Editorial Excellence: The Engine That Drives Everything (including Reprints)
Let’s be frank; who wants to order reprints from an obscure, off-kilter, or poorly-perceived magazine? Much of the power in selling reprints comes in having the source material based in respected publications with strong name recognition and consistently high standards of editorial quality.
But that begs another question: how can a publication maintain a consistently high standard of editorial excellence? It would seem that the answer comes in three parts: know and listen to your audience, maintain the best writing staff possible, complement your top-notch copy with top-notch art direction. A fourth element, seeking peer recognition via award competitions, is open to lively debate among magazine experts.
Audiences: Intrigue Them and Engage Them
Lew McCreary, the editorial director for IDG’s CXO Media division, has what he dubs his "prime directive" in creating excellent copy, and it has nothing to do with the editors or writers – but everything to do with their readers.
"Know thine audience," says McCreary. "Be intimate enough with their challenges, concerns and aggregate pains that you can deliver editorial content that stays ahead of their needs."
The proactive approach of anticipating the news (rather than just covering it) has been a key factor in McCreary’s editorial management. "You need to anticipate a burning issue that will affect the readers in the future. For an example, a few years ago we did an article for CSO on the increasing burden of regulatory compliance as it would affect the security industry. It was the not the pain felt by the vast majority of our audience at the time, but it was a pain that was heading their way. Our research showed this was central to the operational load they were experiencing, and we needed to get this on their radar as a growing problem."
McCreary adds that listening to all of the readers’ comments, even the negative ones, can prove to be helpful in building a stronger content. He cites a 2002 "scathing e-mail" he fielded from a reader who accused CSO of "failing and fumbling a considerable leadership role to the security industry." McCreary’s response accentuated the positive: he invited the reader to meet with the CSO staff to discuss his concerns on the security field. The reader, in turn, brought in several members of a professional trade association (he was an officer in this group), and the combined input of the CSO editorial team and the industry leaders helped to hammer out what McCreary conceded was a stronger focus for CSO.
"Never be defensive – always be open to what readers tell you," he says, noting the previously cranky reader and his trade association colleagues have since become "huge supporters of the magazine."
The Write Stuff
Having the best writing staff is, obviously, a no-brainer. Yet some experts point out that locating the finest journalist is a task unto itself – and knowing what to do with them is another labor.
For Joe Kane, publisher and editor of the influential film magazine The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, knowing the strengths of the writing corps is the main thrust to separating good magazines from great ones. "It comes in assigning the right material to the right writers," says Kane. "Lots of magazines just move writers around to different departments – that shows when editors are groping to find the right editorial fit."
In Kane’s estimation, versatility is paramount for journalistic excellence. "The best writers can cover just about everything," he says.
Yet Kane goes further by noting while it is important to have a consistent editorial tone to the magazine as a whole, the magazine is not well served when all of the writers sound alike – or have their individual style edited to fit a single voice.
"Too many times I see magazines where all of the articles are interchangeable," he says. "It feels like all the articles have been steamrolled into one. I like publications where you can place the writers without having to look at the byline."
Yet many smaller magazines have an additional challenge: recruiting the best writers who are willing to work for relatively small compensation. "I have a small staff and a small freelance budget," says Marsha Mah, editor of Delaware Today Magazine. "Most of my staffers are young and inexperienced, and I don’t have the money to pay award-winning writers who work for the bigger magazines. As an editor, I can work on a piece to improve the writing, but the reporting part is important, too, and that’s something that’s harder to fix’ when you are on deadline."
For Kane, one of the easiest ways to attract quality writers is to find a journalist with print experience. "I have a much easier time with people who write for print versus online or blogging," he says. "Online writing encourages too much prattling and babbling and not enough discipline. Some online writers I’ve seen couldn’t write to the space limit, but print writers can. And if you’re chopping down copy, it shows."
However, the best writing in the world is often ill-served if the magazine’s art direction fails to present it within an eye-catching (not to mention reprint-worthy) layout.
"Presentation matters," says Lew McCreary. "Articles need to be packaged with attractive design that draws readers in and leads them through the issue."
For Marsha Mah, the article’s text is one ingredient, but not the only one. "Everything has to work together," she says. "Brisk copy filled with colorful detail, great photography and design, plus the headline, kickers and captions."
This does not necessarily mean that a magazine has to be a latter-day edition of The Book of Kells. In fact, many specialized publications (especially educational journals) play down the quantity of illustrations per edition. But nonetheless, a clean and efficient design which presents the text in a succinct and user-friendly way will keep the reader’s attention without straining their eyes or forcing their attention to wander elsewhere.
"In our case, the content is the dominant factor," says Joe Kane of his magazine. "We keep the art direction simple, but our art direction will not win awards."
ARE AWARDS WORTHY?
Speaking of awards, it might seem that one of the strongest marketing tools to sell a publication’s value is the number of industry honors it received. For Lew McCreary, who won the G.D. Crain Award at the 2005 Jesse H. Neal Awards and whose magazine CIO took the Grand Neal in 2003 and 2004, the value of award recognition is not only a tribute to the publication, but also its readers.
"Awards reinforces for the audience that they’re astute in their choice of reading material," says McCreary.
However, some editors have been skeptical about the value of publishing awards – not only as a tool in selling the magazine as a reprint vehicle, but also for their own merits.
Christopher Null, editor of Mobile Magazine, is no stranger to awards. In the course of his career, he’s been an editor with publications that scored two National Magazine Awards, 17 American Society of Business Publishing Editors Awards, a Jesse H. Neal Award, three Computer Press Association Awards, three WPA Maggie Awards, three Ozzie Awards and a Folio: Award. And still, Null’s view of awards is less than complimentary.
"Awards are so random and meaningless in the marketplace that I’ve largely given up on them," he says. "Plus they’re expensive to enter – I’d rather use the money for something that’s going to show up in the magazine and that readers actually care about. There’s a lot of cronyism involved – I’ve known judges and have myself judged awards competitions and rarely does the sheer best’ magazine win. Some awards, like the Ellies, are virtually impossible to win if you aren’t a member of the New York City media elite. Now I won’t deny that The New Yorker has high standards, but is it the best magazine, year in and year out? I don’t think so. I’m sure there are many award-worthy magazines out there and, again, they don’t pursue the awards because they know they won’t win and the award competition costs too much. The best magazines, by the by, don’t really fit the template of Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, and other Important Publications’…so even if you produce the best skateboarding magazine on the planet, if it’s not a general interest publication you’re not going to win diddly." Marsha Mah at Delaware Today Magazine, echoes Null’s comments. "This has become a problem at the City Regional Magazine Association," she says. "About four or five big magazines dominate the competition every year, so many of the smaller magazines have quit entering. There has been some discussion about dividing the categories up by circulation, but as of now the only category divided up by circulation is General Excellence. I personally believe that from a judging standpoint, it is much more difficult to give an award to a smaller magazine – you have to really justify it – while everybody agrees that Texas Monthly, Los Angeles Magazine and Philadelphia Magazine are award-worthy."
Yet Mah notes she is not turned off on the award process. "We regularly enter another competition run by the Delaware Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women because entrants tend to be smaller publications and we feel we have a better chance of winning," she says.
For McCreary, the apathy that some editors feel towards the award process may come from a perception that standardizes the entire awards orbit. "There was a time when we were relatively unsophisticated of how awards programs worked," he recalls. "It took time for us to learn the Neals were one brand, the National Magazine Awards were another, and so forth. Over time, we learned to treat them distinctly and uniquely."
McCreary adds it is never a good idea to specifically set out with the goal of snagging awards. "Do not let the awards process drive your editorial process," he warns. "That leads you down a path which ultimately disservices your audience. Award recognition comes in how you serve your audience. If you succeed at that, the awards take care of themselves."