The Washington Post Magazine editor talks about the skills new journalists—and seasoned ones—must cultivate to stay relevant to readers.
By Carla Kalogeridis
IF SOMEONE OFFERED TO TELL YOU THE SECRET TO editing a magazine for 21st-century readers, how fast would you jump on it? Well, someone has—and it's Debra Leithauser, editor of The Washington Post Magazine and a keynote speaker at the Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting, June 14-16, 2010 at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC.
Leithauser began her career at the Orlando Sentinel, where she took on editing the youth page when the former editor burned out after five whole months of dealing with the teen writers. Within a year, the youth page became a four-page section, and her staff of teens had grown from 12 to 70. (Several of them are now professional journalists.) She also helped start the Youth Editorial Alliance, a national group of youth editors from around the country.
Three-plus years later, Leithauser moved on to being the assistant editor of the Sentinel, a Sunday magazine, and worked with some of the best—and zaniest— writers in the building. "It's fair to say I went from editing teenagers who longed to be adults to editing adults who acted like teenagers,” she says.
In 1997, her husband quit his reporting job to sail across the Atlantic. When he returned, they began job hunting, and Leithauser ended up in Washington, DC as design editor for Knight Ridder/Tribune. She worked there five years, eventually becoming deputy managing editor and then managing editor, of a department that produced paginated news and feature pages for other newspapers to publish. (And though Knight Ridder no longer exists, her department still does.)
In 2003, she came to the Post to be deputy editor of the Sunday Source. Eventually, she became editor of both Sunday Source and TV Week. In 2009, after a stint editing on The Post's national staff, she was tapped to help lead the newspaper's redesign. In July of that year, Leithauser took over the Sunday Magazine and oversaw the relaunch of the award-winning publication.
Q: What is the key to successful integration of a magazine with its organization's website from a content standpoint? What kinds of integration works for readers, and what is just plain annoying?
DL: The answer varies so much from publication to publication. But in general, the key to success is understanding your audience. Your online reader might be very different from your print reader, so knowing how to target each effectively means embracing those differences and playing to them.
Online, I think it's key to think about the reader payoff; for example, don't ask your readers to follow you on Twitter and then tweet about what you're eating for breakfast. Make your tweets useful and relevant.
Q: How is your magazine coping with the Internet reader syndrome, which suggests that today's readers want their content concise and in easily manageable chunks? Is there still a demand for long-form journalism, and what do you see as its role in the make-up of your publication?
DL: Long-form journalism is what we do best at The Washington Post Magazine, so we're very committed to it. And readers have shown that if the story is compelling enough, they'll click-through online.
That said, people's expectations and time demands are different when they're online. And because our stories are features that aren't off the news necessarily, they can be harder for an online audience to find. I think reading long-form stories electronically is going to rapidly change in the next few years. The launch of the iPad presents all sorts of new opportunities for magazines—play around with it for just a few minutes, and you can see the potential.
For my print product, I'm still gearing it to readers who want to read, who will make time to sit down with a great story, who appreciate the escape a compelling narrative can bring. The key is what you surround that long-form journalism with. We try hard every week to mix it up with other, shorter, features—one of our best features is the ever-popular First Person Singular, which in 10 inches gives readers an intimate glimpse into the hearts and minds of the area's working folks: locksmiths, senators, cafeteria workers, police chiefs.
Q: How can a publishing team keep magazine content fresh when its production time is so much longer than the media it often competes with?
DL: Have at least one feature that's geared to covering the week (or month)—for us, it's the Going Out Guide. Event listings are easier to do in advance than you might think. It makes your publication seem fresh and current, even when some of your other pieces are less timely. And it gives readers useful info. What's not to love about that?
Q: Let's say you're giving advice to recent journalism school graduates. How would you describe the skills and outlook they will need to be a valuable member of a publishing team in today's media climate?
DL: The major skills remain the same: be dogged reporters, think creatively, have a strong ethical compass. But clearly, being a journalist today means that you have to be platform agnostic. Will it publish on the Web first? In print first? Be a news alert? A tweet? These are all just communication delivery tools. It's exciting to have so many ways to reach readers.
Q: Likewise, what's the most important skill that a seasoned journalist must develop in order to remain relevant to his or her publication?
DL: The skill to change your mindset from catering to just a print audience. Your new audience isn't even on the web. It's mobile, or the Kindle, or the iPad, or the Next Big Thing that's being created right now by the geniuses at Google.
Interested in hearing more from Debra Leithauser? Don't miss her keynote address at the Association Media & Publishing Annual Meetingnext month.
Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Medias & Publishing.