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Who knew? Truth be told, too many internships consist of glorified grunt work. You sign on at some company for the bare minimum wage-if you’re being paid at all-then typically you’re used and abused for three months before you’re sent packing with a smile and a pat on the back. So why would Mark Whitaker, who started as a Newsweek intern at the ripe age of 19 have expected anything different?
Whether he had any indication of just how long he’d be anchored to the publication is irrelevant now. The fact is, Whitaker, now 41, was recently appointed editor of Newsweek magazine-making him the first African American editor of a mainstream news weekly. Whitaker, who has served as the magazine’s managing editor for two years, succeeds Maynard Parker, the publication’s longtime editor who died following complications from leukemia.
Whitaker officially joined Newsweek as a full-time reporter in 1981, working in the magazine’s international section before becoming business editor in 1987. He served as an assistant managing editor from 1991-95, where he helped expand the technology coverage, launching a monthly “Focus on Technology” section and weekly “Cyberscope” page.
“I’m proud and think it’s a great thing for black folks,” he says of his appointment. “Whenever one of us shows we can do something that hadn’t been possible before, it’s good and just opens people’s eyes. And hopefully this leads to opportunities for others in the industry.”
Whitaker’s selection as editor comes when the media, both television and print, are under increasing scrutiny for internal diversity efforts. One study, conducted by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, noted a precipitous plunge in minority hiring. The Medill survey of 162 consumer magazines in 1995 indicated that while 4.7% of editorial positions were filled by African Americans, that already low number dropped to 3.3% in 1997.
Yet for his part, Whitaker believes his appointment is a sign of gradual improvements occurring in the industry. “Everything is a function of what you think is possible for yourself. I think it will be very hard for blacks to go into certain kinds of professions and do what’s necessary to rise to the top unless they feel eventually it may pay off in having a shot at some of the top jobs,” he says. “My experience says it’s possible. If you go to work at a publication like Newsweek, put in the time, rise through the ranks and do a good job, it’s possible to rise to the top. You no longer have to think what’s the point of putting in those years because in the end you’re going to knock your head against a ceiling.”
His first tasks as editor will be reversing some downward trends at the magazine. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, Newsweek’s ad pages dipped by 5.1% through late last year and paid circulation also took a hit, down 1.5%. To that end, Whitaker plans to expand coverage in a number of areas, including religion, science, technology and family issues. One of his pet projects is expanding