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Issue for October 2015

The Embarrassment of Being Inaccurate

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:36 PM

An object lesson for all of us.

By Peter Jacobi

I share with you a packet of email correspondence. The object lesson becomes obvious and is also important to be reminded of.

Robin Wright initiates the exchange of messages. Wright's professional life as a journalist, foreign policy observer, and thinker has been significant: fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; reporter from more than 140 countries on six continents; former diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post; writer with credits in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, and author of several books on aspects of international affairs.

She Writes:

"Dear Professor Jacobi:

"In the process of googling today, I came upon your reference to a magazine article I wrote in The New Yorker. The citation appeared in your book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It. My piece was about Iran in 1988, and it won the National Magazine Award.

"Throughout your discussion of my article, you described me as male. 'He did this ... He did that ... He described that' ... etc.

"This distressed me more than I would have anticipated.

"I have spent my life covering wars in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. But I am very much female. And I am proud to have competed with the boys -- spanning four decades -- and out-performed them more than once.

"I would have been so grateful -- as I suspect other female correspondents would have been -- if you had not simply assumed that I was a man, or if you had done due diligence in your mention of my work.

"With regards, Robin Wright."

Let me just insert here a couple of facts before sharing my response. My magazine book was first published in 1991, and what I didn't know then, I certainly know now, and indeed knew long before her email message.

Here Is My Answer

"Dear Robin Wright,

"Oh, my goodness! What an awful thing to be made aware of 24 years after publication. What an awful thing to be made aware of anytime. I certainly know better as a journalist and teacher of journalism. I certainly know better about you. Since then, I've read you. I've seen and heard you countless times on television. I've come to admire you. You're everything I believe a good journalist should be, and then some.

"Yet, there it is: a really bad error in print about you, one I will not ever forgive myself for. It is certainly an object lesson, a reminder, that we can never be too careful about checking the facts. It is a grievous example of how hurtful we, as journalists, can be when we allow ourselves to get lax in the information-gathering phase of our work.

"What's worse is that I cannot make it right. I can only ask for your forgiveness, even while I cannot do that for myself. But may I use this situation as that above-mentioned object lesson? I write a monthly column for a newsletter called Editors Only. I'd like to give my readers a powerful, real life example of what can happen when we don't take that one-extra step in our efforts to offer our readers only the facts and only the truth. I always demanded that from my students at Northwestern and Indiana. I thought I always demanded it from myself. Well, maybe I demanded it, but on this occasion, I didn't practice it sufficiently well. As a result, instead of accomplishing what I meant to do, which was to honor you, I failed miserably.

"I'm sad about what happened but glad you wrote to tell me.

"All the best. Peter Jacobi"

Her Response

Robin Wright responded graciously:

"Professor Jacobi --

"Apology accepted.

"We all made mistakes. I once described a Democratic senator as a Republican -- although, in fairness, there are fewer physical differences between men and women (and sometimes not all that many political differences either).

"Feel free to do with it what you like. It's just always been a struggle because of ignorant assumptions about women's capabilities to cover wars -- or anything other than social issues. In 1970, I was initially barred from the Rose Bowl Press Box because they only allowed female 'food distributors and teletype operators' in the press box. When I went to Africa in the 1970s, there were 106 members of the foreign press corps -- and 105 of them were boys. When I covered the early years of John Paul II's papacy, I was often the only female correspondent (or female) on his plane. When I first went to Beirut, in the early 1980s, there were only two other female reporters, and both were stringers married to full-time correspondents.

"It's different today. But it's taken us all a long time -- usually working far harder than our male counterparts -- to get there.

"With regards, Robin"

My Follow-up

"Thank you. Thank you.

"And think about the doors of change that you've helped to open during your distinguished career, all while and because you practiced your craft at such a high level of excellence!! That's worth the two exclamation points.



Accuracy: how vital it is. Care: how vital it is. Need I say more? Well, only that I'm thankful that, up to now, no one else has written to tell me of another error in my book. One is more than enough.

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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On Hiring a New Editor

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:32 PM

What degrees and work experience do top editors look for when hiring new staff?

By William Dunkerley

At several conferences I've heard editors debate whom to hire as a new editor: a j-school grad or an English major. Some top editors have a preference for one or the other. Perhaps their opinions are colored by experiences they've had with past hires. Or maybe they are influenced by an education path that has worked out well for them personally.

Yet another point of view favors hiring subject matter experts. An engineering magazine editor said he preferred to hire trained engineers. He believes it is easier to teach an engineer how to edit than it is to get a neophyte editor to understand the engineering field. Also, he said his engineer journalists get more respect and acceptance when they are sent out on assignments to interact with engineers in the field. On the other hand, a different engineer-editor looks at it differently. She prefers to find someone with excellent editing skills and give that person the opportunity to assimilate the technical jargon and concepts.

We conducted a quick survey to gather EO readers' views on these issues. Here is a sampling of the comments we received:

In Favor of J-School Degrees

Melissa Ward Aguilar, a senior editor at Houston Chronicle Media Group, said she'd prefer none of the above. Experience is most important. But she says, "Without experience I guess I would favor a j-school grad, because one would probably have gotten some editing experience at a college paper."

Jon Radulovic, VP of communications at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, is quick to point out that he would never base a decision on just one item. But if pressed, he said, "having a j-school graduate would be the one we would single out."

There was a lot of support for the j-school route. Kerri Hatt, managing editor at Advance Healthcare News, is one of the advocates. But she adds that she herself was an English major. Concrete International managing editor Keith Tosolt, with a BA in journalism/communications, favors j-school grads, too, especially those with some marketing and PR as well.

"A journalism school grad is a must" for Jane Sutton-Redner, editorial director at World Vision magazine. She adds, "I have degrees in both journalism and English. In my experience journalism school gives you the practical experience to hit the ground running with publishing, whereas English majors need further training." She explained that she did English first and was then "whipped into shape in journalism school."

Editor-in-chief of Massage magazine Karen Menehan favors a bachelor's in journalism. "Without it," she says," I have found that incoming editors think of themselves as content managers rather than truth-seekers. They believe sources should be protected, and that editorial material is a commodity. It is a growing problem."

Rounding out the j-school advocacy is Jef White, executive editor at The Shop magazine. He says, "With today's extremely tight writing windows, numerous publishing deadlines (print, website, social media, etc.), and the lean editorial staffs, there's not much time for senior editors to help new editors with the writing process -- rewrites and major structural edits -- if they don't know it already. I think it's much easier for new editors to pick up the intricacies of a specialized technical area than it is for them to learn to write well in a business environment. Hopefully, j-school takes care of the latter for them before they are even hired."

In Favor of Other Degrees and/or Experience

But some editors, like Melissa Ward Aguilar above, are less fixated on j-school grads. Jeanne McIntyre, director of communications for Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery, would prefer a liberal arts grad. Marydee Ojala, editor-in-chief at Online Searcher, says, "It would be a combination of an English major and expert in the subject area of my publication without editorial experience." Robert Lodder, PhD, editor in chief of the astroanalytical chemistry and astrobiology journal Contact in Context, is expert in the subject area of his publication. He prefers an English major.

Several majors meet the requirements for Jennifer Kilpatrick, VP of editorial at Health Care Books and Journals. She explains, "We are a health care publisher, and our journal and book editors perform tasks such as copyediting, proofreading, and page layout (unlike larger publishers who outsource this work). The graduates she looks for "are generally detail-oriented individuals who like and have an aptitude for this type of work. The medical terminology is learned via on-the-job experience." Her own degree is in English.

A couple of editors pointed out that an applicant's major is not the most important factor. "Academic background is really a small fraction of the considerations. Particularly in hiring senior-level editorial, I look for experiences that parallel the work to be done, apparent curiosity, and demonstrated ability to grasp the field to be covered, and ability to translate that understanding into compelling and useful content," explained Keith Skillman of ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief at Automotive Design & Production, takes a philosophical look at it and ties things into his own career launch: "It all comes down to whether the person in question is curious and engaged.

"I've hired j-school grads who were completely indifferent to the subject of the publication, so that didn't work out for all involved. As I was an English major (journalism minor), I'm biased in that regard.

"Liberal arts and any ol' grad categories reflect back to the 'curious and engaged' requirements.

"When I was interviewing for my first job -- as an editor on a technical magazine, a technology that I know nothing about -- the man who became my first editor-in-chief said to me, 'I can hire an engineer and train him to write, or hire a writer and teach him engineering.' He opted for the latter, which seemed to work out for both of us."

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


"I'll take a writer with interest in a magazine's subject area any day over a subject matter expert who is a writer wannabe. Reporters can and do learn city hall, farming, technology, hiking, cooking. But if you don't have the flair for writing, forget about it! As an editor, I don't want to invest my time in fixing basics or adding life to toast-dry copy. --Curt Harler, Freelance Writer/Editor

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The Fog Index

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:29 PM

Assessing the readability of an NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month, we're analyzing the Fog Index of an excerpt from an October 30 NYTimes.com article ("Ghostly Transcends Its Record Label Roots to Sell an Ethos" by Ben Sisario). Here's the text, with longer words italicized:

"The company commissioned the sculpture from the design studio Snarkitecture in an edition of three, but Mr. Valenti does not really know its purpose yet, other than that it will not be for sale. As dreamlike sounds wafted from one of Ghostly's new releases, an LP of background music from the hit video game Minecraft, the lanky Mr. Valenti mused on the object's possible meanings. Dressed in black slacks, a black sweater and a white shirt buttoned all the way up, he wondered if it might be a 'totem,' a comment about the vogue for vinyl in an age of digital ephemera. Could it stand for the ailing music industry itself?"

--Word count: 111 words
--Average sentence length: 28 words (34, 31, 37, 9)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (8/111 words)
--Fog Index: (28+7)*.4 = 14

We selected this excerpt because the writing is quite distinctive. It's more difficult to cut the fog in writing with a unique voice. We need to shave three points from our score -- no small task -- without robbing the author of that voice. Let's see what we can do:

"The company commissioned the sculpture from the design studio Snarkitecture in an edition of three. Mr. Valenti does not know its purpose yet, though, other than that it will not be for sale. As dreamlike sounds wafted from one of Ghostly's new releases, an LP of background music from the hit video game Minecraft, the lanky Mr. Valenti pondered the object's meanings. Dressed in black slacks, a black sweater and a white shirt buttoned all the way up, he wondered if it might be a 'totem,' a comment about the vogue for vinyl in an age of digital ephemera. Could it stand for the ailing music business itself?"

--Word count: 108 words
--Average sentence length: 22 words (15, 18, 29, 37, 9)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (6/108 words)
--Fog Index: (22+6)*.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)

We were reluctant to make substantive changes in this excerpt. The writing has a carefully crafted cadence that a line edit would destroy. So we applied a light hand to make small, but score-changing, tweaks to improve the Fog Index. The original text contained three sentences with 30+ words. The simple act of splitting the first sentence in two made a big difference, bringing down average sentence length by 6 words. Culling 2 of the 8 longer words also helped.

But there were some longer sentences and words that we had to stet. There's no cheap rewording that can recapture the impact of "digital ephemera," two consecutive words with 3+ syllables. And we could have done a hack job on the second-to-last sentence to make two sentences, but we would have lost the soothing rhythm of the prose. So we left well enough alone. These are basic tenets of good editing: applying your hand only as heavily as the text in front of you demands and showing restraint to preserve the author's voice. Only when a piece of writing is so "foggy" that the average reader would get lost in it should we flex more editorial muscle.

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Maximizing Brand Power

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:28 PM

In the news: Putting logo licenses to work in a publication.

This month, John Parsons of Foliomag.com teamed up with sponsor Wright's Media to create "Magnifying the Power of the Brand." The highly designed article discusses the history of branding and how today's magazines can employ logo licenses to their benefit. The article layout unfolds with each scroll of the mouse or swipe of the finger, revealing illustrated timelines, illustrative background images, and dynamic text layouts with pull quotes.

Note: We tested the article on a 23" widescreen desktop PC (using both the touchscreen and the mouse) and on a smartphone with a 5.2" screen. We found the desktop version, using a mouse to navigate, to be the smoothest interface. Your mileage may vary depending on your computer or smartphone specs.

Parsons writes, "Successful publishers focus on a definable audience or interest group. Their print and digital publications aspire to be the trusted source of expertise or engagement in a particular field or demographic." He focuses on five media case studies: Tom's Guide and Laptop magazine, Event Marketer, Northstar Travel Media, Dennis Publishing UK, and Lenovo.

Experience the full article here.

Also Notable

Three Pulitzer Categories Now Open to Magazines

This week, the Pulitzer Prize board announced that print and digital magazine categories will be newly eligible for three categories: international reporting, criticism, and editorial cartooning. In the past, prize categories were generally geared toward newspapers; however, in recent years eligibility has been expanded to magazines in several categories. Read more here.

"Secrets of the Top Editors"

This week, Bill Mickey of Foliomag.com shared secrets for success from top magazine editors. Participating in the discussion were Chandra Ram (editor of Plate), Jared Hohlt (editor of New York magazine), David Granger (editor-in-chief of Esquire), and Denise Dersin (editorial director of Professional Builder and Custom Builder). Each editor discusses strategies for generating relevant, engaging magazine content that attracts widespread reader attention. Read the article here.

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