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Issue for February 2012

The Important Editor-Writer Relationship

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:27 AM

A teacher's final lesson to his students.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've been thinking about the editor/writer relationship of late, this while the evaluation of student manuscripts has been a major object of my attention. All semester, I've repeated a plea for my students to write with a market, a publication, a specific sort of reader in mind.

Writing in a vacuum, I kept telling them, is a bad idea. There has to be purpose as a writing assignment is developed and completed. There has to be a goal, that goal being to satisfy a selected reader. And, I reminded them, standing between them as writers and that selected reader is an editor, an editor savvy enough to know that reader's wants and needs.

Teacher as Editor

In the classroom, the editor is the teacher. At the final class, when I returned the students' final assignments, thoroughly edited, of course, I placed atop the packet a "To My Class" memo. It said in part:

"I've judged your work as a reader. That's what an editor is asked to do. That's what a teacher should do. What do I want as a reader? It's what I always ask myself as I read anything and everything, meaning your papers, too."

And I added: "I've attempted always to suggest changes not in my own writing style but as a guide for you to make the most of your own style, your own voice or hint of voice. Please know that: I've not been interested in turning you into a reflection, journalistically, of me, God forbid; I've sought ways to sharpen your own chosen and aimed-for image."

Now, I ask you to remember that. Even though you, as editor, undoubtedly have shaped a concept of your reader's wants and needs, you've come to realize, I hope, that your publication is not best served by making everything in it sound like you. Yes, you know the limits of what is acceptable for inclusion, but within those limits, you've allowed for flexibility and variety in expressiveness and approach.

Editing becomes sort of like gardening. The words planted, like the flowers planted, should blossom in an array of colors and shapes and fragrances. A gardener, with seeds and a plan, creates an atmosphere, an aura, a character, an individuality, a singular little world. An editor, with words and a plan, does the same.

In editing, you strive for correctness (all must be accurate), clearness (all must be easily graspable), effectiveness (all must be attention-getting), and appropriateness (all must fit into the publication's editorial concept). In editing, you seek, in every article, a controlling purpose and ample content. In editing, you work for impact (that which offers wallop or surprise or a quiet gem), timeliness (that which the reader wants now), timelessness (that which has lasting substance or enduring appeal), proximity (that which is close through geography or familiarity), prominence (that which holds importance or significance), and eccentricity (that which is unusual or different or astonishing).

You're aiming, with everything that goes into your publication, to create a personality that distinguishes it from all others. You accomplish this through content, through design, through approach, through point of view or perspective.

You do it by subjecting every piece of copy to rigorous inspection. And as you do that, you have to keep in mind that your task is to edit in as well as out. The difficulty in the process is how to retain an author's intent while smoothing, shortening, tightening, straightening out the copy.

It is important to attempt keeping the writer's written personality intact if, I trust, he or she has one. That requires sensitivity on your part. It means you can and will read the article with an open mind, thereby permitting yourself to consider what the writer had in mind, what the writer wanted to accomplish for you. It means you deal with copy flexibly, that you don't make everything sound like you, that you don't end up making everything an extension of your own wordsmithery.

Yes, you also do the editing in full knowledge of what you believe to be the publication's editorial personality. The article must fit in. After all, readers, over time, have come to expect a certain manner in the matter you provide issue after issue.

So, it's finding a balance: the copy that comes with a personality must fit into the personality of your publication. Getting that to happen is not an easy task. In the rush of things, you may find yourself editing self-centeredly, seeking the acceptable through what you know to be easy to come by and safe: imprinting the manuscript with your own tested-with-readers voice.

A momentary solution that may well be. However, if such editing becomes the norm, the publication's spirit, its personality, its distinctiveness will disappear. Readers will come to realize it. Their allegiance will be compromised. And that you certainly do not want, right?

As your guide, you might use a touch of wisdom from the legendary publisher Joseph Pulitzer. He advised: "Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."

It's the editor's task to help the writer make that happen.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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Editors and Publishers not Always on Same Page

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:27 AM

Survey data analysis suggests need for a shared vision, but a stampede toward digital can pointlessly impede content quality.

By William Dunkerley

In December we surveyed editors and publishers about their expectations for 2012. What we found is that, in some areas, both groups have compatible goals. But we also uncovered some serious differences.

There's pretty much unanimity when it comes to interest in growth and survival. And almost everyone agrees that they should increase digital activity. The differences we saw between the editors' and publishers' responses were in areas of emphasis.

The Survey Responses

Our survey elicited sometimes extensive comments from over 20 editors and publishers. The survey was of an anecdotal nature, not intended to produce significant statistical results. In the December issues of Editors Only and STRAT, we published an assortment of direct quotes from respondents. You can see what they said here and here. In preparing this article, we relied upon those and other responses, plus comments that we gleaned from various online sources.

One point of difference that stood out from an editorial perspective: the publishers did not talk about the quality of content. At the same time, of course, editors were very focused on improving content and reader relationships. Perhaps the publishers are just so satisfied with content that they didn't bother to comment. Or maybe they don't clearly understand the role of content quality in the success of any publication. In light of this finding, it would behoove editors to reinforce the notion that the quality of the editorial product is important to the publication's success.

A Shift in Focus

Publishers are very focused on acquiring a larger audience. That's key in terms of growth. But there's not much talk of the editors' role in this process. Wouldn't it be more productive for publishers to invite editors into the process of attracting non-readers? After all, content is what those prospective readers would be buying. That means there has to be content attuned to their interests.

It would require a shift in focus for editors to get more into the business of attracting new audience. The survey responders were quite focused on detecting the needs and interests of current readers. But what about the non-readers who are potential readers? What are their interests and concerns? If editors are to play a constructive role in audience building, they'll have to know the answer -- and start developing content that will appeal to these prospective readers.

The Stampede Toward Digital

The other survey finding worth noting: what at times seems like a stampede toward greater digital presence. As magazines make the move to digital, editors will be pushed toward developing more digital content. But sometimes, as a result of budgetary limits, that results in time devoted to digital development at the expense of overall editorial quality. That may not be a wise choice.

A lot of the push by publishers toward digital involves a quest to bring revenues back to pre-recession levels. But they may be barking up the wrong tree. In reality, more than 90 percent of the population does not use tablets or e-readers to read periodicals right now. We've analyzed a number of external surveys to come to that conclusion. This means that the potential for tablet and e-reader audience development, when stripped of all the device purveyor hype, is really quite limited for the time being. In addition, when device owner behavior is tracked, we find that periodical reading dwindles once the novelty of the device has worn off. So tablets and e-readers seem to have less staying power than the old PDAs in terms of e-reading.

When the Novelty Wears Off

A number of editors spoke of their efforts to incorporate more video and interactivity into their digital content. But we found one external survey that calls that goal into question. GfK MRI, a producer of consumer and media research did a study of tablet and e-reader users. It found that almost half of the users consider video content to be gimmickry. Indeed, 65 percent say they prefer simple reproduction, not extra features.

Another interesting finding -- and at first glance an apparent conflict -- is that 67 percent prefer a publication's digital version to the paper one. At the same time, though, 65 percent say that reading a paper magazine is more satisfying. Some may think that this is an anomaly. But I think I have the answer. After plunking down perhaps $500 for a shiny new tablet, these readers are going to use it to read magazines, even if it hurts! That is, until they've been at it for a year. Then they tend to give up the practice!

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:27 AM

Assessing the readability of a NYTimes.com article.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of a February 26, 2012, excerpt from NYTimes.com ("Risk and Riches in User Data for Facebook," by Somini Sengupta).

"Advertisers can tailor messages on Facebook on the basis of demographics like age and gender and on the preferences and affinities of its users. If Facebook users click the 'like' button for a particular grocery store chain, for instance, their name -- and sometimes their picture -- can appear as part of an advertisement for the chain on the Facebook pages of their friends. The same can be done when users read a news site connected to Facebook, or a song they stream from one of Facebook's many entertainment partners, though users can tweak their settings to prevent Facebook from using such information for advertising."

--Word count: 105
--Average sentence length: 35 words (24, 40, 41)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (10/105 words)
--Fog Index: (35+10)*.4 = 18 (no rounding)

The clear culprit here is sentence length. At 105 words, we have just three sentences. Let’s see if we can bring the Fog score below 12 by splitting up some longer sentences.

"Advertisers can tailor Facebook messages using demographics and user preferences. If Facebook users 'like' a given grocery store, for instance, their name and picture can appear as part of an ad for the chain on their friends' Facebook pages. The same can happen when users read a news site connected to Facebook or stream a song from a Facebook entertainment partner. Users can tweak their settings to prevent Facebook from using their data in this way."

--Word count: 76
--Average sentence length: 19 words (10, 29, 22, 15)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (5/76 words)
--Fog Index: (19+7)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We were able to eliminate more than a quarter of the words from the original sample. We also cut average sentence length nearly by half and our Fog Index by 8 points.

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Performance-Based Writing Pay

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:27 AM

In the news: Forbes magazine's new approach to journalism.

Forbes magazine has adopted a performance-based pay structure for its writers. The model, which the magazine called "entrepreneurial journalism," rewards writers whose articles attract large audiences. Response to this approach has been mixed.

The "entrepreneurial journalism" model shifts much of the onus to the writer, whose compensation now depends on the magazine's visibility. Suddenly, journalists must also become marketers, peddling their content across various social media platforms and incorporating search engine optimization (SEO) techniques into their reports. Read more about Forbes's model here.

Also notable

Integrating Tablet and Mobile Magazine Production

Workflow can be challenging for magazines with digital presence in both tablet and mobile form. Magazines are in hot pursuit of cross-platform publishing tools to simplify the process and maximize resources. Adobe InDesign is tinkering with its HTML 5 features to allow publishers to design content just once (instead of multiple times for different platforms). Read more about cross-platform publishing and workflow here.

Editing and Branding

Brand-financed magazines, once considered a fad, have proven lucrative for many parent companies. BLK DNM, a jeans brand, has developed a brand magazine available to customers in one of two ways: 1) free with online orders or 2) available in-store on a "pay-what-you-want" basis, with all proceeds going to charity. Read about more brands that have developed magazines as advertising tools here.

Long Form Journalism

Shrinking publication budgets and shifting reader habits have dealt a hearty blow to the art of long form journalism. The MATTER project is looking to reverse this trend away from in-depth reporting. Read more about MATTER here.

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