Readers first

For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Antonio for the 2016 CASE Editors Forum, I thought I would rework my presentation and post it. I’ve revised it so that it works better as a piece of writing (first version was a script). Hope you get something out of it:

Most of us work for departments of communications. The department might be named alumni communications, development communications, marketing communications, even news and information, but the primary purpose, whatever the name, is communications. And there’s a curious thing about that.

I am always struck by how many vice presidents of communications and AVPs and other gold braid administrators mistake broadcasting for communicating. How many of you hear this on a regular basis: “We need to get the word out.” The VPs and AVPs believe that if we just “get the word out” then we have communicated. Get the word out about the power of giving. Get the word out about the president’s vision. Get the word out about how welcoming and inclusive we are. Get the word out about our dazzling students and dazzling alumni and dazzling new student rec center and dazzling football team. So we order up the appropriate stories that get the word out and satisfy our bosses and we publish them with the knowledge—the knowledge of actual working communications professionals—that many of those stories will never be read by anyone. And what we know that the gold braid seemingly fails to grasp is that when the stories go unread we have not communicated. We have merely broadcast to the indifferent.

The premise that underlies everything I do as editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine is that the magazine accomplishes nothing unless it’s read. We communicate nothing, we do nothing to sustain alumni engagement with the institution, we do nothing to enhance our school’s image or reputation. Every time one of our readers picks up the magazine, pages through it pausing only to glance at a photo or skim a story, checks their year in class notes, then chucks it into recycling, my employer has poured money down the drain. We only communicate when we’re read, and the argument I’m going to press here is that we won’t be read unless we put readers first. And never forget, no one has to read us. Not one person.

What does this mean in practice?

The first thing it means is that we have to embrace an axiom—We are not special. Of course we’re special to ourselves, but we are not to readers. To them, university magazines hold no special place in their daily lives. No one is going to read us just because we come from Alma Mater. We like to think they will, but they won’t. A few years after they graduate, the university no longer looms all that large in their lives. In their 20s, they have student loans, and they have to find jobs or they’re in the middle of graduate education or professional education. In their 30s, they still have student loans and they’re getting married and they’re having kids and acquiring mortgages and working at more challenging jobs. In their 40s, they’re still married, maybe for the second or third time, and they still have kids, but now their aging parents are starting to worry them and they’re trying to build careers and there’s still the mortgage. In their 50s, they’re paying for their kids’ college and their parents’ assisted living and beginning to wonder if any money will be left for retirement. By their 60s, they have sore backs, the kids are back living in the basement, and all the rock stars from their youth are dying and that’s spooky, and their employer is downsizing and damn, they really should have saved more.

Okay. Now imagine those people at any point in that story, at any point in that parade of decades, pausing to think, Good old Faber College…I wonder what the president’s vision is? The class of 2020…how diverse is it? What’s the history of our school colors—that’s been on my mind for years. I’d like to know more about the new dining hall meal plan.

Please.

They’re not going to read stories on those topics because those topics have no congruence with their lives. And as I said, they won’t read them just because they’ve popped up in the alumni magazine. We get no special consideration. When our readers bring in the mail, they make three stacks on the kitchen counter: bills, magazines, crap. That’s it. Three categories, three stacks. If there’s a fourth stack, it’s catalogs, it’s not our magazines. We have got to go into the magazine stack or it’s game over.

How do we get into the magazine stack? By being magazines. We have to look like magazines, we have to read like magazines, and like good, successful magazines, we have to put our readers first.

What’s that mean?

It means we have to favor good stories over dry articles. We can’t avoid publishing some articles—dry, factual, emotionally neutral reports on the new sexual assault policy or the president’s commission on gender equality or the master plan for campus beautification. And we’ll never avoid a certain amount of propaganda—the capital campaign is going great, the football team was undefeated, let us introduce our great new provost. That’s life at an institutional magazine. But I think every single issue of our magazines has to have at least one (preferably more but at least one) feature-length piece that tells a story.

What’s the distinction I’m making between a story and an article? A story has characters—it’s populated, it has people doing something and saying something. It has scenes from life. Narrative is good, but not every great story is built around a narrative, around a plot. Still, there should be scenes of one kind or another. A good story usually has conflict. It doesn’t have to be conflict between people. It can be conflict between ideas, or competing theories, or a scientist in conflict with the intractable mysteries of the universe or an artist in conflict with her own inner life. But there’s a source of tension. Good stories do not gloss over complexity. They acknowledge that life is complicated and process is messy and people are inconsistent and motives are mixed. Most of all, a story has emotion. It’s emotion that captures and keeps a reader’s attention, it’s emotion that keeps them coming back for more—and it’s emotion that, at the end of the day, motivates them to respond to what the magazine brings them by donating to the university.

A story can be missing some of these elements and still be a good story. This isn’t a checklist. But the best stories have these things. And after more than 40 years in magazine journalism, it’s my belief that if we put just one story with these qualities in our feature well, our readers will think of us as magazines the next time we show up in the mailbox. The will drop us on the magazine stack. It only takes one good. Two or three or four are better, but I really am convinced that it only takes one good story to bring a reader back to the next issue.

You’re likely to encounter some resistance to this sort of storytelling. Not from readers, but from bosses and other various stakeholders. I find that we are under continuous pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, to be superficial. “Don’t tell a complicated story, people don’t want to think that hard in their free time.” “Don’t get into conflict, c’mon, that’s not very positive.” “Do you have to have all this emotion in here? It’s kind of a downer…” “Why is there still this mystery in here, this ambivalence, these inconclusive bits? Can’t you tie up all these loose ends?” “Your job is to keep it simple, keep it positive, promote the brand.” To which I say resist!

Putting our readers first means never patronizing them. They are smart, well-informed adults. They read books. They read The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Economist. They can handle a real story. They want real stories. That’s why so many of the oldest continuously published magazines have real story meat on their editorial bones.

Putting our readers first also means never overlooking a fundamental question. “Who cares?” It’s a question we have to address for every story we publish, every headline we write, every decision we make for the cover, every story that deftly and effortlessly flows from our pens, and every idea we field from a senior administrator. A biophysicist has developed a new technique for studying cell motility. Who cares? A political scientist worries about the growing influence of professional political consultants. Who cares? Here are 10 freshmen and the favorite things they brought from home. Who cares? Faculty dogs, sexual assault on campus, the rec center’s new climbing wall…who cares? The answer to the question varies with the story, but it governs how we approach each and every story, and it ought to govern whether we do the story or not, because sometimes the answer to “who cares?” is “nobody.”

Things get complicated when the answer to “who cares?” is, “The president.” Or the vice president, or the dean, or the provost, or the donor so rich his name is on three campus buildings. But let me emphasize something big that we have going for us in regard to this whole question of “who cares.” If we have good writers, and if we do our jobs as editors, we can make readers care. And we can reframe the question. If the question is who cares about the Higgs boson, the answer will always be “some readers, not a lot.” Who cares about NAFTA? Who cares about a critical rethinking of Milton or John Donne, or about a little known Latvian composer? Hard to say. But there’s a much better question to govern how we approach our jobs: Who cares about stories? Because the answer to that is, “Everyone.” If we do a story not with the intent of serving the institution by getting the message out, but with the intent of serving readers by bringing them a good story, then can we get people to read just about anything. The great thing is once we’ve gotten them to read the story, we’ve served the institution by getting the message out. We just did in the way we know is most effective.

Case in point: On March 25, 1974, The New Yorker published a story by John McPhee titled, “A Reporter at Large: Firewood.” It is several thousand words about people who sell firewood in Manhattan, and the people who buy it. Believe me, when I came across this piece as a journalism student at Ohio University, I had no interest in reading about firewood. If you’d said to me, “Who cares that the second-best firewood grown in the United States is mangrove?” I would have replied, “Not me.” But this story was in The New Yorker, which told me it might be good. And this story was written by John McPhee, which told me it was going to be good. So I gave it a try, and it’s great. It’s a terrific piece. And notice how this worked—I was willing to give it a try because it appeared in a magazine that had brought me good stories in the past, and it was by a writer who really knows what he’s doing, and after four or five paragraphs I knew this was going to be a well-told tale so I didn’t care about the subject. I just wanted to tuck into a good story.

This is why it’s so important to be real magazines, why it’s so important to approach our work as professional magazine writers and editors, no matter how much institutional scrutiny and control we’re under. Readers will give a story a chance if it appears in a magazine that has brought them good stories in the past. And chances are that they’ll stick with that story if it was written and edited by professionals with the intent to tell a good story. Not to check off an institutional prerogative, not to please a donor or administrator, but for the reader.

Okay, so, as Steve Jobs used to say, “One last thing.” Think for a moment about the potential we have in our magazines. We have access to so many great stories. We have access to so much knowledge, to so many people who create that knowledge, to so many huge ideas, to so many fascinating scholars and scientists and thinkers and artists and people who know and do the damnedest things. There’s no getting around it: We’re special. That’s inconsistent with what I said at the top of the story? Mea culpa. But in this one regard, we are special, or at least we’re in a unique situation, and that gives us the chance to do great things for our readers. We can go time after time to such a deep, deep well of stories, we’ll never use them all.

Sooner or later, you will run into this question: “How are you serving the institutional goals?” And your answer is that you are getting inside the houses of your alumni and for weeks, on their countertops and coffee tables and nightstands, you are exemplifying the institution. You are stating loud and clear how the university still cares about its alumni. Every issue of the magazine that makes it to an alum’s nightstand says, “We made this for you because you still matter to us.” It says, “You are one of us. It may be 35 years since you last set foot on campus, but you are still one of us.” If we put readers first, that’s what we communicate. You are one of us. And that’s a potent message.

7 comments

  1. Ann daly

    Ha. I became a writer because I stumbled upon The New Yorker in the high school library and read a Talk of the Town piece about a milkman. I was entranced that such a dull topic could be transformed by the written word.

  2. Cherie Winner

    Thank you for going deeper into how a good story can change the answer to “Who cares?” One form of pressure we get at our research magazine calls for every story to relate directly to readers’ lives: How will this research or discovery help people save more money or improve their health or keep their kids safe? The Higgs boson–type stories can be a tough sell, mostly, I think, to people who don’t read and therefore aren’t susceptible to being won over by even the best-told tale. Which is a whole ‘nuther problem!

  3. Joe Kays

    Thanks for reminding all of us about why we do what we do. And thanks for understanding that battles will be won and lost, so each magazine doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to give the reader something to make it worth keeping. This should be required reading in every university communications office.

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