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Issue for December 2014

Lessons Taken from Contemporary Art

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 6:44 PM

One never knows where such reminders of how we can do our work better will come from.

By Peter P. Jacobi

During a class session in the spring, I told the students in my Reporting the Arts class at Indiana University about Richard Serra, a sculptor who works in steel, monumental steel. He's had a long career, one not only rich in credits but controversies.

His exhibits, beastly difficult to construct, attract attention for the very fact that they usually consist of huge slabs of steel, around which, through which, museum and gallery visitors wander, often feeling overwhelmed by the mass of material that surrounds them. Serra's is an art rarely loved, more likely either respected or rejected.

The major controversy in his professional life came in the early 1980s when, on commission from the General Services Administration, Serra created Tilted Arc, a curved wall of Corten steel 12 feet high and 120 feet long, a wall destined for a plaza in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan. When that wall was put in place, it created hostility.

I was living in Manhattan back then, and seeing it for the first time created personal shock and loathing. One of the few spots in those "Lower Manhattan" parts of the city that had welcomed sunshine suddenly was deprived of such welcome light and warmth. Tilted Arc was ugly and intrusive. Serra, in support of his work, noted that it would "encompass the people who walk on the plaza in its volume. The placement of the sculpture will change the space of the plaza. After the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture."

Indeed so, and that made it invasive enough for the multitudes who worked or lived in the area to complain. One had to walk around it. One couldn't look over it. To many of us, it was an offensive presence. After installation and reaction, there followed a lengthy struggle between unhappy citizens of the area and defenders of an artist's right to freely express himself. It ended in the courts with a decision by the federal sponsors to remove the arc, the pieces of which ended up in a warehouse somewhere else in the New York City area. I believe they're still there.

84 Verbs for Artists

In preparing my discussion of Serra and artistic controversies for the class, I happened to come across something less controversial about him. Along his professional path, Richard Serra had called art "a verb" and created a list of 84 verbs that, he explained, were potentially in the realm of practice for artists. Not all of them would apply for us as writers and editors. But a number of them do. Allow me to dip into the list.

Fold, Shorten, and Remove

I wouldn't think of "to crumple" or "to twist" or "to tear" or "to laminate" as being of sound advice for us. But "to fold" works for me, as in carefully folding material into the fabric of an article. "To shorten" and "to remove" work for me: we often find the need to cut the length of our written pieces and do so by removing material that, on reconsideration, we find is not as essential as we previously did.

Simplify, Dapple, Heap, Expand, and Repair

"To simplify" is a most helpful reminder for all of us who work in language. "To dapple" can mean to sprinkle attention-grabbing words and scintillating ideas into the copy. I can accept "to heap" and "to expand" and "to repair." The last-named translates into emergency editing.

Arrange, Flow, and Support

Never mind "to knot" and "to droop" and to "dilute." I feel uncomfortable with instructions like "to stretch" and "to force" and "to scatter." But "to arrange" is vital to remember; it means ordering and structuring. "To flow" is a must we aim for: to make the language and the information glide, stream, tumble along. "To support" is a critical function, meaning to back our arguments and expositions with ample facts.

Bundle, Weave, and Hook

"To bundle" and "to weave" mean to tie things together and to do so in such a way that the reader is comfortable, both sound notions. "To hook" is what we attempt in leads and then throughout the copy to keep our readers glued.

The list goes on: "to complement," "to bond," "to mark," "to inlay," "to mix," and "to impress." By all means, that last one.

24 Nouns for Artists/Writers

Serra's list of verbs includes inserts of 24 nouns that in some way or other connect for the artist, actions leading to substantive artistic goals: nouns like tension, gravity, reflection, symmetry, context. Again, the nouns express possible writer goals.

More on Serra

Anyway, if you're interested in Serra's entire list, you can find it under his name on the Web in his own handwriting. And if you're interested in sculptor Serra, the web holds a number of profiles. The most interesting can be found through The New Yorker, a lengthy and fascinating piece written for the magazine in 2002 by Calvin Tomkins. It is titled "Man of Steel." Once you've started it, you'll be hooked and bonded and all those good things that happen when reader and writer pair. (By the way, "to pair" appears on the Serra list.)

So, to sum up: What started for me as a lesson in contemporary art ended up also as a set of journalistic reminders about how we can do our work better. One never knows where such reminders will come from.

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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The Advertiser -- Your New Competitor?

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 6:42 PM

The old separation-of-editorial-from-advertising precept has a new wrinkle to it.

By William Dunkerley

As editors, we tend to think of advertisers as being in a separate domain. We realize that in most cases ad money plays a large role in supporting our budgets. But beyond that we look upon advertisers as the other side of a church-state separation.

But now, metaphorically speaking, if we're the church and advertisers are the state, the state is trying to get into the church business. And as this new paradigm unfolds, it will create a situation wherein we can no longer ignore the advertisers as we did in the past. They'll be our direct content competitors.

How Did This Happen?

This all has come about because it has become increasingly difficult for advertisers to attract prospects. The reasons involve the changes we've been seeing in information and communications technology. Evolving consumer behavior plays a big role, too. But the bottom line is that advertisers are having a more difficult time connecting with prospective buyers.

It's widely accepted that consumers are increasingly sales resistant. They're bombarded with advertising messages at every turn, and they aren't looking for more of them. This is true whether an advertiser is in a business-to-consumer or business-to-business environment.

So what's an advertiser to do?

In Search of a Solution

A solution that is increasingly trendy is "content marketing." The idea behind it is to attract prospects by publishing interesting content. Through that process they first establish a relationship with the prospect. Then, at some point, the advertiser switches the conversation from content to sales messaging.

Marketo, a marketing services provider, puts it this way:

Content Marketing has become an increasingly important part of a successful and strategic marketing mix. Today, marketers can become their own content publishers and develop audiences to attract attention. This benefits them in three key ways: it builds brand awareness, creates brand preference, and expands the brand's reach to more buyers and potential customers at a much lower cost.

An Undeclared War

The advertisers who are buying into this concept are making a de facto declaration-of-competitor status with magazine content producers.

There's something these new competitors have going for them: they very well may have bigger budgets than we do for developing content.

Many editorial staffs are still laboring in the wake of cutbacks that were instituted during the Great Recession. Lamentably, editorial staffing and budgets were prime targets when expenditures had to be slashed. It was a difficult time in the editorial field. In 2009 Editors Only ran an article lead that said, "These days when editors speak of 'future tense' they're not talking about grammar."

Has a New Day Dawned?

Now many editorial departments have reconstituted themselves, while others have not. But the question at hand is whether any are up to competing with well-financed editorial efforts put on by advertisers.

We've seen nascent remnants of that in the form of native advertising in our own pages. (That's the current euphemism for the advertorial.)

Several months ago I saw a print magazine that was replete with native advertising. I must confess that visually it was hard to deal with. The magazine editorial had a well-designed and consistent appearance, but the native advertising was all over the place. Collectively it looked awful.

It is one thing when ads are largely graphical elements within our pages. But when they are ad copy masquerading as editorial, all with their own typography and style, they make a magazine look like a hodgepodge. I wonder how readers will react to that in the long run.

Advertiser-generated content outside the pages of magazines is a different proposition. That's where we start to become head-to-head competitors with the advertisers.

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

This has got to be a kind of love-hate relationship for editors. On one hand we rely upon our publication's advertising revenue for our budgetary support. On the other hand, if advertisers are signally successful in producing engaging content on their own, it tends to obviate our role as content curators.

That means we have to compete, but not in a way that will alienate the competitor, the advertiser.

How Can We Do That?

This predicament means that we must produce content that is of a higher quality and is more engaging than anything that a well-financed advertiser-based editorial team can accomplish. Here are a few tips for accomplishing that:

--Admit to yourself that first you must satisfy the readers who will be the best prospective customers for the advertisers. That idea may actually sound repugnant to some editors, but it is a practical reality. If you have a problem with it, you've got to get over it.

--Just as you have been reviewing the content of competing magazines, you now must acquaint yourself with the content that advertisers are putting out. You must stay a jump ahead of them.

--Survey readers more often and conduct more focus groups. Know intimately what your readers want.

--Put more effort into creating engaging headlines, decks, and leads. Be sure to fulfill the promises that they make.

--Finally, there is one ace-in-the-hole that we possess:

Advertisers are on a course of seduction toward the presentation of a marketing message. We, on the other hand, can concentrate on engaging the reader for the sake of the reader. We have greater flexibility in tailoring content to the needs and interests of our readers.

Our Salvation

One survey found that "71 percent of consumers trust solutions that provide useful information -- without trying to sell them something." That means that consumers are averse to being attracted by content that is obviously intended to lead to a sale -- like content produced by a seller.

That just may be a fatal flaw in the idea of advertisers becoming editors and publishers. And it presents an opportunity for us. It shows that there is a rare quality that we can offer: reader trust. If we achieve it, advertisements in our pages will share in it.

Our editorial brand needs to earn that trust and be worthy of it. That's how we can successfully compete with advertiser-generated content.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 6:41 PM

Assessing the readability of an excerpt from TheAtlantic.com.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of a December 22 excerpt from "The Web Is the Real World" by Adrienne LaFrance. Let's look at the passage:

"Think of it this way: When Google became synonymous with online searching, it wasn't just because Google was the best known search engine out there. It was because search engines completely changed our behavior. And Google was the one that blended a new business model with a user experience that was simple, appealing, and, crucially, connected people with the answers they wanted. Google didn't just create new behaviors, it changed how we expect to interact with information. And in the five years since Uber launched, it has come to represent a shift of the same magnitude. The near ubiquity of the smartphone means we've brought the web out of the "computer room" -- yes, people really used to call it that -- and into the world, where we are weaving it into the way we do everything."

--Word count: 135 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (25, 9, 28, 15, 19, 39)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (12/135 words)
--Fog Index: (23+9)*.4 = 12 (no rounding)

This excerpt is right on the cusp. It weighed in at 12.8 on the Fog scale (12 with no rounding). Traditional Fog-Gunning standards call for a score below 12, so let's try to shave off at least a point.

"Think of it this way: When Google became synonymous with online searching, it wasn't just because Google was the best known search engine out there. It was because search engines completely changed our habits. And Google was the one that blended a new business model with a simple, appealing user experience that connected people with the answers they sought. Google didn't just create new behaviors, it changed how we expect to interact with information. And in the five years since Uber launched, it has come to denote a shift of the same magnitude. The widespread use of smartphones means we've brought the web out of the "computer room" -- yes, people really used to call it that -- and into the world, where we are weaving it into everything we do."

--Word count: 129 words
--Average sentence length: 22 words (25, 9, 25, 15, 19, 36)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (8/129 words)
--Fog Index: (22+6)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

Cutting the Fog in this sample was difficult because it was so close to the ideal range. This passage didn't need much editing. For the most part, information was split into shorter, easy-to-read sentences. Therefore, we focused on cutting some of the longer words. We were able to cut the percentage of words with 3+ syllables by 3 points, thus bringing our Fog Index down to 11.2 (11 with no rounding).

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This Year's Worst Journalism

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 6:40 PM

In the news: Rounding up the year's journalistic missteps.

The Columbia Journalism Review has rounded up its picks for the worst journalism of 2014. Topping the list was Rolling Stone's disastrous coverage of the University of Virginia sexual assault story. As the victim's story unraveled due to poor fact checking and lack of follow-up with key figures, the magazine issued an editorial note deflecting blame, only deepening the controversy in the process. CJR's verdict: "[Rolling Stone] deserves a DART for blaming its utter failure on someone else, and many more for all the lapses leading up to it."

Also included in CJR's year-end summary were the many gaffes of CNN anchor Don Lemon and 60 Minutes' coverage of the Ebola outbreak. Read the entire article here.

Also Notable

Print Audiences Up in Fall 2014

Despite the closure of Source Interlink Distribution this year, print audiences were on the rise in fall 2014, according to recently released GfK MRI statistics. Faring particularly well were fashion, celebrity, and culinary print titles. Hardest hit were automotive and women's interest magazines. Read more here.

Top Print Magazine Covers of 2014

Last week, Huffington Post rounded up its picks for top print magazine covers of the year. See the complete list, which includes covers from Time, National Geographic, and Entertainment Weekly, here.

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Jan V. White: d. December 30, 2014

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 12:55 PM

Legendary magazine designer and frequent Editors Only contributor deceased.

By William Dunkerley

Jan White was not just a magazine designer. He was a passionate evangelist for good design. An underlying message in his commentaries was to encourage us all to make design and text function supportively together.

I met Jan many years ago when he was an impassioned luncheon speaker at a Society of National Association Publications event. I bought his now classic book, Editing by Design. But quickly I found that it was hard to keep it on my office bookshelf. Staff members kept swiping it. The stealth borrowers were from both the editorial and design departments. So when I went to look for the missing book, I never knew where to start looking. Ultimately, the solution I found was to buy my own copy and to keep it at home!

Since 2009, Jan White has been a frequent contributor to Editors Only. As a tribute to his work, we now present a somewhat random collection of his sage advice:

"Chill out on technological trickery. Return to useful ideas, clearly expressed and presented. Everything else is eyewash."

"All the techniques of geometrical alignments and spacings make sense by clarifying the elements. Why is that useful? Because people like short bits and resent big ones."

"First-glance curiosity is vital, because your effort is wasted unless potential readers are interested. So we must use visual salesmanship to play up elements, make them noticeable, and thus user-friendly."

"Publication-making is a creative cultural boon. It is about doing things that are worth doing for their own sake -- all to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Making flowers bloom."

"Excellence of content is identical whether it is on slow, boring paper, or in flashy digitized format. The intellectual process we call 'thinking' that works so well on paper is absolutely appropriate when it is converted into electronic formats. It is all the same process."

"Is our 'dying' profession dying? I submit that it is more alive than ever, because it is as valid and vibrant as ever, because what we do continues to be as useful and important as ever. It is needed."

"We have the same problem as a fine restaurant, where you don't just expect fresh ingredients deliciously spiced, but they must also be artfully presented on the plate. Presentation isn't a cosmetic luxury, but an integral ingredient of a good dish or a good magazine. However, it can never be more than a supportive ingredient."

"We have to understand the complexity of the communication process, and simplify the message to make it easy to absorb. Our readers are normally searching only for limited information at any one time."

"Once you know the point of the message, you can start searching for its cogent image. Forget being 'creative.' You are not looking for a florid visual with which to make a splash -- there are too many meaningless visual splashes all around as it is, and who is swayed by such efflorescence? Instead, you are searching for something that will make the point of the message startling, understandable, memorable, persuasive."

"Is white space wasted space? Not if we make it work for its living. We must use it as a tool to improve the capacity of the visible page to tell our story both clearer and faster. Used to practical purpose, we don't need to invest vast swaths of emptiness for dramatic contrast. Forget conspicuous consumption. We can hardly afford the luxury of 'a place for the eye to rest.' Probably never will again. Instead, concentrate on servicing the readers. Use deliberately controlled bits of white space as raw material to lead them to what matters and expose the information in clear, fast, and bite-size chunks."

"One of the myths of publishing is that 'readers' are readers. They start out as viewers. Searchers who flip, scan, hunt and peck, looking for the nuggets they want. In a hurry, saturated with 'information,' and perhaps a bit lazy, they need to be lured into reading. 'Persuaded' might be a better word, because luring implies bamboozling, and duplicity has no place in publishing. The least trace of trickery is self-defeating, because it destroys the potential reader's trust. Persuasion that is credible exposes the valuable content. Making value accessible makes the publication useful and liked. Combining accessibility (i.e., making things easy to find) with speed (i.e., at first glance) makes the publication a useful, dependable tool."

"Editors honestly have no idea that such a thing as flow even exists. I know whereof I speak, because I've worked with literally thousands of editors in all these too-many years of consulting. Ostensibly, my specialty was designing multipage products (mostly magazines), but that was just labeling to merchandise my living. The real subject was not publication designing but publication making, because it is impossible to separate the intellectual content from its presentation if you hope to make those publications better. What it says and how it says -- content and form -- must work together because they are the sides of the same coin. No, wrong! They are an amalgam of the metals and appear identical in both sides of that same cliché coin."

"Don't think of pages as static, standalone units. Instead, see your multipage medium the way readers do when they flip pages. Each fresh impression is a link in a chain, and the entire chain is the publication. Back to front, front to back."

"Good design expresses, reflects, and exposes inner meaning. Helping inner meaning jump off the page is the true value of 'design.' It transmits writers' words, their inherent ideas, and their significance to the reader vividly, strikingly, memorably. If it looks startling and trendy but is essentially meaningless, it is nothing more than phony window-dressing."

"I've spent half a lifetime deconstructing magazine design to make it less artistic and more functional, cogently based on sensible analysis rather than on personal taste (though that remains a component, of course)."

And we close with Jan's own description of what his work has been about, and which now serves as his own self-authored epitaph: "He [tried] to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally."

Jan V. White, 1928–2014.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 12:47 PM

Assessing the readability of a Huffington Post excerpt.

This month, we analyze the Fog Index from a January 28 Huffington Post article ("The Internet of Things and the Race to Singularity" by Daniel Newman). Here's the excerpt:

"With the proliferation of smart devices, we are constantly under technology's gaze. We are looking for benefits and solutions to improve our quality of life and in the process, perhaps giving away too much information. While technology impacts us in all areas of life -- making our work easier and better, helping us manage our homes, or taking care of our health -- it is also exposing us to a huge wave of interconnectedness where we are constantly relinquishing the grip on our lives and handing over the reins to technology. As the Internet becomes more and more knowledgeable about us, it will be more accurate at knowing just about everything about us from our health to our feelings."

--Word count: 117 words
--Average sentence length: 29 words (12, 23, 54, 28 words)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (16/117 words)
--Fog Index: (29 +14)*.4 = 17 (no rounding)

We have some work to do here if we want to cut the Fog. Sentence length is very high in this sample, with 117 words split into just four sentences. Let's see if we can cut through the fog and improve readability.

"With the spread of smart devices, we are always under technology's gaze. We are looking for ways to improve our quality of life and in the process may be giving away too much data. Technology affects us in all parts of life by making our work easier and better, helping us manage our homes, or taking care of our health. But it is also exposing us to a huge wave of interconnectedness where we are often handing over control of our lives to technology. As a result, the Internet will learn just about everything about us, from our health to our feelings."

--Word count: 102 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (12, 22, 26, 24, 18)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (7/102 words)
--Fog Index: (20+7)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

Our Fog Index shrank from 17 to 10 with our edits. The major changes were in the last sentence, which we pared down for readability. We also split the 54-word sentence in two, thus bringing down our sentence length by 9 points. We also eliminated 9 longer words, cutting the percentage in half.

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