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Editorial Conferences -- Part I

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 5:26 PM

The ins and outs of issue planning.

By William Dunkerley

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we produced automobiles like we do magazines? Just imagine. The car starts down the assembly line. All the parts that are to go into it aren't there, though. In fact, some of them haven't even been designed yet. Not only that, but the actual size of the car hasn't been determined and won't be until just before the car is finished!

Could this way of doing things possibly work? Perhaps this is the time for telling an Edsel joke. But I think you get the comparison. In real-life automobile manufacturing, there are distinctly demarcated phases for planning and for assembly.

We don't have that same luxury in publishing. We do some of the planning on the fly. But lest planning fly out the window, it's worth examining the adequacy of your issue planning. Indeed, how do you plan future issues? Do you conduct effective editorial conferences for this purpose? Or is much of your planning done by happenstance?

How Much Is Enough?

An editor once told me she doesn't hold editorial conferences. "They may be okay for high-fashion magazines in Paris," she reasoned, "but we're too busy for that here." Another editor I know holds marathon conferences, getting into long philosophical debates on content. He even holds a conference with a few key editors to plan the editorial conference to be held with the rest of the staff!

Somewhere between those extremes there must be a happy medium. Exactly where it is will vary, of course, depending each publication's specific circumstances.

Actually, there are three different kinds of editorial conferences that are valuable to hold: (1) an advance planning conference looking beyond the next issue, (2) the next-issue conference, and (3) a postmortem.

Conference Leadership

A truly effective editorial conference requires very skillful execution. To make that point, I'd like to begin by suggesting how not to conduct a conference.

While on a consulting assignment in a European postcommunist country, I was invited to sit in on a publication's editorial conference. I could understand only a few words of the language in which the conference was conducted. Thus, I got to concentrate on the interpersonal dynamics of the meeting while understanding only the general context of the content.

But what was happening was clear: Two top editors went point by point through the previous issue, chastising the others for things that displeased them. When attention turned to the next issue, these top editors meted out dictums on what needed to be covered and the right way to cover those topics.

What's wrong with this picture?

Autocratic vs. Participative

The leaders' autocratic style essentially stifled any initiative from the editors, who, presumably, should be the most closely attuned to the various subject areas covered in the publication. And the front-line editors were set up to face eventual criticism whenever things did not play out according to the leaders' preconceived notions.

You can avoid these negatives by using a more participative style. With such, the front-line editors would be offering much of the meeting's content. The leader would keep the meeting on track in moving toward its objectives. It is important that all the participants understand their roles and what is expected of them. The leader should also focus on creating an atmosphere of candor and mutual respect. This kind of meeting will enable successful group dynamics.

Today's Challenges

In today's online world, editors are faced with new planning challenges: creating content that can be changed as frequently as daily or even hourly, responding to social media interaction, and coordinating digital and print content delivery.

We've surveyed a select group of editors on their current practices regarding editorial conferences. In Part II we'll share with you their responses.

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

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