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Issue for March 2010

The Dirt on Online Magazines, Part I

Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:36 PM

How the online medium has changed the name of the editing game.

By Meredith L. Dias

If you're an editor having trouble adjusting to online landscape, you're not alone. Gone are the days when a publication could subsist on print alone. As my editor, William Dunkerley, says in his blog article ("Distressed Print Publications Making Mistakes"), "The print-only model for many is a relic of yesteryear."

These days, there is a lot of hype surrounding online publication. Comments range from "Print is dead" to "Web content is king." There are those who dismiss print aficionados as mere Luddites, and also those who believe that an online-or-nothing approach is the only appropriate publication strategy in today's industry.

However, while the Internet presents exciting new opportunities for publishers, everything in the online publishing world is not as rosy as the hype would lead you to believe. Editors must not only adjust to new software and technology, but also amend their editing procedures in order to accommodate this medium. As if this weren't enough of a challenge, there are still no uniform standards for editing Web content.

To Digitize or not to Digitize

Editors must be simultaneously innovative and careful when approaching the digitization of content. Some fall prey to the erroneous perception that an online-only approach is appropriate for all publications, including theirs. Kim Howard, editor-in-chief of ACC Docket, cautions against this: "It is quite an attractive financial prospect to kill the print version of anything. But before [management] makes a drastic decision, they really should ask the members first. At least you would be armed with good info." Carla Kalogeridis, editorial director of Signature, agrees, "I would tread very carefully here, and if after thorough research and surveying you do decide that a digital edition is right for you, be sure to get the help of digital magazine experts/consultants who can help set you up for success." In other words, do your homework before making any drastic moves, and always keep in mind the unique preferences and needs of your audience. What works for Time or Vogue won't necessarily work for your publication.

The Columbia Journalism Review Report

Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published the results of their magazine survey in a report entitled Magazines and Their Websites. The report highlights the respective roles of independent Web editors, print editors, and publishers in the online development of their publications. Editors, particularly those concerned with journalistic integrity and content standards, should sit up and take notice of these statistics. For example, approximately half of the publications surveyed reported that their copyediting standards online are less stringent than in print.

The CJR study also reveals something even more alarming: fact-checking takes a serious hit when content goes online. Fifty-seven percent of publications surveyed use the same fact-checking standards in print and online. However, 27 percent fact-check their online content less rigorously than print content. Even more alarming, 16 percent of online publications do not fact-check their online content at all -- and, more alarming still, half of those publications (8 percent) don't fact-check their print content, either.

That is a lot of unsubstantiated content.

Online Editorial Standards

So why do editorial standards tend to be more lax online? The answer is complex. In many cases, an online presence necessitates frequent updates and, consequently, the articles often go through a much shorter editorial cycle. This is particularly true of publications whose print editors also shoulder the responsibility of online editing -- there simply isn't time for thorough, multiphase editing. The Magazines and Their Websites report observes that online content tends to be less academic and more conversational in tone, and hints that editors of online content are more concerned with producing traffic-grabbing text than meticulously polished prose. However, all these factors aside, it is alarming to think that as many as 16 percent of online publications don't engage in any fact-checking whatsoever.

There are other issues at hand. First of all, there may be a training gap across the board. There is a crop of editors who cut their teeth on print and have had to learn new technology along the way. Similarly, there is a crop of online editors who have cut their teeth on digital technology. They aren't necessarily well versed in grammatical and journalistic protocols. This creates a sizeable population of editors who have spent so long in print that they don't know how to produce winning online content. Alternatively, they may have focused so heavily upon digitization that they don't understand the basic tenets of their editorial responsibilities.

It doesn't help that online editing is still in its foundational phase. In the September 2009 issue of Editors Only, my article, "Errors Published Online," discussed some of the gaps in online editorial standards. Publications still play their online correction policies by ear -- some make post-publication changes to their online material without comment, while others still issue correction and retraction notices. Some correct grammatical and typographical errors without notification to the reader, while others (particularly bloggers) use the "strikethrough" function to alert readers of even the most marginal fixes. In the absence of a universal standard, online editing becomes highly subjective, sometimes with very little consistency between publications.

Making the Online Transition

The hype and buzz surrounding online publication is, to a point, justified -- it is nearly impossible for a publication to survive and thrive without some sort of online presence. However, it is also important to remember that online publishing is hardly a panacea for all that ails the industry. It is still, on many levels, untested. It has no history, and few norms.

Publishers and editors are still struggling to find the best online payment model, the most judicious means of producing content for a Web versus print audience, and the proper harmonization of print and online editions. They are still, in other words, winging it.

It won't always be this way. Eventually, editors will hit their stride and come to a consensus regarding online editing standards. In the meantime, all you can do is what you have always done -- represent your publication online with content as clean and accurate as your resources allow. Because some online publications are scraping by with minimal editorial acumen, you have a rare chance to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. Be engaging. Be factual. Be meticulous. Online readers are not dumb. They still recognize quality content when they see it.

In Part II of this article, we'll explore some of the perks and pitfalls of digital editions, the Audit Bureau of Circulations' recent revision of its definition of digital magazines, and comments from top editors and digital platform providers.

Meredith Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Management (RSS), News (RSS), Technical (RSS)

Think and Plan

Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:18 PM

To do it right, first think and plan.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Think before you write. Let your mind roam, so as to gather opportunities and possible extensions for your initial story idea.

Plan before you write. Consider how far you can take a subject without straining or distorting the original purpose. Determine what angles you can introduce to give the reader a broader or deeper or more multi-faceted view.

By thinking and planning first, you can enlarge and enrich a topic while still sticking to a point, without straying.

These matters came to mind as I waited for my doctor to catch up in his schedule and to see me per an appointment. To pass the time, I had picked up a copy of Road & Track magazine. Though I have no particular interest in cars, save for the always-present hope that mine will work rather than cause me grief, I do retain an interest in Road & Track. Some years ago, I paid a series of visits to its southern California headquarters to hold workshops with the magazine's editorial staff.

During those years, and even after, I used to get the publication through the mail, this so I could critique it. That subscription ran out a while ago. Staffers changed. Now, even the editor I worked with, Thomas Bryant, has become editor emeritus.

But there in the issue I was perusing was a byline I recognized, that of Peter Egan who had been part of the editorial team during my visits. He's a columnist now. And so, my curiosity aroused, I began to read his contribution for the month.

Set the Scene First

Peter uses "a working trip to California" as his starting point. "I was behind the wheel of a new ZR1 Corvette," he writes, "parked on a winding road north of Santa Barbara, waiting to move the car into position so our photo staff could shoot a cover shot for our March issue."

He sets the scene: "The road curved downhill toward a Capuchin monastery, scenically perched on a ridge. We'd rented this private road from the monastery so we could shoot photos without highway traffic speeding by."


The scene and situation are developed. He writes of passersby. He turns to description: "It was a beautiful spot, with the sun going down and a full moon rising over the Coastal Range, and we sat for perhaps half an hour, waiting for that magical moment of dusk when cars photograph best. Photographers, like vampires and werewolves, don't really come alive until it's that time of evening when you should really be looking for the nearest inn. To normal people, this hour is also known as 'dinnertime.'"


The column becomes reflective. "We like to mend our souls on placid mountaintops or in the clean white deserts," he states, "and then test them later in a more industrial setting." His thinking is "eroded by something on the Corvette's radio." Half listening, he chances upon a panel discussion "with congressional leaders, economists and various pundits discussing the pros and cons of a Detroit automotive bailout." The half listening changes into full-bodied.


Peter then summarizes the arguments: some say "we should throw money at the problem to stave off a general meltdown of the U.S. economy and to prevent massive unemployment;" others counter that "the car companies deserved to go broke because they'd failed to anticipate the sudden rejection of SUVs and trucks by the motoring public;" still others "thought this would be a great time to force the automakers into bankruptcy and break the unions forever." One commentator notes "Bankruptcy would just be 'Darwinian economics.'"

"Poor Darwin," continues Peter Egan. "The cold of heart have always forced a sociological spin on his biological work -- from Spencer all the way through Hitler and Stalin -- as if humans had no more free will or moral stature than trilobites or the lizards of the Galapagos Islands. Natural selection is a great excuse to ignore those who have not so richly deserved to succeed as you or I. And I'm not so sure about you."

The column has progressed from car test to spiritual reflection, from an overheard radio talk show about the economy to Darwin. It goes on to recapitulate the sins and perceived sins of auto chieftains. The "gathered politicians were very hard on the CEOs -- beat them up, really ... And perhaps they did have much to answer for."

But why, Peter wonders, was there "very little self-examination" when, perhaps, the problems could "be traced back to simple banking rules that Congress had failed to regulate? Hadn't the real trouble started not with car companies, but with banks making ridiculously risky real estate loans and then packaging them as 'commodities' and selling them on the world market.?"

Use Your Creativity

See how an assignment has, through a ranging, creative mind, become an auto industry-focused discussion of the economic crisis, surely as appropriate for Peter Egan's readers as the car test that had sent him out to California. He retraces the bailouts, the government's decision to "throw hundreds of billions at the banking and insurance industries to cover their mistakes, no questions asked." He ponders why the banking CEOs and "Wall Street geniuses who had brought this country to its knees," why "were they not sitting in the hot seat at a congressional hearing, being pilloried. Why had no arrests been made?"

His adrenaline "running high," he turns off the radio to restore his equilibrium and looks around the interior of his Corvette. "Wonderful car, this Corvette," he judges. "One of the best I've ever driven. Fast and remarkably refined, a distillation of years and years of research, engineering know-how and just plain hard work by people who really are highly trained and take their jobs seriously."

Peter is back on the job of analyzing cars. Looking around and feeling details, he falls in love again: "Beautifully stitched leather, nicely formed metal and several large trim sections of glossy carbon fiber ... Somewhere -- maybe in Detroit or elsewhere in the Midwest -- was a division of Chevrolet or an outside supplier where these sections of carbon fiber were produced. Somewhere there was a real shop where people got up in the morning, came to work and made these pieces. They knew how to mix and cure the chemicals, how to lay the fiber mats and how to form, trim and polish these parts. They knew how to make stuff."

Personal Details

Is it possible, he contemplates, that these people are "going to lose their jobs to the dazzling mixture of greed and incompetence displayed by our captains of finance?"

Writing his column at home in Rock County, Wisconsin, Peter Egan mentions the Janesville GM plant about 25 miles from his house that "closed this past December." The economic spinoff of that action "has been quite sobering to see. People need to move, but they can't sell their houses.

Restaurants are in a slump, shops of all kinds are closing. The car lots are quiet white deserts of snow. Our local paper had a front-page story today about all the churches in the area that are holding special masses and services to pray for the unemployed, and to organize relief."

He tells of a family in which both parents recently lost their jobs. "Should these people be bailed out," asks Peter. He winds up with more about shutdowns and the bailouts and a request that the politicians "stop talking about Darwin. It draws unwanted attention to their own sociological and biological fitness."

Creative Mental Travel

Peter Egan's column is titled "The Retreat of People Who Make Things." It reflects love and respect and anger and sadness, each feeling aimed in the proper direction, and all combined to sum up a troubling current reality. A car test set the column off. Mental travel completed it.

Don't be afraid to travel in your writing, but to do it right, first think and plan.

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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Posted in Writing (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:08 PM

Assessing the readability of a Forbes.com excerpt.

This month, we assess the readability of a February 11, 2010, Forbes.com excerpt ("Are the Feds Cracking Down on Online Poker?" by Nathan Vardi):

"All of that is at risk now, as well as possibly the entire U.S. online poker industry, where 2.5 million Americans play and bet $30 billion annually. A 2006 law, set to go into full effect in June, expanded the Justice Department's authority to shut down online gambling operations by going after the companies that process their financial transactions. The feds have already stopped some financial firms from being part of the business, using some old antigambling and bank fraud laws on the books. The public comments of federal law enforcement officials suggest that they view firms like DoylesRoom as just plain illegal."

-- Word count: 103
-- Average sentence length: 26 (27, 32, 25, 19 words)
-- Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent
-- Fog Index: (26+16) x .4 = 16 (no rounding)

As you probably remember, the ideal Fog score is less than 12. This passage contains a high percentage of long words (3+ syllables), even after omitting capitalized words and words with "-es" and "-ed" endings. The average sentence length, 26 words, is also quite high. We might simplify the passage by trimming longer sentences and substituting some of the longer words, perhaps like this:

"The U.S online poker industry, where 2.5 million bet $30 billion each year, is now at risk. A 2006 law taking effect in June expands the Justice Department's power to go after companies that process online gambling transactions. The feds have already used old gambling and bank fraud laws to edge some financial firms out of the business. The public comments of federal officials suggest that they view firms like DoylesRoom as illegal."

Here are the statistics for the revised sample:

-- Word count: 73
-- Average sentence length: 18 (17, 21, 20, 15 words)
-- Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent
-- Fog Index: (18+11) x .4 = 11 (no rounding)

The most drastic reduction was in the average sentence length after cutting 30 words from the sample; however, we were also able to reduce the percentage of long words from 16 percent to 10 percent. These revisions resulted in a shift in Fog score from 16 to 11, an improvement by nearly one-third.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Writing (RSS)

Harmonizing Print and Online Magazines

Posted on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 2:54 PM

How to create wonderful harmony between your print and online editions.

By Debbie Bates-Schrott

We start each business day with the dream of learning the secret to making our magazines flourish in both print and online. Depending on your passion you may prefer one option over the other. Clearly, there is still a strong desire for a print edition in many topic areas. There are also many publishers behind the eight ball with their magazine’s online presence or lack thereof. Many do not want to accept change, or have not fully embraced, or understand, the power of the Web, video, social media, mobile applications, or whatever the newest technology is when you are reading this.

For some publishers the flip page PDF may serve a purpose. It may be providing opportunities for expanding international readership or creating an online-only option for its readers. Advertisers benefit since it can expand the number of those who will see their ads and they can actually see the analytics and track it. Allowing advertisers the opportunity to share much more with a link to their site.

While there is still merit to this approach, there is a distinct disadvantage if this is your only digital strategy. Many may end up designing magazines the same way we have been for a lifetime. We need to take a new approach to designing our content to open new opportunities. This will require a strategic approach. Know your readers! Continue to know your readers! Where are your readers? Why are they reading your magazine? How are they reading your magazine? This is a continually changing landscape and needs to be monitored. Every magazine has its nuances that make its online needs different.

Is there harmony between your print and online content?

I think the best approach is integration. We are not just publishing magazines any longer. For those of you who are today, watch out for tomorrow. What is the print magazine accomplishing for the reader? Can it be done online? Online only? Or can you provide something different online that can strengthen the brand? Interviews, video, and social networks are just the tip of the iceberg.

Creating a completely harmonious relationship between print and online will require a new way of thinking for most publishers. Editors cannot do it all with the same amount of resources or old thinking and processes. Being a disrupter may be just what your publication needs to succeed.

Being successful in the new media world starts with a strategy with a phased implementation plan.

Debbie Bates-Schrott is President of Bates Creative Group and has more than 18 years working in the publishing industry. You can visit her website, www.BatesCreativeGroup.com, for more details.

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Posted in Design (RSS), Editing (RSS)

Reflections on the Advancing Technologies

Posted on Monday, March 01, 2010 at 1:40 PM

Education may show us the way to the future.

By Mary Shafer

C'mon, admit it: You're thinking it. You didn't get into this field to become a techno-geek. You may have to stare at a screen all day at work. But when work's done, you wanna curl up with a good old-fashioned, fresh-ink-on-crisp-paper magazine or book. And you believe that most folks out there buying your titles feel the same way.

Well, relax. You're partly right. There are still a lot of readers who wouldn't even consider reading on a screen, not no way, not no how. But, in the next generation, people who've grown up with both models will switch easily between the two, and won't be hung up about it. And finally, the following generation, which is growing up with their hands on mice and their eyes on screens at home and school, may primarily leave print behind.

It'll be a lot easier on us if we at least try to have an open mind and face this revolution with some enthusiasm.

I'm choosing to see this evolution of our primary product from a historical perspective. Making history means things are changing, and change is never easy and seldom fun. But it's full of mystery and promise and potential, and that's exciting. I know there are those who are perfectly happy with the previous un-exciting times, but we don't get to choose when history will happen. It chooses us, picking us up in the swift current of time. We either choose to go with the flow and learn how to swim, or get dragged beneath the surface and drown.

Instead of clinging to outmoded technology, I suggest we all remember what our mission as publishers really is: it's about the dissemination of ideas in an interesting, creative way. It's not just about the packaging. Every industry that focuses on giving its customers what they ask for doesn't just survive, it thrives. Which will you choose?

Now it's time to decide whether you're going to sink or swim. If your backstroke's a little rusty, that's okay. Look to your left and right, and you'll see your fellow swimmers right beside you. We'll hold you up till you get your groove back.

Meanwhile, the Publishing Business Conference & Expo is being held in New York City, March 8-10. 32 breakout sessions will be covering everything from navigating the e-publishing terrain to new e-business models, from rethinking author contracts and copyright to a social media strategy guide. (Note: Editors Only readers can get a $100 registration discount. Use Discount Code "EDITORSONLY100" to save $100 off the Full Conference Pass. Register at www.PublishingBusiness.com when registering for the full program.) I'll be there and paying special attention to ways that this inevitable future can be our friend. Then I'll be back here to share what I've found. I also invite your comments if you'll be attending, too.

Mary Shafer is publisher of Word Forge Books. She can be reached via email at publisher [at] worldforgebooks [dot] com.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Management (RSS), News (RSS), Technical (RSS)

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