Chicago magazine’s Babcock: Can you judge an editor by his covers?
Babcock’s intelligence and good taste were reflected in the decisions he made as editor — both in the narrative stories he chose to publish and in the writers whose careers he advanced.
Along the way, he managed to survive three owners (including the current Tribune Co. regime) and picked up what he proudly called “the Oscar of our business” in 2004, when Chicago became the first city monthly ever to win a National Magazine Award for general excellence from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
No replacement has been named for Babcock, 64, who’ll step down as editor April 15, but stay on through June as a special advisor. Whoever succeeds him will face not only the unenviable task of replacing a legend, but the challenge of competing in an exceedingly tough market.
It’s true that Babcock never strayed from the publication’s main editorial mission as a service magazine for the well-heeled. The vast majority of cover stories under his leadership highlighted spring fashions, summer pleasures, fall fashions, great getaways, shopping bargains, top doctors, home values, salaries, and restaurants, restaurants and more restaurants. What began in 1952 as a program guide to classical music station WFMT-FM (98.7) and morphed into a monthly magazine in 1970 had settled on a profitable formula that mixed unabashed consumerism with a dose of civic conscience.
Of the nearly 240 issues Babcock oversaw, no one appeared upfront more often than Richard M. Daley, whose tenure as mayor closely paralleled Babcock’s run as editor. “I’m obviously following the example recently set by Mayor Daley,” he told colleagues in his farewell announcement. “But I think I’m leaving the magazine in better shape than he’s leaving the city.” (Babcock also seemed to have a soft spot for actress, Playboy Playmate and Mother McAuley grad Jenny McCarthy, who turned up on three covers, tying with Oprah Winfrey.)
Chicago magazine’s covers of the last few years have shown an ascendancy of marketing over editorial interests, and perhaps reflected the cynicism of Tribune Co. management during the era of recently departed CEO Randy Michaels. To me, last month’s cover on “50 Most Beautiful Chicagoans” marked a new low — and what I saw as a departure from Babcock’s standards.
But viewed over the length of his distinguished career here, many of Babcock’s covers were provocative, compelling and journalistically solid. Here are my picks for his 20 best Chicago magazine covers over the last 20 years:
- July 1991 Clout: 50 Chicagoans Who Really Pull the Strings (The Big Four: Richard M. Daley, James R. Thompson, Dan Rostenkowski, Michael J. Madigan)
- July 1992 Saving the City: Advice from Sam Skinner, Laura Washington, Cardinal Bernardin, Ed Paschke, and 16 other Chicagoans
- October 1992 Does She Have It? Carol Moseley Braun and the Senate race America is watching
- March 1993 The Killing Fields: An ace homicide squad tracks the city’s murder epidemic
- July 1993 Racing for a Cure: On the front lines of research at the U of C cancer center
- December 1994 Horses, Money, Murder: How the five-year probe of a notorious lothario who romanced rich, lonely women uncovered a brutal scam on the swank show-horse circuit, and perhaps solved the disappearance 17 years ago of candy heiress Helen Brach
- April 1995 Un-Covering the News: Who’s good and who’s bad on local TV — and which shows just waste your time
- January 1998 The Power 100: Who’s got the most clout in town — and who’s lost it? (No. 1: Richard M. Daley)
- March 1999 100 Movers and Shakers: Titans, writers, socialites, jocks, pols — yes, even Scarface — we rank the most important Chicagoans of the century. Care to argue? (No. 1: Richard J. Daley. No. 28: Richard M. Daley — between Milton Friedman and Jesse Jackson Sr.)
- March 2001 Where Are the Women Bosses? The sad record of Chicago companies in cracking the glass ceiling
- February 2003 The Real Ann Landers: The inside story of the plucky dynamo who dispensed advice to millions but struggled with some of her closest relationships
- April 2003 Overrated and Underrated: 20 Chicago legends and icons — with too much hype —and 20 worth another look
- March 2004 The New South Side: A special report on the remarkable boom that’s transforming a historic slice of the city
- July 2004 The Mystery of Mayor Daley: He’s enormously powerful and overwhelmingly popular. So why does he let repeated scandals tarnish his administration and threaten his legacy?
- September 2005 The Catholics of Chicago: At a pivotal moment, an inside look at the church here
- December 2005 Classic City: 25 Treasures of Vanishing Chicago
- March 2006 2008? Barack Obama: A run for president? A VP draft? He says no. But could it happen?
- September 2008 Like Father . . .? Comparing the Daleys: A candid look at the father and son who have dominated this city over the last half century
- December 2008 Oprah Unbound: After 25 years, the TV diva has opened new directions in her life, from politics to a $50-million California hangout. Will it change her?
- February 2009 Michelle: A Chicago Story (Profile of first lady Michelle Obama)