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An Editorial Turnaround with Limited Resources

Posted on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 9:29 AM

A reader's question: How can I work an editorial miracle?

By William Dunkerley

Q. I just took over the editorship of a business magazine in a specialized import/export field. It has been published for 25 years. The publisher is concerned that the book is losing ground to a competitor. He wants me to work a miracle.

The first thing I did was sit down and read all the editorial content from the past year. What I saw was so upsetting that I couldn't keep my mascara from running. What had I gotten myself into, I wondered. The copy was dull and hard to understand. The competing magazine, on the other hand, had articles that were crisp, inviting, and interesting.

My staff consists of five people: four editors and an editorial assistant. The editors all have a background in the import/export business. My predecessor, the founding editor, had a similar background. They all learned editing and writing on the job.

So far, my impression is that the present staff is very dedicated and technically astute. They believe they are doing a good job and are at a loss to explain why the competition is outpacing them.

The publisher doesn't want me to undertake a staff shakeup and is not offering much of a budget increase for me to turn things around. Help! What should I do? And how can I do it?

A. The impression I get from your description is that your magazine has content that is good but a presentation that is poor. Poor presentation can almost always be improved. That's what you should do. Fix the dull, confusing presentation.

But, how can you fix it? One obvious approach would be to provide your staff with training to improve their writing and editing skills. But that's not something that can be arranged overnight, nor is it something that would produce quick results. And besides, we don't know if they would all have the aptitude for writing and editing at a higher professional level.

I recommend is that you implement something akin to the copy desk at a newspaper. This is a place through which all news copy passes on the way to the presses. Exactly what happens at the copy desk varies from one publication to another. Usually this is where headlines are written and facts are checked. But what goes on there depends upon what's needed.

Here's what I think a copy desk at your publication should do:

1. Write concise, attention-grabbing headlines for each article.

2. Write decks that capitalize upon the attention created by the headline and build interest to motivate the reader to start reading the article.

3. Prepare leads that will fascinate readers, orient them to the theme of the article, and draw them into reading further.

4. Ensure that the beginning paragraphs of an article are sufficiently general and understandable so that they can be appreciated by readers who may not have a specific interest in reading the entire article.

5. Prepare pull quotes so that readers flipping through your pages can get an increased sense of what an article is about and what it has to offer.

6. Write effective captions that not only describe what's in a photo or illustration, but also give page-flippers interesting details that will motivate them to read the whole article.

If you implement these recommendations you will give your publication the facelift that it needs. And you'll accomplish that without having to replace editorial personnel.

But who will staff this new copy desk? That's a question of budget. If you have the resources to do so, simply hire someone who has the skills for doing these tasks. If that is not in the cards, look for freelance help and use it to the extent that your budget will allow. You may not be able to fix all of the content, but this will at least get you started. And if you can't afford even to hire a freelancer, take the lead article from each issue and perform those tasks yourself.

I strongly recommend that you institute a means of measuring the results of this effort. Find a reliable way to sample reader reactions to each piece of content in an issue. Get a benchmark from issues produced before inaugurating this program. Then track the results once your implementation begins. This approach has two benefits: First, it will allow you to fine tune your program of change. You'll be seeing from the results what produces a favorable response and what doesn't. Second, you will be gathering data to validate whatever editorial budget increases you are using, or to justify requests for additional funds.

Some editors to whom I've presented similar recommendations for editorial improvement has been apprehensive. They've been concerned that editorial staff will be resistant to someone else's intervention with their copy. But what I found is that most editors welcome resources that will make them look better. And that brings up an important point: this program should be presented as a way to make them look better.

This should be presented as a means for helping them compete with the other publication. It is absolutely important that they not view this move as punitive. What's more, the results from your reader-reaction surveys will reinforce the notion that the program is indeed making them look better. And when they look better, your publication will look better.

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

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