Magnet workshop: Editorial workflow – Meeting deadlines without micromanaging

Any good managing editor will tell you that you can only control 80% of the process of producing a magazine: That gives you enough time to handle the 20% that will inevitably be chaos. That’s the reality facing three managing editor panellists at a recent Magnet workshop called “Editorial workflow: Meeting deadlines without micromanaging”.

Magnet, a magazines conference, is taking place in Toronto June 2-4. Come back to J-Source for ongoing coverage. And read our story about why Esquire editor David Granger thinks magazines aren’t going anywhere.

You can only control 80% of the process of producing a magazine: you can assign things on time, create realistic deadlines and keep the entire process as organized as possible. That gives you enough time to handle the 20% that will inevitably go wrong, for which you have zero control (everything from late filers to stories held up in fact checking to last-minute breaking news that changes the lineup). That’s the reality facing three panellists at a recent Magnet workshop called “Editorial workflow: Meeting deadlines without micromanaging”. The session, moderated by Homemakers executive editor Jessica Ross, featured Tina Anson Mine, managing editor of Canadian Living & Homemakers, Angie Gardos, executive editor of Toronto Life and Paige Magarrey, managing editor of Azure.

It’s important that you understand the 80% you do have control over in order to create the best possible journalism, Gardos says. “You don’t want to run out of time and have to say ‘It’s good enough’ and let the story go. It’s that finessing that separates magazines from newspapers.”

To make sure every story is given the chance to shine, someone needs to manage the workflow.  “Every issue of a magazine needs a mother,” Gardos says, “Someone who can track the entire issue in their head at all times. Everyone is a stakeholder in their certain section, but nobody knows everything. That’s my job.” Gardos likes to get updates from people in person, and thinks production meetings are key to keeping people on track: “There’s a public humiliation factor that motivates people.” Of course, your memory should be backed up online or on paper.

Magarrey agrees that the managing editor’s role is to be firm on deadlines. “It can get aggressive when people are skeptical on deadlines,” she says. “You just have to explain that you’re planning 3-4 months ahead.”

What does it take to be a good managing editor? The stereotype is that of villain: the whip that keeps everyone inline. But you don’t have to be a bad guy, Magarrey says, but you do have to be anal retentive. “You have to love charts and details and highlighters. You have to have a thick skin to take people’s criticisms and work with them.”

The panellists offered up plenty of tips for managing editorial workflow:

On creating deadlines

You have to balance the needs of the editorial process and the needs of the reader. Timeliness is important. “The best-case scenario the magazine arrives on their coffee table the moment they want to know about it,” Gardos says. If something amazing lands in your lap you have to be flexible enough to drop what you were going to do and put the new story in. That often means asking your staff to work late.”

Freelance magazine writers know that deadlines can be flexible, and stories will often be late. Build in cushion time for late stories.

“You’re balancing time constraints against excellence,” Magarrey says. “Azure is very dependent on timely content, so some stories can’t be held back. As a managing editor you have to decide at what point to let go. You can never know what will be held up in fact-checking and what won’t. Keep your deadlines malleable to ensure excellence, and stagger your deadlines in case something falls apart or gets held up in fact-checking.”

Have a document that displays the entire magazine at a glance. Use symbols and colour coding/highlights to indicate status of every piece. (Colour coding also helps staff keep track of their own deadlines).

On queries/story ideas

Create a system to replying back to writing pitches. How to decide if an idea has merit, how to move forward (or how to gently kill it), so it doesn’t slow you down and allows writers to pitch their stories elsewhere.

At Toronto Life, 85% of ideas are generated in-house. Then you have to decide who to assign it to. “A great story idea can be destroyed by assigning the wrong writer,” Gardos says. And this doesn’t just mean talent, she says, is the writer a good fit for the topic?

On meeting deadlines

Check up on everyone and always know who is working on what. Fear and shame work to light the fire under procrastinators. Encourage your contributors and staff not to be heros – tell them its okay to ask for help.

Clarify what people’s responsibilities are, so you don’t have overlap. This also prevents turf wars. Give people the power to make decisions to reduce micro-managing

Know who does what and how by creating a workflow that details the entire process, from query to publication. Use data bases and organizational tools like the K4 file management system (used by Homemakers to track where stories are).

Try to make late nights as fun as possible (Swiss Chalet, beer), things that keep morale up and make it worth their while to work when they’d rather be home with their family.

On managing people

Being kind helps, because staff will want to help you instead of being afraid of you.

Be and advocate for your staff and contributors. Find out what they need.

Don’t expect uninterrupted time – your job is about solving problems and
finding out how to soothe people. Think of yourself as a

On disaster planning

Cross-train staff so you have people to cover sections when someone becomes sick or takes a vacation.

At Toronto Life, copy editing is done after layout to minimize work and keep copy editor eyes fresh. Copy is edited throughout the process to ensure its as clean as possible before going to the copy editor.

“In my 20 years, I’ve never seen a perfect first draft,” Gardos says. “It usually takes four drafts. Some writers have a degree of predictability in quality of drafts, but you don’t know other factors, like source availability, changes in news… and if you haven’t worked with the writer you don’t know you have to build time in for unexpected delays. You should always have a Plan B.”