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Issue for January 2021

A High-Profile Cover Design Controversy

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 2:22 AM

In the news: This month, a cover featuring Vice President Kamala Harris drew such widespread criticism online that the magazine is now reissuing with an alternate cover.

Last month, Vogue magazine found itself in the hot seat for its February 2021 cover featuring Vice President Kamala Harris. Pundits and designers alike slammed the cover for its washed-out photo quality and casual tone. In response, Vogue has announced that it will run a new version of the issue with an alternate photo option. Oscar Holland of CNN writes, “The widely preferred alternative cover, which features Vice President–elect in a light blue suit against a gold background, was originally created for the magazine's digital edition, but will now appear in a limited print run, Vogue announced Tuesday.”

This is the latest in a series of controversies for magazine brands run by Anna Wintour, who, according to Holland, “later defended the choice, saying that the magazine's creative team had felt that the casual look was the right for the current climate.” To make matters worse, Holland reports that, per an anonymous source, “Harris' team had initially believed the blue and gold cover, which attracted praise online, would appear on the print edition.” Read more here and here.

Also Notable

Confronting Racism in the Newsroom, Past and Present

This week, the Columbia Journalism Review explores how news outlets should address racism in their pasts. Many have apologized, but Alexandria Neason of CJR.org notes that this is not enough. She makes a case study of the North Carolina News & Observer’s historic attempts to suppress Black voters. Progress has been slow, she notes: “In 1978, the organization now known as the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) set a goal of building a journalism workforce that reflected the racial makeup of the US population by the year 2000.... In 2000, ASNE pushed its target date for diversity back five years, and newspapers began to issue apologies for past wrongdoing.” She explores what various magazines and newspapers have done in recent years to atone for past mistakes and current systemic injustices. Ultimately, though, she says that “apologies are crucial to the ongoing work of accountability. It can be heartening to see news outlets engage in acts of penance. But they are not the same as reparations.” Read Neason’s piece in its entirety here.

Telework: Where Publishers Stand

It’s hard to know when, or if, many editors and publishers will return to their offices. This week, Sara Guaglione of Digiday.com discusses where things stand in the publishing world, and there seems to be a disconnect between publishers and their employees. “Publishers are now expecting to fully open their office doors to employees in the summer,” writes Guaglione. “But their staffers aren’t expecting it to happen until next year.” She cites publishers such as the New York Times, whose plans to bring back many more staffers this month have been deferred in response to the still raging pandemic. Several publishers have now pushed the goalpost to June or July, but it remains to be seen whether or not the pandemic will have died down enough by then, particularly with new strains circulating in the US. Read more here.

Journalism Ethics Forced to Evolve

In recent years, journalists have faced more threats and violence than in recent memory. This is causing editorial offices to rethink their ethical guidelines to keep their staffers safe. Kelly McBride of Poynter.org sums up the dilemma: “The increasing acts of violence against journalists are causing many newsrooms to rethink some ethical best practices. These evolving standards go beyond the recommendations for covering demonstrations and political violence.” She offers suggestions for publishers seeking to “balance the need to document the first draft of history with the need to keep journalists safe” in the following categories: best practices for identifying oneself; taking pictures safely; audience engagement staff, social media managers, and newswire editors; and journalists of color. Read more here.

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Section 230 May Bury Us

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 2:21 AM

An uncertain future awaits us as editors if we cede too much power to tech and social media giants at this critical juncture.

FLASH: See urgent development reported in Comments section!

By William Dunkerley

If any part of your editorial budget is supported by ad revenue, Section 230 is out to get you. "230" is the law that permits the tech giants, and even lesser social media platforms, to skirt responsibility for whatever they publish. That allows them to churn out enormous amounts of content with practically no editorial expense.

That volume of content attracts readers, who in turn attract digital ad dollars. MarketWatch reports that Google and Facebook alone soak up a combined 70 percent of the digital ad spend. That severely limits the advertising money that's left for your publication to compete for. Section 230 is one reason so many publications are finding it difficult to achieve growth online.

There's not much an individual publication can do to fight this injustice. Clearly this is a job for our professional organizations. But are they representing our interests? If so, they don't seem to have achieved much success.

How Editorial Organizations Are Responding

I checked online to see what some of the organizations have been up to. First I searched for any mention of Section 230 on the website of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). Nothing found. Then I tried the same search for the American Society of Business Press Editors (ASBPE). Same result. Perhaps these organizations have been working behind the scenes, but there's no sign of it online.

The former Society of National Association Publications, now known as AMP, is a different story. It appears to be on the side of protecting the tech giants and social media platforms, and the current absence of liability for what they publish.

I say "appears" because it's really hard to tell for sure. You see, AMP has become part of the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), who put out a press release on Section 230. What's AMP doing there? It sounds like a conflict of interest to me. It's worse than a wolf guarding a henhouse; it’s like a hen living in a wolf's den. But whatever the case, the organization's position seems to be in conflict with the best interests of publishers.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) is yet another story. When I searched its site, I found something about Section 230, too. This organization filed an amicus brief in one case. It says that a threat to Section 230 immunities would "threaten the comment sections and discussion forums offered by news sites, which are often used to collect, confirm and further redistribute news and information. The result is likely that comments and online feedback are likely to be eliminated by many publications."

So, in effect, these editors are arguing that their publications are not really publications, or at least part of the publications are not a publication. They're like a telephone company or post office. They are arguing for a free-for-all in comment sections, with no real responsibility for what they publish.

Here's what's wrongheaded with that. That kind of unfettered, uncurated material is freely available all over the internet. A lot of it serves the egos or political interests of the posters. As long as this is not violating a law or injuring anyone, there's nothing wrong with that. But there's no one attesting to the reliability of the content.

If your content mimics that mode of operation, what advantage do you have? The advantage a publication can offer is that its content is curated to suit the interests of its audience, and there are editors who assure its reliability. That makes up your brand. That's what gives you an advantage in attracting and keeping readers, and in acquiring advertisers that help to pay for your editorial budgets.

What Needs to Change

To level the playing field, and give publications the chance they deserve, the existing provisions of Section 230 need to be changed.

Right now that law considers the tech giants and social media to be merely distributors of information. The telephone company and the US Postal Service fit into that category well. They don't influence the content they handle. They're not held accountable for the content that passes through their networks. If the tech giants and social media companies want to operate similarly, they deserve to be in that category.

But that's not what's being practiced now. In my view there is room for a new category to accommodate them. This category would allow the tech giants and social media platforms to moderate content based on behavioral rules. But moderation could not be based on the nature of any content that is legally permissible. So in effect they would be serving as a digital public square -- a place where people can go to exercise their right of free speech, no matter what their views may be, without interference (provided they do not violate laws). If the platforms should violate anyone's right to speak freely, they should be penalized.

But there could be behavioral rules such as those to assure the rights of all participants. The content might be unreliable. But that's okay. For reliable content, audiences can turn to branded publications. In addition, as editors we have the right to publish one-sided perspectives, if that is what our readers want. No one has the right to use our pages to exercise personal rights to free speech. Nor is there a right to use our personal living rooms for such purpose. Folks wanting to do that should go to the digital public squares. Meanwhile we are unfettered in our ability to serve boutique content to our audiences.

As an individual editor there is little you can do to level the playing field. But our professional organizations should address the issue. So if this topic concerns you, and you can see how it can impact your publication’s future, it's time to let your professional organizations know about this concern. Without group action, the tech giants and social media companies will continue to gain strength at our expense.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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"One thing editors/writers can do about Sectoin 230 is to write about the situation -- write about it for our audiences, write about it to our legislators and regulators, write about it to our organizations." --Curt Harler, freelance writer, curtharler.com.

"Urgent: HD Media has just filed an antitrust suit against Facebook and Google. The tech giants are charged with monopolizing the market for digital ads. HD Media is a West Virginia-based magazine and newspaper publisher. Company officials would like to hear from editors that support this initiative. We urge EO readers to contact to Doug Reynolds at 304-522-2305 x2305." --EO Staff

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How to End a Story, Part II

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 1:57 AM

The final tips for putting a strong ending on your article.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Vivid narrative mesmerizes -- if it's vivid as is Diane Ackerman's in her extended article on bats for the New Yorker:

Sodium lights from [another hotel] cast a trail of copper coins across the water. Suddenly, smoke billowed from underneath the bridge. No, not smoke, but a column of bats. Then two columns soared high and flew in parallel, like the long black reins of an invisible sleigh. Bats kept surging out, and soon, four columns stretched miles across the sky. A few strays looped and fed near us, passing like shuttles through the weave of trees. The night was noticeably free from insects, but that was no surprise. These bats would eat five thousand pounds of insects that one night alone.

In a medieval simile of Venerable Bede's [from the Dark Ages], life is depicted as a beautiful and strange winged creature that appears at a window, flies swiftly through the half-lit banquet hall, and is gone. That seems about right for a vision of creation as beautiful as this one was, which soon included the city lights, the sunset doing a shadow dance over the water, and the four columns of bats undulating across the sky.

Ackerman is holding those prisoners in a special realm, one she has re-created from experience into a verbal experience we are not likely to forget.

Concluding with "Pointers"

A last list of points can take us out of the story. Sue Zesiger, in "Off-Road America" for Men's Journal, has urged us to go to Owyhee County, Idaho. "This isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from here," one resident of the place says. Zesiger concludes with "a few Owyhee tips":

Don't leave gates open. Don't call ranchers and farmers. Wait out storms -- they pass quickly and the ground dries within an hour. Don't stay out past dusk, unless you're prepared to camp -- time and distance are distorted by the endless landscape. And if you hit a cow, you bought it ($1000 a head).

Philosophical Endings

In the same magazine, the crusty P. J. O'Rourke takes the reader on a bird hunt. "Brave Hunter, Stout Woodcock," the article is called. And the point of the piece is emphasized in the subtitle: "For a man of refinement, bird hunting has its indignities. Few of them, however, are perpetuated on the birds." O'Rourke proves his point, believe me, and then he ends with this touch of philosophy, a point of view he's developed since looking into the subject:

It is only natural that war and hunting are of a kidney. Hunting has been intimately connected with warfare since the beginning of civilization. And before the beginning of civilization there probably wasn't a difference. The traditional leisure activity of archers and lancers and knights and such, when not killing people, was to kill other things.

We don't need hunting in the modern world. It makes the wilderness so primitive. It upsets actresses and undergraduates. And, anyway, we can easily bag a cheeseburger out the window of our car. But we do need war. At least I assume we do -- to judge by the amount of it that's going on in the world at any given moment. And it's my theory that the entire purpose of the annual hunting trip is to make war look, comparatively speaking, like fun.

Predictions Bring Closure

Is prediction a useful part of your article? Well, then looking ahead might serve to bring matters to a close. That's what Richard Rhodes chose to do in an old Omni article, "Imitations of Immortality":

No one knows how much increased lifespan those future generations are likely to get. The body changes with chronological age in ways that aren't affected by its rate of aging. Waste products accumulate regardless. The ultimate human life span might be 350 years or it might be 1,000 years or it might even be the fabled 20,000. It won't be forever; that's still the prerogative and the curse of the gods.

But you know us. We'll give it a shot. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who hated the title the world correctly gave him, Father of the Atomic Bomb, made the point about this near the end of his painful 62 years of life. "It is a profound and necessary truth," he said, "that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them." If it is possible to find a way to redesign mankind, to improve the model, to give it a little more time, to cheat death, mankind will.

Anecdotal Finales

A little story, an anecdote, perhaps with a touch of humor, or at least the lesson of sorts, may do the trick. Winthrop Sargent, in his profile of the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini for Life, drew the curtain this way:

Again and again Toscanini has been criticized for unearthing some tawdry little operatic overture or piece of ballet music and performing it on a serious symphonic program. But even his severest critics have had to admit that he always managed to make these trivial items seem like polished gems before he was through with them. There is perhaps a grain of truth in the popular anecdote that has Toscanini meeting the Italian composer, Respighi, on a street corner in Italy: "Have you heard me conduct your Pines of Rome?" inquires the Maestro. "No, I haven't," admits Respighi. "You really should," replies Toscanini drily. "It's wonderful. You wouldn't recognize it."

Note Its Purpose

Ask yourself: What should the ending do? Respond accordingly.

Should it complete, give the sense thereof? Should it satisfy, leave pleasure or pain on the palate? Should it sum up, either leave no questions or highlight questions for the reader to ponder? Should it suggest the future, imply what may come next?

Be Concise

But also remember, by the time readers get to that point in an article, they may be getting a bit tired or satiated. So, with your ending: make it lean.

Not as a Rossini overture ends, which is extensively and repeatedly. But rather, as in Leoncavallo's opera, I Pagliacci, in which Canio, the clown, having killed his faithless wife and her lover, breaks from the script of a play within a play and mutters: "La commedia è finita." The comedy is finished. Curtain.

Say what must be said in the way that you must say it. And then step away. A final climax or fade-out. Whatever. But stop. Here's my final ending: We are done.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter P. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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Free Assistance

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 1:57 AM

During this time of crisis, we stand ready to answer privately any specific questions our readers may have, time permitting. You can contact us at: crisis-help@editorsonly.com.

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