The Meeting Is the Message
All of us choose how to spend our time. Those who like meetings find the time to attend them. Those who hate them will say there are too many meetings, and there is always that ready excuse: No time. But it's not really about time. It's about priorities. At a magazine, story meetings are an editorial priority, vital to developing ideas and planning issues, but only if they are conducted by an editor who can lead a meeting to victory.
Running meetings is a huge indicator of editorial style. It can even be said that the meeting is the message. Effective meetings can establish an editorial culture; they enable an editor to communicate with the frontline staff (not just palace guard) a compelling vision for the future and to mobilize it to meet editorial challenges. Editors occasionally forget that the most important thing a magazine can do is get its content right, and story meetings are all about that.
Meetings can be lively for editors who are ambitious and can often be quarrelsome as they try to pull the magazine in a different direction. Also, there are "idea people" and there are those who know how to make an idea grow;often quite distinct talents, and you need both in the room. Author Carol Polsgrove, in It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties, recounts how the arguments were so fierce at editorial meetings that the young Esquire editors often tried to meet ahead of time to reconcile their differences before going in to meet with editor-in-chief Arnold Gingrich.
When Harold Hayes succeeded Gingrich, he took a more orderly approach. Each editor had to turn in ten ideas weekly;"child's play for committed editors," he said. As the system began to deteriorate, the number was reduced to five. After four months, Hayes' weekly packet was down to six ideas from just one editor and three pass-along queries from freelance writers. The plan was discarded and the old-style meetings were resumed.
Some tips and techniques for running effective story editor meetings:
- Keep them timely and on time. Set an agenda in advance and see that everyone gets a copy. Number items for ease of reference. Start on time.
- Keep a record. A meeting without minutes is like an editor falling in the forest. No one even knows about it. Have someone take notes. By the end of the meeting, you should have a written resolution or plan of action for every item on the agenda. Review who is to do what and include that in the record.
- Don't stray from the agenda. Keep the meeting focused on where the magazine is now, what's in the next three issues, and how we develop story ideas and get them into the editorial chute. New ideas are always welcome, but put them on a timeline and keep the focus on issues at hand.
- Keep them brief. At the outset of the meeting, announce when the meeting is going to end. And stick to it. Meetings that run longer than 45 minutes to an hour call for some break time. Meetings over lunch are good. Order pizza in. If you need to call another meeting during the week, make it a stand-up, ten minutes max. Gather about, discuss, go back to work.
One meeting I recommend against is the "post mortem," with the latest issue in hand and the staff assembled to go through it page by page. The theme of this meeting is often: Let's beat up on the art director. Everything that is questionable about the issue seems to challenge the AD's judgment: Why is the logo red? Why isn't this picture bigger? Wouldn't it have been better to use a photo instead of an illustration here?
The editor, of course, should have raised these questions during the creation of the issue. Instead, at a post-mortem free-for-all, they come from junior or mid-rung staffers;even interns!;who seem unaware of the piling-on effect this has for the art department. Rarely are there questions that challenge the writing and editing that went into the issue: Why isn't the reporting stronger in this story? Isn't this a weak lead? Why didn't we edit this story down in size?
That's it for now. Meeting adjourned.
John Brady is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy that specializes in redesigns, and conducts workshops for professionals. For information on his consulting services, and his Interviewer's Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his Web site is www.johnbrady.info.
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