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Issue for October 2017

Start a Perpetual Reader Survey

Posted on Sunday, October 29, 2017 at 8:29 PM

Getting quality feedback from readers is too important to relegate to just an occasional quest.

By William Dunkerley

A recent anecdotal survey suggests that many editors actively survey reader interests every one to three years. That's probably fairly reflective of practices in general -- except, of course, those who either don't survey at all or hardly ever do. They didn't opt in to the study.

I'd like to suggest that getting more frequent reader feedback can be beneficial.

The frequency of gathering metrics should reflect how much variance may be occurring. So if you are going to measure the height of the Eiffel Tower, for instance, there's not much need for an ongoing program. If you're driving a car, however, it's a good idea to check your speedometer often, lest you get caught in a speed trap going too fast.

How Often Should You Survey Readers?

It's a pretty sure bet that there are subtleties going on with your readership that are left undetected by gathering metrics at one- to three-year intervals.

My recommendation is to get some sort of quantifiable feedback with every issue. That doesn't mean doing a long, comprehensive survey each time. There are other ways to keep an objective hand on the pulse of reader interests.

Here's a case example from a publication I worked with a while back. The editor wanted to know how readers felt about all the individual articles she was publishing. Her hobby magazine had a circulation of over 150,000. The questionnaire I developed listed all the articles in an issue, and asked the recipient to rate each one on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best rating.

I also included the advertiser index on the list because it changed very little from issue to issue, and there was no reason for readers to rate it differently month to month. Therefore, it served as an indicator of sample error.

I started by sending the questionnaire to a list of 300 readers randomly drawn from the 150,000. The response rate turned out to be about one-third every month. I found that there was almost no random variance in how readers rated the ad index from month to month. That told me that my sample size was probably large enough for this relatively simple survey. If there had been greater variance on the ad index question, I would have evaluated whether that much sample error was acceptable when viewing answers to the other questionnaire items. If it was not, I would have increased the sample size until I reached an acceptable level.

What Are the Benefits of Frequent Surveying?

This survey program gave the editor the answers she sought regarding the articles. But there is a lot more insight that can be mined from the results, examined over time.

The first point is the response rate. In the above example it was 33 percent. But I've seen other publications that could pull only five percent. All things being equal, that says something about the overall interest of readers in your publication.

You can also analyze the relative interests in various categories of articles. Actually, that is something that would be handy to include in your large, comprehensive survey -- i.e., "Please rate your level of interest in the following topics that we cover...." Armed with that as background, you can go to work with the results from your perpetual surveys.

To do this kind of analysis, start with perhaps a year's accumulation of data. For instance, if you publish a news magazine, you might track the ratings of articles about politics, crime, sports, travel, fashion, global affairs, etc. Aggregate the ratings readers give articles in each category. Now compare that with the areas of interest found from your comprehensive survey. The big survey tells you where their interests lie; the perpetual survey tells you how you're doing in serving their interests.

Other Modes of Analyzing Results

Other than subject categories, there are other useful schemes for aggregating results. Compare liberally illustrated articles with ones that are text heavy. Compare position within the publication. Compare various writing styles. You likely can add more to this list.

Are you in tune with whatever seasonality there is in reader interests? Most editors are very perceptive to the obvious trends. But there may be subtler periodic swings that go undetected by just commonsense observation. The perpetual survey will perhaps open your eyes to something unexpected.

All this will give you valuable editorial insights that may not be readily apparent otherwise. And if you make this survey a truly perpetual practice, you'll be able to track trends that emerge over time. That will give you an opportunity to fine-tune your coverage, and even to forecast the trajectory of changes in reader interests. That will be increasingly important as we face growing content competition from non-publication Internet sources.

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

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The Editor-Writer, Part II

Posted on Sunday, October 29, 2017 at 8:29 PM

More lessons on making what you write and edit for others more useful and meaningful.

By Peter P. Jacobi

In Part I, I covered a number of lessons for those who both write and edit. Items included being clear, self-editing, leaving no questions, and adding interest. Now, here are the remaining points:

Follow Policy

Often, the editing involves handling of opinionated copy that may or may not be appropriate. Be careful to follow policy. And remember there's a great difference between using other people's opinion in your copy, which, when used fairly, is proper, and using your own, which may not be unless labeled "opinion." That can all become quite sticky and become a significant part of your duty to handle as editor.

Know Your Limits

Personally, I have experience handling professional copy for magazines, newspapers, radio, and television. As teacher, I've edited student copy of all those journalistic sorts for more than 50 years. I've done utilitarian editing and the others.

Let me emphasize, however, that we cannot, as individuals, handle all sorts of editing. I cannot. I've been asked to edit book manuscripts, for instance. Nonfiction I probably could do but avoid because a work of such length makes me nervous (not to read, mind you, but to edit). Fiction is out of the question. Fixing plot and character development and made-up dialogue and arcs of climaxes and such matters is not my thing. I say "no" to such requests. Consequently, working for a book publisher is not on my list of credits. That's a very different sort of editing animal. Remind yourself of personal limits. Most of us who write cannot write everything. Ditto, when it comes to editing.

Which brings me back to Barbara Baig's Spellbinding Sentences, mentioned in Part I. She uses the perfection of sentences to preach the series of lessons we need to be reminded of in seeking to write and edit better.

Her lessons are extremely well presented and developed. I think you would benefit from reading and using the book. Its coverage is grammar-deep, oriented toward showing how -- when you use the language accurately and briefly and correctly -- you are on the way to making what you write and edit for others more useful and meaningful.

Practice Visionary Editing

Which also brings me back to the Highlights Foundation Workshop mentioned in Part I and my friend's address to the students. He is a dear friend, Jan Cheripko, a deeply thoughtful and kind man, a former working journalist, a retired teacher in a residential school for children with emotional problems, and a successful author of books for children. He titled his talk "Literature, Lessons, and Life: How the Desire to Write One Good Sentence Pursued Me."

He did discuss working toward perfection of a sentence through just the right language. But the aim of his discussion reached wider. One heard him deliver a number of sentences from a number of sources, some of them from literature, others among them from lessons and life. Out of events from his own life, that of his family, and of his troubled but beloved students, from the lessons Jan learned, he arrived at sentences, perfect ones, that in content and verbal style and personal voice and spirit wrapped up a spiritual journey or a lifesaving moment or a mind-opener that altered the course of someone's life, including Jan's own.

Jan was arguing that as writer and editor, when we can spot such in someone's writing or discover it in our own, the editorial wisdom to leave that alone and pass it on is a gift to every reader. That becomes visionary editing, editing on another, higher level. Whenever you sit down to write or edit, keep your heart and brain on the lookout for such copy, potentially a gift beyond all measure.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, October 29, 2017 at 8:28 PM

Assessing the readability of a Buzzfeed.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample text comes from an October 27 Buzzfeed.com piece ("Myspace Looked Like It Was Back. Actually, It Was a Pawn in an Ad Fraud Scheme" by Craig Silverman). Here's the text, with longer words italicized:

"This is the latest in an ongoing catalog of fraud in programmatic advertising that continues to shake confidence in the digital media industry. Last week a BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that ad industry insiders profited from a network of 'zombie websites' that used special code to trigger an avalanche of fraudulent views of video ads. The growing awareness of ad fraud among brands and agencies is causing major advertisers to pull back budgets and demand more accountability from their partners. Industry leaders expect more than $16 billion to be stolen by fraudsters this year alone."

Word count: 95 words
Average sentence length: 24 words (23, 32, 25, 15)
Words with 3+ syllables: 20 percent (19/95 words)
Fog Index: (24+20) *.4 = 17 (17.6, no rounding)

We need to cut 6 points from the Fog Index to fall below 12. At a glance, we see a large number of longer words (1 out of 5, to be precise). But we also have nearly 100 words split into just 4 sentences, making for a high average sentence length. Let's see if we can attack this on both fronts to bring down the score.

"This is the latest in an ongoing onslaught of fraud in programmatic advertising that has shaken trust in the digital media business. Last week BuzzFeed News revealed that ad insiders profited from a network of 'zombie websites.' These sites have used special code to trigger a flood of phony video ad views. The growing awareness of ad fraud among brands and agencies is causing major advertisers to pull back budgets and demand more accountability from their partners. Ad leaders expect more than $16 billion to be stolen by fraudsters this year alone."

Word count: 92 words
Average sentence length: 18 words (22, 15, 15, 25, 15)
Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (10/92 words)
Fog Index: (18+11) *.4 = 11 (11.6, no rounding)

We had to wrestle with the sample quite a bit to cut 6 points from the original Fog score. We were only able to split up one longer sentence, making 5 sentences where there were 4. So the bulk of our efforts had to go to cutting the percentage of longer words. This proved difficult, but we were able to cut the number from 19 words to 10. Ultimately, we ended up with an ideal score of 11.

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Magazine Shake-ups in a Post-Weinstein World

Posted on Sunday, October 29, 2017 at 8:28 PM

In the news: The Harvey Weinstein allegations are leading some magazines and media brands to reevaluate their own personnel. This month, we round up editorial shake-ups at several brands in response to various sexual harassment allegations.

Condé Nast International

Perhaps one of the biggest magazine shake-ups in this dawning era of sexual harassment scandals is happening at Condé Nast International. Last week, Per Ben Riley-Smith and Nick Allen of the Telegraph reported that the publishing group would no longer work with photographer Terry Richardson, whose explicit photos and alleged treatment of his models have long been a source of controversy. Per Riley-Smith and Allen, "Staff were told that any work already commissioned from Mr Richardson but not yet published should be 'killed or substituted with other material.'" Read more here.

Harper's Bazaar

At Harper's Bazaar, editor in chief Justine Picardie also ousted Richardson, citing his "sexually 'exploitative' behaviour," according to the Telegraph. Read more here.

The Atlantic

Over at The Atlantic, contributing editor Leon Wieseltier has been let go in response to reports that he sexually harassed colleagues when he was literary editor at the New Republic. Wieselseltier had been set to launch a new culture magazine, which has now been shuttered by the Emerson Collective (founded by Laurene Powell Jobs). Read more detailed accounts of the allegations here and here.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is in search of a new editor, and the Weinstein allegations have altered their course. Writes Edward Helmore of the Guardian: "Against this background, the selection of one of the most high-profile editors in publishing is more than a matter of expanded due diligence.... The issue threatens to compound the challenges Condé Nast faces in picking a new editor amid hard economic times in the once-bouyant luxury magazine business." Read the full write-up here.

Artforum

Knight Landesman, publisher of Artforum, is also facing sexual harassment allegations. The mounting controversy has led editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo to leave. Writes Sarah Cascone of Artnet News: "The magazine's editor-in-chief, Michelle Kuo, announced her resignation on Wednesday [October 25]. She said she had informed management of her decision last week and that the mounting accusations against Landesman motivated her to leave." Read more, including the staff's statement on the magazine's response to the allegations, here.

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