6 minute read

Mark Whitaker Biography



Whitaker, Mark, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos.

Near the end of 1998, Newsweek announced it had named veteran staff journalist Mark Theis Whitaker to the post of editor. Whitaker, who had worked for the magazine in various capacities, became the first African American editor of a major news weekly in the United States. As Carl Swanson remarked about Whitaker in the New York Observer, "His quiet, seemingly inevitable rise through the thicket of Ivy-educated overachievers at Newsweek says much more about his ability to play quiet clubhouse diplomacy than anything else."

Whitaker was born on September 7, 1957, in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Norton, Massachusetts. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1979. His college roommate, Jonathan Alter (who would also become a senior editor at Newsweek) noted in the New York Observer that Whitaker "was the smartest person in our circle. A rare combination of powerfully intelligent and powerfully disciplined." While attending Harvard, Whitaker played tennis, served on the editorial board of the famed Harvard Crimson, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. In 1977, he began his career at Newsweek as a reporting intern at the magazine's San Francisco bureau. His boss at the time, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief Mel Elfin, told the New York Observer that Whitaker was "relatively quiet, relatively funny and awfully good."

Upon graduating from Harvard in 1979, Whitaker won a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford University's Balliol College. He then returned to Newsweek and worked as a stringer for the Boston, Washington, and Paris bureaus. In 1981, he joined Newsweek's full-time New York City staff. Six years later, Whitaker was named as Newsweek's business editor, taking over the position only a few days before the stock market crash of 1987. "I got lucky," Whitaker told Swanson in the New York Observer. "We'd decided to put the jitters on the cover the week before. They were on the stands that Monday"–a day widely known as Black Monday, when the Dow Jones average slid to its greatest one-day drop since 1914.

As Newsweek's business editor, Whitaker led readers through the complex stories of insider trading scandals and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. In 1991, he was named assistant managing editor and, in this capacity, was able to expand the magazine's coverage of technology issues. Newsweek added a "Cyberscope" page, introduced a special monthly "Focus on Technology" section, and issued an annual special edition called Computers and the Family. As assistant managing editor, Whitaker also oversaw several special-issue editions of Newsweek, including issues devoted to the Olympic Games and the first Clinton inauguration. He also wrote essays on the issue of race and was widely praised for his article in Newsweek entitled "Whites v. Blacks." It was published immediately after O.J. Simpson's 1995 acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife and another man.

In 1996, Whitaker was named managing editor at Newsweek and served as deputy to the magazine's editor, Maynard Parker. Parker was known for his lively style and was credited with reviving Newsweek during the early 1980s. Whitaker's duties as managing editor included producing special issues, such as the retrospective of the 1996 presidential election. In August of 1997, the Newsweek staff had already put the magazine "to bed" for the week when news broke that Princess Diana had been killed in a Paris car crash. Whitaker returned to Newsweek's offices, called in the staff, and put together a special report on her death. When Parker was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997, Whitaker became interim editor. During this time, he oversaw the magazine's coverage of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair as it unfolded.

After Maynard Parker's death from leukemia, Whitaker was named editor of Newsweek on November 10, 1998. He became the first African American to hold such an influential job at a weekly news magazine. "At a news weekly magazine–where the job of editor includes signing off on every story, cover headline, chart, photograph and 'pull quote'–the influence of the editor is felt to the core of the publication," explained Alex Kuczynski of the New York Times.

Whitaker, noted Kuczynski in the New York Times, "is regarded by his staff as a strong, even-keeled intellectual presence, less seismic in his deadline fervor than Mr. Parker." Whitaker immediately declared his intention to attract a younger demographic of readers to Newsweek. "I think we do an extremely good job covering the Baby Boom generation, and we will continue to do so as we get older," he remarked in the New York Times. "But I want this to be a must-read for younger readers as well."

Following his promotion to editor, Whitaker downplayed the issue of race. "I'm proud and I'm honored to be in this position," he told Kuczynski in the New York Times, "but my goal is to be the very best editor of Newsweek that I can be, not just the best black editor." He did concede, however, in an interview with Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, that he was "very interested in the racial question here in America, not just between blacks and whites but Hispanics and Asians and the changing demographics of the country. Perhaps I have a little more sensitivity to that issue than other people might have." But Whitaker added in Black Enterprise that his appointment to the top position at Newsweek is a sign of improvements. "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."

Since his appointment, Whitaker has concentrated on increasing advertising dollars and paid subscriptions. While Whitaker felt he had inherited a "pretty good magazine," as he told Black Enterprise, he did institute some changes. Keeping the magazine's dedication to sound reporting techniques, Whitaker revamped coverage of several topics, including religion, science, and social issues, and added expanded coverage of technology. Under his editorship, Newsweek won the industry's most prestigious award, the National Magazine Award for general excellence, twice: in 2002 for coverage of the September 11th terrorist attacks and in 2004 for coverage of the war in Iraq.

At a Glance …

Born on September 7, 1957, in Lower Merion, Pennsylvannia; married Alexis Gelber (a journalist), 1985; children: Rachel Eva, Matthew Edward. Education: Harvard College, BA, 1979; attended Balliol College, Oxford University, Marshall Scholar, 1979-81; Wheaton College, LLD.

Career: Newsweek, San Francisco bureau, intern, 1977; Newsweek, stringer from Boston, Washington, and Paris; Newsweek, New York City, full-time journalist, 1981; Newsweek, business editor, 1987-91; Newsweek, assistant managing editor, 1991-96; Newsweek, managing editor and deputy to editor, 1996-97; Newsweek, interim editor, 1997-98, and editor, 1998–.

Memberships: National Association of Black Journalists; American Society of Magazine Editors, president, 2004–; Council on Foreign Relations; Century Association; Phi Beta Kappa.

Addresses: Office—Newsweek, 251 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019-1894.

Whitaker is married to Alexis Gelber, the managing editor of Newsweek International, with whom he has two children. They live in New York City, where despite his stature as one of the most influential editorial executives in the nation, Whitaker is largely unrecognized. "Editing a magazine is like conducting an orchestra," he told Kurtz in the Washington Post. "It's about getting the right sound. It's not about how flamboyant you are and what your personality is."



Black Enterprise, April 1999, p. 20.

Boston Globe, November 11, 1998, pp. F1, 4.

Jet, November 30, 1998, p. 31.

Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1998, p. A16.

Media Industry Newsletter, November 16, 1998, p. 1.

Mediaweek, November 16, 1998, p. 40.

New York Observer, November 16, 1998.

New York Times, November 11, 1998, p. A14.

Wall Street Journal, November 11, 1998, p. B14.

Washington Post, November 11, 1998, pp. D1, 9.


"Newsweek," MSNBC, www.msnbc.com (August 18, 2004).


Additional information for this profile was provided by Newsweek magazine publicity materials.

—Carol Brennan and

Sara Pendergast

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Carlos Watson Biography - Was a Student Journalist to Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) Biography