Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Alberta Magazines Conference - Sessions re-cap

By all accounts, the 2009 Alberta Magazines Conference was a smashing success. But don't take my word for it, hear about the sessions from our bloggers, as seen below...

-Anh, AMPA Communications & Program Assistant

Matt Blackett

1D: Creating Connoisseurs

In good news for some, Matt Blackett reported that he got his kick-in-the-pants start with his magazine Spacing by being laid off from The Hockey News. (This seemed in fact to be a central, if unintended theme of the conference, as Al Zikovitz had a similar trajectory for the start of his mag/media empire Cottage Life.)

Spacing got its start with a self employment program that Blackett was able to access and launched in December 2003. The first run of the first issue was 1,500 copies and sold out in the first week. The magazine enjoys a 94% sell-through on newsstands, which Blackett attributed in part to its unique design (it’s bound on the short side rather than the long side meaning that it often gets placed on the front of the rack) and to building community loyalty.

Blackett’s top tips for doing this at any magazine were:

  • Create products that extend your message but aren’t necessarily branded. Spacing’s wildly successful subway button collections which are about the idea of public space and about Toronto, like the magazine, but have the Spacing web address listed only on the top edge, not the front. A second line of buttons as well as T-shirts have also helped extend the message of the magazine. Spacing works with only a small group of retailers, which then drives customers to their shops, again building loyalty.
  • Have a very open editorial policy. Spacing takes submissions of photos, story ideas and stories from professionals and non professionals alike through their website, calls for submissions and so on and seem to pride themselves in rarely if ever turning down a potential avenue for ideas. Spacing has also benefited from allowing the community to have their own takes on their products, in particular the buttons.
  • Have a website that is as useful as possible for readers. 30,000 people read the magazine each issue, but 10,000 readers go to the Spacing blogs each day. Create value and use and keep them coming back. Spacing has built and built on their web successes, adding more regional coverage (Montreal, Hong Kong, Vancouver etc. are in the works or on the go) and a Spacing Votes site for election coverage and has several new sites coming. Spacing also has Spacing Radio for podcasts.
  • Create events. Spacing hosts a launch party with themes that match the issue themes for each of their three-times-yearly issues. Event tickets are sold at the door from $10 and they make about $2,500 per party. The magazine has also partnered with a Toronto architecture firm to host the Toronto the Good party each year during the architecture and design festival.
  • Target a niche audience. “You have to find your niche and what your audience is interested in,” said Blackett. It’s been said before. It will undoubtedly be said again. Fortunately, it bears repeating. - Kathe Lemon

Rick Boychuk

2C: Crafting a Flawless Feature

Rick Boychuk, former editor of Canadian Geographic, shared some of the accumulated knowledge of magazine feature writing that has helped him to win many National Magazine Awards.

Boychuk described the main aspects that make a magazine feature soar.

Before you start writing you need to know who you’re writing for, what the purpose of the piece is and what the length is. You need to build to the length because this is going to change the structure of the piece in magazine writing. And structure matters.

Magazine writing is not just marshalling the facts; it is not just reportage. What differentiates it from newspaper writing is storytelling – argument, voice, character development and narrative tension.

  • Argument. While newspaper writing is about reporting the facts, magazine writers are paid to tell what they think. Magazine stories should say something original about what has been learned, so don’t end on an ambiguous “on the one hand, on the other hand” conclusion. However, while magazine writing means we need to hear what you think, this doesn’t necessarily mean it should be told in the first person. Unless you have a personal engagement, really think about why you’re in the story.
  • Voice. Your voice is your take on the world. The best stuff you will write is the stuff you’re keenly interested in. Voice is also your chosen sentence structure, word choice, and punctuation. The more you understand about your prose, the more you’ll understand your voice. Write from your experience. Write from your outrage. Write from your passion.
  • Character development. Stories need to be told through the people involved in them. The look of the person often doesn’t matter (particularly if there is going to be a photo of them) but how they act, what they do and what they say are more important. Don’t people your stories too heavily or your reader won’t get to know each character. A 2,000 word piece should have a protagonist and an antagonist, but not much more. Readers should have a vivid idea of the characters. Every source will believe that they are selfless and flawless, it is the writer’s job to pick that apart.
  • Narrative tension. Architecture is critically important for magazine stories and for magazines. The only way to create tension is to build it and the only way to build it is through structure. The key here is the nut-graph; that pivot point between the introduction and the body of the story or conclusion. The nut-graph is the paragraph that essentially summarizes what the story is going to tell us. The introductory anecdote must set up the thematic ideas of the story and has to be a metaphor for the whole piece. Breaking the story into acts that build on each other can work well.

Fortunately, Boychuk also reassured us that everybody can be a better writer. Magazine writing is a highly specialized craft that takes time to develop.

Unfortunately, Boychuk believes not enough publishers understand the value of the little bursts of pleasure that readers get from good writing. These little burst are what build loyalty and what stay with a reader long after the issue has come and gone. -K.L.