In 1969, long before running became a popular workout activity, George Hirsch completed his first marathon in Boston. The 26.2-mile race was the only one Hirsch had ever entered. Huffing to the finish line, he could barely breathe, but he caught the bug. He recorded his fastest all-time record (2:38) at age 44 in 1978, and in 1988, he wooed the future love of his life, Shay Scrivner, a first-time marathoner, by running alongside her for nearly the entire race. The founding publisher of New York Magazine and long-time publisher of Runner’s World, Hirsch ran one final marathon in New York City in 2009 at the age of 75, on a route he had helped create in 1976 and oversees today as chairman of New York Road Runners. While he’s retired his marathon bibs, NationSwell spoke with Hirsch about the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime of long-distance running and the ever-changing world of publishing.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
My father once said to me, “Get a reputation for getting up at the crack of dawn, and you can sleep ’til noon.” Underneath that, there is a little something. You get a reputation for anything: being collegial, being transparent, being trustworthy, being straight with people. I do think we are our reputation. We can alter it to some degree, but over time, we build who we are and it’s what we become.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
After I was in the Navy and went to graduate school, my first real job was at Time Life, back in the day when it was the premier publishing company in the world. It was a very special place to work, and people — very unlike today’s world — spent their careers working there. When I left to be the founding publisher of New York Magazine, no one understood it. People, like my boss, who was a great guy, didn’t understand. Now, in all fairness, there was no New York Magazine, so it was a high risk. To me, it seemed like an incredible, terrific opportunity. You have to remember, I’m not from what you would call an entrepreneurial age. People didn’t start companies in garages or leave college freshman year because they had a big idea.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I’m on the board of Salon, which is an online magazine. I’ve entered that world, and it’s only taught me again that this idea of print being so challenged and all the answers are in digital, it’s not so true. For newspapers and magazines, digital presents as many problems as print does. Advertisers aren’t paying as much money for eyeballs. It’s very small, it’s very difficult, and with websites like Facebook and Google offering incredibly targeted audience segments to advertisers, it’s a different world. In-depth journalism and hard, good, solid investigative reporting costs a ton of time and money, and it’s not so clear how that’s all going to be paid for going forward.
Whenever there’s an opening — a vacuum, if you will — people try to move into it. So you are seeing people doing investigative reporting, even through nonprofits. Some of them are doing some really interesting and good work. You see organizations collaborating in ways they never used to. It’s being accomplished in certain ways, for sure, but I think that the real issue is: what is, if there is, the new business model? We all know what the business model was for Time magazine. To me, that’s still very much up for grabs. It’s no easy answer.
How do you try to inspire others?
That’s a role I guess you’re asked to play as the years go on, working with people that are in the middle or early on in their careers. It’s hard to answer in a way that doesn’t sound just pat, but I think over the years, I have become a better listener to people. I feel that, in a funny way, the more you listen, the more you can contribute.
What’s your perfect day?
A day I truly enjoy is one where I can get up and have some breakfast. I always have a real breakfast, with coffee. And if I have the time and I can linger over that, I’ll have a second cup of coffee and read The New York Times and get started that way. That makes me feel really good. Years ago and for countless years, my day began with a run, but now I push that back later in the day. Any perfect day for me still includes exercise, and I probably do that five or six days a week.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
Marrying Shay. I met her in a very romantic way, and we were married for 25 years that were just remarkable in every way, before she died two years ago. She was really something extraordinary. She was one of those people who taught a master class in how to live a life. She was very tolerant, and even tolerant of the intolerant. During our entire marriage, I never heard her speak ill of someone. She just was someone you could watch and you just say to yourself, “I just learned being with her.”
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
Editors’ note: This article originally stated that Hirsch worked for Sports Illustrated; he never did. NationSwell apologizes for the error.