Monday, January 02, 2006

Meeting recap: From good to great

Three ways to improve editorial that you didn’t learn in school.
By Jessica Harper, KC Chapter Secretary and Editor, Bridge Builder magazine

At the Kansas City chapters’ recent meeting, Sharon Bass, a magazine consultant and professor at The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, tackled how to freshen editorial with three methods she wouldn’t dare teach her students.

1. Style trumps substance
Working within a specific industry, business publication editors are often burdened with covering the same topics. Writing and obtaining excellent articles all the time isn’t realistic, so do it with style, Bass said. “Instead of spending the time trying to salvage a compromised story, let some of that fly, and get a great photo,” she said. “It might make you feel like you’re cheating, but get over it.”

After reading many trade publications, Bass’ overall critique is: add more photos, charts, and graphs. She also recommends allotting more space for using artwork but not necessarily making photos larger. “Play around with scale, especially in departments,” Bass said. “Go opposite of what most people think.” For example, if a publication covers a large piece of machinery, readers are accustomed to seeing that object on a large scale. Instead, run a small photo of a bulldozer and a large image of protective goggles.

Another less-than-conventional way to spruce up a limp article is to incorporate more wit and humor. “Bring in what seems real like anecdotes from business stories of real people,” she said. “A cheap way to bring in fun is to run cartoon reprints. A cartoon could give the launching ground for an article.”

If just looking for a photo to spice up an article, a great tip to keep expenses down is to find artwork in the public domain. Whatever the solution is to add style, remember it has to be appealing to your readers and not necessarily the staff, Bass said.

2. Killer applications
Bass’ second tip for editors is to stop spending too much time on pieces that are overdone or topics that are covered each year, such as a trade show, and allocate more resources to a couple hot issues. “Invest time in a strategic group of articles for each year,” she said. “What are the most important issues for readers? What has people talking? Go immediately to work for the readers in order to help run their businesses well.”

While planning an article series, Bass recommends picking a topic that lends itself to being broken down into smaller pieces in several issues. Also, avoid subjects that people would’ve read anyway, such as a salary survey.

3. Play small ball
Little things have big meaning to your readers. The way to play small ball is to think in terms of tips. Bass said 60 to 80 percent of the tips should be low cost and low involvement. Come up with solutions that readers can try today as soon as they finish reading the article. An example from one of Bass’ favorite magazines, Real Simple, was to use olive oil while shaving. Practical advice like that keeps Bass reading each issue.

A simple way to get tips is to pull out the best points in a longer article. “You can put a good idea in a 1,500-word article, but readers are busy. Unless you pull the idea out, readers will miss it,” Bass said. This method also works with articles you’ve already printed. Go back to the best pieces of the year and pick points that deserve additional attention.

The best place to gather tips, according to Bass, is from the readers themselves. Open up your ears at conventions and association meetings. Industry experts are also great people to ask for priceless advice. Be sure and spread out tips during the year to keep readers coming back.

Playing small ball, providing killer applications, and putting style at the forefront ensures articles won’t become monuments to editorial egos. “Turn the world upside down, and give up editorial,” Bass said. “Make sure readers can extract something in 20 seconds.”

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