Portland suspends publication, for now

Great editors create magazines that first and foremost serve readers who want to be informed about sports or computers or food or politics or universities or science, but that also go about this task with such a distinctive personality, the magazine becomes forever linked with their tenure. William Shawn’s New Yorker was unlike anyone else’s, as was Willie Morris’ Harper’s and Harold Hayes’ Esquire. When those editors left or were fired, as editors do and are, the magazines kept publishing but they were not the same. They were something lesser.

Last week I received a letter addressed to the readers of Portland from Rev. Gerard J. Olinger, vice president for university relations at the University of Portland. The letter opens by noting the death of editor Brian Doyle on May 27. The third paragraph is the one that stopped me:

To honor Brian and the care with which he shaped and shepherded the magazine, we will put the production of Portland magazine on hold temporarily as we plan the future of this publication. It is not a decision we make lightly, and we are well aware of the respect, admiration, and high expectations readers have for Portland magazine.

Now that is a benchmark for influence, I thought. Portland was so indelibly Brian’s magazine, the university didn’t see how it could produce the summer issue without him. Rather than publish some pale simulacrum, it took the bold step, unprecedented in my experience, of halting production of the magazine until it could figure out a way forward.

The editor’s note in Brian’s final issue was written by his predecessor, founding editor John Soisson, who quoted a missive he’d received from Doyle in 2009:

Funny, just yesterday I was thinking what I did here will be forgotten right quick when I am gone, but that seems normal and natural to me—a few will remember, there will be a thin thread of legacy—books in the library, some framed magazine covers, a scholarship specifically designed for left-handed Samoan ballet students who dream of running their own Laundromat some day, some grinning at particularly Doyle-esque stories or misadventures—but I guess the real accomplishment will be that I helped shove the place forward a little, which means a lot of kids opened up in interesting ways that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise, which ripples the world somehow. That’s good work.

Forgotten right quick? I don’t think so. Good work, indeed.

Erin Peterson talks to Renée Olson

Free lance Erin Peterson writes for a number of university magazines, and presented at the March CASE Editors Forum in Chicago. She also writes a well-done electronic newsletter that I recommend, and her latest offering featured this interview with Renée Olson, editor of the newest Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year, TCNJ Magazine. It’s the first Sibley for TCNJ, and congratulations to Olson for that coup. Here’s the interview, which Erin has graciously let me reprint.

First, tell me a little bit about the magazine and its readership.

Although the Sibley award judges didn’t single out in their written comments the pair of staples that hold TCNJ Magazine together, our team knows that these stalwarts telegraph a lot about the attention we give to detail. Gone is the fear among our readers that unfettered pages will hit the floor, making their retrieval trigger a sciatica flare-up. That’s the level of care we put into every issue.

Our magazine goes to the usual suspects: largely alumni, plus parents, faculty, and staff. We’re a public college, founded in 1855 as a teacher’s college. The 20th century saw TCNJ grow into the public liberal arts college it is today, with more than 6,000 undergraduates and a small graduate school program.

Here’s a fake brand tagline that aptly describes TCNJ: “Private feel, public cost.” We’re on a sparkling, leafy campus about a 20-minute drive from Princeton and are known as the place to go if you are A) brainy and B) ultimately seek top employers and grad schools without going broke.

How has your own work with the magazine evolved?

I’ve had an interesting trajectory at TCNJ. I began on staff as the director of strategic communications with oversight for the magazine. At about the same time in 2016, editor Tony Marchetti and I made career switches: He snagged the top editor spot at Monmouth University’s magazine, and I moved to part-time employee status and inherited the magazine as a project. I also launched my company, Squint.

This arrangement works because AVP of Communications Dave Muha has a broad and deep understanding of how to effectively motivate his people—and then lets us skip through fields of daisies as we put together an issue. Many thanks are due to Kara Pothier, our indefatigable, on-campus assistant editor, who noses around for story ideas and connects the fabled dots. Also, Art Director/Design Goddess Kelly Andrews is both a deft designer and a patient soul.

Judges called your magazine “fun” and “approachable.” Can you talk about a part of the magazine that you think does that really well?

Despite lacking evidence, we must first consider whether the Sibley judges looked at TCNJ Magazine at the end of a long day, punch drunk after nonstop alumni magazine review — or maybe after fleeing to the closest bar. Still, I consider it a high compliment when readers say they enjoy the magazine. What else is there? If your work sparks an emotional connection, readers will pick up the next issue and the next. A magazine needs a soul. Ours happens to be a combination of warmth, smarts, and the unexpected.

I inherited a recurring department on the first spread (inside front cover and first page) that rounds up responses to a question — What professor do you remember most? What did the library mean to you? — posed to readers in the previous issue. I’m always surprised by how many people reply. It’s a fresh, immersive way to start each issue.

Is there one area you think the magazine excels in that makes a difference in its quality (an area where you see that other mags have struggled or don’t get quite right)?

I’ve seen many magazines underestimate the power of photography and illustration. Most times, the budget is too skeletal to hire quality people or the art director is content to work with his brother-in-law who’s cornered the local market on K-12 portraits. I offer a challenge. Email me one upcoming story idea, the space it will fill, and what you can spend for art. And I’ll send back suggestions on what you need to do to make the article stand out.

Is there something you don’t do—like a president’s letter or something—that you consciously decided not to include because it doesn’t matter to your readers?

We don’t cover commencement because magazines are not made for repetitive content—though we will run a blurb about the undergrad who moved to Florida to get married and finished her final semester by flying up to Jersey each week.

What do you read or study as inspiration? 

New York for how they package stories. Reader’s Digest for concise human interest pieces. The New Yorker for penetrating insight and depth. Twitter for snark.

TCNJ came away with a whole armload of awards, not just the Sibley (congrats!). For you, what is the value of such awards? Do they give you more leeway with your boss? Recognize your hard work? Something else? Why is it worth the (significant!) effort to apply for this kind of recognition?

Thank you. We only think about awards as the CASE deadline looms (and we never think about the Sibley). Yes, having people recognize quality in our work is a tremendous rush. What’s more, it gives our bosses a reason to keep us around.

I’m personally flattered by winning a Gold for Illustration simply because the first sentence of the judges’ comments reads, “The references are hilarious.” We put together a three-column chart looking for similarities between John Lennon and Ivan the Terrible after I stumbled on two unrelated undergraduate research papers. Goddess Kelly hired illustrator Eric Nyquist, whose work we spotted in The New York Times Book Review. He made it magical.

For editors eager to find ways to make their own magazines better, is there a specific piece of advice you can share?

Ask yourself every hour if you’re delighted by what you’re doing. Are you jazzed by a potential story idea? If not, maybe it was never destined to be a story. Are you excited because there’s real promise in a first draft—or you see a way to get it there? If not, pause and let your gut tell you if you should walk away. Be vigilant. If you let humdrum stuff make it into your story lineup, it’ll still be there when advance copies land in your office.

Anything else you want to add?

I know many people have micromanager bosses or are weighed down by departmental decisions made without editor input. To survive, lobby for a full redo of your magazine and carefully define the kinds of stories and content that are true to that new vision. If you rebrand to focus on what alumni achieve in their first 12.5 years after graduation, let’s say, you have a concrete reason to jettison the current page devoted to administrators and their pets.

And don’t wait for story ideas to come from supervisors. Instead, rely on your connections across campus and supply supervisors with a list of what’s under consideration and why at regular intervals (monthly, semi-monthly). Take this task off their plate and you may find you have a far greater say going forward.

Brian Doyle

If, in your rare buoyant or less rare unassured moments you fancy yourself a fine writer, you regard other fine writers, especially the ones you know, with a complex gumbo of admiration, envy, respect, jealousy, mystery, yearning, studiousness, fondness, and recognition.

Brian Doyle, who died Saturday from what brain cancer does to the body, would have written the latter part of that sentence more like “with a complex dark astringent wild gumbo of admiration and envy and respect and jealousy and a deep mystery and a human yearning and studiousness and fondness and recognition” because more than anything else he was exuberant with words, a wild and reverent and irreverent and exalted word-drunk scribbler who could deeply move me one moment and piss me off the next. Writers who can do that are the real thing. They write like they mean it. They knock a wobble into our stride, an essential forced veer from the witless path we are on, the one that leads to our fearful and semi-blind and smug and sketchy “grasp” of life.

I knew Brian for more than 20 years. Our friendship most often consisted of brisk emails, his invariably signed “bd.” I paid close attention to his unique university magazine, Portland, and he paid attention to mine. We’d bitch about things, share a discrete derisory chuckle about some new folly of our academic milieu or publishing niche, and on those rarest occasions when we found ourselves in the same city, have lunch. He had an assurance about his judgement that lived on the fringes of arrogance. William Blake was the English language’s greatest visionary poet and that’s all there is to it, Van Morrison had no equal as a singer and songwriter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Plutarch were without peer, the serial comma was essential. He once argued strenuously with the Dalai Lama about which was the greatest sport, basketball or soccer. He never made Van Morrison listenable for me, but to several classrooms of undergraduates I taught his roisterous exemplary essay on Van the Man, published by The American Scholar, one of Brian’s regular launchpads. I thought that sometimes he worked too hard casting himself as another in the ancient line of voluble Irish bards, and I may have been the only person in the room who cringed when he induced a rapt audience at the CASE Editors Forum to sing “Amazing Grace.” Can’t say why, I just did. Then I’d read something new from his pen and think goddam that boy can write, and understand all over again that he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent. Now and then I got a note from him praising something I’d written and I’d think, Well, there’s something.

I think he was a serious Catholic and reverent about many things, but he could be gleefully irreverent and obscene. As I’ve said, he wasn’t much for commas, especially not commas impeding the cascade of adjectives he might fling into a single sentence, and I remember him telling me about going over an edit of one of his essays. The copyeditor, following her stylebook or Strunk & White or whatever her source for grammatical edicts, had doggedly injected commas into Brian’s prose. No no no. He began marking them for excision one by one—stet, stet, stet—countermanding the editor, who perhaps had edited with her brain and memory for rules instead of her ear. After a dozen individual annotations, a dozen stipulations that he did not want a comma there or there or there, he lost his patience and scrawled on the manuscript “STET FUCKING STET!!!” He cackled with joy when he told me this story.

In a 2007 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Brian wrote this:

…At age 50 I conclude that I was born and made for stories; I am a storyman. I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken. Without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die. We are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.

…I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter, stories about who we are at our best, who we might be still, because without stories we are only mammals with weapons. I am here to point at shards of holiness. That’s all. That’s enough.

I now have, above my work desk, a small slip of paper taped to the cabinet. It reads “RBD/DIN.” Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now. The “do it now” part refers to those creative projects I want to do but keep putting off; I often have trouble starting, trouble with that first step. Brian did not appear to have that problem, editing his magazine, raising three kids, being a good husband, and writing eight or nine books. I doubt Brian expected to be dead at 60. Were I to die tomorrow at age 63, I’d have a much shorter list of accomplishments because, in part, I always think I’ll have time. I don’t feel that way now.

So those of you with creative projects with some vague deadline in the future? Things you want to accomplish for your magazine? Things you want to do with your life? Tomorrow, or today, in the next hour, take a first step. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Just take a step. then take another one tomorrow. Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now.

Jacqui Banaszynski

Jacqui Banaszynski—Pulitzer winner, globe-trotting teacher, editor, writer, frequent presenter at the CASE Editors Forum—has been a friend of mine for more than 25 years. She thinks about the importance of story and the role of storyteller as well and with as much eloquence as anyone I know. The Romanian writer Cristian Lupsa, who has studied with her, recently posted this bit of writerly wisdom from Banaszynski. It reminds me of Brian Doyle:

Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.

Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.

Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.

Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.

Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that’s all there is.

Though you can never be sure where in the world she is at any given moment—Missouri, Florida, Romania, China, Maryland—Banaszynski has a house in Seattle. Next year’s Editors Forum will be in Seattle. You see where I’m going here.

Editors Forum 2017, Day Two

And on the second day, no rest for us. A full day of keynote presentations and elective sessions.

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— And more: Stories, deep meaningful stories, are essential to our primary mission, to engaging an audience in the only way that matters—sustained reading. And what matters is not the digital media metrics. “You’re trying to reach people. Clicks are not people. Tweets are not people. Downloads are not people.”

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Temple again: “When I say we cover the institution, we cover the institution. We are not a mouthpiece for the administration.”

— And again: In anticipation of controversy over a story you want to do, address the concerns of your bosses early in the process. “Don’t get too far out in front of your blockers.”

— And: “When readers get the magazine, I want them to feel like they’re having a visit to campus.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.

— More Braz: “Crop [photos] like a mofo.”

— Sean Plottner and Wendy McMillan, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: Stop shooting pictures of professors and students standing next to a globe, a bookshelf, or an open laptop.

— More McPlottner: Stop worrying about stealing. Stop running crappy headshots. Stop with the boring history. Stop being so serious with science stories. Stop with all the meetings. Stop running cutesy author’s bios. Stop running editor’s notes. And stop using semicolons.

— Richard Rhys, Wharton Magazine, and Renee Olsen, TCNJ Magazine: Casual conversations with senior administrators over lunch are much more fruitful than office meetings.

— Matt Jennings, Middlebury Magazine: “Recording an interview frees you up to notice things the digital device doesn’t. That doesn’t mean get lazy.”

— Jennings again: “Have a good plan [for an interview], but plan on deviating from your plan. The interview subject is driving the train.”

— Madeleine Baran, American Public Media and the podcast In the Dark: “Start [reporting] by assuming you’re wrong.” Continue reporting until you’ve run out of good arguments for being wrong. Only then are you probably right.

— Some more Baran: “It’s not just about knowing the facts of a place. It’s also important to know the feel of a place.”