Revitalizing Your Magazine — 13 Easy Steps

Come on, we’ve all dreamt of it. We’ll get a windfall budget from management, clone ourselves, our staff – and then we’ll have the publication we really want.

It will be beyond our wildest dreams, with writing that sings and sizzles and art that captivates and won’t let the eye go. Not to mention readers who love our every move.

“Please wake up,” you’re now saying. But the hard facts are that while these scenarios are far-fetched, the vigor and passion with which you approach your publication should be this strong and dauntless. Just as you evolve as a professional, so does your magazine and there are always cost-effective and practical ways of sparking a renaissance. Drawing from advice shared at the Fall 2000 Folio: Show in New York by J.D. Hildebrand, content director, Borland Developer Community, we encourage editors and designers to not only think outside the box, but to think beyond their everyday environments. Challenge yourselves and your teams, have a bent toward ongoing education, connect with your readers regularly and ask questions such as, “How can this publication be better?”

Tip 1: Focus on intention & execution: When you evaluate a lead, a headline, an article, a chart or an issue, be sure to measure both the quality of intention and the quality of execution. Overall quality is the product of both of these factors.

Tip 2: Establish an editor school: It doesn’t matter how high-end or modest your school is, commit to creating a culture of ongoing process improvement, meeting often and involving other departments.

Tip 3: Be a lion when it comes to fact checking: Implement a process for consistent, thorough fact checking. Not only will your readers love you for it, so will your publisher, your sales staff, your advertisers and your editors.

Tip 4: Host a $100 lunch: Take your staff to lunch and, on the way, stop and spend $100 on magazines you’ve never read. Over lunch, search out new publishing trends and examine how other editors have solved the same dilemmas you face. Finally, tear out your favorite articles and take them back to the office with you.

Tip 5: Define and publish your editorial process: Along with your regular mission statement or USP, publishing a special section or story that explains your editorial process helps your readers understand your goals and philosophies and gives them a unique inside look at your operations. It will also help outside authors and new staffers as well as help you redefine processes that aren’t working.

Tip 6: Telephone readers: Get a list of readers’ phone numbers from circulation and give a stack to each editor on your staff. Have each editor telephone five readers per week and submit a written report. Note: don’t script the calls. You want the readers to be as human as possible.

Tip 7: Get in the test and quiz mode: Use sporadic quizzes to gauge the consistency of your editing and proofing, discover problem areas, and build consensus on what needs improvement.

Tip 8: Enter competitions: Contests remind staffers that their work is important. If a nomination is required to enter someone’s top-of-line work, you should be doing this regularly (or evaluate why you don’t feel compelled to). Also, entry forms motivate staffers to identify their best work and to state explicit goals associated with a story, layout or project.

Tip 9: Remember the “ants and funnels” approach: In your writing and editing, you should always be cognizant that the effort’s for naught if the author’s valuable ideas and research aren’t planted in the reader’s mind where they can do some good. Every step you take should be directed toward this one goal.

Tip 10: Start a study group: Find a good book, buy everyone a copy and read a chapter a week. You can discuss the chapter at a staff meeting, Editor School session or at lunch. If some team members are reluctant to take part, assign them chapter overviews to present to the group.

Tip 11: Avoid meta-references: Do not repeatedly call attention to the magazine as “a magazine” or consistently refer to articles as “articles.” Meta-references take the reader’s attention away from the subject of the story and remind the reader that he or she is reading a magazine – when he or she could be doing something else.

Tip 12: Pay attention to contextual restatement: Streamline text by defining terms in context. To accomplish this, get rid of clumsy devices that stop the reader and parenthetical definitions. (Remember that embedded definitions give ants a foothold on the slope of the funnel.)

Tip 13: Eliminate footnotes & bibliographies: Call-outs, pointers, references to Web sites and explanations should be in quick sidebars. Avoid, too, academic trappings. They make magazines less active and less immediate.

Sidebar: How to Set Up Your Editor School

  1. Come up with a proposal policy, such as: “We propose that the editorial department implement a program of editorial in-service training events. We propose that the company support this program directly through a funding allowance to cover program content and event facilities, and indirectly through encouraging editorial staffers to take part in the program during work hours.”
  2. Quantify the costs and outline the procedures that are associated with this proposal. This should include a look at the annual costs – including half-day room rentals, full-day room rentals, projection screen/equipment rentals, interactive components, handouts, continental breakfast, luncheons, off-site dinners, expenses and honorarium for trainer and additional resources.
  3. Set up a management plan, such as: “Editor School will be managed by a three-person planning committee of volunteers drawn from the editorial staff. This group will be responsible for conducting needs assessments, photocopying handouts, making arrangements for facilities and audiovisual equipment, arranging for training presentations and speakers (including those in-house), administering and tallying evaluations, and a host of other logistical tasks.”
  4. Set in stone that the planning committee will be responsible for organizing a series of six training events spanning 12 months, for instance.
  5. To develop the curriculum, start with a needs assessment – a written survey of the entire editorial staff through which the planning committee will gain insight into priorities (time management, Web publishing or copyright law) and information needs. The needs assessment should also serve as a Call for Presentations. Each Editor School gathering will conclude with an evaluation to see if those needs are being met from the participants’ points of view.
  6. For cost reasons, establish an Editor School Lite and an Editor School Pro. Editor School Lite will run from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. several times a year, with coffee and pastries available starting at 8:30 a.m. Editor School Pro is a more in-depth, two-day event.

Sidebar: A Virtual Bevy of Benes

Editorial School Benefits:

  1. The simplest benefit will be an overall increase in the quality of publications.
  2. But, expect to see benefits from both the procedural and conceptual standardization sides. By learning about best practices, there should be more uniformity and knowledge sharing among your editors.
  3. Editors will learn to talk more with one another, to share their troubles in the interest of finding solutions.
  4. When you get a bunch of sharp minds in a room and ideas are tossed into play, you wind up with new plans – for publications, for redesigns, for improving editorial quality, for interfacing with other departments, for working with vendors, for writing great cover blurbs (the list is endless).
  5. You won’t just be building your editorial prowess; you’ll be building a more loyal team. Editor School will be seen as a value-add, a compensation for working at your firm.
  6. And finally, staff presenters may want to speak at outside events, helping build reputation and easing recruitment obstacles. Likewise, management will view its funding and commitment as a very real way of acknowledging the editor.

Published in the January 2001 edition of Publications Management

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