The Editor’s Desk

With the possible exceptions of who assigns the arrows in the Conventional Wisdom Watch and where to send My Turn submissions, the question we are asked most frequently is how we decide what goes on the cover. Like politics, editing is an art, not a science, and these calls are driven by multiple factors, many of which were in play in pulling together the issue you are now reading.

One of our perennial dilemmas is when to go with news on the cover (in this case, the California fires) and when to showcase enterprise reporting (in this case, the spread of food allergies in children).

The honest answer is that it depends. (Not a stunning revelation, I know, but, in a phrase attributed to Henry Kissinger, it has the virtue of being true.) Here is how we came to decide this time. A news story—the fires—broke early in the week. Television, the Web (including and the papers provided saturation coverage, which raised a question for us: What could we offer our print readers next week (now this week) that they had not seen elsewhere? Would more people be engaged by a broader cover about health and science while still getting an inside package on the fires, based on reporting about the issue of arson?

In this case, we think the answer is yes, and that this is a more interesting issue with both stories. (And a lot of others: in addition to Evan Thomas, Karen Breslau and Andrew Murr on the arson question and Jamie Reno's account of his family's experience with the fires, see Michael Hirsh on Iran, Michael Isikoff on the release of a Qaeda bomber, Larry McMurtry's essay for us on Cormac McCarthy, Ellis Cose on the outbreak of racially motivated noose incidents, the debut of N'Gai Croal's American Geek column, Peter Plagens on Picasso and Cathleen McGuigan on Janet Malcolm, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.)

Finally, two dispatches from the fronts of our two major stories this week. After she closed her story about allergies, Claudia Kalb had this to say: "Reporting on the immune system is a little like trying to understand how the universe works. Both are vast, awesome, incredibly complex. I have to tip my hat to the scientists. Not only did they spend hours explaining the inner workings of the body's defense system to me—what they know and what they readily admit they don't know—they also got me excited about the prospect that, one day, they might be able to stop food allergies before they start, maybe even eliminate them altogether. No more sickness from scrambled eggs or peanut butter; no more fear. These are truly exciting times in food-allergy research—good for the kids in our story and, on a personal note, important for me as the mother of a 9-month-old baby. The more reporting I did, the more I appreciated the devastating impact allergies can have on children and their families. As I introduce my son to new foods, I'm watching for reactions—and feeling thankful when the worst thing that happens is he sticks out his tongue."

And from California, Andrew Murr writes: "Between August and November, I listen closely to weather reports for the advent of the bone-dry Santa Ana winds that blow for days on end off the desert, a necessary first step to large fires. In just hours, a small spark can set off a fire that burns hundreds of acres and attacks neighborhoods at the urban edge. My foreboding isn't personal. My family lives in the middle of the city, miles from the nearest chaparral country. (One exception: a quarter of nearby Griffith Park, L.A.'s large urban park, burned this summer, threatening the zoo and the Observatory.) It's professional. I know I'll probably find myself on a fire line. This year was bound to be particularly bad." And it was.