IT WILL SHOCK AND DISTURB YOU—OR MAYBE it won’t—to learn that there are no original ideas in the magazine business; there are only good, worthwhile, creative riffs on original ideas. All of us who assign stories know what we like, and our job is to figure out how to do it better, with a spin or a twist that’s particularly appropriate to our audience. I’m sure there are self-described geniuses out there right this minute insisting that this isn’t so, that every one of their ideas is blindingly original, but trust me, we’re all swimming in the same pool.
Exhibit A: The selling proposition of last month’s big service piece, “The 63 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die,” was inspired, if you can call it that, by a year-old National Magazine Award—nominated GQ gem called “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die.” I was hesitant to “borrow” GQ’s conceit for about eight seconds, until it occurred to me that they too had “borrowed” it; from the beginning of time, magazines have been doing such stories. We considered fiddling with the precise language—“The 63 Tacos You Meet in Heaven”?—but then thought, no, they had it just right. Or, a generation before them, someone else did. In any case, if the author of the GQ story, the venerable critic Alan Richman, feels aggrieved, I’ll buy him a taco.
Exhibit B: covers. Whether or not he’ll admit it, every magazine editor, and every art director, for that matter, comes into the job with the image of a classic cover in his mind and a desire to improve on it, rip it off, pay homage to it, or some combination of the above. The May 2005 issue of Vibe, the music magazine, was one of my favorite covers in recent years: It featured three slain hip-hop stars (Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and Jam Master Jay) standing among