Editorial Conferences -- Part I

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 5:26 PM

The ins and outs of issue planning.

By William Dunkerley

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we produced automobiles like we do magazines? Just imagine. The car starts down the assembly line. All the parts that are to go into it aren't there, though. In fact, some of them haven't even been designed yet. Not only that, but the actual size of the car hasn't been determined and won't be until just before the car is finished!

Could this way of doing things possibly work? Perhaps this is the time for telling an Edsel joke. But I think you get the comparison. In real-life automobile manufacturing, there are distinctly demarcated phases for planning and for assembly.

We don't have that same luxury in publishing. We do some of the planning on the fly. But lest planning fly out the window, it's worth examining the adequacy of your issue planning. Indeed, how do you plan future issues? Do you conduct effective editorial conferences for this purpose? Or is much of your planning done by happenstance?

How Much Is Enough?

An editor once told me she doesn't hold editorial conferences. "They may be okay for high-fashion magazines in Paris," she reasoned, "but we're too busy for that here." Another editor I know holds marathon conferences, getting into long philosophical debates on content. He even holds a conference with a few key editors to plan the editorial conference to be held with the rest of the staff!

Somewhere between those extremes there must be a happy medium. Exactly where it is will vary, of course, depending each publication's specific circumstances.

Actually, there are three different kinds of editorial conferences that are valuable to hold: (1) an advance planning conference looking beyond the next issue, (2) the next-issue conference, and (3) a postmortem.

Conference Leadership

A truly effective editorial conference requires very skillful execution. To make that point, I'd like to begin by suggesting how not to conduct a conference.

While on a consulting assignment in a European postcommunist country, I was invited to sit in on a publication's editorial conference. I could understand only a few words of the language in which the conference was conducted. Thus, I got to concentrate on the interpersonal dynamics of the meeting while understanding only the general context of the content.

But what was happening was clear: Two top editors went point by point through the previous issue, chastising the others for things that displeased them. When attention turned to the next issue, these top editors meted out dictums on what needed to be covered and the right way to cover those topics.

What's wrong with this picture?

Autocratic vs. Participative

The leaders' autocratic style essentially stifled any initiative from the editors, who, presumably, should be the most closely attuned to the various subject areas covered in the publication. And the front-line editors were set up to face eventual criticism whenever things did not play out according to the leaders' preconceived notions.

You can avoid these negatives by using a more participative style. With such, the front-line editors would be offering much of the meeting's content. The leader would keep the meeting on track in moving toward its objectives. It is important that all the participants understand their roles and what is expected of them. The leader should also focus on creating an atmosphere of candor and mutual respect. This kind of meeting will enable successful group dynamics.

Today's Challenges

In today's online world, editors are faced with new planning challenges: creating content that can be changed as frequently as daily or even hourly, responding to social media interaction, and coordinating digital and print content delivery.

We've surveyed a select group of editors on their current practices regarding editorial conferences. In Part II we'll share with you their responses.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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Mastering the Interview

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 5:26 PM

Tips and techniques for getting the most from your interviewees.

By Denise Gable

Good interviews can make or break an article. While some interview subjects know exactly what they want to say, others can make you work for a simple quote. Writers who have the ability to do an interview that brings the subject to life in their articles have a skill everyone should aspire to. We present advice from three experts on getting the most from your subjects.

Tips for Conducting a Great Interview

In the pages of Forbes magazine, writer Shel Israel offers "9 Tips on Conducting Great Interviews." In brief, here is what he says:

1. Start slow, safe, and personal.

Israel likes to begin with a question aimed at relaxing the subject -- for instance, "Where did you grow up?" or "What was your first job out of college?" This approach also helps to build rapport, he suggests.

2. Coax, don't hammer.

Using an informal off-the-cuff style can lead to "revealing, newsworthy, useful answers."

3. Make some questions open-ended.

The idea is to "get the interviewee to tell his story and let the readers decide what they think of his or her ideas."

4. Ask what you don't know.

This can lead to surprising areas that the subject has not previously revealed.

5. Let the interviewees wander a bit -- but be careful.

If you try to control the path of the interview too much, you may miss something important the interviewee has to say. Don't let that give license to the subject to stick only to talking points.

6. Don't send advance questions.

Avoid over-scripting your interview.

7. Be prepared. Find the overlooked.

Do your research first so you can go with the flow -- and ask insightful follow-up questions.

8. Listen, really listen.

Keep in mind the interview is about what the subject will say, not about your list of questions. Make note of what the subject does not answer, too.

9. There are dumb questions.

Israel advises, "Try not to ask a question that your subject has already answered. It discloses that you really weren't listening after all."

Smart Interview Rules

Editors Only's own Peter P. Jacobi offers us 13 interview rules to remember and practice:

1. Be ready and willing.

We must consider the person we contact as an important source and treat him or her as such by being humble and empathetic, unless we're dealing with a creator of skullduggery or simply can't.

2. Prepare and plan.

As a former Columbia Journalism Review editor recommended, you may well want to ask dumb questions. The best come from thorough preparation and planning, though.

3. Establish an atmosphere of trust.

The best interviews do not result from mortal combat. They come from collaboration, from the realization by both parties that this is a team effort to impart information to a sought-after reader.

4. Know what you want.

Ask yourself whether you want information from the source: "Can you tell me what this plan is all about?" Or to seek clarification: "Could you simplify this? Please explain exactly what you mean." Or for justification: "What could have led you to this conclusion?" Do you want summary material from the answerer? "Now, are these the key ideas you have expressed?" Make up your mind, and ask accordingly.

5. You learn when you listen.

Remember you're there to listen, not to interrupt or to argue or to pass judgment or to give advice or to expound. Your readers ultimately learn because you've listened. Shut yourself up during periods of the interview. See what treasures of information might accrue.

6. Question carefully.

Phrase sharply. "Do you think anything should...?" may elicit something quite different from "Do you think anything could...?" Avoid words with double meanings. Avoid long questions. Avoid generalities of time and place in context. Consider the power of hypothetical questions and those that limit options.

7. Seek to extract the best of his/her knowledge.

Don't be satisfied just putting your human subjects on the defensive. Encourage your partner in this endeavor to be giving, forthcoming, helpful, outgoing, sharing. Tell the interviewee you want facts and personal experiences and analogies and analyses and comparisons and contrasts and examples and, within reason, statistics, and all the expertise at the interviewee's command.

8. Record the interview.

Ask for permission. This will release you from heavy note-taking. It will also help to assure accuracy.

9. Think of it as a performance.

Yours is an important role. The right play on your part can -- indeed, will -- bring success. Human factors are critical in this give-and-take situation. Depending on how you feel and how you make the other person feel, you can create a mood that results in increased payoff. You have to make yourself and the second participant feel this is the most important thing you can be doing at this particular time.

10. Be curious.

Be consistently curious. Think about what the reader can learn from what you're gathering.

11. Don't be satisfied with first responses.

Ask again and again, and ask a third time. The interviewee may be resistant or simply shy. Continued questioning may loosen the tongue. It may also loosen the mind, resulting in answers that are more tellingly and more showingly phrased.

12. Ask parallel questions.

If you are talking to several people about similar matters, try for parallel questioning to see how the answers unify or separate.

13. Silence is golden.

Give your interviewee a chance to reconsider or add. "Anything you want to restate? Is there anything else you can think of to share?" And then be silent again, in hopes the other person will fill in the silence.

VIP Interviews

In an early issue of Editors Only, Douglas Mueller suggested that interviewing a VIP can add more zip to your publication. Here's how:

1. Make your pitch.

First, call the subject or a staff assistant and explain your mission. Assure the subject this is a chance to express his or her views firsthand. Emphasize that there will be no confrontation; one goal is to cover areas where the subject wants to be heard.

2. Assure the interviewee.

If the question comes up, assure the subject that you will correct slips of the tongue or grammatical fluffs if they occur. Do not agree to submit a transcript or an edited draft in advance of publication. But suggest that the subject may wish to record the interview along with you to verify statements made.

Discuss the subject matter, covering a list of topics you plan to bring up. And ask if there are topics the subject wants you to cover. You should be aware of these before the interview.

Never hand over a list of questions you plan to ask. The natural reaction is to write out the answers before the interview -- or to have a PR staffer prepare them. You want to reflect the subject's personality, and that can kill it.

3. Be prepared.

Like a trial lawyer, the interviewer should be steeped in the background of the subject and all aspects of the topics to be covered. Do your homework, using documents from the subject, press clippings, and library material.

4. Practice funnel interviewing.

Begin the questioning with topics the subject can answer easily -- e.g., background, history, personal information -- even if you know the answers. Journalists call this the "funnel" interview because the tougher questions are saved for later.

5. Allow flowing conversation.

Let the conversation flow as freely as possible. Use your list of questions, but don't read them verbatim. Take notes. They'll help you find key points in the transcript later.

6. Listen!

Listen, and look as if you're listening. If the answer is hard to understand or sounds too technical, ask, "Could you explain that?" Later when you edit the transcript, you will choose the best answer.

Edit to Sound Natural

If you've asked questions the right way, seeking clarification when needed, the answers should sound natural. Edit them to take out pauses, repetition, and speaking flaws. But remember: few people speak in complete sentences. Try reading an answer aloud to yourself, asking, "Does this sound like something a person would really say?" If not, use the subject's words to edit it until it sounds right.

Be a writer who has the ability to do an interview that brings the subject to life.

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 5:26 PM

Assessing the readability of a BonAppetit.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index excerpt comes from a July 29 BonAppetit.com article ("How to Cook Fish [Without Stinking Up Your Kitchen or Splattering Oil Everywhere]" by Molly Baz). Here's the sample text, with longer words italicized:

"Roasting fillets of firm white fish (think cod, halibut, hake, or haddock) in the oven at a low temperature is hands-down the most approachable at-home fish cooking method there is. You avoid all of the sputtering and splattering (and potential smelliness) of high heat stovetop searing, and cooking the fish gently means you have a greater margin of error -- and still takes less than half an hour. Fish cooked this way isn't going to take on any color, so the only way to really tell if it's done is by touching it; the flesh should flake easily under light pressure, and should look just barely opaque. And while that spiced chickpea-carrot mixture makes this dish a complete meal, you can cook your fish on top of just about any side dish you like and keep the method the same."

--Word count: 139 words
--Average sentence length: 35 words (30, 37, 39, 33)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 4 percent (6/139 words)
--Fog Index (35 +4)*.4 = 15 (15.6, no rounding)

We have two extremes here: high average sentence length and a very low percentage of longer words. The latter helps keep the Fog Index within 4 points of our goal (below 12). How can we edit this passage to improve our score?

"Roasting fillets of firm white fish (think cod, halibut, hake, or haddock) in the oven at a low temperature is hands down the most approachable at-home fish cooking method there is. You avoid all of the sputtering and splattering (and potential smelliness) of high heat stovetop searing, and cooking the fish gently means you have a greater margin of error. And it still takes less than half an hour. Fish cooked this way isn't going to take on any color, so the only way to really tell if it's done is by touching it. The flesh should flake easily under light pressure and should look just barely opaque. And while that spiced chickpea-carrot mixture makes this dish a complete meal, you can cook your fish on top of just about any side dish you like and keep the method the same."

--Word count: 141 words
--Average sentence length: 24 words (31, 29, 9, 25, 14, 33)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 4 percent (6/141 words)
--Fog Index (24+4)*.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)

This was a pretty easy sample to edit. With such a low percentage of longer words right off the bat, we focused strictly on sentence length. Note that we gained 2 words in the editing: We removed the hyphen from "hands down" in keeping with Merriam-Webster's spelling. We gained the other word when we split up the second sentence. Really, all it took was a few nearly imperceptible sleights of hand to cut through the Fog. The sample we're left with is nearly identical to the original -- but 4 points lighter.

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Five-Year Outlook for the Magazine Industry

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 5:20 PM

In the news: An industry veteran examines where things stand and what magazine publishing might look like five years from now.

In a recent Foliomag.com piece, magazine veteran Cable Neuhaus examines what the industry will look like in five years. Summing up the trajectory, he writes, "Many of my favorite books will be gone, no doubt -- lost to handheld screens or buried in unmarked graves where scores of once-proud titles now molder. It's sad but inevitable, and no use weeping for what's past. It's nature's cycle: eventually, all our loves perish."

So which titles will thrive and which ones will close their doors? It's a crap shoot, says Neuhaus, but he makes some predictions. "Weeklies will largely disappear," he says. "Bi-monthlies, monthlies and even quarterlies clearly make more sense in every way, particularly given production costs.... Independent, high-concept books, with their limited circ and issue-to-issue elasticity of format, will do fine." On the flip side: "General interest, mass-market print books are not exactly doomed, but -- well, yes, most are doomed."

Read the full analysis here.

Also Notable

How Lucrative Is Instagram for Magazine Publishers?

Quite lucrative, reports Kali Hays of Women's Wear Daily. Magazines in multiple categories are seeing significant follower growth this year. According to new MPA figures, magazine follower growth was 6.3 percent in the second quarter, reports Hays. Perhaps most noteworthy, news magazines have seen significant jumps - as high as 23 percent, in the case of The Atlantic -- in Instagram followers. Elsewhere, Facebook and Twitter audiences remained largely static. Read more here.

Mad Magazine Stops Production of New Content

Earlier this month, Mad magazine announced that it would stop producing new issues and will disappear from newsstands in August, reported Rob McLean and Michelle Lou of CNN.com. According to McLean and Lou's source, issues will be available only via comic book stores and subscriptions..... Issues after No. 10 of its current volume will reprint earlier material with new covers. However, the magazine will continue to publish its end-of-year special, books and special collections." Read more here.

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