About Editing

What Works in Local Journalism

By Jack Limpert

A few years ago, I came back from a meeting of city magazine editors and tried to distill for our staff at The Washingtonian the editing approaches and ideas we’d talked about. Here’s that wrapup:

Be useful, be helpful. Readers should feel the magazine understands their needs and problems — finding a good restaurant, a reliable plumber, great day trips, best financial planners — and has made a real effort to help. You have to protect your credibility when you do this. The reader should feel your advice can be trusted.

Tell the reader how and why it happened. Find a good story — a win, loss, comeback, deal, tragedy — and report the hell out of it. Make the reader say: So that’s what really happened.

Put things in perspective. The best schools. The most dangerous places. Rating the emergency rooms. Best local charities.

Try to Fix Bad Situations
Are readers getting taken by adoption lawyers, by mortgage bankers? It’s what 60 Minutes does so well.

Keep readers ahead of the curve. Who’s new and hot? Trendy chefs. Political comers.  Fashion trends.

People and gossip. It’s almost impossible to have too many people stories in a city magazine. But behind a really good profile is an interesting idea — ask the writer: Why do we want to write about this person? It takes good reporting to write a good profile–you don’t get it in a two-hour interview.

Battles and fights: Why did that person get fired?

Provide some visual excitement. Photographs that readers will remember. Photographs that let you see people in a new way. Take readers places they can’t go.

Help readers understand the ordinary stuff: the water system, the area’s birds and animals, what are most of our houses made of?

Celebrate Excellence
Who’s really good at something? The best preachers. The 50 smartest people. People like to read about great minds, great talents. Is there anyone in the region doing world-class work?

Who are the people changing the city? The institutions that are changing the city? The ideas? How do people get ahead in your city? How is money raised for good works?

Don’t ever turn down a story that make you laugh or cry. There’s a lot of bad news out there; readers like stories about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Also stories with a gentle wit.

Explain how the city got to be the way it is. What were the turning points? What happened in the last 50 years that affects our lives today? What binds us together? What are the myths we share?

How do things happen, how does your city work? Profiles of important institutions — museums, airports, government agencies. Profiles of big personalities — who runs the local paper, the top local football coach, the most  popular TV anchor. Profiles of important groups — ethnic, religious, social.

Change how the reader sees the world. Have an interesting mind look at something and explain it in a new way. Rearrange the reader’s brain cells.

Who Can do This?
Editorial people with intelligence, interesting minds, energy, passion, a respect for the intelligence of the reader. Reporters and writers who want their stories remembered a year from now, five years from now.

First published in the October 2011 newsletter of the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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