Nancy Gibbs, the most prolific storyteller behind Time magazine’s headlines, has been making the headlines herself this week. As she should by becoming the 90-year-old newsweekly’s first female managing editor.
Hired first as a fact-checker in 1985, she rose through the ranks to become a full-time writer in 1988. Though she assumed editorial roles—executive editor and deputy managing editor—with greater responsibility since that time, she never stopped writing.
It’s no surprise, then, that in her 28-year tenure with the news magazine, she holds the record for most cover stories written—more than 150. That number should continue to grow as she’s already announced she doesn’t plan on giving up writing—either for the magazine or Time’s book division.
Scanning the headlines of Gibbs’ cover stories in the Time magazine archives, she’s overwhelmingly reported on national politics and hot-button issues like religion and reproductive rights—often the stuff on which news magazines are made.
But news is also about perspective. It has the potential to identify what the immediate consequences are, or to place a past event into some kind of current context. It can document how we reacted to a tragedy and, maybe more importantly, how it changed us.
Gibbs has done some of her best work in providing this sort of perspective needed to help make sense of the world around us. When we scoured her lengthy list of cover stories looking for her best, these five emerged as much for their message as for her writing.
1. “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” Time Commemorative Issue, April 11, 2005: This piece captures the emotion of the Pope’s passing with this nearly universally relatable opening: “You feel smaller when your father dies because he was strong and lifted you, carried you and taught you, and when he’s gone the room feels too big without him.”
2. “D-Day 60th Anniversary: The Greatest Day,” Time, May 31, 2004: Six decades removed from World War II, this line is one example of perspective on perspective: “World War II remains the model Good War, and D-day, its greatest day—one of those rare hinges of history that might have bent the other way.”
3. “Seven Astronauts, One Fate,” Time, Feb. 10, 2003: Tragedies like the Columbia’s that took the lives of seven astronauts are always possible, though we don’t often realize it, as summarized here: “Any risk much repeated can become routine, and so it was for shuttle flights, except when they become tragic.”
4. “What a Difference a Year Makes,” Time, Sept. 9, 2002: The 9/11 terrorist attacks spawned a new era of fears and uncertainty—not just in the world in general, but also in some ways in ourselves, as Gibbs captures here: “Holding two contradictory ideas in your head was supposed to be a sign of first-rate intelligence. Now it just feels like a vital sign.”
5. “Life Along the Mississippi,” Time, July 10, 2000: The Mighty Mississippi has been both a help and a hindrance as a force of nature can be. But bringing it under control had more than just positive effects. Gibbs writes: “Anyone who had anything to do with the river discovered long ago that it was too powerful to leave alone, this huge continental drainpipe, and so the great engineers engineered the levees and locks and dams that reduced the number of ships that sank and towns that vanished—but also had the effect of hiding the river behind its walls and leaving the rest to the imagination.”