APRIL 3 WAS A TRULY MEMORABLE news day; unfortunately for PEOPLE, it was also a Wednesday, just hours before our deadline. About 2 p.m., after most of the magazine had closed, chief of correspondents Joe Treen received the first bulletins that a plane carrying Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown had crashed in Croatia. Not long after, Treen learned that a man suspected of being the notorious Unabomber had been arrested in remote Lincoln, Mont. For the next 18 hours, Treen’s office was action central for PEOPLE’S reporters and correspondents around the world. “We threw everything at it,” he recalls. Of the many acts of journalistic heroism during those hectic hours, Treen was perhaps most impressed by Salt Lake City stringer Cathy Free’s. It was Free who managed to persuade a school secretary in Lincoln to fax her the town’s directory—all of four pages. Free then proceeded to call everyone in town—and helped produce a profile of Ted Kaczynski that, Treen says, “was way ahead of what the other magazines and newspapers had.”
The magazine, with both stories in it, finally closed at 8 a.m. the next day, minutes before the presses started rolling. Covering a breaking story (or two) on deadline is a nightmare, says Treen. But, he adds, “it’s also the reason we all got in this business in the first place. It’s the kind of experience you remember forever.”
Since assuming responsibility for the magazine’s 38 correspondents and more than 150 freelancers worldwide last November, Treen has visited each of the magazine’s seven bureaus, helped break in a new computer system, and expanded our team of New York City-based correspondents to make sure readers get highly informed coverage of personalities in the news. Joe’s job, after all, is to ensure that we are able to cover, overnight, almost any fast-breaking event, anywhere in the world.
A former reporter, writer and editor at Newsday, Newsweek and The Boston Globe—where he covered stories as diverse as war in the Middle East and Princess Diana’s 1989 visit to New York City—Treen, 53, joined PEOPLE as a senior writer in 1991. Since then, he has gained a special appreciation for the magazine’s mission. “We have to approach the subject differently than publications that rush in and stick a tape recorder in people’s faces,” he says. “Our reporters have to get as close as humanly possible.” Often, that means an extra dose of compassion. Instead of rushing to the homes of victims just after the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, San Antonio-based reporter Bob Stewart took the time to win the trust of many of the grieving families’ pastors and funeral directors. In many cases, the resulting interviews, says Treen, were the most intimate published anywhere.
His staff says Treen functions like a patient father, making sure his charges have the resources they need to do the best possible job. Patience is a quality he has also been practicing as parent to Rebecca, 2, the daughter he and his wife, Time senior writer Jill Smolowe, adopted last year in China. In his free time, Treen is a playwright. Next month, the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill, N.C., will produce his romantic comedy The Best Reporter There Ever Was. “I wrote it about 10 years ago,” Treen notes. “Outside PEOPLE, my life tends to move a little bit more slowly.”