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Issue for February 2018

The Possibilities of a List

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

Using a list as your structural form can be a means to create a better communicating piece of journalism.

By Peter Jacobi

I've been going ever too slowly through my lifetime of files so that the Indiana University Archives can place a whole bunch of my stuff on its shelves for preservation. In the process, I just came upon an article I wrote for Indianapolis Monthly in January 2008.

Structure Your Article

The piece, a short one, reminded me of something I think I should remind you of. And so, from time to time in the coming months, I'm going discuss why it's important for us -- for you, for me -- to place value in considering how structure can be of benefit to you, as writer and as editor. I've discussed article structure before in these columns, in my book The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It, and elsewhere. I've certainly taught about structure in my university classes and workshops.

As I recall, the magazine's editor contacted me several months earlier to request my participation in a section of "how to" pieces: "Grow an orchid," "Lead a prayer," "Catch a cheater," "Donate your eggs," "Survive a tornado," "Live forever," "Send a txt msg," "Land a promotion," "Predict the future," "Shut the dog up," "Make a tenderloin," and "More expert advice." The topic itself, I think, is terrific and always usable, if applied with knowing flexibility for your particular readership.

A List as Your Structure

Anyway, I was with the "More expert advice" contingent, my requested topic being "How to Write a Toast." If I may, I'm going to quote the whole thing, including the editor's intro for me. I do so not only to provide you with an example of the article architecture I have in mind to focus on, using a LIST as your structural form, but to stress that you can use the "how to" advice I give you to accomplish creating a toast or, for that matter of course, any sort of presentation, speech, lecture, whatever you want to call it. What I have done is use a list, a method of putting information together that can solve problems and provide opportunities.

Here we go:

(Peter P. Jacobi, professional writer, public speaker, editor, and wizened professor emeritus at Indiana University, has made "lots" of toasts in his lifetime.)

First, be clear: Is it a toast you're to present or a roast? If it's a toast, fine. If it's a roast, unless you're a certified comic, forget it. Hire Don Rickles.

Next, follow eight steps.

1. Know thyself. Skip content that makes you uncomfortable. The audience will sense it and turn curiosity for what you're saying into concern for your well-being.

2. Know your audience and understand the occasion. Ahead of time, determine what the expectations are likely to be and how your talk can enhance the occasion.

3. Have an idea. A bookload of information is gatherable on the person, institution, or achievement to be toasted. Out of that, take what stands out. Zoom in, and focus so as to limit your coverage, thereby highlighting what is most interesting.

4. Collect the facts necessary to flesh out your idea. Don't talk about how "great" the toastee is or how "fabled" the museum's history. There are anecdotes to tell, if you've located them. There are factoids to offer, if you've hunted for them. Generalities deaden listener attention. Specificity heightens.

5. Determine structure. Create an order. Give the toast a beginning that draws attention, a middle that expands and exalts the opening, and an ending that causes listeners to remember.

6. Write. Don't try to wing it. Hardly anyone, certainly not the novice, can stand before an audience and, off the cuff, say what was planned in absolutely the right order and with the language well-chosen and bright.

7. Practice. Whether you memorize, use cards, or read a script, rehearse. Looking in a mirror is unimportant. Tape yourself. Work until what you hear sounds like a speech talked rather than read.

8. Perform. Be 115 percent of yourself. Because you've done the necessary preparation, the nervous butterflies within you will fly in formation.

That's it, the entirety of the article. The process described is usable as is; just think through what I'm telling you, and it can lead you in the right direction toward accomplishing a successful presentation (of any and all sorts). On the other hand, I've written fuller articles on the process to give the would-be speaker assistance through additional guidance. And, as I've done countless times, I've built one-day to four-day workshops to a single student or small groups, during which the participants take on the eight steps, one by one, right through to performing on camera, being critiqued, through a series of exercises to give the students greater understanding and firmer grasp of the art.

A List: So Many Possibilities

That's what you can do for your readers, with the basic list or a fuller feast, and you can do it not only about a roast (or talk). With a list as your structure, you can teach a process to any depth you choose; you can explore history or geography, any portion or age or space of it; you can carve your turkey; you can pass a citizenship test; you can fill out your tax forms; you can prepare your reader for an evening at the opera; you can teach a journalistic skill.

As a very brief variant to the "toast" lesson, take the writing process: (1) For idea generation, be aware of what's around you, what's happening; (2) Be lavish with your research in support of developing your idea so it serves your selected audience; (3) Be willing to give time to determine a workable structure; (4) Write, and as you do so, listen to your words, really listen, sound them out; (5) Edit as best you can; (6) Put the manuscript aside, do something else, then return to edit once more. (The rewriting becomes easier and clearer because of the mental separation made possible by having done other things.)

The list is your skeleton. Go with the skeleton alone or feed it to any chosen extent, having decided how much your reader will want and/or need the material and how much space you want to give the article and how important you believe the information is for maximum reader benefit.

A list shouldn't be applied because you think it's easy to put together (which it really isn't) or just makes a decent filler (which it can be). There needs to be a better reason or additional reasons for applying a technique that should be used with editorial respect. The list can be a means to create a better communicating piece of journalism. Therefore, it can benefit you (the writer and/or editor) and that all-important person in your life: the reader.

Remember its possibilities: the LIST.

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: Apathetic or Fearful about the Future?

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

Examining the response rate to a recent EO survey.

By William Dunkerley

Focusing on providing good content will be important to many editors in 2018. That was apparent from our recent survey of editors' plans. Digital engagement and management planning are also popular goals for the year.

But there was another survey data point that I saved for this month.

It is the response rate to our survey questionnaire. We do a number of surveys here at Editors Only. Our usual goal is to gather data to pass along to EO readers, either anecdotal tips from other editors or comments that indicate trends.

By now we have a pretty good idea what the response rate will be to our survey questions. The response to the recent survey on editorial goals was an outlier. It was a significant deviation from the norm. The rate paled in comparison to usual responses.

I don't think we would get good answers if we asked those in the sample universe why they didn't respond. We wouldn't want to put readers on the spot.

So Let's Speculate

I've done dozens and dozens of surveys in my consulting career. And every time I look at results, I consider the response rate to be the first data point.

The publications with audiences that were highly interested in the subject matter were avid responders. Consistently. So if I did a number of surveys for such a publication over a span of time, I'd see the same kind of high response rate.

Publications that pulled a poor response rate just were not in great demand by readers. Consistently. Their audiences were apathetic.

In the instant case, the EO survey, we know from experience that editors are not apathetic about their trade. Indeed, they are very conscientious about doing a good job for their publications.

Maybe it is that they are just apathetic about planning? Well, that hypothesis gets shot down by the responses we've gotten from past surveys with similar questions to this one. If apathy is the answer, then it must be apathy specific to this point in time, 2018. Do we collectively just not care about setting goals for this year?

There's another kind of experience I've had with non-response. This one does not concern the overall response to a given questionnaire. Now I'm talking about the response to individual questions on a questionnaire. There can be considerable variance.

The more questions on a questionnaire, the easier this is to see. One survey asked over fifty questions. Interestingly, it had the highest response rate I'd ever seen. But there was much variance in how many respondents answered each question.

As I've analyzed question-by-question variance on many surveys with many questions, I've found it related to one general factor: If the question provokes anxiety, fewer survey participants will answer. A person may be anxious over commenting on something controversial (even in anonymous surveys) or on something they know little about, or on a subject they'd just as soon avoid.

Is It Apathy or Anxiety?

Call it what you want, but here is my hypothesis: The combination of advancing technology and attendant changes in reading habits has thrown us a curveball. With things changing rapidly, it's hard to know what to plan for.

Another factor is a natural uneasiness about change. Today's media milieu is pushing us all to change what we are doing. That inevitably leads to departing one's comfort zone. And there seems to be inherent human resistance to that. This is especially true if there is little certainty about how the changes will work out.

Of course, the above comments are only hypotheses. What do you think? Do they fit your understandings, or do you have a hypothesis of your own? If you do, please use the "comment" link below this article to share your insights with us all. Then come back here after several weeks to see what your fellow editors may have added.

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

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"There's no question that poll responsiveness has tapered off quite a bit. Clearly that can be attributed to mounting workloads. What I have noticed is that if you seek opinion from members of a LinkedIn group. they may readily respond to basic journalism issues -- like whether or not to cap first letter of every word in a headline. But when it comes to management matters -- many of which may be controversial -- editors refrain from speaking out ... even if anonymity is promised. The topic that habitually draws poorly is anything to do with editorial integrity. Occasionally -- while chairing ASBPE's ethics committee, I was able to strike gold in terms of article feedback. Folks were able to speak up about native advertising and fact-checking challenges. But any poll seeking input addressomg editorial/sales conflicts drew limited input. Readership of our ethics newsletter was terrific. As for feedback, forget about it!!" --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, Inc., www.editsol.com

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

Assessing the readability of a Forbes.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample text comes from a February 25 Forbes.com article ("The Case Against the 100-Hour Workweek" by Stephanie Denning). Here's the text:

"The first 100-hour week I worked was thrilling. You're overcome with a feeling of being valued. You think: I'm doing important work! That feeling, unfortunately, largely wears off by week two. Week three, you start to devolve into a shell of your former self due to sleep-deprivation. By the fifth consecutive week, your body and mind accept this as the new normal. A 100-hour workweek sounded impossible to me until I was thrown into one. Your body and mind eventually acclimate. But try it for too long and you inevitably hit a wall. That wall is known as burnout."

Note: This month we did not italicize longer words because the sample contained italicized text.

Word count: 99 words
Average sentence length: 10 words (8, 8, 6, 9, 16, 15, 13, 6, 12, 6)
Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/99 words)
Fog Index: (10+8) *.4 = 7 (7.2, no rounding)

This is one of the lowest Fog scores we've found out in the wild. The sample is an ideal size at roughly 100 words. We knew before we calculated that our score would fall well within ideal range because the sample contains 10 sentences, a high number for a 99-word excerpt. We also have a fairly low number of longer words, just 8 in the entire sample.

The author pauses in places that would feel natural if she were speaking out loud. This rhythm naturally splits the text into more sentences than we might find in academic or technical writing. (You may remember that, in past issues, we've seen sentences that topped 50 words!) In other words, the informal first-person style naturally controls the Fog Index in this case.

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Widespread Media Staff Cuts?

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

In the news: Are recent staff cuts at several major publishers indicative of a trend?

Last week, Women's Wear Daily discussed industry-wide layoffs at a variety of publishers thus far in 2018. Kali Hays reports that, among others, the recent Hearst-Rodale acquisition has resulted in over 100 layoffs, some in the editorial department. Newsday and Vox are cutting roughly 50 staffers each. Hays reports that overall, according to recent Department of Labor statistics, the industry has seen over 3,000 layoffs since November.

Are the widespread cuts cause for concern? The layoffs affect both digital and print positions, so one can't unilaterally blame failed digital initiatives or declining print revenues. Some of the cuts are the result of a merger/acquisition, as with Hearst-Rodale. In the case of Berkshire Hathaway, whose media division Hays reports "is cutting 148 staffers and eliminating more than 100 unfilled jobs," changing trends toward online shopping have hurt ad revenue. So, at a glance, it appears that publishers in Q1 are course-correcting to address a variety of challenges. Read more about the recent industry layoffs here.

Also Notable

Print Circulation Still Strong

Print continues to drive revenue for many of the major magazine publishers. Beth Braverman of Folio.com discusses this in light of recent PricewaterhouseCoopers figures for 2016, during which print accounted for 87 percent of circulation revenue. Publishers have also tweaked publication schedules and pricing to maximize those print revenues. Read more here.

An "Unplugged" Digital Magazine Experience

A new magazine with a fresh concept has launched this month. The Disconnect is an online-only title that forces readers to disconnect from the internet before they can access the content. Readers access the website, and then they must shut off their WiFi. Once they've done so, writes Mathew Ingram of CJR.org, "the site instantly reveals itself, looking very much like a standard online magazine. There are short stories, essays ... and poems, as well as an editor's letter explaining the rationale behind the magazine." Read more about The Disconnect here.

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