This week's masthead reveals a newly minted title over a veteran name: James R. Gaines, 38, who joined PEOPLE as a writer in 1976, has been appointed the magazine's executive editor. In his new post, Gaines will work closely with Managing Editor Pat Ryan. It's just the kind of assignment he would have picked for himself as a boy growing up in Dayton, Ohio. "I remember telling my father when I was 10 years old that I should be the editor of LIFE magazine," he recalls. He had the Time & Life Building address right, anyway.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Gaines arrived in New York in 1970 and landed a job with a now defunct weekly newspaper, New York's Herald. He subsequently worked at Saturday Review, Newsweek and WNET-TV before joining PEOPLE. AS assistant managing editor, Gaines especially enjoyed producing fast-breaking cover stories. "Those are the ones in which a staff's mettle is tested," he says, "and they present a special challenge to excel. My best recollections as an editor aren't of things that I've done but of watching what other people can do at times like that."

An "enthusiastic amateur" musician, Gaines still plays the piano he rebuilt at age 12, an 85-key, 19th-century Steinway. He is the author of two books, The Lives of the Piano, a collection of essays, and Wit's End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table, a literary biography. His wife, Pamela, is a neuroscientist at New York State Psychiatric Institute, where she is "currently doing research on animal models of depression," says Gaines. "No, I'm not one of her subjects." They live in Brooklyn with a daughter, Allison, 11.

During the past three years, Gaines has conducted extensive interviews with Mark David Chapman, the convicted killer of John Lennon, and he sees Chapman as "an extreme case" of the kind of subject that PEOPLE handles best. "Since coming here two years after the magazine started, I've seen us get a lot better at reporting our main story, that is, how people tick, particularly public people," he says. "I think our stories are richer and more understanding than they used to be. Our challenge, now that we are in some danger of becoming an institution, is to keep getting better—smarter, funnier, more entertaining—and above all to remain unpredictable."