Editorial Practices for Small to Mid-Size Magazines by Sheila Sampath

By Sheila Sampath, Editorial and Art Director, Shameless Magazine

Editorial practices are a combination of professional, interpersonal and political structures set up to help guide decision making and workflow through the production process. From conceptualizing an issue to executing it, these considerations will help articulate and inform the why, what and how of your work.

The Political: Defining editorial scope (or: WHY do we publish?)

1. Articulate a clear mandate.

Regardless of whether you’re working on a new or established publication, taking the time to articulate (or gain deep understanding of) your magazine’s mandate is foundational to creating frameworks for transparent and accountable decision-making. What role does your publication play in a genre, industry or demographic? Are there existing mission, vision or philosophy statements? If so, how do you understand them, or how can you and your existing editorial staff elaborate on or reinterpret them? A staff (and board, if applicable) discussion can be facilitated internally or with the help of an external facilitator.

2. Decide to whom you’re accountable

Negotiating accountability in publishing can be a challenging task, but it’s helpful to, at the very least, build off of your mandate and map out who you are publishing for. What is your funding structure and what expectations come from those revenue sources? Who is your readership and what role do you want to play in their lives? If these two groups aren’t the same, or have conflicting agendas, how do you intend to resolve those tensions?

3. Prioritize voices that matter

Working from your mandate and thinking around accountability, ask yourself, whose voices do we need to centre? Are those voices currently represented in leadership roles at our publication? And, what practices and policies do we need to implement to reflect that vision? Understand that outreach to new communities of writers and editors is an ongoing process of trust and relationship-building.

The Professional: Ensuring clear workflow and quality (or: WHAT do we do?)

1. Define roles and responsibilities

In small- to mid-size publications, staffs tend to wear many hats. Whether your publication is in its infancy or is more established, it’s helpful to schedule semi-regular audits to make sure people are being recognized for their contributions and to see if there are better ways of structuring power or redistributing labour. When job expectations are clearly defined, people know when to ask for support, where to focus their time and energy and how to relate to their coworkers.

2. Map an editorial process and calendar

Defining the phases of a production cycle is particularly important for both staff and contributors to your publication. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How are issues conceptualized? Who is a part of this process?
  • What processes are in place to outreach to writers or respond to pitches?
  • How will you determine if a writer is a good fit for a story (and how does this relate to how you’ve defined your editorial scope)?
  • How do you want your process with writers to look? For example, do you expect an outline, first, second and final drafts? Is it an ongoing conversation between the editor and the writer? What are the deadlines that you want writers to follow and what deadlines can you guarantee you’ll follow as well?
  • Once a piece is filed, what is your process of copy-editing, fact-checking and proofreading? If there are major issues or changes late in the game, how will those be communicated to the writer?
  • As pieces move through layout and art assignments, if applicable, how will your editorial scope apply as your art director works with photographers and/or illustrators?
  • When can contributors expect payment? How will you notify them when their work is published?
  • What overlap will exist between issues?
  • How can you build in space for contingencies in your editorial calendar?

As you map out this process think of how you want to communicate it to your team and what ongoing communication looks like for your organization. Note: there are many free or inexpensive online systems that can support managing this process once it’s mapped out (e.g. Google calendars, Trello.com, Slack, etc.).

3. Build in spaces for flexibility—ask people what they need to do their jobs well

While it’s helpful to have a clearly articulated editorial process and calendar, a part of working well with people of diverse backgrounds means building in spaces for flexibility. For example, a writer submitting a personal piece on a traumatic life event may realize the editorial process is taking an emotional toll on their wellbeing; an interview subject may be facing a challenging personal situation and be unavailable for an immediate interview, etc. In these cases, it is helpful to go back to your editorial scope, particularly what it means to be accountable and to centre specific voices and to ask people what they need to be able to file on time. The more you’re able to keep communication open and problem-solve with the people you’re working with, the smoother the process (and the working relationship) will be.

The Personal: Defining ways of working (or: HOW do we work?)

1. Position yourself within your mandate

For us to be able to go deeper into the editorial process—that is, to not just define what happens when, but how that work happens, we need to be able to unpack our relationship to our mandate, our readership and our contributors. Do you identify as being a part of your readership? What communities and identities do you represent and are those the voices that you are aiming to centre? Answering these questions can help you articulate the nuances of your role (for example, editor-as-facilitator vs. editor-as-expert; publisher-as-ally vs. publisher-as-representative, etc.). Your relationship to your mandate and readership might change over time, so it’s helpful to think of this as an ongoing and iterative process of self-reflection.

2. Practice care in your work

Often we inherit ways of working from spaces and experiences that are inequitable or contribute to erasure or harm (e.g. unpaid internships, J-school, etc.). There is nothing that is stopping us from reimagining our relationships with the people we work with through a framework of care and respect. Ask yourself, How can I implement a strong editorial vision, adhere to the challenges of a deadline-driven environment and foster care for my co-workers and contributors, so they can produce their best work and be their best selves, along the way? What learning and unlearning needs to happen to create a new kind of work environment?

3. Think of editorial process as a form of relationship/community building

Very few publications exist just to publish—often, we are trying to connect readership to knowledge, connect the public to new ideas or connect communities to each other. As editors and publishers, we are conduits for these relationships and so relationship-building is always a central part of what we do. Keep this in mind as you continue to define how your work happens.

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