The Ten Commandments of Editorial Integrity

These are the times that try editorial souls, forcing them to reflect on what they so often write about: the appearance of conflict of interest. Is editorial integrity a problem at your magazine? As H.L. Mencken, a grand old guru of magazine editing, once observed, “for every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple and easy solution … and it is wrong.” Granted, the path to editorial integrity is both complex and difficult; nonetheless, here are ten guidelines intended to keep you on the straight and narrow.

1. Thou shalt do the right thing. Cover your beat and report the news without fear or favor. This means being fair, honest, open, and careful to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest. Nobody likes or trusts a liar or a faker.

2. Thou shalt not make sales calls. Nor should an editor host advertiser luncheons or perform similar marketing tasks in behalf of the ad-sales department. Such events create the impression that advertisers have special access to favorable editorial treatment. In this business, remember, perception is reality.

3. Thou shalt not covet perks and freebies. Apart from review samples, there is no such thing as a free lunch, junket, or product. When someone provides free goods or travel, you are expected to pay with editorial coverage, which is far more credible — and cost-efficient — than taking ad pages in your magazine. Know that everyone is selling — and trying to include the editor in the loop.

4. Remember to keep watch on advertising integrity. After all, what are the prospects for survival of editorial integrity if a magazine’s advertising sales system is virtually destroying its own environment? Be wary of devious advertisers that can slither into your pages alongside your editorial beat. When you receive reader complaints, report your concerns to the publisher.

5. Remember to keep holy the editorial pages. The more narrow your advertising base, the more corrupt your editorial is likely to be. If you depend on widgets for advertising, and if you cover the widget business editorially, you are in their hands. But readers don’t respect — or read — magazines written for advertisers, and as an audience abandons a publication, so too do advertisers. Even though some advertisers are afraid of a frank editorial tone that may reflect on them directly, editorial integrity is the best strategy for long-term survival. Expand that integrity to cover a wider editorial range and your ad-sales department will be able to pursue a more diverse client roster of advertisers. Everybody wins.

6. Honor thy agreements. Always check back with a source for an accuracy review of quotes obtained during an interview, but never give a subject the right of final review and approval of a total manuscript. Your job is to play fair with a subject, not to be a rewrite department in the ego division.

7. Thou shalt not have false gods before thee. By making deals with PR reps or subjects to get their cooperation on interviews, stories, photo shoots, et alia., you may be editing for your peers, not your audience. The reader, not the vested interests of the subject and assorted minions, is still boss.

8. Thou shalt set a good example. Ultimately, editorial integrity is people, not policies. The best magazines don’t just talk about integrity; they live it. This means you.

9. Thou shalt edit from the heart. Editors know integrity when they see it. They also know a bad or biased or incomplete story that has a private agenda. When in doubt, the golden rule applies: edit for others as you would have them edit for you.

10. Thou shalt quit if necessary. If you find yourself unhappy and professionally heartsick over the deals and demands made by your job, try pointing out that honesty is the best business policy. Bosses usually understand the rules that Sam Walton made zillions with at WalMart: “1. Stick to your business. 2. Take care of the customer.” That’s what editorial integrity is all about. If your boss still doesn’t get it, try this test: Ask yourself, “Would I like an account of my magazine’s behavior in the pages of Folio:?” If not, consider looking for a job that measures up to your own sense of pride in performance. Give a copy of these commandments to your replacement.

Copyright John Brady. All rights reserved. [Reprinted from Folio: magazine]

Brady Quick Tips

In the age of Information Overload, some magazines need to take a look at the amount of information they are providing readers. Sometimes it’s too much, more than the reader wants, needs, or is able to absorb. When this occurs, a magazine can be perceived as part of the overload problem, rather than a solution.

Trimming, tightening, condensing editorial copy is a difficult but necessary task that is best viewed as compressing coal in order to create artificial diamonds.

Here are a dozen quick tips on how to make a better magazine.

1. The reader comes first. In order to please more readers, consult with your audience. Why do they read your magazine? What do they value? What can be eliminated altogether? A short questionnaire or fifty well-aimed phone calls to long-time readers should give you the editorial report card you need.

2. Never work alone. Although no publication is a true democracy, a mission statement cannot be created by fiat. Review it with your staff, publisher, advertising and circulation heads. Compress it into 20 words. Make certain it is clear and motivating to all and that it defines the goals the magazine will be able to achieve.

3. Looks count. Make certain that the magazine conveys the proper editorial tone and is in visual harmony with your overall mission.

4. Plan ahead. Plan your lineups far enough in advance so that you know the exact lengths of the manuscripts and the quality of photos with plenty of time to trim, to revise, to repackage. You need to know what is likely to happen in the next six issues. The upcoming three issues should be planned in detail.

5. Assign word lengths. Good editing is always tightening, trimming. If time or temperament does not allow you to return a story to a writer for tightening, give the manuscript to an in-house editor who can trim it to fit.

6. Avoid lengthy and multi-part features. These are often slow, flabby and out of sync with the new dynamic editorial tempo we try to achieve. A feature should not run longer than four to five pages with photos and sidebars.

7. Think short. Tighten long pieces down to short ones. You should try to have several one- and two-page features for each issue. It is better to have a diverse mix of seven to ten short articles than it is to have a limited mix of three lengthy pieces in an issue.

8. Keep evergreens handy. Try to avoid “stretching” articles to fit additional space when it becomes available. Instead, keep a few timeless features on hand so that they can be dropped in to fill one, two, three or four pages whenever opportunity knocks.

9. Use photo captions to inform. Make certain that photo captions do not merely duplicate information already in the text. In addition to avoiding editorial overlap, you will enhance the information value of each photo.

10. Kill your darlings. Take a look at the weakest photo in a layout. Kill it.

11. Bullets make a hit. Instead of long rambling paragraphs, use bulleted lists to make a series of points succinctly. Lists are easy for the reader to scan and allow her or him to absorb a lot of information quickly.

12. Leave the reader wanting more. Good editing often requires that you don’t overstuff your reader. Leave the reader fulfilled, certainly, but also a bit hungry for more. That’s the feeling that keeps the reader coming back for the next issue.

At Random

Some observations – and a few fulminations – on topics and trends in the year gone by

At the Folio: Show in October I led a session called The Art of Magazine Journalism. If our business is indeed an art, the state of it is hard to reckon. Newsstands today are dominated by magazines that would be laughable if publishers weren’t laughing all the way to the bank. Their mission is “celebrity news,” an oxymoron that translates as paparazzi photos, rumors, much ado about who is wearing what dress to a movie premier, and catering to a generation of readers who think it’s news, not hype, when Madonna releases a CD or Lindsay Lohan shows up at a party.

***

Recently I found myself thumbing through an airline magazine with a cover story, written by the publication’s editorial director, about cruising the Caribbean. The story consisted of one page of headline typography; six pages of photos; and approximately 350 words of text in praise of a 160-foot schooner with 20 staterooms, one of which was occupied by the editor as he did research for this story. The schooner is featured on the cover, in five interior photos, and the story concludes with a note on the ship’s cruising schedule and web site, for more information about itineraries. Sometimes I wonder if some forms of custom publishing might qualify as the world’s second oldest profession.

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Magazines are using the space above the logo to sell more stories on the cover. Three or four stories can be highlighted here, thus eliminating cover line clutter on the lead story below the logo.

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The 1500-word story is now down to a thousand-word spread. One-pagers are frequent, often picture-only with extended caption, or half visual, half text (350 words). And readers love the end stop, that little dingbat that says The End of a story. It’s a stop/go mechanism. Readers want to know at a glance how long a story is so that they can plan their time.

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Blame it on USA Today. Readers hate a story that is not self-contained. One survey indicates that when a story jumps to the back pages, reader drop-off is 65%. If you jump a story twice, you may hear the sound of no readers clapping.

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I went through a pile of men’s magazines recently and found that story heads average three words while subheads average 23 words. A short head enables the design director to use a few good words (and glorious white space) for maximum emphasis when doing a layout, while a long deck allows the editor to sell the story in detail and tell the reader why this feature is must-read material. Everybody wins, especially the reader.

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Other trends to watch: Stories of yesteryear, looking back through the archives of a magazine …. Black and white photo layout treatments …. Showcasing writers, photographers and artists on an expanded contributor’s page …. Blog and email departments …. Expanded contents page for web site offerings, and online editors to keep the site fresh and ever changing as the emerging generation of readers checks in with a web-driven level of expectations.

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When I was enlisted to critique a magazine that was losing market share and ad revenue, I went through a few years’ issues and noticed that the Editor’s Welcome, which had started out as a full page, dropped down to half a page, and occasionally was missing altogether. I asked the editor, who explained, “Some months I just don’t have anything to say.” Well, now. Houston, we have uncovered the problem.

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If your table of contents is front left consistently, and if all or most of your FOB departments and columns are consigned to left pages, your magazine is probably being perceived as ad-driven, not editorially driven.

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How old is the photo on your Editor’s Welcome page? Let’s try to keep it current, and some variety in poses, please.

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The ad/edit ratio—ah yes, what should it be? Unless you are a fashion mag, it’s hard to work with anything heavier than 50% advertising. 45 percent advertising is somewhat more workable, and that is the average for magazines belonging to the MPA, but my personal recommendation is 40% advertising, 60% edit.

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An easy way to highlight the Letters page and to remind the reader what stories/issue is being referenced is to repeat the cover image for that issue on the page.

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If readers are having trouble finding stories mentioned on your covers, use a box on the TOC to key each cover line.

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Is there anything more damaging to team morale than the so-called “post mortem” meeting? It is a gathering designed to wound the art director. No one says, “The reporting on this cover story is thin,” or “The writing in the cover story is really flat.” No, we are gathered here today to inquire: How come this photo isn’t larger? Why did we use red here instead of blue? Couldn’t the cover image be larger? And on and on.

I recommend against conducting the post-mortem. The issue is over and done with; let’s move ahead. If there are design problems, best to discuss them with the AD one-on-one at a different kind of venue: lunch.

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