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The Editorial Package

Posted on Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 1:00 PM

A magazine succeeds with a well-designed package -- verbally and artfully -- to attract even a one-time visitor.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Let's say I get 150 publications. I think I do, considering the close to 100 I subscribe to and another 50 that I figure come through various memberships and contributions to non-profits. That's a lot for me to read, race, or clip through. That's a burden my mail carriers bravely, conscientiously handle those six delivery days of the week.

But so goes the life of a packrat always looking for things to write or talk or teach about, and so goes the job experience of those assigned to my street as postal dispatchers. The publishers of the magazines, papers, and newsletters I receive are compensated either by my subscription dollars or donations. The mail schleppers, unfortunately, receive little more than an occasional thanks and a holiday time fiscal gift hardly commensurate with the duties performed.

For all that, a visit to Barnes and Noble or Borders or the local independent will remind me of the countless publications I do not get at home. Sometimes, perusal leads to a purchase; something within an exhibited issue strikes my attention or suggests fulfillment of a momentary need. The drugstores have their own collections, usually of a more frivolous nature, but I'm certainly not averse to looking through a few of the publications exhibited there.

Or wherever I'm led day by day, I should add. A few weeks ago, while waiting to see my doctor for the semi-annual checkup, I chanced across the June '08 issue of Fast Company, a magazine I had seen before but that had not been the object of sufficient topical interest to be material for purchase. I happen to not be big on company/entrepreneurial publications.

But among the cover lines, I found "Cities of the Year, Why Chicago and London Are Tops." Actually, the main cover subject dealt with a young man named Alex Bogusky, a whiz from the world of advertising out to crush Apple for Microsoft. That subject didn't stir the juices, nor did the other topics flagged, save for the Chicago/London selections, which held topic potential strong enough for me to actually open the magazine.

Lo and behold, what I discovered was an editorial package designed verbally and artfully to attract even a one-time visitor. Layouts, titles, subtitles, visuals, captions, breakouts, story structures, subject variety, lengths of pieces ranging from micro to macro: all had been arranged into a savvy unit. It's a very "now" magazine, aimed at the successful or motivated-to-be young adult. And the editors, I suspect from what I saw, have found ways to attract their readers into and through the pages.

That matter of attracting, of how -- for instance -- to get stories underway for the purpose of reader seduction: that's always on my mind. Since the Fast Company copy was not mine, I turned to the Chicago and London articles quickly, this so I could glance at them before my doctor called me into her office. She soon did but not before I got a healthy start on my reading. It sharpened my interest. Fortunately, later in the day, I found a single copy at Borders and snatched it. That's why I am better prepared to tell you about my adventure with Fast Company.

A page titled "Fast Cities 2008" got the package that teased me underway, it dominated by city scenes and a preface that reads: "The great urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote about cities of 'exuberant diversity,' and in our 2008 Cities of the Year, Chicago and London, we have two stellar examples. They -- and our 12 cities to watch -- are no utopias (we're still looking). But amid economic uncertainty, they're vibrant, creative, and growing. These hot spots, these Fast Cities, are full of life and bursting with diversity -- in race, in culture, and in business. Join us for a tour."

The text supplier for "Chicago Soul" is Alex Kotlowitz, an avid Chicagoan who authored Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago. The "London Calling" writer is Alice Rawsthorn, a London resident for 28 years and design critic for the International Herald Tribune. From start to finish, each reporter/writer got it right, or seems to. I have to guess with the London piece because I've only been a visitor there. I can vouch for the Chicago article since 36 years of my life were spent there.

Here's the first paragraph -- a rather long one, but juicy -- Mr. Kotlowitz applied to Chicago:

"In the bottom of the ninth inning of the 2005 World Series, as the long-suffering Chicago White Sox were about to win their first championship in 88 years, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck waxed eloquent about Chicago's South Side, where the Sox play. He described it as 'a collection of neighborhoods...Irish neighborhoods. Italian neighborhoods. Polish. Lithuanian. Firemen. Policemen. Schoolteachers. Stockyard workers.' Stockyard workers? The last stockyard closed in 1971. Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian? The South side has long been predominantly African-American, and most of its immigrants now are Mexican. Yet that is how many view the city, through a lens dominated by the past. If you travel abroad and tell people you're from Chicago, they'll often pull their hands out of imaginary holsters and start shooting. To them, the city is still Al Capone's town, which it was -- nearly a century ago."

What's myth and what's actual: that is the Kotlowitz point. Is Chicago a city one can pin down so that the reason for its current state of vitality becomes clear? His is a valid approach, and an attractive one. He follows with an up-dater:

"The real Chicago isn't so easy to keep up with. It's constantly reinventing itself. Jumpy. Agitated. Impatient. It's as if the place is trembling. Move aside. Don't linger. And if you're going to dawdle, get out of the way. But what any Chicagoan will also tell you is that the past is very much present. It doesn't go away. It shouldn't. In fact, that's Chicago's lure and its beauty: its ability to take what was and figure out what could be."

An excellent approach this is, an introduction that allows Kotlowitz to begin making his case for Chicago as "City of the Year." "Consider Millennium Park," he continues, explaining how a site once dominated by ugly railroad tracks (in a rail era that made Chicago its hub) has become part of a lakefront skyline probably unequalled in the world for beauty and public usage. I'll leave it to you to hunt up the article, but, let me assure you, the "why" for Chicago's selection becomes clear and bright as the sunlight that strikes the waters of Lake Michigan on all but the cloudiest of days.

And off to the side, one finds a column of quotes from Chicagoans, such as the artist Dzine, aka Carlos Rolon: "The Chicago lakefront, Nelson Algren, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, the best place to get pizza, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, Bill Murray, John Cusack, Lupe Fiasco, Buddy Guy, Hugh Hefner, Billy Corgan, Kanye West, Liz Phair, Bernie Mac, Jeff Tweedy, Common, Jeremy Piven, Ramsey Lewis, Pete Wentz, Studs Terkel, Frankie Knuckles, Koko Taylor, Chris Ware, Charlie Trotter, Freddy Rodriguez, Ryne Sandberg, Nate Berkus, Judy Chicago, Kerry James Marshall, Chicago Italian beef hot dogs, house music, the Second City theater -- and my father."

The CEO of Motorola, Greg Brown," adds: You can see it all get started here: life-saving drugs, new food, new technologies, new airplanes, advertising creativity." And by now, you should get sufficient clues for the why of the selection.

Alice Rawsthorn's "London Calling" begins:

"It's shockingly expensive. The roads are jammed with traffic. The subway system's hopeless, and the buses no better. There's a surveillance camera on every other corner, and the sidewalks are strewn with litter. The biggest airport is a joke. The richest residents are fleeing or threatening to; the poorest have been chased out to the suburbs by soaring property prices. And the weather sucks."

Well, that opening paragraph casts doubt on the "why" for London as choice. Rawsthorn makes the place sound bleak. But as reader, one gets the vibes that the explanatory payoff is about to come. It starts with the question we've just posed:

"Why is somewhere with so much against it such a great place for creatives to live and work?

'That's simply -- it's because London's so dynamic,' says Christopher Bailey, design director for Burberry, the once-dowdy British raincoat company that has been reinvented as a successful global fashion brand. 'Creativity thrives here. It has to do with the people, their attitude, vibrance, and energy. You can work away in your little world and have your moment in the sun. That's very empowering. I've lived and worked in New York, Paris, and Milan, but right now I can't think of another city I'd want to live in more than London.'"

The defining details begin to amass: "London has more museums than Paris, more theaters than New York, and more bars, public libraries, and music venues than either A recent edition of Time Out listed 111 plays, 190 exhibitions, 157 comedy events, 293 rock or pop performances, and 195 club nights in a single week. One in every eight Londoners -- more than 550,000 people -- work either in a creative job or in a creative industry."

Again, I ask you to look up what follows. There are lessons in the writing (not only of the two mentioned articles but throughout the issue). There are lessons about editorial choices (what to feature, what to cover extensively, what to compress, and a lot about how one can make a reader take notice).

Like a column, for instance, titled "A Dirty Shame," that covers "How marketers create disgust and embarrassment -- and why we shouldn't put up with it." The argument begins with the dreadful "Ring around the collar" commercial that used to make me cringe.

Hmm, maybe I should make Fast Company my 151st publication. I'll think about it.

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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