Time magazine senior writer Nathan Thornburgh was in the right place at the right time on Aug. 29.
That's when John McCain stunned the world by tapping Sarah Palin, the obscure Alaska governor, to be his running mate. Thornburgh, 33, happened to be on assignment in Seattle, working on an unrelated piece. He smelled a big story and jumped on it.
As soon as he heard the news, he made two calls in swift succession, to his editor and his travel agent. Within hours, he was touching down at the Anchorage airport and ready to dive into the Palin story.
"I booked my ticket before my editor even got back to me," Thornburgh said with a laugh when we recently talked about his Palin stories. By getting to Alaska before his rivals at magazines and newspapers, he had an advantage that helped him lock up sources before the competition and be among the first journalists equipped to give Alaska's point of view about Palin.
Thornburgh realizes that timing played a big part in his coverage. "Most of the news media were ensconced in St. Paul," at the Republican Convention he said. "I was basically alone on the first day."
He was surprised -- and thrilled -- that his competitors weren't conspicuous at the outset. "The media were so slow," he mused. "They were getting on McCain's case about vetting (Palin), yet by the following Monday, I still felt alone up there."
Things played out to Thornburgh's advantage in Wasilla, Alaska, Palin's hometown. "The Best Western turned out to be 50 yards from her home!" he said.
He recognized immediately that Palinmania was spreading through the nation.
"I was thinking first, this story is going to have a life of its own," he recalled. "I have to file right away. I have to find out what's happening right away."
To Thornburgh's credit, he hasn't stopped yet. He took two week-and-a-half trips to Alaska, and his stories have boosted Time's results. For instance, a recent story on Palin, which appeared Oct. 11, "What the Troopergate Report Really Says," drew 508,980 page views, according to Time spokesman Daniel Kile.
That was the second-highest viewed article on Time.com so far this month, an impressive showing considering that the competition for page views has been stiff. Remember, Wall Street has been collapsing and the seemingly endless presidential election is finally heading toward the clubhouse turn.
Thornburgh was impressed by the celebratory atmosphere he encountered in Alaska after local hero Palin hit the national stage.
"What I found was something that was almost like a state holiday," he said.
He learned about how much local people thought Palin had begun to change. "The Sarah Palin they knew as a governor was a centrist and a populist," Thornburgh marvels. "There was none of this red-meat mentality."
Then he paused and laughed knowingly. "That, she had done as mayor."
Another surprise was when Thornburgh started to become better known in the media. He noted that he had been in Alaska for only three days when he read in print that he was being called "'the suddenly ubiquitous Nathan Thornburg.'"
Sarah Palin became a media sensation for many reasons. Her overnight emergence on the national scene, her small town roots, her gender, her rustic charms and her complex family life all contributed to the mania. Shortly after Palin had been named by McCain, she confirmed that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.
Thornburgh has connected with Americans who wanted to know all about her.
A blog called GetReligion.org published a reader's comment that said: "Of all the stories I've seen about Bristol Palin's pregnancy, one stood out as particularly good. Time's Nathan Thornburgh reported on the story from Wasilla, Alaska, and the trip there seemed to have affected him -- in a good way."
"I'm not sure where they're coming from with that (observation)," Thornburgh said. "I do take it all with a grain of salt."
Thornburgh certainly has strong views on Palin, such as:
"She always had a hard-driving ambition for 'the next thing,'" tracing her rise from the city council to mayor of Wasilla and then governor of Alaska, before joining McCain's ticket.
"I was surprised to see her flounder in interviews" with ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS' Katie Couric. "She just didn't seem to have the composure that I expected her to have."
"I think she might want to run for the (presidency) herself. If that doesn't work, maybe the U.S. Senate from Alaska (or) she can have a long and fruitful life on the speaking tour."
Perhaps it was easier for Thornburgh than most journalists to understand Palin. If she could be called the classic outsider in big-time politics, he could be regarded as something of an outsider in journalism.
Thornburgh didn't grow up with a burning desire to be a reporter. He taught English in Latvia for a few months after graduating from Stanford, but his first love was music. He played sax in a salsa band, which performed in Cuba, among other places.
Then he started writing jazz reviews for The Stranger, an alternative weekly in Seattle. He also started stringing for the Moscow Times, an English-language paper in Russia. He ultimately moved to Boston as a Time stringer and joined the staff in 2004.
Fair enough. Now, when can we all look forward to reading Thornburgh's inevitable book on the Palin phenomenon?
Not so fast.
"There is no book," he shrugged. "I'm a weekly news magazine writer. I'm waiting for the next great story to come along."
By Jon Friedman