Crimson Colleagues Reunite at Newsweek Magazine

When Jonathan Alter ’79 began his sophomore year at Harvard, he enrolled in a general education class called “Space, Time and Motion.” After a week of struggling through incomprehensible problem sets, he dropped the class—only to find that his buddy from the daily campus newspaper, Mark Whitaker ’79, was TFing a section of the course after acing it his freshman year.

“Mark was easily the most intimidating person in our class,” Alter says of Whitaker. “He managed to do a lot of work on The Crimson and also to do very well academically, which is rare.”

“Space, Time, and Motion” may not have been Alter’s strong suit in college, but today neither space nor time separates Alter and Whitaker, who have worked side-by-side at Newsweek magazine for the past 21 years.

Whitaker, who serves as editor of the magazine, met Alter, a columnist and senior editor, when they were both comping The Crimson in the winter of their first year at Harvard in 1975. They’ve been friends—and colleagues—ever since.

Whitaker began interning at Newsweek after his sophomore year, and hasn’t worked at another publication since. Alter, who serves as Whitaker’s unofficial adviser, a “minister without portfolio,” has been writing a regular column for the magazine for over a decade.

Under their guidance, Newsweek has garnered two National Magazine Awards in the last three years—in 2002 for its coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath, and last year for its war reporting.

Whitaker and Alter both stress the importance of fresh reporting and fresh writing to keep the magazine alive.

“I’ve tried to make Newsweek a more substantive magazine,” Whitaker says. “There is nothing more powerful than sheer reporting, than breaking stories.”

Whitaker even met his wife, Alexis Gelber, at the magazine as well. Gelber, who began writing for Newsweek shortly after she graduated from Barnard College, has served as the editor of Newsweek’s international edition, an associate managing editor and now the publication’s director of special projects.

Before Gelber and Whitaker first met, they shared a byline: “Alexis Gelber, with Mark Whitaker, on the Cote D’Azur.” Whitaker had submitted a file from the Paris bureau that Gelber used to report one of her very first stories on the job (which, incidentally, turned out quite well).

“A cousin of mine called me,” Gelber says, “and said, ‘What’s going on over there at Newsweek? You’ve only been on the job for a week and you’re already running around the south of France with some guy!’”

The two finally met and started talking at an office Christmas party about a year later—and they’ve been talking ever since.

But working so closely with friends has its risks, Alter points out.

“People often wonder if we were competitive over the years,” he says. “But we weren’t because we were always working in different realms. Mark rose in management, and I rose in reporting.”

FINDING THEIR ROOTS

Whitaker, the son of academics, came to Harvard after an unhappy year at Swarthmore College. And while Alter, a Chicago native, may have found his future boss “intimidating,” the awe was mutual.