Advice to Future Magazine Editors

Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, magazines have a strong future online, I think. But their future depends completely on the leadership and innovation of publishers and editors, as I told the Carolina Association of Future Magazine Editors last night.

The audio of the talk is after the jump.


In a lot of ways, magazines are better positioned than newspapers to make the transition to the Web:

  • A site’s homepage has more in common with a magazine cover than a newspaper’s front page.
  • Lists and numbers work well both in magazines and the Web
  • The best magazines are niche publications that serve a loyal audience. Same for Web sites.
  • Magazines have a (recently abandoned) tradition for great photography and visual journalism. Same for the Web.
  • The best magazines have writers with distinct voices and perspectives. Same for the Web.

On the other hand, the Web tends to favor a few things that are absolutely the weakest elements of magazine journalism.

  • Breaking news.
  • Very short articles.

For magazines to make a successful transition to online, they need to play to their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses in the new medium. Here’s some thoughts on how to do that.

I think there are basically four simple tactics that can be used by most every magazine as they develop an online strategy:

  1. Assign someone the task of gathering and publishing “breaking views” to the Web site. Most magazines have no advantage in trying to compete with wire services, newspapers and television about posting basic who-what-when-where stories. But they should be prepared to provide quick thoughts and perspective about the whys and the hows of events that are relevant to their audience — with the key word being relevant. The person who does this job is the site’s “anchor” — host a daily text-based conversation between readers and the newsroom about events of the day. The challenge: Finding someone who can do brief, quick, high quality explanatory journalism.
  2. Create a way for readers to interact with each other. Whether you let readers interact with each other on their site or whether you leverage external social networking tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, magazine editors need to satisfy their readers’ desire to connect with each other. Many magazines are affinity publications that people read so they can keep up with — and become — a certain type of person. The best magazines online will define themselves as host of a big cocktail party and/or convention with their readers. The challenge: Make sure that one single person is responsible for cultivating this network of readers … and that the same person has the authority to make decisions about how best to do so.
  3. Build tools that help readers get something done. Many magazines are read not as much for entertainment or affinity, but because readers want help getting something done — looking better, feeling better, spending money better, making more money. Magazines should have a running list of jobs they can help their readers do and should have someone on staff who can conceptualize those tools as well as talk to multimedia designers and developers to make the concept a reality. The challenge: Remembering that the audience and their tasks are more important than cool technology … and finding someone who knows how to manage a project.
  4. Do excellent visual journalism. Photo galleries, videos, interactive graphics, animations…whatever. Give readers something with which they will want to spend time. This is the magazine’s antidote to the fast-past news snacking that happens online. The challenge: Getting writers to never abandon all anecdotal leads in favor of actually showing them. And training journalists to think about telling stories in multiple media.

Some of the stories the students brought in for me to discuss help illustrate some different techniques that magazine writers can use to adapt their storytelling to the Web.

This story about spring cleaning your dorm room was written for a print publication on campus, Kaleidoscope. It’s a good example of a piece that works almost as well in print as it does online. Here’s why:

  • It makes extensive use of bullet points. The online audience doesn’t read, it scans. Typically people quickly scan down a Web page, their eyes fixed on the left side. Bullet points — as a well as subheads — give the reader’s eyes something to catch.
  • It’s relatively short and on a narrow topic. In addition to writing for people who scan we also want to write for engines that search. Many people begin their news and information consumption online with a visit to a search engine such as Google. Search engines tend to favor pages that are densely packed with keywords. Keywords are the terms — typically nouns — that people enter in to a search engine. The higher the ratio of keywords to total text, the more likely a person is to come across your story.
  • It’s evergreen. This piece is pegged to the idea of “spring cleaning” and it was publishing in 2009. But dorm rooms need organization in August and September and January and lots of other months as well. And they don’t need cleaning in 2009, but will likely still be a total mess in 2010 and 2020. That means that all those people who begin their reading with a visit to Google will continue to find this site. Unlike the content of newspapers, which often becomes stale within 24 hours, the content of magazines has the possibility to remain relevant long after the original news peg is gone. By writing with an evergreen angle, magazine writers can practice “sustainable journalism” and take advantage of “the long tail.”

The second story we discussed was a great example of the untapped possibilities of nonlinear writing as a technique for long-form journalism. The story was about three athletes — two at UNC and one at Duke — who had gone to the Olympics in Beijing. I find that students typically go through this process when writing stories like this:

  1. Write anecdotal lead. Check.
  2. Write a little twist or hook or reveal. Check.
  3. Give the reader some essential facts that they need to put the rest of the story in context. Check.
  4. Stare at computer screen for about 20 minutes, wondering what to do next.

This story is tough to write because it has three main characters. And it’s even tougher because none of the three characters are widely known to readers. The writer has to make introductions and make the reader care and then connect all the stories in some way.

This is where nonlinear writing comes in handy.

In linear writing — meaning that the reader has only one way to navigate the story, by starting at the top and working down through the end — writers have to come up with transitions that connect story lines and often have to move readers back and forth through time without jarring the reader too much. And when transitions don’t work, we often fall back on subheads.

In nonlinear writing, we can use HTML links in place of transitions. Links, well, link story elements together.

The process of constructing a nonlinear story I think is one that can help even writers who decide to tell the story by using the traditional linear technique. Here’s what we did for this story:

  • Make a list of all the primary subjects of the story and draw them as circles on a piece of paper. We came up with six — each of the three athletes, Duke University, UNC and the Olympics.
  • Determine whether and how each element is connected to each of the other elements. For this story, the Olympics were connected to the three athletes; the two UNC athletes were connected to UNC; the Duke athlete was connected to Duke University. But the athletes were not connected directly to each other — for example, they didn’t play the same sport — and the two universities weren’t connected — for example, they never played each other in the story.

At this point in linear story construction the writer would have to determine the order in which to present the connections. In nonlinear storytelling, readers will determine the order in which they explore the connections. So rather than writing one long story with transitions and subheads, you write six small stories that link to each other and provide perhaps some overlap with each other.

For some writers I can imagine this could be a liberating experience. For most, though, I suspect it will be difficult to leave behind their ownership of the story and humbly turn it over to their readers.

One last thing on this point — I really don’t have any good examples of professional writers putting this successfully in to practice. It remains a theory that I really have yet to prove. The only model I have is a nonlinear re-write I tried to do of an AP story about last year’s salmonella outbreak in peanut butter.

Another story brought in by the students was a good example of the need for writers to think about adding audio and visuals to their story. The story about a vintage clothing store started with a lead that was intended to help the reader visualize the scene inside the store. But I wanted to REALLY see the store. And hear the music. A multimedia story would have used video to show how the shoppers experienced the store’s physical space and would have let the readers hear the music and conversations there. The key word to this kind of journalism is “experience.” Storytellers need to always be thinking about the best way for their audience to experience and engage the story — even if they can’t work a video camera and even if they know nothing about codecs and digital editing.

Speaking of engaging the audience, the last student sample was a bit tougher to translate in to an online style but I think it was the story with the best opportunity to engage readers. It was essentially a news piece about new ticket distribution policies for concerts at UNC.

I wonder if — with encouragement and cultivation by the story’s reporter or editor — this could have been an opportunity to create a wiki in which readers could collaborate to create, debate and revise a ticket distribution policy of their own.

The wiki idea came to me only after I paused briefly on the idea of having readers comment on the article and discuss. But that would just quickly degenerate in to complaining and argument. I wonder if by giving readers an actual “deliverable” on which they could collaborate, the debate would be more positive and focused on finding a solution. Again… not sure.

And that leads nicely to the final message I had for students — don’t fear the unknown. The most successful future magazine editors will be the ones that fail fast and fail cheap. They won’t be the most facile with Web publishing tools, but they’ll be able to come up with audacious ideas and have enough technical vocabulary to collaborate with designers and programmers.

I think that’s pretty terrifying to graduating journalism students who can’t find a job. In an industry that is increasingly unstable, one bad idea can put you back on the streets. On the other hand, 1,000 bad ideas probably pave the path the executive editor’s office.

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