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Issue for August 2020

Presenteeism: The Hidden Pandemic?

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 9:27 PM

In the news: Apps such as Slack and Zoom have become staples in the Covid era, but are they allowing managers to exploit and surveil their telecommuting teams?

The culture of “presenteeism” is creating new headaches for editors and other publishing professionals. Writes Lucinda Southern of Digiday.com: “The pandemic workday is 48 minutes longer, we have more meetings and we send more emails, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.” Employees working from home feel pressured to be endlessly available to show up for Zoom meetings and “happy hours,” answer work emails, and field phone calls.

It’s creating a toxic work culture in some cases. “Management has been asked to replicate and office-level style regularity of communication, rather than promote the flexibility that remote working can offer. Aside from being a drain on energy and productivity, this does little for mutual trust,” comments Southern. Junior employees in particular feel pressured to remain “visible” throughout the workday, and beyond, to prove their worth. Read more here.

Also Notable

Folio: Stops Regular Reporting on Magazines

Several weeks ago, Folio: announced that it would stop daily reporting on the magazine industry. It’s a major shakeup for publishing professionals who have long turned to Folio: for updates on industry developments as they occur. Bill Amstutz writes in his letter to the Folio: community: “Our decision to eliminate regular industry reporting via FOLIO: doesn’t mean we are abandoning the FOLIO: community. It only means that we will be serving it in new ways.” Read the full letter here.

Bon Appétit Names New Editor-in-Chief

After a long summer of turmoil, Bon Appétit magazine has named book publishing veteran Dawn Davis as its new editor-in-chief. Kerry Flynn of CNN Business reports: “Davis is among the few influential Black executives at major publishing houses. During her more than 25 years in the industry, she has overseen the publishing of stories from marginalized voices.” Former editor-in-chief Adam Rappaport left the magazine earlier this summer after allegations of discriminatory behavior surfaced. Soon thereafter, key video talent quit producing videos en masse in protest against glaring pay discrepancies between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) on-air talent. The magazine has not posted new content to its popular YouTube channel in over two months. Read more here.

Newsletter Economy Booming

“As Facebook, Google, and private equity have laid waste to print media nationwide, these platforms have given rise to a new publishing economy, in which any writer with a dedicated following might be able to make a living,” writes James D. Walsh in a piece this week for NYMag.com. Newsletters, he says, are that new economy. He focuses much of his discussion on newsletter publishing platform Substack, one of the more popular options for prospective newsletter publishers. “The newsletter trend is bigger than independent journalists,” he writes. “Print veterans like Graydon Carter and Jonah Goldberg have styled their new publications -- staffed with editors and funded by investments from private equity -- as newsletters.” Read more about the rising newsletter economy here.

Duke Reporters’ Lab Fine-Tunes Automatic Fact Checker

Duke Reporters’ Lab has capitalized upon the DNC and RNC to perfect its automated fact-checking program, Squash. Harrison Mantas of Poynter.org summarizes the program’s capabilities: “Squash is an artificial intelligence program that makes real-time matches between existing fact-checks in ClaimReview, the Reporters’ Lab’s fact-check tagging system, and a live speaker’s statements. It uses a combination of Google’s Speech-to-Text; ClaimBuster, which was developed at the University of Texas at Arlington; and Duke’s own coding to match words spoken to ones written in a fact-check. These fact-checks pop up on screen to give viewers more context about whatever issues are being discussed.” The recent political party conventions provided the lab with a valuable opportunity to tweak Squash for improved accuracy. Read more here.

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"Supposedly I know a lot about editorial performance measurement, but this is the first i have heard about presenteeism. Maybe that's true because those who claim to be experts in the concept have found a way to waste time claiming to be experts in a needless practice. Nevertheless -- especially where editorial performance by full-time editors working at home is concerned -- measuring presenteeism apparently has assumed full-time worry proportions. For those determined to agonize about how many hours allegedly working at home are occupied by personal activity, my approach to the solution is one I've been trying to convince more editorial managers to use in the first place. That is . . . know how long it should take -- realistically speaking -- to complete most editorial tasks. Knowing that, you can create quantitative job descriptions.. If you then find that editor X is completing each task -- even if too much "time" seems to be required -- was the workload delivered in an acceptable condition? Isn't that what presenteeism really is all about?" --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, Inc., www.editsol.com>

"If the boss is worried that her workers are not on the job when she can not see them, how does she know they are working when she can see them? If the job gets done accurately and well before deadline, what does she care?" --Curt Harler, freelance writer, Strongsville, Ohio

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Editorial Management in a Covid-19 Environment

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 9:27 PM

A reader's question: What's the best way to manage home-based staff?

By William Dunkerley

Q. My publisher is critical of how I'm managing work-at-home staffers. He fears that some may not be putting in full days of work. I've only required that staff be available for a set period of time each day to facilitate communication and collaboration. We have Zoom meetings as frequently as we used to have in-person meetings before. But still the publisher is nervous that he's not getting the work he's paying for. Just between you and me, I think he's a little bit paranoid. I think he'd be happy if we had a camera running on each staffer from 9 to 5. Thankfully, that's not practical. If he tried to impose it, I think some editors would quit in a heartbeat. It would show a lack of trust. Our publication is mostly staff written. Unnecessary loss of experienced people would really hurt. I think we've been doing very well under the circumstances. We've met deadlines and have maintained editorial quality. There's been a sharp learning curve for my staff to adjust to new routines. I think we've done okay. However, I have this problem with the publisher. What in the world can I do?

A. It looks to me like you have actually two problems. One is the impractical outlook of the publisher. The other is how to handle your staff no matter to what extent they remain home-based.

I don't know if your publisher is really paranoid. He does seem to have an autocratic leadership style. Autocratic leaders tend to have a need for visible control over processes and staff. I can understand why he feels out of control when he can't observe your staff at their desks focused on their work.

This is a pattern that is unlikely to change quickly. The publisher has probably been a problem for your organization all along. Now it's just that the adjustments to our present unusual situation has brought this to the fore.

I've worked with a number of organizations that had an autocratic leader in control. In one case the person had her fingers in everything. She had to approve all major decisions. Department heads had no budgets. They had to go to her when they wanted to spend money on anything that was not routine. She rewrote copy for no apparent reason. She even stayed after hours to do some of the production work just as an extension of her control. I hope your publisher is not that bad. The effect of that publisher's style was that the growth of the business was constrained by the limits of what one autocratic manager could handle. Progress wasn't everything; control was. With another autocratic manager I encountered, there was an additional wrinkle to the problem: He was in an advanced stage of his career. Over the years he had hired staff that he thought would be compliant. If a new hire turned out to be an initiator, that person didn’t last long. The kicker came when the manager retired: No one there could function well without receiving orders. The organization survived, but it became a shadow of its former self.

Don't try for a quick readjustment of your publisher. One way or another, he'll resist. I suggest that instead you focus on keeping him apprised of your editorial productivity. Also show him often the editorial quality you are maintaining. Find ways to show him related facts and figures. If over time he sees that you are maintaining momentum under the new circumstances, he may relax his need for control.

However, to do that you might have to change some of your management techniques and methods.

Deadline compliance is one metric you should track formally if you are not already doing so. Report that regularly to the publisher. If you've been lax on deadline compliance, this may be time to change that. It might require an adjustment by some staff members. That could present you with some problems.

I saw that unfold at one special interest consumer magazine. It was largely staff written too. A few of the editors tried to beat the new deadline requirements by turning in copy that still needed polishing. The solution we found was to track the number of instances where copyeditors and proofreaders had to fix things. Monthly we'd issue a report that showed the results for each editor. That seemed to fix the problem.

One reason for its success is that it gave a crystal-clear picture of what was expected. That's something that's more important now than ever before. Work-at-home editors need to know clearly what is expected of them.

Do they have comprehensive job descriptions that spell that out? If not, that should be a priority. Don't hand staffers a job description as a fait accompli. Develop each job description collaboratively with each staffer. Very often staffers are more in touch with details of their jobs than their managers. Tap into that knowledge and experience.

To satisfy your publisher, give him periodic reports on how performance objectives are met.

Deadlines and cleanness of copy are easy to quantify. Editorial quality is more of a challenge. There's got to be a subjective element to that. The answer to that is to maintain an ongoing dialogue with editors so they will acquire an instinctive sense of what you value and what you don't. Give the publisher periodic reports on how that is going.

These factors and others should be incorporated into a documented editorial plan. It should answer:

—What are the editorial objectives?

—What is the editorial decision-making process?

—What is the established workflow procedure?

—Who is responsible for things at each step along the way?

—What are the publication’s deadlines?

—How do you define "deadline," and what are the consequences of missing one?

—Whose approval is needed for what?

—What are the publication's editorial practices (style, text-to-illustration ratio, etc.)?

—What procedures are established for handling the unusual (e.g., late-breaking crises at deadline)?

Your staff may already have a good sense of these things. But having a formal plan will give you something concrete to work with. You can use it to review with the publisher how your staff is complying with each item.

Doing this over time should serve as an alternative way for the publisher to feel a sense of control. But again, don't expect an instant result. It sounds like you might have a tiger by the tail.

The foregoing recommendations are far from being comprehensive advice for managing work-at-home staffers. They should be a first step, however, to addressing the concerns that you raised.

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

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A Fresh Approach to Leads, Part II

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 9:26 PM

Lessons from fiction writers on writing effective and engaging leads. Continuing on the topic of setting a tone...

By Peter P. Jacobi

In the pages of Time we meet Slater Barron:

Not to make too much of it, but Slater Barron is a lint artist.

A what?

An artist whose medium is lint.

Oh, like before Easter. No, not lent, lint -- like in your pocket.

So what kind of fuzzball are we talking about here?

We're not talking fuzzball, we're talking art, using fuzzballs, ahem, lint.

Barron gets so tired of talk that runs like that, and yet it happens all the time. "I've been working with lint so long, I don't see it as anything but an art material," she says. "Artists work with weird materials, or what some people see as weird. I'm not any different from any other artist."

Once again, the writer gives us a prevailing, pervasive mood. There's a personality to that lead, suitable for a story about an unusual artist even for these times.

Unorthodox Leads Attract Attention

And speaking of these times, some writers reflect an age in which rules are broken. They break rules.

But then, James Joyce broke rules almost three-quarters of a century ago. Finnegans Wake begins this way: "riverrun, passed Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

Nonfiction in that form would hardly be suitable in magazine journalism. Puzzlement, deciphering shouldn't be a requirement for the busy reader. But journalistic writers can break rules, the outlandish or the different, in their own way.

As did Jim Rohrer in USA Today in an initial paragraph that goes: "Thirty-nine gathered, though by general agreement 65 was the right number, which is a whole lot more than 14."

What's that? I have to read that again, and the reader isn't supposed to be required to engage in repeat readings.

I'll read it again anyway, but this time with paragraph 2 attached:

Thirty-nine gathered, though by general agreement 65 was the right number, which is a whole lot more than 14.

Jacksonburg, Ohio -- population unknown -- this week turned out for us to demonstrate that no matter what Census Bureau says, a lot more than 14 people live in Ohio's smallest incorporated village.

Aha! It's planned confusion on paper to exemplify actual confusion about census counts. Breaking the rule of clarity for the sake of clarity, one might say.

Or take the let’s-be-done-with-it rule, the get-something-done-and-move-on rule. Richard Teresi broke it in an old story from Omni with this lead:

Since Erasistratus starved a sparrow to "note the decrease in weight," billions of animals have been starved, suffocated, shocked, shot, boiled, baked, frozen, thawed, refrozen, force-fed, crucified, crashed, crushed, asphyxiated, irrigated, poisoned, and laser-beamed -- all in the name of science.

Notwithstanding the countless medical breakthroughs from animal experimentation, animals are far from the ideal research tool.

Are all those verbs really necessary, Richard Teresi? Of course they are. They make a point forcefully, and as a result, the reader cannot react without force, coming down heavily on one side or the other after reading the lead. It's undoubtedly what the author wanted: to have the reader hate him or hate the idea.

There are times for rules to be broken.

Succinct Leads Serve as Bridges into Stories

One rule, often cited, is be pithy. Like Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, "it was a pleasure to burn," he wrote. The story is underway. Pow!

Or take the first stanza of Patricia Clark's poem “Her Red Coat”:

I remember none of my mother's clothes

Except, from years ago, a red coat.

Is that all that's left of those we love -- a memory, a lump in the throat?

That's pithy. A total thought has been encapsulated. The four lines almost stand alone. But, of course, we want, we need to go on, exactly what a good lead is designed to make us want to do.

K. Mark Cowick writes for Falcon, a children's magazine: "Butterfly. Now that's a funny word. Can butter fly? No, but butterflies can. With wings, of course."

Louise Sweeney gives the reader a quick push into an article about a renowned Spanish pianist for Christian Science Monitor: "When Alicia de Larrocha was 2 1/2, they took her favorite toy away, and she bent her head on the floor in a tantrum until she got it back. The toy was the family grand piano."

Short. Effectively to the point.

Putting It Into Practice

Ask your writers, when they consider leads, to always consider what's appropriate for the subject, the magazine, and the audience. Then ask them to be inviting as possible, unique where possible, memorable if possible.

The lead, remember, must lead. It leads the reader to what comes next. If it fails to do that, it has failed. Your project is finished, at least for those in the audience who choose not to go on. The lead must lead, and then some. It has four tasks, distinct and yet interrelated:

1. A lead establishes the subject, introducing the topic at hand.

2. A lead sets the tone, suggesting the mood and method with which, by which the story will be told.

3. A lead attracts attention, gaining allegiance for the total package through the attractiveness of its opening passages.

4. A lead guides clearly into the story, serving as a bridge to what follows.

Wrote a writer for Restaurant Hospitality: "If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, then the kitchen at Tony's belongs not in St. Louis but high atop Olympus, where from its pleasures could be whisked to the table of Zeus. This is the sort of kitchen that gives Inspectors of Health bad dreams about pink slips and unemployment lines, for if every kitchen were maintained so meticulously, we would have no need for them or their rules. The Health Code could go on the Honor System."

The lead serves four purposes: (1) as an establisher of subject, (2) setter of tone, (3) an attractor of attention, and (4) (take my word for it) bridger into the story.

It also shows a passion for the subject, prosaic as that subject might seem to be. It proves succinctly that there are no boring subjects, only bored writers.

So much work, a lead, for fiction and nonfiction. Don't let your writers get away with less than the best beginning. On that, much else depends.

More on leads in Part III.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. 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 Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 9:26 PM

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

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