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Issue for September 2012

America's Greatest Newspaper Columns

Posted on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:38 AM

An anthology that educates and inspires.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Most of you probably have to deal with columns, if not also write them. Treat yourself to Deadline Artists, America's Greatest Newspaper Columns (Overlook Press), a scintillating collection of 168 pieces from which you will gain both an education and inspiration.

The book's three editors/collectors are John Avlon, senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast; Jesse Angelo, editor-in-chief of The Daily and the New York Post; and Errol Louis, a former columnist who serves as political anchor of NY1 News, a New York City area television channel.

Enduring Columns

They claim to have read hundreds of columns, from which they chose the ones that fill the 400 pages of this anthology. In the process, they write in an introduction, "it has been striking to see which pieces endure. Those centered around storytelling and historic events best retain their power -- the more original reporting, the better. But what might be called the 'Mount Olympus' column, in which the author-analyst surveys the nation and passes policy pronouncements down from on high, tends not to age as well."

They add that "columnists speak in a voice readers understand -- their own, but just a bit better. It is the voice of the bar room, the locker room, and the smoke-filled back room. It is a voice that comforts and confronts. A great column is both a witness and a work of art -- helping people understand the world around them while making them feel a little less alone."

A voice readers understand, that comforts and confronts, that is a witness to events and the lives of important or intriguing people, that offers us companionship: these are goals worth aiming for. You'll find also that the authors used their imaginations while, at the same time, sticking to facts. There's no fiction in this book. Everything reflects the real, and yet, the reader finds him or herself able to enter 168 thoughtful and tantalizingly re-created worlds, each evocative of a history, a moment, an experience, or a remembrance that matters, be it on a personal scale or larger, intimate or grand.

Lessons from the Familiar

Included is the familiar, such as "Yes, Virginia -- There Is a Santa Claus," penned in 1897 by Francis Pharcellus Church of the New York Sun, in response to eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon's letter stating, "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN, it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?"

Church insists Santa exists "as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."

Lessons from the Not-so-Familiar

Included is the less familiar, such as Frederick Douglass' visionary "The Destiny of Colored Americans," written for the publication North Star in 1849, more than a decade before the Civil War. "The white man's happiness," said Douglass, "cannot be purchased by the black man's misery.... all distinctions, founded on complexion, ought to be repealed, repudiated and forever abolished."

There are lessons for us in every piece, perhaps in every paragraph, as human beings and as writers or editors. As writers and editors, let's just take beginnings, leads. You'll note how they draw the reader in through both a careful selection of compelling information and acute viewpoint.

Detailed, Down-to-Earth Writing

When, for instance, Muhammad Ali retired in 1979, Jack Newfield marked the occasion and the man in New York's Village Voice. "Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. And exit like a hero," Newfield wrote, and after a brief biographical paragraph, he continued, "We have burdened Ali with many identities. Symbol of the sixties. Draft dodger. Muslim evangelist. Most famous human on earth. Exile. People's champ. Braggart. Huckster. Manchild. Poet. Rebel. Survivor. He can be as funny as Richard Pryor. He can be as eloquent as Jesse Jackson. He is as charismatic as the Ayatollah.

"But basically he is a fighter, the greatest fighter of the age. He danced like Nureyev. He could stick like Manolete. And he could think like Einstein."

Consider the details recollected to prove a point. Consider the profile being drawn in words. Consider the down-to-earth writing. Consider the aura of respect being revealed in what Newfield labeled "basically a fan's notes, a farewell tribute to a public man who gave me pleasure."

Description and Narrative Writing

Ernie Pyle wrote for Scripps-Howard in 1943 from Northern Tunisia about "The God-Damned Infantry." "We're now with an infantry outfit that has battled ceaselessly for four days and nights," his column tells us. "This northern warfare has been in the mountains. You don't ride much anymore. It is walking and climbing and crawling country. The mountains aren't big, but they are constant. They are largely treeless. They are easy to defend and bitter to take. But we are taking them. The Germans lie on the back slope of every ridge, deeply dug into foxholes. In front of them, the fields and pastures are hideous with thousands of hidden mines."

Pyle combines description and narrative as he relates what he has been experiencing on the front lines, his beat as self-chosen war correspondent for an anxious nation. The dispatch is laden with measured emotion and anxiety, with, again, respect, here for unnamed but very real heroes facing possible death on this particular day as well as days gone by and still to come.

Passionate and Powerful Writing

Molly Ivins fashioned "A Short Story about the Vietnam War Memorial" for the Dallas Times-Herald in 1982. The "she" written of in this impression-laced column, one suspects, is the writer herself. This is how Ivins begins: "She had known, ever since she first read about the Vietnam War Memorial, that she would go there someday. Sometime she would be in Washington and would go and see his name and leave again.

"So silly, all that fuss about the memorial. Whatever else Vietnam was, it was not the kind of war that calls for some 'Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima' kind of statue. She was not prepared, though, for the impact of the memorial. To walk down into it to the pale winter sunshine was like the war itself, like going into a dark valley and damned if there was ever any light at the end of the tunnel. Just death. When you get closer to the two walls, the number of names starts to stun you. It is terrible, there in the peace and the pale sunshine."

One senses from the opening words Ivins' love for the lost and loathing for the war. Her reaction builds in a column of passion and powerful self-expression, underscored by a rush of facts supportive of the argument she unfolds in her "Short Story about…." It's good to let readers know from the start where you stand on an issue, if a stand is what you mean to take.

Effective Leads

The lead Regina Brett used in her 2006 Cleveland Plain Dealer column, "45 Lessons -- and Five to Grow On," merely prepares the reader for a list. She writes: "To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me. It is the most-requested column I've ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here's an update."

The list follows, beginning with: "1. Life isn't fair, but it's still good. 2. When in doubt, just take the next small step. 3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone. 4. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does. 5. Pay off your credit cards every month."

Pithy start. Pithy body. The end is pithy, too, Brett's 45th lesson: "Life isn't tied with a bow, but it's still a gift."

Yes, life is, and so is Deadline Artists. Treat yourself to a copy. You'll enjoy and you'll learn, from the leads right through to the finishes.

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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Managing Freelancers

Posted on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:38 AM

Editorial managers share their tips.

By Meredith L. Dias

In August, we asked our readers about outsourcing. In last month's issue, we shared some of our survey findings and reader comments. Now, we give spotlight to the last item on that survey: tips for other editors. How do you ensure a smooth transaction? How do you cultivate long-term relationships with outside consultants? What should you do when a freelancer's work falls short of expectations or contracted requirements? We offer tips from our reader and some of our own.

Communication Is Key

Most of the editors who contacted us agreed that communication is the most vital component of freelance management. It's important to remember that, because most freelancers don't work onsite, your expectations and guidelines aren't second nature to them. Even your longest-standing freelancer won't be as up-to-the-minute as you are on style changes, new guidelines, and redesigns. "Overcommunicate," advises Michelle Russell, editor in chief of Convene. "While your staff may have a clear idea of your goals, direction, and expected outcomes, freelancers or consultants do not."

April Tibbles, chief communications officer for the Association for Middle Level Education, also emphasizes the importance of communication in the editor-freelancer relationship. "Clearly itemize your expectations of the deliverable," she says. "With proofing, we often want a light treatment for basic corrections and we do not want editorial suggestions. We make this clear to the contractor."

Things can change on a dime during production, so editorial managers must keep in constant contact. "Be diligent about communicating schedules and schedule changes," says Tibbles.

Constructive Feedback

Upon completion of the project, it's important to review the freelancer's work. Of course, you want to praise someone who has done exemplary work for you. But if he or she has failed to implement house style correctly, to deliver work in keeping with the project specs, or to deliver on or ahead of deadline, a different kind of communication becomes necessary. Constructive feedback is one of the most crucial elements of a healthy editor-freelancer relationship.

So how should you proceed if you receive editorial or written work from a freelancer that falls short of expectations? You'll need to navigate that conversation with finesse. Offering negative feedback can be unpleasant, even anxiety-inducing, but it's vital if you want to maintain a long-term relationship with a freelancer whose work isn't initially satisfactory.

Odds are, the freelancer hasn't slacked off on the job. When you contact the person, ask some probing questions. Was something in your guidelines unclear? Did the freelancer feel crunched for time? Did he or she overbook (i.e., take on too many projects at once)? Once you've asked the tough questions, make sure to convey what went wrong without being accusatory or insulting. You want to convey what went wrong without driving away a freelancer who has done (or has the potential to do) good work for you.

Building the Right Team

As I've stated throughout this article, cultivating long-term relationships is key. According to Patti Harman, editor-in-chief of Cleaning & Restoration magazine, "finding the right partner is critical. We work very well as a team and have now built a relationship with a lot of trust. I still have more technical expertise, but the rest of the team is learning about the industry. It takes several months to get a new editorial team up to speed if your magazine is extremely topic specific, but I couldn't produce the magazine without them." So even if you're dealing with a lot of freelancers, it's possible to develop a truly collaborative relationship.

Ryan Alford, owner and publisher of Snowshoe magazine, also emphasizes the importance of relationships: "Develop solid relationships with writers and give them ownership over certain regional coverage or sections of the magazines."

Knowing What to Outsource

Our last piece of advice comes from Rachel Grabenhofer, editor of Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine: "It's important to limit what you outsource, because outsourced services do not usually have the insight that industry-embedded editors with years of experience do. You have to choose wisely what you send out."

This is an important distinction for editorial managers to make. Before hiring someone from the outside, consider whether or not the outsourcing will save you time or create more work for you in the long run. Do you have a freelancer in your stable who is suited for the work at hand? Will you spend more time answering questions and cleaning up the content afterward than you would just writing or editing the content yourself?

If the answer to the latter question is no, then consider some of the advice fellow readers have imparted above. Think long and hard about whom to hire for your project. And, above all else, keep the lines of communication open during the project. Be proactive. Check in from time to time. If you take these steps now, today's new freelancer could become tomorrow's go-to.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:38 AM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com article.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of a September 24, 2012 Time.com article ("Why PC Companies Fear Amazon" by Tim Bajarin). Let's take a look:

"By the way, PC companies are not the only ones who fear Amazon. This week, Walmart stopped carrying all Amazon Kindle devices. Walmart finally woke up and realized that the Kindle tablets were actually competitive to its own business. Walmart served as a showroom for Amazon products. Walmart found that people would go to its stores to check out a product they wanted in a physical form, and if it was cheaper on Amazon, they would buy it there. This is especially true if they were Amazon Prime customers, which meant they paid no shipping fees and got the product cheaper. Earlier in the year, Target stopped selling Kindles for the same reason."

Word count: 113 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (13, 9, 17, 8, 32, 22, 12)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (10/113 words)
--Fog Index: (16+9)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

This is a rare event for us. We've stumbled upon a longer paragraph that already has an ideal Fog score (i.e., a score below 12). There isn't much we can do with this sample to reduce the Fog score. So what did Time.com get right with this except?

First, the author kept the average sentence length fairly low. He opted for shorter sentences instead of longer ones that would might "fog" up his writing. He cemented the low Fog score with a low percentage of words with three or more syllables.

We could shave off a point or two by replacing a few longer words, but it's hardly necessary in this case. We could make two sentences out of the fifth sentence, but this would disrupt the natural rhythm of the writing. So, in this case, it's best not to mess with a good thing.

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Editorial Staffing in the Digital Age

Posted on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:36 AM

In the news: How the digital publishing landscape has changed job descriptions.

Today's magazine jobs tend to be more multidimensional than yesterday's. Editorial jobs involve preparing content for publication on multiple platforms. "What editors need now," says Bob Cohn of Foliomag.com, "is a new breed of journalist." Editorial managers need journalists who can report, write, edit (both text and images), fact check, create infographics, use social media to promote content, and hire freelance writers.

In other words, says Cohn, "everyone is an editor-in-chief." He discusses what he calls a transition from "vertical job descriptions to horizontal job descriptions." Key skills include multitasking, speed, and accuracy-all of which can conflict with one another. Read Cohn's full analysis of editorial hiring in the digital publishing world here.

Also Notable

A Digital Facelift for Print

"Own-brand magazines are defying the decline in print media consumption," says a recent MarketingWeek.com article. "Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation ... show a 3 percent year-on-year rise for the 100 most read consumer titles." Some successful print magazines are enhancing their brands with digital content (e.g., newsletters, social media, and e-mail lists). Read more here.

Changing Journalism Curricula

Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism has made drastic changes to its curriculum, changes that reflect the rapidly changing industry. The school will now offer just two degree options: news and information reporting and strategic communications. Associate professor Ellen Gerl has seen the industry changes at work in her own classroom. She notes that her students tend to divide their time "between traditional editorial tasks and web duties." Some magazines demand even more of their editors with video content and online radio shows. Read more here.

Tablets Taking Over?

Will tablet computers replace desktop PCs and laptops? According to an infographic posted on OnlineClasses.org, the answer is eventually. At first glance, the penetration statistics are quite dazzling. See them here.

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