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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Justin Smith

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-19

Justin Smith was born with a silver tongue.

By 5, he was fluent in French, having been raised in the exquisite 7th arrondissement of Paris as the son of Damon Smith, president of the American University of Paris, and his wife Patricia, a sculptor.

By 15, he was fluent in Chinese, having studied it at Phillips Andover Academy, the prestigious preparatory school that was founded in 1778.

By 23, Mr. Smith, now an American diplomat in Burkina Faso, was fluent in Burkinabe French, a pidgin blend of the West African Francophone country's 68 languages.

"Yes, you could say that I can get along in many places," the president of The Week magazine said the other day.

That was said with Mr. Smith's typical self-deprecating humor. He's now 36, and being head of a weekly magazine with a circulation 425,000 is the latest point in a career whose narrative arc might seem to be driven by a silver paddle.

"But it's an adventure every time," Mr. Smith said.

In his current avatar, he's battling not only three other weekly newsmagazines that are older and have wider readership, he's also countering - successfully - the perception that the print bazaar has no room for an upstart.

"Our tag line is very simple - our magazine is like a presidential briefing for America's leaders," Mr. Smith said. "The editorial premise of 'The Week' is to synthesize domestic and global opinion for an audience that is committed to understanding all sides of the debate. Our business strategy has therefore been to find these opinion leaders all across America and present them with this unique information service."

He was uniquely qualified to develop the magazine's business strategy when the owner, Felix Dennis of Britain, tapped him five years ago for The Week. Its British version had already been doing well, and Mr. Dennis seemed convinced that there was a market in America for a tightly produced publication that summarized news pithily and also informed opinion.

By the time the call from Mr. Dennis came, Mr. Smith was a veteran of the publishing industry. He was working in New York on behalf of The Economist, and had launched CFO.Com, a Web site aimed at financial executives. Earlier, he had launched CFO Asia, a monthly magazine for The Economist Group; from his base in Hong Kong, Mr. Smith also scoured region for acquisitions, and had impressed his superiors with not only his diligence but his extensive network of contacts and knowledge of Asia.

Mr. Smith's familiarity with Asia, in fact, dated back to his teen years. Because French was virtually a mother tongue, his parents insisted that he take some other language at Andover.

"They didn't want me to get easy A's," Mr. Smith said. "They knew that I would ace my French classes. So I took Chinese."

He aced his Chinese classes, too. When Mr. Smith was 16, he was selected to participate in a student exchange program in Manchuria, a remote province of China.

"It was a life transforming experience," Mr. Smith said. "In those days, it took two days just to get to Beijing from New York. Then it was another two days to Harbin in Manchuria. I fell in love with China and its culture."

He sustained that romance during his undergraduate years at Georgetown University, not the least because a State Department economist, David Konkel, selected Mr. Smith and two other students to be his eyes.

"Mr. Konkel was blind - and I spent 15 to 20 hours a week gathering information for him on international issues," Mr. Smith said. "It was fantastic education."

His assignment with Mr. Konkel was part of an unusual job at the State Department, where Mr. Smith - while still a student - was assigned to analyzing data relating to the 1991 Gulf War. At Foggy Bottom, he also displayed what was to be a marked characteristic during his subsequent career - a canny ability to seek mentors and hold their interest.

One mentor was Edward Brynn, then a senior diplomat at the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs.

"Mr. Brynn was appointed ambassador to Burkina Faso - and seven days after my graduation from Georgetown, I found myself as his assistant in Ouagadougou," Mr. Smith said.

Life in the capital city of Burkina Faso was, for the young graduate at least, life in the fast lane. Because Ambassador Brynn did not have a deputy chief of mission, Mr. Smith found himself deputed to represent America at diplomatic, social and cultural events not only in Ouagadougou but all over the Colorado-sized country of 14 million.

"Here I was, seated next to the Chinese ambassador at these events - and he appreciated the fact that I spoke with him in Chinese," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith's tenure in Burkina Faso occurred at a time of systemic transition in the country. New political parties were being launched, partly as a response to an American-led global push for greater democratization in developing countries.

"One of my jobs was to make sense of the political landscape," Mr. Smith said.

He wrote reports. He focused on political figures. He analyzed the local press. He studied social trends. He investigated human-rights situations. And he soon found himself out of Africa.

"They asked me back to Washington for a job that I could only dream about," Mr. Smith said.

It was a job with an office almost contiguous to that of the secretary of state, who then was James Baker. Mr. Smith had been assigned to a unit called the "operations center." Part of his job involved taking notes of the secretary's conversations with world leaders - and, indeed, reaching those leaders whenever the secretary so wished.

"My data base in those days had every conceivable phone number for those leaders," Mr. Smith said.

The job required resourcefulness in tracking the leaders, and in time Mr. Smith felt that he was ready to move on. He saw that China was opening up after long decades of political insulation, and he felt that his linguistic and political background could be put to use in the emerging world order.

Mr. Smith was hired by the International Herald Tribune, where he soon developed business summits in China and other Asian countries. (At The Week, he has similarly instituted business breakfasts.)

"I discovered that I was an entrepreneur," Mr. Smith said. "I found that I really liked to make business ideas happen by creating teams and platforms. Most of all, I like being an internationalist - I guess I was born to that."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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