Magazine story

Fuelled by adrenaline and pizza, the Bloomberg Businessweek team had just ten hours to produce its Steve Jobs tribute issue. Here’s how they did it

What were you doing on October 5 last year? Or to put it another way, where were you when you heard Steve Jobs died? Looking back at my diary I see
I was in the studio, my VAT bill was due, I had a phone meeting with a client and football training that evening. Just another day, then, until at some point rumours began to surface, and then Jobs’ death was confirmed via Twitter around lunchtime.

Not many news stories have the global effect this one had. Spontaneous shrines grew up at Apple stores across the world, and images of the offerings shared across the web, often shot with, uploaded via and emailed using Apple devices.

Although expected, this was big news, and perhaps none more so than for the team at US magazine Bloomberg Businessweek. If anyone personified the magazine’s crossover appeal of business seen within broader cultural contexts it was Steve Jobs. Overnight the magazine’s editorial and design team produced a special issue dedicated to Jobs, had it on sale the next day, and subsequently won multiple creative awards for the project, crowning these with a recent D&AD Yellow Pencil. As CR editor (and D&AD judge) Patrick Burgoyne put it in his recent blog post about the issue, “If you want a convincing argument for why printed magazines still have a role, the resulting issue provides it. Quite simply, this was a superb piece of publishing.”

Indeed it was; but anyone outside magazine publishing might struggle to sense the significance of what was achieved. So here is the story of that special Jobs issue.

Apple’s no 1 jerk

That afternoon at Bloomberg Businessweek’s Manhattan offices, the editorial team was ending a typically busy Wednesday. They had finessed the words and layouts – on their iMacs of course – and at about 6pm local time the issue had just shipped to the printers. The front cover led with Republican candidate Rick Perry, but also carried a headline about “Apple’s no1 jerk” (referring to Apple iOS exec Scott Forstall). Thoughts were now turning to the following week’s issue.

Then Jobs’ death was confirmed. The timing matched their worst-case scenario –  a vital story for their readership dropped just as they shipped an issue. Apart from anything else, was it appropriate to run with that Apple headline on the cover?

The team were partly prepared to deal with the Jobs story. “We’d been working on a plan for a couple of months so knew vaguely what we’d do,” explains BBW creative director Richard Turley. “This was very much our story, a Businessweek story. Jobs will be remembered as the Henry Ford of his time and we had to mark that.”

Photo editor Emily Keegan had dug up over 1,000 images for an opening visual essay about the cultural impact of Apple and Jobs, and three writers had been commissioned to write an essay each. Jobs had bought up the rights to every recent image, so photo director David Carthas had to look beyond formal portraits for the cover: “I started digging into anything of Jobs looking directly at the camera, and I ended up coming across one taken at an Apple event that I thought might work. We ended up converting it to black and white, stripped out the background and brought out some detail.”

A stark choice

Although this gave the project a significant head start, the team had always assumed they’d have a couple of days to make the magazine. Instead, they now faced a stark choice; ignore the story for a week, or scramble to make another issue. “I thought we might quickly make a second magazine and rush it out as an extra edition, but editor Josh Tyrangiel (who was on vacation but in the city) rushed back to the office and in consultation with senior colleagues made the decision to junk the finished issue and run with Jobs,” says Turley.

The first job was to plot the issue on the wall – like many magazines there’s a space dedicated to displaying the issue-in-progress. At first pass they had 15% of the content, a skeleton structure, around which they could position other content. Meeting every two or three hours in front of the printouts, the team pieced the issue together, aided by the lack of advertising.

Ads are often a complicating factor in editorial design, with last minute changes and additions crashing the carefully planned page order. To allow a clear run of editorial pages, for this one issue, all ads were dropped with those previously booked in pushed forward to the following week’s edition. But there were more urgent matters, like sorting a printer. Managing editor Kristin Powers was responsible for hitting deadlines.

“We were able to get back on press at 8am, which meant sending pages out around 6am to make the deadline for printing and distribution. One mis-step would throw off the entire project,” Powers says. They had ten hours to complete the issue.

With Tyrangiel back from his curtailed vacation, infographics editor Jennifer Daniels was called back from a day off sick with flu.

“I was in bed, so I found out like everyone else: on Twitter. My first reaction was ‘Oh Shit!’. My second was to text Richard.” Turley recalls her arriving still dressed in pyjamas, although Daniels insists that wasn’t the case. “The adrenaline pushed me forward but towards the end I was deteriorating. I could barely type or understand what words meant. The last thing I remember before going home to pass out was the sun rising.”

$900 worth of pizza

The relatively simple structure of the issue – essentially three distinct sections – meant there were only nine or ten InDesign files to work on, so other designers were sent home to rest and return early the next morning with fresh eyes. Sustenance came in the form of continual coffee and $900 worth of pizza. Daniels notes, “It was like the magazine was running a marathon but instead of eating bananas between miles we were stuffing our faces with pizza.”

With a five-day process compressed into ten hours, Turley’s experience designing the Guardian’s daily G2 section came into play. “As the night drew on we realised we were short of pages to fill the issue. I’ve done a few things like this before – the Glastonbury Guardian reports for instance – and I knew we could reconfigure the opening essay.” The result was four pages added to that essay, one of the highlights of the issue. Turley acknowledges a debt to Tibor Kalman as inspiration here, both his book Perverse Optimist and early Colors magazines.

The essay sets the tone for the entire 68-page issue. Bloomberg Businessweek is usually a hugely complex piece of editorial creation, with layer upon layer of variation and pace. For this issue, an enforced simplicity came into play that completely suited its subject’s minimalist outlook and the sombre occasion, while retaining the BBW character. Daniels again: “Everyone’s personal connection to Steve Jobs was channelled into their individual contributions. As the panic wore off the energy in the room leaned more towards celebrating Steve Jobs than mourning him.”

If pushed, Turley will point to a few parts he wasn’t happy with, noting what in his view is typographic naivety on some pages, but the fact is, despite the pressure under which it was created, the Steve Jobs issue is a very special piece of editorial design. The creation of such a well-designed yet quickly produced tribute to the man is also, of course, a thoroughly fitting tribute to his achievements with Apple. Could such a fast, successful turnaround have even been achieved pre-Apple?
The last word goes to Turley: “We received an amazing response to the issue, but perhaps the nicest moment was seeing pages from the issue added to those Apple store shrines.”

Jeremy Leslie runs magCulture.com blog. All magazine photography by David Bate/magCulture. More on BBW at businessweek.com

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