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Issue for February 2019

It's All in the Details

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 at 6:48 PM

Apply reflection, concentration, and observation to make your point.

By Peter Jacobi

Back problems slowed me down for a few months. I'm better. Part of my catch-up has been to go through newspapers and magazines and not-so-important mail.

What I've been reading led me to this topic: how good writers and their editors use detail to make a point. But first, to expand: (1) Though you may be editing and/or writing for a compact newsletter, give your copy space. (2) Give it a clear sense of direction. (3) Then, use details that convince.

For you to accomplish that successfully, apply reflection, concentration, and observation. Think carefully about what you're trying to do. Focus sharply on the task at hand, with the full power of your mind. And observe, really observe!

Copy That Transports Readers

Sometimes, the right details come at you easily, courtesy -- perhaps -- of a source you are exploring during the information-gathering process. Adam Skolnick, in preparing his expansive coverage of "To the South Pole, and Beyond" for the New York Times, about the two adventurers who completed their journeys across Antarctica, found in one of those adventurers, the American Colin O'Brady, a man inclined to use the right details. Here was the man who came in first, a man of words who could describe what he had experienced most likely better than anyone else, having himself observed what he saw and heard and felt during the incredibly arduous journey, having concentrated afterward on what was in his bag of memories, and having then considered how best to share with others his adventure through the most direct and clear and powerful details and language at his disposal about what he had undergone.

"When it's blue sky," he recalled, "and you're on the polar plateau, you can feel so small. It's just endless, and you're like this tiny little speck. You can look 360 degrees, there's nothing. There's no tree, no building. You are the only tiny little thing out there in this endless sea of light. So that makes you feel small. But then when it's whiteout, it's the opposite: It's super myopic, insular. All I can see is my compass a couple of inches away from my nose, and the contrast of those two things is so stark, but what is ever-present is that you are just a product of your own thoughts, your own mind."

Making a point. Through detail, O'Brady has transported us to Antarctica, to his side: reflection, concentration resulting from observation, and, yes, detail verbally expressed move us as readers from where we are to where O'Brady has been.

Copy with Nerve and Verve

Detail can come simply as listings. I received mail from the Library of America, urging me to purchase a two-volume collection (2,126 pages) of Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays. The sales pitch tells me this "is the most comprehensive collection ever published: nearly three hundred stories, sketches, burlesques, tall tales, hoaxes, speeches, and satires. "

And a bit later in the promotional copy, I'm reminded: "As a riverboat pilot, Confederate irregular, silver miner, frontier journalist, and publisher, Twain witnessed the tragicomic beginning of the Civil War in Missouri, the frenzied opening of the West, and the feverish corruption, avarice, and ambition of the Reconstruction era. He wrote about political bosses, jumping frogs, robber barons, cats, women's suffrage, temperance, petrified men, the bicycle, the Franco-Prussian War, the telephone, the income tax, the insanity defense, injudicious swearing, and the advisability of political candidates, preemptively telling the worst about themselves before others got around to it."

Making a point. If I were in the market for more Twain, I'd buy. The details remind me of his eccentricities and his close involvement with life as it was in those earlier American decades. Indirectly, the mailing reminded me of how smoothly Twain used detail to give his copy nerve and verve.

Copy with a Sense of Purpose

Let us move to the AARP Bulletin, which comes right out with what's to come on a front page devoted entirely to a title and deck. The title: "90 Ways to Add Healthy Years to Your Life." The deck: "Proven Ways to + Slash your disease risk +Boost your brain power +Spark your energy + Right-size your weight -- Feel years younger. Page 10." Here's a surefire lead-in before the story even begins. And I'm sure page 10 became the issue's most gone-to destination.

"Someday you're going to go to Alaska," Stephen Drucker promises. This warns me to start his Travel + Leisure article, "Under a Cold Spell." "You can say you hate the cold, but you'll still go. There are puffins, whales, otters, bears, glaciers, and fjords in many places around the world, but eventually you'll give in because only Alaska feels like Alaska: vast, empty, disconnected, and, as you start to realize during your 10th hour in the air to Anchorage, farther away than you'd imagined. It's the end of the line, and not in a Key West kind of way. "

Recalling a cruise experience to Alaska, Drucker quotes his expedition leader who told him, "Alaska isn't a reserve, it's wild." The trip, writes Drucker, proved "wild" as descriptively right. "Wild" is "not quite the same as the pure, still majesty of Antarctica, which fills you with peace," he explains. "Wild is a charge in the air.... It's watching everything trying to eat everything else, while keeping a respectful distance from the things that want to eat you," etc.

Drucker wants you to accept the invitation to be adventurous by visiting a place he argues is unlike all others in the world. His language is suggestive and beckoning, inviting if also a bit threatening. He convinced me to fulfill a wish that at my age I'm unlikely to. Actually, I've been to Alaska but without Drucker's wider exposure. I just engaged in the sights during limited hours on a trip designed around a writing/editing workshop.

But, while there, I felt what Drucker tells his readers and have always wanted to return. Somehow, life got in my path, and -- being a month short of 89 as I write -- I'm increasingly doubtful that trekking and dogsledding and kayaking through the wilderness are for me to accomplish. How I love the article's details and sense of purpose, though. It got my mind to Alaska, if not the physical rest of me.

Copy That Makes a Point

For my final example this month, I return to the New York Times, its Arts and Entertainment section, and an article by Michael Cooper: "La Traviata Opens a New Era at the Metropolitan Opera." The piece is about a change in the company's musical management from conductor James Levine, fired for sexual misconduct, to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Writer Cooper observed that change firsthand during a rehearsal of Verdi's popular opera. Moments of action expressed in his words gave proof of change: "The soprano, Diana Damrau, playing the heroine, Violetta, had just hurled her champagne glass across the rehearsal room as she sang the defiantly joyful aria, 'Sempre libera.' The glass landed, midphrase, with a crash. Mr. Nézet-Séguin brought the rehearsal to an immediate halt, objecting to the intrusive clatter. 'The explosion is in the music,' he said.

"Glass throwing is hardly rare in 'Traviata' stagings -- the Met's last production also had its Violetta hurl one against a wall -- but Mr. Nézet-Séguin said he was dismayed by how much noise there was on the Met's stage these days, in what that could distract from the music.

"After a short discussion with the director, Michael Mayer, a compromise was reached. Rather than chucking the glass in the middle of a line, Ms. Damrau would wait until the end of the measure so that the sound would not fight the music. And Mr. Nézet-Séguin had one more request that Ms. Damrau throw the glass upstage, preventing stray shards from threatening the players in the pit.

"It was a small but telling moment: Mr. Nézet-Séguin was taking musical responsibility for the Met."

Keen observation resulting with the telling details, a telling anecdote, thereby making a point: be aware of such matters. Small ones, and the right ones, can be huge in importance.

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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Editor Makes Headlines Plagiarizing

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 at 6:48 PM

Problems with a prominent editor's book put the topic of plagiarism smack in the middle of the news.

By William Dunkerley

Recently the former executive editor of the New York Times got caught up in a plagiarism scandal. What's that to us? I'll tell you -- but first the sordid details.

Here are some of the headlines about the editor in question:

--"Former Times Editor Jill Abramson Accused of Plagiarism" --New York magazine

--"I Was Plagiarized by Jill Abramson" --Columbia Journalism Review

--"7 Things Journalists Should Never Do (But Jill Abramson Did Anyway)" --Huffington Post

The latter story admonishes that, "Jill Abramson, former New York Times executive editor, should be every journalist's cautionary tale." Among HuffPost's allegations:

Item: "At the very least, Abramson didn't cite sources within her body of work when she 'borrowed' from another journalist."

Item: "She allegedly plagiarized other journalists' work."

Item: "Abramson didn't follow-up with her sources to fact check details."


Michael C. Moynihan, a correspondent at HBO's Vice News Tonight, cited the following example.

From the Ryerson Review of Journalism:

"In August 2003, McInnes wrote a column in the American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan. In the magazine, he called young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his cronies use often) who'll believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with white skin. He laments the liberal views of most of the people who pick up his magazine, saying they're 'brainwashed by communist propaganda.'"

From Abramson's Merchants of Truth book:

"He wrote a column in the American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan, calling young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnis and his ilk often used) who would believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin. He lamented the liberal views of his magazine's readers, saying they were 'brainwashed by communist propaganda.'"

What Abramson wrote is obviously not a verbatim quote. But it would seem somewhat of a stretch to call it even a paraphrase. Nonetheless, if it were a paraphrase it should have been directly attributed on the spot to its source. Instead it looks to me like sloppily veiled plagiarism.

Here's another example offered by Moynihan:

"In December 2006, Mojica and two friends traveled to Chad with a camera to explore why Darfur couldn't be saved. The result was the 2008 documentary Christmas in Darfur."


"In December 2006 he and two friends traveled to Chad with a camera to explore why Darfur couldn't be saved. The result was the 2008 documentary Christmas in Darfur."

The first paragraph, Moynihan says, is from a 2010 Time Out article. The second is from Abramson's book.


When confronted with this and other similar evidence, Abramson just made matters worse. Instead of owning up to her transgression, she equivocated. The Washington Examiner reported, "Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was defiant in the face of plagiarism allegations Wednesday." The report continues, "'All I can tell you is I certainly didn't plagiarize in my book, and there's 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information,' Abramson said during an interview with Fox News."

The "footnotes" Abramson mentions are simply compiled notes found at the end of the book. While reading along in her text the reader has no clue that the material is borrowed.

Later, according to CNN, "Abramson conceded that some portions of her book do include language that is 'way too close for comfort' to its source material 'and probably should have been in quotes.'"

The Impact?

So what's the import of all this for the rest of us?

It is simply not good for our profession when a prominent editor recklessly disgraces herself in such a public way. This is particularly disadvantageous in light of the growing competition we face from the plethora of instantly accessible online content.

Think about it. As editors, our job is to curate content per our understanding of readers' interests. But now everyone has the ability to seek and find virtually whatever information they might want online in the blink of an eye. The result is that curated information may seem less valuable to many current or potential readers of our publications.

We have one big advantage over the search-ready content that's easily found online, however. I call it editorial integrity.

The online world is fraught with misinformation and fraud. If our publication brands are well managed, they will epitomize reliability and a dedication to the reader unlike much of the random content found online. That's our leg up in the face of uncurated content.

Stories like the Abramson scandal can erode public trust in our profession and consequently in the integrity of our content. She deserves our condemnation.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 at 6:47 PM

Assessing the readability of a BusinessInsider.com excerpt.

This month's sample passage comes from a February 26 BusinessInsider.com piece ("Smartphones Are Getting Weird Again, and It Could Be a Sign That the Industry Is on the Brink of Another Huge Change" by Lisa Eadicicco). Here's the excerpt, with longer words in italics:

"That's not to say these new offbeat devices will play a role in boosting industry sales, and they may not be emblematic of the next major evolution of the smartphone. After all, the feature phones with retractable keyboards that dominated the early 2000s, such as the T-Mobile Sidekick, don't look anything like the sleek rectangular touchscreen smartphones we use today. But the Sidekick and others set the stage for an era in which we use our phones for much more than just texting. These new foldable devices may similarly lay the foundation for whatever comes next. While what exactly that entails remains unclear, one thing is for sure -- such devices are no longer just prototypes or concepts, they're on the horizon."

--Word count: 121 words
--Average sentence length: 24 words (30, 30, 23, 13, 25)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (12/121 words)
--Fog Index (24+10)* .4 = 13 (13.6, no rounding)

Here we need to cut 2 points from the existing Fog score to fall within ideal range. Average sentence length is on the hefty side, with 121 words split into just 5 sentences. Let's try to cut through the Fog:

"That's not to say these new offbeat devices will play a role in boosting industry sales. They may not be emblematic of the next major evolution of the smartphone, either. After all, the feature phones with retractable keyboards that dominated the early 2000s, such as the T-Mobile Sidekick, don't look anything like the sleek smartphones we use today. But the Sidekick and others set the stage for an era in which we use our phones for much more than just texting. These new foldable devices may likewise lay the foundation for whatever comes next. While what that entails remains unclear, one thing is for sure -- such devices are no longer just prototypes or concepts. They're on the horizon."

--Word count: 118 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (16, 14, 28, 23, 13, 20, 4)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (9/118 words)
--Fog Index (17+8)* .4 = 10 (10.0, no rounding)

Our minor edits yielded big rewards. By turning 5 sentences into 7 and eliminating several longer words, we cut the Fog by 4 points. Remember, the ideal Fog Index for a text passage is below 12. Weighing in at just 9 points, our version falls well within that range.

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Events: A New Magazine Frontier

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 at 6:47 PM

In the news: Events are becoming a major revenue stream for magazine brands.

In a February 2 NYTimes.com piece, "Events Are the New Magazines," Katherine Rosman sets the scene of a recent Town & Country magazine event: "The celebrities were all being tended to by Nicole Vecchiarelli and Andrea Oliveri, the founders of a company called (with insidery resonance for anyone in the magazine business) Special Projects. That has long been a euphemistic term for editors who wrangle celebrities and are cozy with publicists."

Companies like Special Projects are helping magazines to put on star-studded extravaganzas to drive ad revenue. Rosman's piece takes readers behind the scenes of several events and through Vechiarelli and Oliveri's backgrounds as editors at various magazines. Read the full article here.

Also Notable

Developing Branded Video Content

Some magazine publishers have opened custom content studios to develop branded video content for advertisers. Katy Ibsen of Foliomag.com writes, "Collectively these custom content studios, built by legacy print publishers, are taking a holistic, multi-platform approach to branded content and native storytelling by identifying an advertiser's goals and applying a creative lens.... Trends in branded video range from leveraging social media influencers to incorporating augmented reality." Read more about several publishers' branded video content here.

2019 AMMC Notes

On Forbes.com, Tony Silber recaps MPA's recent AMMC event. Given short shrift was the sometimes contentious subject of social media. Instead of focusing on the challenges of contending with Google and Facebook, panels generally focused on lighter fare -- e.g., Instagram strategy and social media engagement. Read more here.

Trimming Editorial Budgets with Technology

In a recent Digiday.com article, Mark Weiss discusses the various technologies publishers are using to control editorial costs. Among those cost-saving options, he writes, are artificial intelligence and content curation vendors. Read more here. (Note: The full article is available to Digiday.com subscribers only.)

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