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Jay Lovinger: The Yoda of Magazine Writing 3 min read

Jay Lovinger: The Yoda of Magazine Writing

By Cary Littlejohn

Sometimes through word of a person’s death, we’re made aware of how much we missed out on by not knowing the person. Jay Lovinger was one of those people for me. News of Lovinger’s death was my introduction to the man’s legacy, and as I’ve journeyed down the bottomless rabbit hole that is the internet, the feeling of discovery is supplanted by a feeling of loss. It came upon me fast, a regret for dinners never shared, stories I’ll never hear, a mentor forever unavailable. Of course, there’s no guarantee any of those things would have ever come to pass, but now the certainty that they won’t fills me with sadness.

Lovinger, a giant in the world of magazine writing, died on August 25, 2019 at the age of 75. He worked for ESPN for more than 15 years, helping launch Page 2 on the network’s website. Before his time with ESPN, he worked at Inside Sports, People, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post Magazine, and Life.

I discovered Lovinger by way of discovering The Stacks Reader, an online collection of classic journalism which I can’t recommend highly enough. Alex Belth posted there in memory of Lovinger. Belth collected a few words of wisdom from Lovinger, and they make clear why so many held him in such high esteem.

As if looking into my soul across space and time, Lovinger said of writers:

Writing is a very hard way to earn a living. One of the things about being a writer I’ve always felt, is you have to be incredibly arrogant to think people want to read what you have to say about anything. And you have to be incredibly insecure to be driven to learning and getting better instead of just doing the same thing over and over again. Arrogance and insecurity is a good mix—maybe not for a husband or a father—for a writer.

On the difference between fact and truth, Lovinger’s reasoning makes me hope I might one day be a trusted practitioner of the latter:

…I believe there are writers who if you were there and they were there and they could write a piece that would contain some non-factual stuff but their piece would give you a truer sense of what you saw yourself. They would tell you something about what happened that day that you yourself didn’t know even though you saw the thing yourself. So there’s something called fact, and something called truth.

This past week, I saw the first Vox magazine sent to the printer with my name on it as Deputy Editor. Brand new to the position, I learned just how differently a feature looks for an editor; before, I’d only seen it from the perspective of a writer. Lovinger was the type of editor I want to write for, and more than that, he’s the type of editor I want to be. He said:

…I’ve become much more empathetic with writers. I’m able to figure out what they are trying to do and help them do it. And I like that feeling and people respond to it. I tell writers a lot—and I really mean it—“I’m not trying to make this piece into anything, I’m trying to help you do the best you’re trying to do as well as possible.

I want to learn from Lovinger, who said he waited much too late in his career to start asking two simple questions of his writers: “1) What do you want the reader to come out thinking when they are finished reading this piece? 2) What is it that you are trying to get across to the reader?”

Too often, Lovinger said, writers can’t answer the questions. But once they can, they feel more in control of the piece instead of feeling it’s a thing they’ve ceded control over to the editor. It would serve my writing well if I remember to answer those questions, too.

The vast majority of Belth’s post collects the praise of writers whose pieces were improved by Lovinger. And make no mistake: He edited some of the all-time greats, a murderer’s row of talent, and many of them have sung Lovinger’s praises over the years.  The warmth of the remembrances was not just telling of Lovinger’s personality but also inspiring in terms of aspirational goals for my own life.

The very talented Tommy Tomlinson, whose piece on former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen was edited by Lovinger, wrote of him:

Jay loved great movies and great novels. He loved a good ball game. He loved his wife and daughters. He loved all the writers he had nurtured over the years. Some of them would show up at his house, needing an edit, and they would sit side by side and turn words into art…I know for sure that Jay Lovinger will live on in everything I write, and in how I hope to live, and I know that’s true for so many of the people he touched. His knowledge and creativity and wisdom made so much of the world better, down to this little essay. He wasn’t here to edit it, except he was.

Give me that life. Oh, that someone might say those words about me someday. If so lucky, it’ll be evidence that I did something right.