Tagged: editors forum

2011 Editors Forum recap

Hello, bleary editors and writers. Those of us who had the good fortune to attend the 2011 CASE Editors Forum enjoyed a lively, stimulating conference.

No one can attend every presentation, of course, given the simultaneous breakout sessions, but among those I sat in on, here are a few that stood out:

— Brian Doyle’s impassioned opening session on storytelling. Emotional presentations are chancy—lots of people find them either an acquired taste or a bit hard to bear—but there’s no questioning Doyle’s commitment to fine writing and even if you don’t respond to his emoting, you must admit he tells a hilarious Dalai Lama story.

— Morven Knowles discussion of how CAM remade itself. There was Knowles’ plummy accent, of course, which every Yank in the room secretly coveted. But there was also interesting commentary on what it’s like to not just redesign your periodical, but rethink it as well.

— Tyler Stableford’s excellent photography session. Shutterbugs like me loved it for Stableford’s photos and his clear explanations of how he got the shots. But editors gleaned a lot about what makes one photo better than another, which sometimes is obvious but other times is more subtle and murky. Also interesting was him talking about how he prefers more rather than less instruction from the art director, and how helpful it is to have read a draft of the story.

— The captions-callouts-headlines presentation by Matt Jennings spoke to a lot of us. These are often the rushed, last-minute items that don’t get our full attention, and Jennings noted how that can be a real mistake.

— The Friday morning panel on sticky political situations as experienced by editors and communications professionals at Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and North Carolina State, who did a fine job of sharing the stage and articulating the problems we all encounter while trying to negotiate the politics of our institutions.

— I did not attend Robert Richards’ presentation on copyright and other legal issues, but my boss, Catherine Pierre, did and reports that it was excellent. This has become an ever-bigger issue as we deal with questions of consent, copyright on the Internet, and fair use. (Arianna Huffington, lawyers from The New York Times are on line 3.)

Finally, there were a couple of comic highlights. One was Vicki Glembocki’s reenactment of how she was driving with two sleeping kids in the back seat when she desperately needed to void her bladder. Those of us who have known Glembocki for a long time were not surprised to hear that her solution was to somehow position a diaper so that she could relieve herself while continuing to roll down the highway. Never have I seen such a thing at an Editors Forum. Priceless.

Then there was that dorkboy who confused the cover photo of Michelle Obama for a cover photo of Condi Rice. I’d reveal his identity, but we try not to ridicule people on the blog, and besides, judging by the looks of delight on the faces of all his friends, he’s in for plenty of ridicule as it stands.

Thanks to Betsy Robertson, Maureen Harmon, and the CASE crew, especially Emily DeYoung, for all their work. See y’all in Atlanta, where we all will be invited to a barbecue at Paige Parvin’s house. She promised. Sometime after the fourth beer.

Prize season

All entries for this year’s CASE Circle of Excellence awards have been submitted. Around the country, panels of judges are sifting stacks of entries (large stacks, let me assure you—I’ve been a judge) while editors and writers discretely send out vibes (pick me! pick me!). This prompted Jean Scoon, editor of St. John’s Magazine in Collegeville, Minnesota, to drop me a line about Samir Husni’s presentation at the 2010 Editors Forum. Husni, aka Mr. Magazine, expressed some disdain of awards, or at least the pursuit of them. He told the Forum crowd that when we put too much stock in winning medals, we are in danger of writing and editing our magazines for our professional peers, not for our readers. He noted that when Felix Dennis, founder of the British lad-mag Maxim launched his American edition, he supposedly warned his American staff that if they won any magazine awards, he’d fire them. They were to produce a magazine that flew off the shelves and attracted hundreds of thousands of readers. Being writerly or designerly was not in their job descriptions. Their only mission was to build circulation by whatever means. If a vulgar, barely literate editorial package sold magazines, that’s what his staff was to put out.

In light of Mr. Magazine’s remarks, Jean Scoon’s suggestion was a post about the CASE awards: Good or bad? Do they encourage excellence, or distract from our obligation to readers?

Let me take the last point first. I don’t think the pursuit of awards results in the forsaking of readers, at least not among our titles. I think institutional magazines frequently make the mistake of placing perceived institutional needs above readers’ interests, but we can’t blame the CASE awards for that. Most CASE winners over the years have, it seems to me, been rewarded for stories and magazines that do the best job of bringing to their readers exceptional editorial content. When I survey a stack of magazines that I think do a lousy job of being magazines, I notice that none of them get recognition from CASE judges.

Do the CASE awards encourage excellence? That’s less clear, I think. I have met enough of you out there in UMag land to be convinced that you would do all you could to produce excellent publications were there no CASE medals to be won. I don’t think any of us approach a story or an issue with the thought, I suppose instead of a half-assed job here, I should do a good job so I have a chance at a medal. There’s no shortage of mediocre writers, editors, and designers in our business, but I don’t think anyone takes his or her job more seriously and works harder because of the CASE awards.

A CASE medal is nice form of recognition, from our peers, of a job well done. Hard to see the harm in that. I think everybody’s proud when they win.

Back in the day, I was talking to a reporter friend about an upcoming Society of Professional Journalists competition. Anyone who’s ever worked in local newsstand media knows that SPJ certificates are handed out in such profusion, they are the Zimbabwean currency of journalism awards. My friend’s observation: “These awards competitions, in a lot of ways, are really dumb and silly. But damn I love to win.”

Get read, get money

In terms of valuable knowledge to bring home, I thought the 2010 Editors Forum saved best for last with the presentation by Jeff Lott and Rae Goldsmith of the CASE Members Magazine Readership Survey. Of particular interest to me was this finding: Time spent by alumni reading the magazine correlates with financial support. Succinctly, get read and you’ll get money.

That does not mean, development professionals to the contrary, that our magazines should profile donors. In the latest compilation of the CASE data, donor profiles finished 10th—out of 10—in a ranking of stories that readers wanted to find in university magazines. Also note that among the segment of respondents who said their school’s magazine did not strengthen the bond with their institutions, the most common explanation was that they regarded the magazine as merely a fundraising tool.

The implication is clear to me. University magazines work best at encouraging donations from alumni not when they overtly pitch them for money, but when they provide editorial content that grabs and holds their attention. The more time alumni spend reading our magazines, the more they break out their checkbooks.

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At the conference, I found the importance of compelling storytelling and deep intellectual, science, and arts journalism to be a tough sell with some editors. One foreign-born editor said she found the sort of long-form narrative journalism published by many US university magazines to be representative of American overwriting and journalistic fluff. Another listened to my pitch for more substantive stories in her magazine and replied that its purpose was to brag about the school. OK, but don’t you have to be read to do any sort of effective bragging? That’s what the CASE data tells me.

A matter of fact

Tom Levenson, author, documentary filmmaker, teacher at MIT, presented at the 2010 CASE Editors Forum yesterday morning. He spoke about science writing to the main room, then participated in a panel discussion with me and Michael Penn, editor of Grow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He made a number of worthy points and observations, but one thing in particular impressed me.

Levenson’s most recent book is Newton and the Counterfeiter, and for a scene in that book he wanted to portray Isaac Newton sitting down at his desk one morning to write a letter. Would Newton have lit a candle first?

I know of more than a few writers, including many widely published authors, who would just portray Newton as putting flame to wick without giving the matter any thought. Others might pause briefly to consider the plausibility of the act, then tell themselves, “Well, he surely might have lit a candle…good enough,” and simply written that detail into the scene. Levenson didn’t settle for any such dubious assumptions. He’s a nonfiction writer who takes seriously his obligation to work with verifiable fact. In this case, he consulted a weather diary kept by John Locke, archived by the Royal Society in England, looked up the entry for the day that Newton would have written the letter in question, and found that, indeed, Locke had recorded the sort of grey, gloomy English morning that would have required Newton to light a candle.

That, I would submit, is doing the job right.

Repeating ourselves, repeating ourselves

The 2010 CASE Editors Forum in Boston got off to a fine start yesterday with an opening address by Samir Husni. Husni is the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, and he bills himself as Mr. Magazine. He told me that he spends about 150 days each year on the road delivering addresses like the one he delivered to the conference, which means he’s got the timing of his punch lines well calibrated.

He also has some interesting points to make to people in our business. One of his tenets is that magazines succeed by making their readers feel part of a relationship, part of the those who read The New Yorker or Simple or The Penn Stater. Each issue is another meeting of friends, in a sense. This is important in what he aptly called our age of isolated connectivity. Those magazines that foster this sense of community are more likely to succeed. He then pointed out how some of the most successful consumer magazines like Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health slavishly repeat themselves issue after issue after issue.

He noted, correctly I think, that people in our business often feel that repetition is the enemy of creativity. Yet, for a magazine there is real value in a measure of predictability. Readers want at least some repetition in a periodical. It’s part of the relationship that the magazine wants to nurture with its readers.

Mr. Magazine did not convince me that the predictability and slavish repetition of Cosmo is something that university magazines ought to embrace. But he did make me aware, again, of how easily editors slip into evaluating their magazines only through the lenses of media professionals, not of their readers. I have found myself questioning whether Johns Hopkins Magazine should run a certain feature story because we wrote a similar story seven years ago. That matters to me. But can I name one reader who would open the magazine, see that story, and think Boy, the spark sure has gone out of these guys. They just ran that story seven years ago!

We’ve had similar discussions over paper. As I write this, copies of Denison, Auburn Magazine, and the Sibley-winning Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin are beside me on my hotel desk. Damn I hate them for the quality of their stock. Our art director would kill for paper like that. But as Hopkins Magazine’s editor Catherine Pierre once observed, all the magazines we most admire and read with devotion year after year print on crappy paper. Do our readers care? Some of them surely do. But they don’t care in the same way that we in the business care. And they benefit whenever we can step away from editorthink and see our magazines as readers see them.