MagNet Recap: Magazine Editorial Goes Back to Basics

By Sue Carter, Editor, Quill & Quire

Jay Lauf’s keynote speech set the tone for this year’s MagNet conference when he told the full room on June 8 that “No one knows what’s going to happen. But we can make reasoned bets.” His honesty about the industry’s uncertain future was refreshing—if not slightly frustrating—and made for a lively question-and-answer session. As senior vice-president of Atlantic Media and president/publisher of the successful digital news site Quartz, Lauf obviously has the resources to experiment, more so than anyone else in that room, I would suspect. But the biggest takeaway for me was when he said, “We can’t afford to make it difficult for readers.”

Lauf believes media producers have been spending too much time worrying about pixels and leaderboards, and not putting enough energy or thought into producing the content that appears within those boxes. “We’ve started relying on robots to put our ads all over the internet. We describe ads in robot words instead of human ones,” he said. He suggested it was time the industry “return to first principles,” in terms of providing readers entertaining and informative content.

This back-to-basics approach permeated throughout the rest of the conference. Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, led a social-media master class in which he shared many of his own personal tips for improving digital presence. Sreenivasan also urged media producers to return to the fundamentals of storytelling (on average, he takes up to seven minutes to craft a tweet; a fact which was met with some mixed reactions and chuckles when I shared this fact with small-magazine colleagues). His checklist for social media included some very practical, if not seemingly old-fashioned principles such as being helpful, useful, informative, actionable and entertaining. Although admittedly, I did cringe a bit when he suggested that we should treat every post and tweet as if it was our last.

Curtis Gillespie of the Edmonton journal Eighteen Bridges really returned to fundamentals by starting his session about creative non-fiction, “Punching Above Your Weight,” with the question “What is a magazine?” Gillespie—who filled the session with many samples of great writing from Truman Capote to Kathryn Schulz—urged small publications to find ways of incorporating creative non-fiction into their line-ups as a means of stretching budgets. He also encouraged editors to be adventurous and be willing to play with non-traditional story structures. “Trust your reader to put things together,” he said. “Set up two plus two and they will make the leap to four.”

Gillespie returned for the sold-out session “The Editor: Past, Present and Future” where he joined Reader’s Digest‘s Dominique Ritter, Flare‘s Maureen Halushak, and editor/teacher Gary Stephen Ross. In what could have easily become a lofty discussion about the future of the editor’s role, the panel actually delivered a fascinating and practical discussion about the role of digital publishing and metrics, and the changing relationships with writers and publishers (church and state seem closer than ever). Ross spoke about how writers’ rates have not increased significantly since he was editor at Saturday Night in the early aughts, and the fundamental problems of asking writers to do twice as much for half the money. Ritter spoke about how Reader’s Digest had observed more reader engagement with long-form stories. And all agreed that perhaps the practice of stuffing websites with short, poorly paid blog posts wasn’t the most sustainable approach. Why not produce half the content, but make it twice as good by better-paid writers? I left that session with one more back-to-basics smart idea.

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