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Issue for December 2009

The Editorial Package

Posted on Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 1:00 PM

A magazine succeeds with a well-designed package -- verbally and artfully -- to attract even a one-time visitor.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Let's say I get 150 publications. I think I do, considering the close to 100 I subscribe to and another 50 that I figure come through various memberships and contributions to non-profits. That's a lot for me to read, race, or clip through. That's a burden my mail carriers bravely, conscientiously handle those six delivery days of the week.

But so goes the life of a packrat always looking for things to write or talk or teach about, and so goes the job experience of those assigned to my street as postal dispatchers. The publishers of the magazines, papers, and newsletters I receive are compensated either by my subscription dollars or donations. The mail schleppers, unfortunately, receive little more than an occasional thanks and a holiday time fiscal gift hardly commensurate with the duties performed.

For all that, a visit to Barnes and Noble or Borders or the local independent will remind me of the countless publications I do not get at home. Sometimes, perusal leads to a purchase; something within an exhibited issue strikes my attention or suggests fulfillment of a momentary need. The drugstores have their own collections, usually of a more frivolous nature, but I'm certainly not averse to looking through a few of the publications exhibited there.

Or wherever I'm led day by day, I should add. A few weeks ago, while waiting to see my doctor for the semi-annual checkup, I chanced across the June '08 issue of Fast Company, a magazine I had seen before but that had not been the object of sufficient topical interest to be material for purchase. I happen to not be big on company/entrepreneurial publications.

But among the cover lines, I found "Cities of the Year, Why Chicago and London Are Tops." Actually, the main cover subject dealt with a young man named Alex Bogusky, a whiz from the world of advertising out to crush Apple for Microsoft. That subject didn't stir the juices, nor did the other topics flagged, save for the Chicago/London selections, which held topic potential strong enough for me to actually open the magazine.

Lo and behold, what I discovered was an editorial package designed verbally and artfully to attract even a one-time visitor. Layouts, titles, subtitles, visuals, captions, breakouts, story structures, subject variety, lengths of pieces ranging from micro to macro: all had been arranged into a savvy unit. It's a very "now" magazine, aimed at the successful or motivated-to-be young adult. And the editors, I suspect from what I saw, have found ways to attract their readers into and through the pages.

That matter of attracting, of how -- for instance -- to get stories underway for the purpose of reader seduction: that's always on my mind. Since the Fast Company copy was not mine, I turned to the Chicago and London articles quickly, this so I could glance at them before my doctor called me into her office. She soon did but not before I got a healthy start on my reading. It sharpened my interest. Fortunately, later in the day, I found a single copy at Borders and snatched it. That's why I am better prepared to tell you about my adventure with Fast Company.

A page titled "Fast Cities 2008" got the package that teased me underway, it dominated by city scenes and a preface that reads: "The great urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote about cities of 'exuberant diversity,' and in our 2008 Cities of the Year, Chicago and London, we have two stellar examples. They -- and our 12 cities to watch -- are no utopias (we're still looking). But amid economic uncertainty, they're vibrant, creative, and growing. These hot spots, these Fast Cities, are full of life and bursting with diversity -- in race, in culture, and in business. Join us for a tour."

The text supplier for "Chicago Soul" is Alex Kotlowitz, an avid Chicagoan who authored Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago. The "London Calling" writer is Alice Rawsthorn, a London resident for 28 years and design critic for the International Herald Tribune. From start to finish, each reporter/writer got it right, or seems to. I have to guess with the London piece because I've only been a visitor there. I can vouch for the Chicago article since 36 years of my life were spent there.

Here's the first paragraph -- a rather long one, but juicy -- Mr. Kotlowitz applied to Chicago:

"In the bottom of the ninth inning of the 2005 World Series, as the long-suffering Chicago White Sox were about to win their first championship in 88 years, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck waxed eloquent about Chicago's South Side, where the Sox play. He described it as 'a collection of neighborhoods...Irish neighborhoods. Italian neighborhoods. Polish. Lithuanian. Firemen. Policemen. Schoolteachers. Stockyard workers.' Stockyard workers? The last stockyard closed in 1971. Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian? The South side has long been predominantly African-American, and most of its immigrants now are Mexican. Yet that is how many view the city, through a lens dominated by the past. If you travel abroad and tell people you're from Chicago, they'll often pull their hands out of imaginary holsters and start shooting. To them, the city is still Al Capone's town, which it was -- nearly a century ago."

What's myth and what's actual: that is the Kotlowitz point. Is Chicago a city one can pin down so that the reason for its current state of vitality becomes clear? His is a valid approach, and an attractive one. He follows with an up-dater:

"The real Chicago isn't so easy to keep up with. It's constantly reinventing itself. Jumpy. Agitated. Impatient. It's as if the place is trembling. Move aside. Don't linger. And if you're going to dawdle, get out of the way. But what any Chicagoan will also tell you is that the past is very much present. It doesn't go away. It shouldn't. In fact, that's Chicago's lure and its beauty: its ability to take what was and figure out what could be."

An excellent approach this is, an introduction that allows Kotlowitz to begin making his case for Chicago as "City of the Year." "Consider Millennium Park," he continues, explaining how a site once dominated by ugly railroad tracks (in a rail era that made Chicago its hub) has become part of a lakefront skyline probably unequalled in the world for beauty and public usage. I'll leave it to you to hunt up the article, but, let me assure you, the "why" for Chicago's selection becomes clear and bright as the sunlight that strikes the waters of Lake Michigan on all but the cloudiest of days.

And off to the side, one finds a column of quotes from Chicagoans, such as the artist Dzine, aka Carlos Rolon: "The Chicago lakefront, Nelson Algren, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, the best place to get pizza, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, Bill Murray, John Cusack, Lupe Fiasco, Buddy Guy, Hugh Hefner, Billy Corgan, Kanye West, Liz Phair, Bernie Mac, Jeff Tweedy, Common, Jeremy Piven, Ramsey Lewis, Pete Wentz, Studs Terkel, Frankie Knuckles, Koko Taylor, Chris Ware, Charlie Trotter, Freddy Rodriguez, Ryne Sandberg, Nate Berkus, Judy Chicago, Kerry James Marshall, Chicago Italian beef hot dogs, house music, the Second City theater -- and my father."

The CEO of Motorola, Greg Brown," adds: You can see it all get started here: life-saving drugs, new food, new technologies, new airplanes, advertising creativity." And by now, you should get sufficient clues for the why of the selection.

Alice Rawsthorn's "London Calling" begins:

"It's shockingly expensive. The roads are jammed with traffic. The subway system's hopeless, and the buses no better. There's a surveillance camera on every other corner, and the sidewalks are strewn with litter. The biggest airport is a joke. The richest residents are fleeing or threatening to; the poorest have been chased out to the suburbs by soaring property prices. And the weather sucks."

Well, that opening paragraph casts doubt on the "why" for London as choice. Rawsthorn makes the place sound bleak. But as reader, one gets the vibes that the explanatory payoff is about to come. It starts with the question we've just posed:

"Why is somewhere with so much against it such a great place for creatives to live and work?

'That's simply -- it's because London's so dynamic,' says Christopher Bailey, design director for Burberry, the once-dowdy British raincoat company that has been reinvented as a successful global fashion brand. 'Creativity thrives here. It has to do with the people, their attitude, vibrance, and energy. You can work away in your little world and have your moment in the sun. That's very empowering. I've lived and worked in New York, Paris, and Milan, but right now I can't think of another city I'd want to live in more than London.'"

The defining details begin to amass: "London has more museums than Paris, more theaters than New York, and more bars, public libraries, and music venues than either A recent edition of Time Out listed 111 plays, 190 exhibitions, 157 comedy events, 293 rock or pop performances, and 195 club nights in a single week. One in every eight Londoners -- more than 550,000 people -- work either in a creative job or in a creative industry."

Again, I ask you to look up what follows. There are lessons in the writing (not only of the two mentioned articles but throughout the issue). There are lessons about editorial choices (what to feature, what to cover extensively, what to compress, and a lot about how one can make a reader take notice).

Like a column, for instance, titled "A Dirty Shame," that covers "How marketers create disgust and embarrassment -- and why we shouldn't put up with it." The argument begins with the dreadful "Ring around the collar" commercial that used to make me cringe.

Hmm, maybe I should make Fast Company my 151st publication. I'll think about it.

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 Design (RSS), Editing (RSS)

Getting Readers to Pay

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2009 at 2:42 PM

There's a movement gaining strength among magazine and newspaper publishers to begin charging for online content that's now free.

By William Dunkerley

In publishing's print era, most general readers paid for content, while free, controlled circulation publications tended to serve niche markets. The Internet Age brought with it a pendulum swing that made free, advertising-supported content mainstream.

With recession-driven cuts in advertising expenditures, there are those who would like to push the pendulum back toward paid content. Innovative schemes are being devised that include collecting "micropayments." A micropayment, as defined by BusinessDictionary.com, is a "transaction in small amounts, costing a few cents to usually less than five dollars, typically involving sale of information on internet." Presumably, this would allow readers to peruse a table of contents, and then pay relatively small sums to read only those articles that seem interesting enough to warrant shelling out some money, albeit small change.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has been especially outspoken in his belief that future prosperity for publishing will be dependent upon selling content. "The old business model based on advertising-only is dead," he resolutely proclaimed. Murdoch seems to believe that his new pay-as-you-go model will lead to salvation of the industry.

For those of us in the editorial business, the notion that readers will be paying to see our content can have a rewarding ring to it. Our editorial product would seem to have a higher perceived value if readers are required to pay. It's like receiving an economic vote of approval.

Reviewing the Various Plans

A number of variants are emerging for how to implement the concept of paid online content. Different groups of industry players -- big shots and small fries -- are separately developing schemes to create omnibus pads or platforms that can facilitate the implementation of some form of payments and micropayments. Will individual publishers be running their own e-commerce systems, or will middlemen step in for a cut of the revenue stream? That question is yet to be answered.

For the next few issues, Editors Only will be examining the pay-for-content movement from the point of view of what it will mean for you as editors. We'll start by describing one of the proposed solutions in this article. Future issues will look at others, as well as overall ramifications and concerns. And, finally, we'll conclude the series with our own analysis of the movement.

The Brill Pad

Steven Brill, formerly editor of the now-defunct magazine Brill's Content and founder of American Lawyer magazine, is promoting a plan for "preserving valuable journalism by restoring the value proposition." He offers the plan out of a belief that "the Internet has undermined the economic model" because of what he calls a "cultural virus."

Brill told a New York conference in June:

In the history of the world no one can point to any quality journalism operation that depended only on ad revenue and, while giving its content away for free, thrived as a profitable, independent business. Not one. Ever.

That bold assertion may come as an abrasive surprise to many of you who have produced quality controlled-circulation publications over the years. Nonetheless, it is part of the premise upon which Brill has built his proposed e-commerce pad, dubbed Journalism Online, LLC.

Brill's plan involves "creating an easy way for consumers to buy content with one account across multiple websites and eliminating millions in capital expenses for these hard-pressed publishers by supplying this robust, completely flexible e-commerce engine."

Journalism Online would market "all you can read" packages that might cost, say, $30 per month. They would be in effect a passport that would allow you to read everything that is offered by the publications affiliated with Journalism Online. Smaller payments would get you smaller passports, i.e., an ability to read only content from a single publisher, or stories on a single topic from multiple publishers. You might pay $10 per month for such limited access.

Brill says he expects his system will induce between 8 to 15 percent of a publication's online visitors to pay for at least some of the content that they view. The balance of page views would remain free in order to be supported by advertising revenue.

A consumer would register once with Journalism Online and then have access to all the publications that are affiliated with Journalism Online. Each publication would set the prices for viewing its own content. A payment could cover an annual or monthly subscription, or just one article. In addition to magazines and newspapers, Brill expects to include bloggers who produce original content.

Will enough publishers and bloggers sign up with Journalism Online for it to really take off? Brill says he doesn't believe that a critical mass will be necessary -- and besides, he reports that he has well-known attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson helping with negotiations. What's more, Brill adds, "If a newspaper or magazine doesn't think some significant portion of its content ... is unique enough to get some people -- maybe 10 percent -- to want to pay for it, then why are they paying journalists to produce it?"

Because of some of Brill's controversial-sounding rationales for his proposed e-commerce pad, we would have preferred that he describe them here in Editors Only himself. We invited him to do so. But after initial expressions of interest, he found himself unwilling to subject his prose to our standard editorial treatment.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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

The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2009 at 2:38 PM

Assessing the readability of a NewYorkTimes.com excerpt.

This month, we assess the readability of an excerpt from the December 14, 2009, online edition of the New York Times ("Citigroup Reaches Deal to Repay Bailout Billions," by Eric Dash and Jeff Zeleny):

"To help replenish its coffers, Citigroup expects to raise about $17 billion by selling stock as early as this week and issue up to $7.2 billion in other capital by the first quarter of next year. The moves will leave the bank with one of the largest capital cushions of the major banks, assuaging regulators' concerns about its ability to weather another severe downturn without returning to the government for help. The plan also should help Citigroup shed the stigma that came with accepting bailout money and remove the harsh compensation restrictions imposed on banks that received multiple bailouts."

The sample in question contains 99 words. The average sentence length is 33 words. The percentage of words three syllables or greater is 12 (after omitting the exceptions: capitalized words, combinations of short words like "wrongdoing" and "buttermilk," and verbs that have three syllables because of an "-es" or "-ed" ending). Adding 33 and 12 gives us 45. Multiply 45 by 0.4 to arrive at a Fog Index of 18 (no rounding).

If you remember our past Fog Index calculations, you'll know that the ideal excerpt has a Fog Index of less than 12. So why did this excerpt yield such a high number? In this case, the average sentence length, 33 words, is quite high. Trimming these sentences, or perhaps even splitting up some of them, would yield a lower average sentence length and, therefore, a lower Fog score.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS)

Editor and Publisher Folds

Posted on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 4:20 PM

The magazine publishing industry responds to the closure of a prominent trade publication.

By Meredith L. Dias

Last week, news of Editor and Publisher's demise sent the publishing industry into a tailspin. The magazine had been a standard bearer for newspaper professionals since 1884. The impact of its closing was so great that the publication became one of Twitter's trending topics as users tweeted and retweeted the various news articles and press releases. While there is still faint hope that the magazine will find a new owner to pick up the pieces, editor Greg Mitchell warns readers on the Editor and Publisher website that the next print issue "may still be the final issue of E&P, after 125 years."

With so many magazines and newspapers folding, the closure of any publication hardly comes as a shock anymore; however, the loss of Editor and Publisher carries a symbolic weight that is difficult for any industry professional to ignore. Inevitably, debates have arisen regarding the actual cause of death: an irreparable newspaper industry, poor business strategy, inability to become profitable online, etc. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that a valuable resource to publishing professionals has closed its doors.

Failure to adapt to the digital publishing environment may be reflective of poor business planning. William Dunkerley, editor of our publication and principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, believes that the failure of Editor and Publisher and other defunct publications can be traced back to "an unsuccessful business strategy." This may seem obvious, but with so much emphasis in the press upon the ailing newspaper industry, dysfunctional business models can sometimes fly under the radar. Publishers feel so defeated after reading the daily industry news that, in some cases, they fail to scrutinize their own circulation, advertising, and online strategies in sufficient depth.

Steve Outing, longtime writer for Editor and Publisher, issued his eulogy to the publication on Thursday, December 10. Though he confirms that "the staff will be out of their offices by the end of the year," he also notes that "things are up in the air in terms of what happens to the 'Editor and Publisher' brand." He remembers the early '90s, when Internet browsers first appeared on the scene; he saw the new technology as an opportunity for newspapers. His eulogy grows increasingly frank as he sizes up the news industry's failure to align itself with digital technology: "If only I'd realized that the newspaper culture was too mired in the muck of its own long history, and that its leaders would, for the most part, resist-resist-resist the rapid changes required by the evolving digital culture to do what needed to be done to survive."

Journalist Will Bunch writes in The Huffington Post on December 11, "Its passing was not completely unexpected; this was a publication that has largely flourished in the now comatose format of magazines, writing about the terminally ill business of newspapers, dependent on dollars from the morally wounded world of traditional advertising, including the nearly extinct paid classified ads." Still, despite the magazine's ultimate failure, he notes that Editor and Publisher closed its doors on a high note. He likens the years directly preceding its death to "a supernova, with a great burst of energy," a final heyday he attributes to editor Greg Mitchell, who took the reins in 2002. "In the remarkable way that they died," Bunch concludes, "Editor and Publisher showed the rest of journalism how to live."

Mitchell's appointment as editor was not the first radical change for the magazine during the past decade. In 1998, the magazine underwent a comprehensive redesign, a move celebrated at a Newseum publishing symposium. This redesign may have made the magazine particularly attractive to BPI Communications, the VNU subsidiary that purchased Editor and Publisher in 1999. Could this corporate buyout of a previously family-owned publication have cemented its demise, or was the purchase its only means of economic survival heading into the twenty-first century?

The failure of Editor and Publisher raises a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did the newspaper industry's leading trade publication somehow fail to help industry leaders adapt to the digital publishing climate, or did the collapse of the newspaper industry make it impossible for even the most acute industry publication to survive? An industry magazine is supposed to help companies and professionals to thrive. Did Editor and Publisher fail to become the ultimate sourcebook for editors and publishers wondering how to survive online -- or, as Steve Outing's comments suggest, did newspaper veterans simply refuse to heed its advice?

Plummeting ad revenues and constant press releases announcing publication closures (not to mention the frequently updated Magazine Death Pool blog) paint a bleak picture, but they have also driven even the most diametrically opposed industry veterans to a common, commonsense consensus: that they need to think fast if their publications are to survive long-term. Will the demise of a trade publication in print since 1884 represent a cautionary tale so bone-chilling that it will ultimately be remembered as a catalyst for real change? Will it spawn the brainchild that will solve the online profitability conundrum? Or will Editor and Publisher simply be a particularly notorious casualty of the publishing crisis, a tragedy that disrupted everything but, in the end, changed nothing?

Meredith L. Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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

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