with the same mix as people would be able to start up today?
LH: I really don’t know. I have my doubts about that. We live in such a niche world, that the idea of such a general interest magazine—the words ‘general interest’ are said in the magazine world like the word ‘liberal’ is in Washington—it’s not something that people think is necessarily viable anymore…If you look at what’s come up in the past five years, they tend to be mostly solely celebrity magazines, at least in our space… I don’t know if you could convince the modern day publisher to say here’s the kind of magazine that’s going to have real people and celebrities and you know all over the place.
KW: Do you learn from other publications?
LH: I think, like anything, you have to learn from other publications, either what to do, or what not to do. …Peoples’ time is of the essence now, and a lot of this information is ubiquitous, so if you’re writing about anything from Tiger Woods to Jennifer Aniston’s dresses, you need to find a way to tell that that’s unique and fun and hasn’t been seen, because there are dozens of websites and TV shows that are doing that, probably before you are.
KW: What’s your policy on paying for stories or photos?
LH: We have paid for photographs, a fair amount. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’d rather not pay, because I don’t like parting with the money and I don’t like the sense that it could create the appearance of a conflict. Here’s how I justify it: When we buy a photograph of a baby or a wedding or something like that, the purchase of the photographs is not altering the reality of what occurred. Those people did indeed get married, or they did indeed have a baby… I think at the end of the day, it’s about being transparent to the reader. If you tell the reader yes, we paid money for these photographs of a wedding, and here it is, they can decide whether or not there’s something icky about that.
KW: And how does the website factor into your thinking?
LH: I think what we do in terms of differentiating the magazine and the web experience is pretty good. The web experience for People.com is basically ongoing, up to the minute news of the celebrity world. In fact, the website is different from the magazine in that it pretty much just celebrity and style and pictures. There’s occasionally human interest, but not that much. It’s for people who are generally at work looking online getting up to the minute news and what’s going on… The magazine experience is a different metabolism. It’s more nuanced, it’s more narrative, it’s much more encompassing, it’s more historical context. It’s more storytelling. The web isn’t about storytelling so much as it is about fact delivering.
KW: What’s the best advice you can give a young journalist?
LH: Be as curious as you can. Don’t worry about the platform, I think telling stories on the web or a magazine or in the newspaper or on an iPad isn’t that important. I think the idea is follow your curiosity, follow what interests you…If you are curious, and you are empathetic, and you want to know someone else’s story, you are going to do very, very well.
KW: Okay, so who’s got the cutest celebrity baby?
LH: Wow, that’s a dangerous territory to go in, but somewhere between Halle Berry and any of the Angelina/Brad spawn.
KW: Finally, what ‘s changed most about the BU campus?
LH: It’s a lot brighter it was before, and people look a lot happier. It had a certain dreariness, I must say, in the past, that it is lacking right now. Obviously it’s a beautiful spring day, but I see a certain spring in the step of people here that I think is great.
Kase Wickman is COM’s first winner of a Village Voice Media Foundation Fellowship. She will begin working at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis in July, 2010.