After around five years as editor of Metro, Simon Wilson recently sent his final issue off to the printers and stepped into a new role where he aims to do more writing and less wrangling. And he signed off with an editorial that editors—and advertisers—could all learn something from.
When it comes to magazines, this is what I believe.
1. It should all be good.
The reading at the back of the magazine should be as good as the reading at the front.
2. Celebrate what you love by taking it seriously.
At Metro, our core task is a critical engagement with the city, which is an entirely different proposition from being a PR machine for it. We apply the same approach to restaurants and artists as we do to politics and schools: applauding what’s good, criticising what’s not, analysing, explaining, demanding, praising, advocating.
We have a Metro billboard on the Southern Motorway that says, “LOVE THIS CITY”, which Mayor Len Brown sees every day on his way in to work, and he tells me often how great it is. And I tell him, because we love this city, we want it to be better. So we look for ways it can be so.
3. Readers know everything.
Readers are right. If you don’t want what we give you, it’s our problem, not yours. We have to change what we do and work out how to produce something you do want. If we don’t connect with our readers closely, keenly, with stuff that makes you go, “Wow, I’m so glad I spent time with that,” you will not come back for more.
4. Readers know nothing.
No one knows what they don’t know. The genius of Metro’s founding editor, Warwick Roger, was rooted in his creation of an entirely new kind of magazine in New Zealand, which found a market because readers recognised it filled a need they did not previously know they had.
It’s not just that people can’t easily imagine something they haven’t thought of already. It’s also that media thrives on serendipity. You might have favourite writers and favourite features, but you read in the hope of being surprised and delighted by what you do not already know. You buy this magazine, or that one, because you value the judgment of the people serving up the contents.
5. The 80:20 rule is the refuge of the mediocre.
This is the rule that says 80 per cent of effort goes into something that supposedly only 20 per cent of customers care about — and vice versa. It suggests the rewards for doing something diminish the longer you work on it. It permits you to get away with being only sort of good.
Nonsense. If you can make something better, you should. Do it for your own self-respect. Do it because unless you try to become better, you never will. Do it because readers know about this in their bones, and they care, and if you don’t do your best for them they will give up on you.
6. Every story is better when you make it shorter.
Nobody is so good they can’t be better, and the key to making a story better is to make it shorter. If you take out 10 percent, you tighten. Take out 20 percent, you get down to the muscle.
Very few people can do it to their own work. Very few people like it being done. The only thing is to do it anyway.
7. Talent needs support.
The media model has changed. There are fewer staff positions, and therefore fewer chances for journalists to build careers, to learn from and support each other. That creates an existential threat to the industry, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of anything.
The onus is on us now — all of us in media — to develop avenues of support, to create new ways to foster great work. There’s no reason we can’t do that.
8. Entertain or die.
It doesn’t matter if something is important, let alone good for us. If you don’t enjoy spending time with the magazine you will put it down. It’s true for every page and every story, and it’s one of the reasons our satirical features are so important to our success.
9. Make money or die.
The big problem facing media is not the mindset of managers or boards, or the existence of some evil plan to destroy the well-informed democracy. It is that our markets — the people we rely on to pay for what we do — are shrinking.
If media has stopped doing some of the things we used to do, it is because there is no longer money to be made from doing it. Media companies must adapt or none of us will survive. See 3 above. And 4.
10. Resist the awful urge
The need to reform is no excuse to fearmonger or rabble-rouse, or indulge hatred or glorify ignorance, or ignore difficult truths or lie about how things really are. Resisting all that is not a high-minded goal for high-minded magazines. It’s what all media is for.
We live in exciting times. I mean that. We’re working out what the future will be. And it’s as important and rewarding as it ever was to do the things that matter: uphold standards, engage in critical inquiry, explode our imaginations, dare to be different. The best things are always surprises, and they lift our souls.
Not much to ask. I’ve been editor of this magazine for five years now. I’m stupidly proud of it. The awards it’s won (most recently, best current affairs magazine in the 2015 Magazine Publishers Association awards), the things it does for the city and the opportunities it gives to creative, highly skilled people. Its commercial strengths (and they are many). And the pleasure I hope it gives to readers.
Now I’m moving to a different role, to focus more on writing, and we’ve made this issue a special illustrated one: something for you to hold in your hands and, who knows, find something inside to cherish.
Magazines, you see. We love ’em.
- This story originally appeared in Metro and on metromag.co.nz