Read Like Your Enemies Will: Lessons in Magazine Editing From AARP’s Bob Love
A transcript of the ASME-award winning editor's keynote at the Folio: Association Media Summit.
Editor’s note: Below, enjoy a slightly abridged and lightly edited version of Bob Love’s keynote address from the 2017 Association Media Summit, full of invaluable wisdom on the inherent challenges involved in publishing an association magazine, and how they are different — and similar — to those faced by their counterparts in the mass consumer space.
Good morning, and welcome to the National Press Club. With your indulgence, a little story about Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa dies and appears at the Pearly Gates. God says, “Welcome to your heavenly rewards for a lifetime of work with the poor and the sick. It’s your turn now, Mother T, and I’m here to help. Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to do . . . Maybe something in cloud-computing?”
The little nun considers this for a moment or two, looks up at God and says:
“Well,” she says, “I always thought I’d be a great magazine editor.”
And there you have it folks, everything you need to know about our work in a single sentence.
On days when the copy is singing, your headlines are genius, your deadlines are met, and your art director is being angelic, the job feels like heaven.
On other typical days, you’re never far from being reminded — by a reader or a board member — that many people believe a deceased Albanian nun with no journalistic experience could do a better job than you running the magazine.
The organizers of this event asked me to talk to you about my long experience in the trenches of consumer magazines: Something like 35 years now that I think about it. To see what lessons I may have learned that can be transferred to you and your publications, which like mine, now have the advantages and drawbacks of a built-in audience — membership.
My resume in a nutshell from the start: I’ve been a copy editor, fact checker, features editor, online editor, ran departments at New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Best Life, Reader’s Digest and The Week. I’ve freelanced as a writer, too, and for over a decade I was an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School. But for the past four years I’ve toiled as the editor-in-chief of AARP publications: The Magazine and The Bulletin — the two print communications channels of AARP, a non-partisan, non-profit association with nearly 38 million members. We turn 60 next year, which is kind of fitting when you think about who we are.
The AARP Bulletin and The Magazine are the country’s biggest magazines by circulation. That’s so because of the trust that Americans have in those four letters: A-A-R-P. I am part of a great, energetic team of editors, writers, designers, photo editors, production slave drivers and many others who work to keep up that trust every day. We are supported by our leadership and by our executive teams. Our board of directors seems to admire what we do. And like many of you who work for non-profits, we have a mission: Ours is to help Americans live the best lives they can as they grow older — to put our shoulders to the wheel every day to change America’s attitudes about aging.
The Magazine’s circulation went up in 2016 — to 22.5 million — and our readership topped 37 million for the first time. Against the odds and bucking the big financial trends in publishing, our print advertising revenue (yes, we accept advertising, and more about that later) edged up a percentage point in 2016, while our online revenue rose five percent. Our story was so compelling in so many ways, that — and I am proud to tell you this — earlier this year, we were chosen, for the first time in The Magazine’s history, as one of Ad Age’s Hot Magazines of the Year in 2016.
Let’s review: 22.5 million paid circ. 37+ million readers. Those numbers are so big and our audience so diverse, that in many ways, we resemble a consumer publication. Which is a fitting segue to begin a short discussion on the similarities and differences in association publishing and the commercial, newsstand-driven world in which I grew up. We’ll start with the similarities.
What’s the Same
1. COST: The big kahuna is cost. Paper and postage: It’s relentlessly rising. It’s changing what the way we do business every day. We face all of the same financial pressures that consumer-facing publications do. Our printing and postage costs are very high and the pressure to cut them is constant. We editors have paid the price. Our page count, trim size and paper quality have been reduced several times since the market bottomed out in 2008.
So we are forced to produce more content in far fewer pages. (In AARP The Magazine, we publish about 52 editorial pages six times a year, where it used to be closer to 70.) But what can you do? After the sunk costs of production are reckoned with, can content spending be controlled without losing quality? That’s a good question: I think the answer is always yes. When I was at The Week, the magazine was almost entirely curated, written by talented in-house editors. We published only second-serial book excerpts, which if you don’t know about, you should. Even best sellers can be had for several hundred bucks for 1500 words. Plus, there are a lot of underemployed freelance writers out there. Just ask.
2. BUSY READERS: We know that our readers are as busy, time-stressed and as media drenched as yours, but still we want to surprise, delight, educate, and entertain them. I like to tell my editors that the internet is our best friend and our worst enemy. Readers get instant information, data and news from Google, but they come to print for something extra. Let’s call it inspiration. The designed printed page can be more powerful than anything on the web as long as we adhere to a rule that I learned at Reader’s Digest: don’t tell them stuff they already know. Eliminate “throat clearing,” in first paragraphs.
To the non-editors listening today, throat-clearing sounds like this: “Yoga is an ancient Indian spiritual and physical practice thousands of years old.” Or “Medical science has made tremendous strides in developing new drugs in recent years.” Duh. Get to the point! Don’t waste your reader’s time! Maybe it was those tiny digest-sized pages that forced us to think economically, but it’s a lesson I never forgot.
3. A NEED FOR CONSTANT EDIT FOCUS: Success at any magazine is all about relentless focus. Know where your readers are coming from. When I was at Rolling Stone, we saw the world — music, politics, life, everything — through the prism of youth. At AARP, everything we do is filtered through the wishes, hopes, dreams and fears of Americans 50 and older. What do our readers care about? We ask them. Health, wealth and self, as our CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins likes to say. Call it self-interest, like they do at Rodale. For those of you old enough to recall the reference, it’s been a long, strange trip. At Rolling Stone, we wrote about Pell Grants and student loans; now it’s Social Security and Medicare. You know what? It’s all rock and roll to me.
4. TRUST IS BUILT GETTING THE DETAILS RIGHT: As a fact checker at New York magazine in the early 1980s, I drove around Manhattan all night in a broken-down, death-trap of a Ford Pinto with my friend Deborah to check which stores were really open 24 hours, as they claimed. It was for a story called “New York All Night.” Fully caffeinated and heavily nicotined, I would bound out of car and sprint into delis and groceries and bodegas, asking in a loud voice: “You open all night???” Many of the people I encountered didn’t speak English and thought I was either a maniac or a criminal. I recall seeing one of them reach for a gun under the counter and shoo me away with the other hand. What I can remember about those nights was that was that the effort of getting it right was actually fun. I enjoyed my years as a fact checker.
I tracked down Henry Kissinger on the phone at Claridges hotel in London after midnight to ask him if he wore a particular kind of shoes the writer had mentioned. I called David Geffen at his beach house in Fire Island to ask if he had really switched producers on the last Donna Summer record because some of his friends didn’t care for it. Geffen actually screamed at me, something like: Do you think that’s the way I do business? You must be joking!
Neither guy really appreciated the interruption, but each one took the call and spent time helping me, a lowly fact checker get it right. Which drove home to me the power of the printed word. and imprinted on me the desire to get everything right. And that’s still true at AARP, where we maintain full fact checking and copy editing staffs. If you can’t afford these luxuries these days, tell your editors what I tell mine: read like your enemies will, search for contradictions, mistakes, errors, hidden agendas, and lack of transparency. Hire great editors. They’re out there.
5. REPORTING FIRST & FOREVER. Over 20 years at Rolling Stone, working with Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe and P.J. O’Rourke, I learned the primacy of reporting. Style without reporting is nothing. Even in the wiggy realm of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter got the important facts right. I’ll say it again. Style without reporting is like bricks without mortar.
At Columbia Journalism School, I had a revelation during a long night of editing student masters’ projects. Ah ha! I thought. It all boils down to a single bedrock, basic rule, a “unified field theory of journalism,” which I pounded into my students at the beginning of every semester and still tell my editors: Here it is for you, tuition free: There are very few defects in a manuscript that cannot be cured by another phone call, a third source, a deeper level of curiosity about the story you’re telling — in essence, more reporting.
6. CHURCH AND STATE: At AARP, there’s a bright line between advertising and edit — brighter even than in conventional publishing. AARP licenses its brand to carefully vetted companies whose products are available to members as what we call “member benefits,” like the health insurance you see advertised on TV. But the ad-edit separation remains a bright line: These firms buy advertising from the publications at arm’s length and at fair market value, the same as any other advertiser. And The Magazine and the Bulletin, fiercely independent, do not show any favoritism to these companies in the edit space, even if they say pretty please.
7. SACRED COWS ARE EVERYWHERE: At Rolling Stone, the music critics learned not to say a bad word about Yoko Ono’s music, because the owner Jann Wenner had a soft spot in his heart for John Lennon and Yoko, too. At Playboy, there were no stories about fathers and sons because Hugh Hefner had a bad relationship with his dad. At AARP, there’s a fine line — let’s call it that — when it comes to jokes about getting old — you know, those “Congratulations, old Fart. You’re over the hill at 50!” birthday-card lines. There is a lot of anti-aging prejudice out there, so humor for us is complicated. We also put our money where our mouth is: We decline advertising that portrays people over 50 as infirm in body or mind.
So what’s different?
1. WE ARE MEMBERS-ONLY — FOR BETTER OR WORSE: We have a great luxury, not available to consumer publications. “We aren’t slaves to the newsstand,” says my friend John Rezek of Rotarian. At AARP, I might add, there’s another great luxury. We are not slaves to the ungainly chase after millennials because of their shiny bright attractiveness to advertisers. Not until they’re 50.
But how do we get the feedback that the consumer marketplace and the newsstand normally provides to editors and publishers?
Well, first of all, we measure internally. Our research team tests every issue with our members for reader engagement. And we coordinate our engagement scores with membership trends. We have learned over time that high-frequency readers are “extremely likely to renew membership.” So, our engagement numbers speak volumes to the leadership of AARP, who support the publications. They are the folks who ultimately give us the freedom and the resources to do what we do.
Then, we also measure externally and independently. We use MRI, aka Mediamark Research & Intelligence — an independent firm. We sell advertising and have a large enough circulation to know that our reach matters. And our MRI numbers, happily, tell us that AARP The Magazine has gold-standard engagement scores with our readers — nearly seven in ten say they have read four out of four issues, a figure that has remained steady in ten-plus years of measurement.
And we enter all the competitions and contests we can, to measure our work against our peers and our competitive set: Folio:, min, SPD, ASME, Mature Media and the Content Council. You name it; we’re in it to win it.
2. TARGET IF YOU CAN: Orange juice comes in seven or eight versions, right? Pulp, no pulp, some pulp, with calcium, no calcium, low sugar. So why can’t publications? This is primarily a production question. At AARP, we produce The Magazine six times a year in three demographic versions: One for members 50 to 59, another for 60 to 69 year olds and a third for those 70 and older. Each version has content changes large and small to let the readers know we’re talking just to them. We also publish 16 regional editions and a select edition for our top ten demographic areas. We have come to believe that targeting supercharges relevance to readers. It might be worth talking to your production folks.
3. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU MR. BIG SHOT EDITOR: In consumer media, the publication is the big dance and the editor is king or queen — and, sometimes, show pony. At a non-profit like AARP, my team — the print professionals, you can call us — represents just one channel of the association’s efforts to communicate with our members. There are teams for direct mail, teams for newsletters, digital and not, 53 state offices with their own outreach staffs, and a full complement of government affairs advocates who work on Capitol Hill and communicate with the political class.
So we editors have learned that we may be pretty darn good, but we’re part of a much larger team with a mission — which has its own joys and vicissitudes.
4. GUARDRAILS. When we cover issues that are front and center for AARP, yes, there is an extra layer of internal oversight that doesn’t exist in consumer publications. If there’s a story to do on AARP’s bedrock issues like Medicare and Social Security, for example, we always work closely with our colleagues in Government Affairs and Advocacy to make sure that the messages going out of the building are in sync. I personally have no issues with this, as I am totally in sync with our goals. As editors, however, we cover news generated by AARP the same way the New York Times covers its own business. Dispassionately. Just the facts, ma’am.
5. IN THE END, IT’S THE MISSION FIRST. The best thing about working for an association, this association in particular, is that I get to put a lifetime of journalistic skills to work for a larger cause than just increasing profits for a publisher.
Again, I’ll quote my former Playboy colleague, John Rezek who understands that along with the “ironies and idiosyncrasies inherent in a large organization, we have this preposterous notion that we can do something about the world’s problems.” Me, too, John.
I get to contribute to a mission that aligns with my sense of purpose at this stage in my life. To help people of my generation — and those older and younger, too — live full, active possibility-rich lives as they age — without fear of losing their jobs or being stripped of their health insurance. Fighting ageism doesn’t only benefit people over 50. Heck, we are even making Hollywood take a second look at the wisdom and beauty and marketability of older actors with our Movies for Grownups Awards — now in its 17th year.
Like some of you I have come to membership publishing later in my professional life. Happily so! So here’s to encore careers as association editors, to second chances and Albanian saints, to being part of a great, growing vibrant community of media professionals who have learned to put the mission before themselves.
Thanks so much for your time and attention.