About Editing

Editing a New Magazine? What Kind of Stories Are You Going to Do?

By Jack Limpert

Politico, the DC-based website and newspaper that covers politics and government, is starting a glossy magazine this fall—it’ll come out six times a year and be edited by Susan Glasser, who appeared this morning on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” to promote it.

In a short segment on “The Rebirth of Longform Journalism,” the show’s host, Frank Sesno, first asked Glasser about her plans for the new magazine and she said she wanted it to be something “truly original.”

But, he asked, what kind of stories? Glasser said it would be “more ambitious journalism.”

But what exactly? Glasser said there was a need “for more accountability reporting, more investigate reporting, more deep, memorable profiles,” adding that she wants “to tell you something you didn’t know about.”

Ah, the challenges for an editor trying to describe the great stories yet to be conceived and written.

After I’d been editing The Washingtonian for about five years, I got a call from a prominent newspaper editor who was looking for an editor for his Sunday magazine. I traveled to the paper, exchanged pleasantries, and he asked, “What kind of stories would you do?” I was less articulate than Glasser and no more forthcoming.

What stories are you going to do is not a question an editor can answer without setting off B.S. detectors. You can promise stories that are original, ambitious, and memorable, but all you really know is that you have to find writers with interesting minds, writers who listen more than they talk, who have energy, curiosity, and skepticism, who know a subject.

The best story ideas come when the writer gets out of the office and talks to people: what’s going on, what’s new, what are people talking about?

You need writers who know the difference between a subject and an idea. You need writers who like to tell a good story, who can make readers laugh or cry.

It’s a lot of work and if all goes well, and editors help but don’t get in the way, you get stories that are, as Glasser promises, original, ambitious and memorable.
For more on coming up with good stories:

Reporting, Writing—and Being Smart is about finding good writers.

Finding Good Story Ideas has advice from former Atlanta magazine editor Lee Walburn.

What You Can Learn from 60 Minutes tells how Don Hewitt did it.

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