Print: It’s not dead yet

There are times when a few pieces of paper so soundly trump digital; it’s not even debatable.

Not so sure about that? Watch this short video: Le papier.

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Okay, that video might have gone a bit overboard. But there is a weight and substance to paper and ink, that cannot be entirely dismissed. Yes, I mean that literally and figuratively.

If you had to guess (and for fun, let’s just say that you do), would you say that more print magazines were killed in 2012 than were killed in 2011? And, as long as you are guessing here, would you say that 2012 saw more launches of new print magazines or new digital magazines?

If you guessed that fewer print magazines folded in 2012 than in 2011, you were correct. In fact, it wasn’t even close. According to Mediafinder.com:

  • Only 74 print titles folded in 2012; 142 died in 2011

And as far as new launches, print is still king. The online database of U.S. and Canadian publications also found:

  • 195 print magazine titles were launched in 2012, compared to 181 the year before
  • 32 digital-only magazine launched in 2012, compared to 58 in 2011

These numbers show an upward trend in print from 2011 and a downward trend in digital. Most likely, the trends reflect the difficulty commercial publishers are having in making a profit online.

However, there were also 24 print titles, most notably Newsweek and Spin, that went to a digital-only publication (29 did this in 2011), reinforcing the belief that print is dying.

In last week’s Upstart Business Journal, Samir Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi also know as “Mr. Magazine”, attempted to answer that.

He said the reason big players like Time Warner are ditching print is not due to unprofitability but rather bloated management hierarchies that care more about personal wealth than taking care of the product.

Mr. Magazine also noted that 2013 opened with the launch of 66 new print titles in January.

Meanwhile from the nonprofit side of the fence, many university alumni magazines are sticking with print as one of the primary and most successful tools for keeping alumni feeling connected to their alma maters and for bringing in support.

Direct mail is similarly robust. The return on investment for direct mail is between 11 and 13 dollars for every one dollar invested. By contrast, non direct mail’s ROI hovers around five bucks, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Here’s my take away: when people get a quality magazine (or even a quality direct mail appeal?), it is more likely to be received as a welcome gift. Email, maybe not so much. Going online to read? Again, not the same draw as that nice paper product they sent you.

Bottom line, despite the popular belief that print is dead, this is not the whole story. Now, pass me some paper.

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5 essential websites for writers, plus 1 semi-evil one

Does the Farmer’s Almanac say the PANSTARRS comet will sizzle or fizzle? What was the weather like in Atlanta, Georgia on July 2, 1954? Is Pope Benedict XVI’s title emeritus or emeriti? Will an asyndeton offer a good way to hammer a point in your writing? Is there a better word for hammer?

Writers need answers. Quickly. Here are five sites that will get you what you need, plus one that is a sort of necessary evil.

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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You never know how people will react to a small mistake, but you do know that no one will ever object to correct, accurate, proper English.

Need to confirm a definition, spelling or usage? Merriam-Webster.com. Handy. Reliable. Authoritative. And, it’s well beyond the scope of spelling and grammar checks embedded in certain software. Enough said.

2. Thesaurus

Yes, writers should have a large personal vocabulary but we needn’t pretend we know everything. One of my favorite English professors—a man who could work words like opuscule, ennui and non sequitur into a one-minute hallway conversation without even the slightest hint of bravado—kept a well-worn thesaurus by his side for all his serious writing.

He always said he owed it to his readers.

I think thesaurus.com, which calls itself “the largest and most trusted free online thesaurus,” is great; or should I say remarkable, comprehensive or impressive?

3. The Library of Congress

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Need to know if Shakespeare really used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus? Or how frequently reports on Principal Federal Economic Indicators occur? Want to report on when and where to look for this year’s comets?

This is not your father’s Library of Congress. Today you can use the virtual reference shelf that includes the answers to all of the above, plus a myriad of digital collections, bibliographies and guides. Also, you can ask a real librarian a question in an online chat.

4. Bartleby

Perhaps more 20th century than 21st, this site gives free and complete access to encyclopedias and other reference books that can help writers. Among the most useful are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a searchable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Gray’s Anatomy. No, not the popular TV drama, but the actual 1918 classic publication complete with 1,247 vibrant engravings. Admittedly, you could probably find all of this stuff on at the Library of Congress site, but this one is easier to navigate.

5. Grammar Girl

Inevitably, all writers—even those who merely write something as innocuous as a yearly budget report—come up against someone with Grammar Pedantry Syndrome. First identified by Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, Grammar Pedantry Syndrome (GPS) is a form of Obsessive Compulsive/Oppositional Defiant Disorder in which sufferers need to correct every grammatical error, real or imagined.

Baron wrote in his June 2012 The Web of Language blog:

GPS goes a long way towards finding, explaining, and helping us deal with, their obsession with enforcing on the hapless public an idiosyncratic and often undertheorized idea of what’s right or wrong in speech and writing. If defining this kind of intrusive purism as a psychological syndrome helps us find a cure, then ultimately both society, and language itself, stands to benefit. Or is it that they stand to benefit?

Sadly, at least 10 highly followed Twitter accounts failed to penetrate the academic humor in the above, all of which I learned from reading Grammar Girl.

Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl and founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Prior to becoming the curator for a site devoted to grammar, she was a magazine and technical writer.

In case you ever thought you might be able to rely on your own knowledge of grammar to get by with your writing, the “GPS” business cited above should make the dangers in that exceedingly obvious. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people who think they know a lot more than they do. You need a reliable reference.

I like Grammar Girl because it is funny and smart. There are others. But you need to have one very handy.

Wikipedia: the semi- evil one

I know Wikipedia isn’t the most accurate resource, but it can be a starting point. It’s a good place to get some basic background information to prep for interviews. For example, it can help you construct the right questions to bring your source’s information down to layman’s terms. It can also point you to good references.

A Final Word
Salient details enliven your writing, surprise your reader and make what you write worth sharing or remembering. In addition to that, being accurate and grammatically correct is in fact how you will be judged, no matter how great a writer you claim to be.

Lucky for us, all that can be just a click away.

The truth about true stories

People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

“every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

Are you the Next Twinkie? Creative Destruction for Writers

We are entering a period where the slow, the inflexible and the bureaucratic, will find themselves extinct in record numbers, according to Chris Zook in his Harvard Business Review blog.

Zook asks if it is just another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction; an expected and profitable culling of businesses, enterprises—and people—that can’t keep pace.

Are we all that close to going the way of the Twinkie?

Image of a Package of Hostess Twinkies

It’s a little frightening to contemplate. Especially when it seems like your seasoning as a professional writer might be more comfortable camping out on the cozy little cottage side of the lake than the pull up the stakes and move out this afternoon, rustic tent sites.

It’s no secret that technology has dramatically changed the way people communicate, so when creative destruction talk surfaces, it is easy to assume that’s what it’s about.

Sometimes I feel like Drew Barrymore’s character in “He’s just not into you” who, while trying to decipher the success of a recent date, complained so heartrendingly: “And now you have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting!”

Image of cell phone text with computer screen of facebook, twitter and Linkedin open

Zook says that probably isn’t what is holding you back.

He believes organizations aren’t innovative due to slow cycles of decision and adaptation. In other words, it may not be a keeping up with technology thing so much as the general ability to adapt to rapid changes at all.

Nothing gums up moving forward more quickly than a bunch of unproductive complexity whether it’s in processes or decision-making.

Put simply, leaders need to find ways to focus and simplify their organizations.

What does this mean for communicators?

Focus your content.

Look for three or four things you can clearly articulate that your organization has that others don’t. Apple’s comeback in the late 90s began with the simplification of their product line down to just four products.

That’s no accident, Zook points out.

Apple’s comeback also was about a renewed focus on the user experience. They made industrial design a strategic tool and a marketing point, not only for the computer industry but also for everything! They modeled success by only making a few things, but making them really, really well.

Apply that lesson to your messages. Before you start worrying about how many tactics you can take on or which ones you should creatively destroy, make sure you’ve got messages that people want and can easily grasp.

Stress your organization’s strengths: the niches where you do things better than your competition.

And don’t try to push too many messages at once. Concentrate on the pillars of your brand.

There’s nothing slow, unresponsive or out of date about that.

2013’s Buzz Words Every Writer Should Know

The fact that there are always new words is among the many things I love about American English. Any noun is fair game to become verb. We allow popular use to change grammar rules. We adopt words and phrases from every other language on the planet.

Spoiler alert: the downside of all this freedom trending now is that this is the time of year when English word-watchers everywhere list their pet peeves in word use. While some of them get a bit self-righteous, the lists are generally good reminders of words to avoid.


Misused, Overused or Generally Useless

Lake Superior State University recently published its 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness, based on nominations submitted from the United States, Canada and beyond.

Among the dirty dozen that made this year’s list is “trending” of which Kyle Melton of White Lake, Michigan said “A trend is something temporary, thank goodness; however, it is not a verb, and I’m tired of news stations telling me what trite ‘news’ is ‘trending.’”

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Melton has a point in terms of overuse, but his assertion that a trend is not a verb is so ten seconds ago. (Please feel free to submit “so ten seconds ago” for next year. I already checked and it’s not on the list yet.)


Buzz Kills

Yesterday Ragan.com posted “10 Industry Buzz Words That Need to Die.” Mobile topped the list.

And a few weeks ago, British PR agency Twelve Thirty Eight released Buzz Word Report: January 2013, an annual review of the PR jargon and practices that inflame journalists, as determined by surveying British journalists.

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Among the words that presumably cause British journalists to suffer near internal combustion is ‘iconic’. Admittedly, when applied to everything from Kate Middleton’s hair to Colleen Rooney’s platforms as they suggest, I can concur with their recommendation: “Please can we allow this word the respect and privacy it deserves at this special time so that it can recover its true meaning?”

And it sheds a great deal more understanding on the puzzling cynicism by some British partners of my university who insisted that I refrain from using the word iconic in talking points for the opening of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

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Take a look at the museum (and where it is) and tell me that architecture doesn’t recover the true meaning of the word iconic.


For the early 70s retro chic amongst us

Despite my iconic experience, I think I like Twelve Thirty Eight. Their website claims: You’ll never hear us say “awesome”, “circle back”, “ping me”, “super-exciting” or “reach out”. We’ll never start a sentence with “So,….”. We don’t have a boardroom filled with double beds, a pool table, a company bar, a pinball machine, a vintage caravan parked in the middle of the office, fake grass on the floor, pet monkeys, sponsored dogs or an organic goats milk decaf latte maker. Our holiday plans are unlikely to leave you feeling inadequate.”

They say their average age is 41 (which they call “early seventies retro chic”) and that most of their ideas “end up in the bin.”

And I really liked their advice that writers should try to write in English. Specifically, that we should read back what we are sending out to see if we could imagine a real person ever saying it out load.

They illustrated it with one random example of a chief executive’s quote:

We are entering a new global paradigm in business whereby operatives are no longer satisfied with having a physical office in which all deals must take place. Enterprise is expanding beyond the four walls of the company headquarters and businesses therefore need tools that facilitate a much more mobile and fluid sales team. As we infiltrate new markets around the world, we expect to roll out our offering on a wider scale and enable businesses to benefit from our market leading product.”

Buzz word-laden jargon like that makes using iconic a relatively petty concern.

One million strong, Gangnam Style

According to Oxford Dictionary online English most likely has more words than any comparable language.

The impossibility of determining the exact number of words in English didn’t stop Global Language Monitor from publishing their 13th annual estimate (1,019,729.6 as of January 1, 2013). GLM also declared ‘Gangnam Style’ as the top phrase of the year and noted that ‘Frankenstorm,’ Superstorm Sandy’s colloquial name, “went from a meteorologist’s lips to a globally recognized neologism within a few hours.”

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I don’t particularly like Frankenstorm. But the fact that one person could create a globally recognized neologism in a couple hours is kind of amazing.

There will always be curmudgeons ranting about the overuse of phrases, the use of meaningless words and the like. If you take a look at the lists, you’ll be sad to notice some you’ve used, but, now properly shamed, probably won’t use again.

It’s a good idea to consult these lists.

But, I also will take a moment to appreciate a language that puts at my disposal more than one million words, and counting. Not to mention that it offers the possibility that any one of us could create a globally recognized neologism of our own. But hopefully, a better one than Frankenstorm.

Who’s Afraid of a Little Evaluation?

If producing spot-on, graphically appealing, dynamic messages is the cherry on top of every professional communicator’s list of things they love to do, measuring results is the pit inside it.

But as Yogi Berra once said:

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

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If you want to claim you are a strategic communicator—and what communicator doesn’t—showing a relationship between your efforts and your organization’s success is essential. Once upon a time, communicators might have gotten away with saying their goal was to produce XYZ communication on time and under budget. But this implies that the purpose of communication is simply to exist. And it’s not.

The purpose of your efforts is to affect your organization’s mission—whether it’s selling more widgets, gaining more members or curing cancer.

When you start to look at measuring what matters, process indicators can help you learn how internally efficient you are, activity indicators can tell you how much communicating of what types of messages you did and relationship indicators can tell you something about the ongoing level of engagement you have with key audiences.

But the real sticking point lies with results indicators. This is where you hope to show that your communication efforts helped your organization to achieve its goals and objectives.

For most communicators, especially those of us in nonprofit organizations, establishing a direct link between your communication products and the organization’s achievements is messy if not impossible. You can point to easily attainable social media metrics like Klout scores. But you don’t want to just measure what you can measure. For example, tracking lots of website hits is a great way to assess whether people came to your pages, but it doesn’t tell you if their visits were of any strategic value.

UMagazinology blogger and John Hopkins magazine editor, Dale Keiger, nailed it when he wrote: “This month’s most overworked meaningless statistic: Number of mentions something related to the school received on Twitter. Nothing says you’ve assumed your rightful place in the upper tier of the world’s academies of higher learning like 1,547 retweets.”

To combat this, you can go down the road of surveys, personal interviews and focus groups. Certainly there are instances when the time and expense for these kinds of evaluation tools can and should be justified. Even then, when it comes to showing cause and effect, communication efforts are more likely to influence attitudes or merely trigger the conditions in which a behavior or action can occur, than to be found directly responsible.

Directional alignment may be your answer.

Caroline Kealey, in her recent Communication World article “Real Value”, suggests that it is enough “to show that your communication efforts have been directionally aligned with other factors that collectively led to the achievement of a corporate goal.” She believes that an alignment of factors can imply a plausible causal connection.

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My department is involved in fundraising. So, a primary goal of all our communication strategies is to boost the number of gifts and givers. But the influence of a myriad of other strategies, from gala events to informal visits to countless hours spent on building one-to-one relationships, play their roles at the same time. According to Kealey, this is nothing to worry about. She believes communicators can make a compelling case that communication has contributed to organizational success with a well-presented set of directional alignment indicators.

In other words, we probably won’t ever be able to say that our communications caused a donor to make a gift, but we can probably make a case for the more we do X (say, communicate how our organization makes a positive impact on the world), the more we see Y kinds of results (say, donors who make inquiries about funding our programs).

But that doesn’t mean all of your measurements must be quantitative. Qualitative efforts such as the tone of an event or of media coverage, can point to communication success too.

As author and social media expert Philip Sheldrake says in another Communication World article “A Measure of Influence” (Yes, the January/February 2013 issue themed around Measuring What Matters was chockfull of great stuff!): “Reputation management does not actually mean managing reputation and brand management does not actually mean managing a brand. They mean actively attending to the business of influencing and being influenced such that the resultant beliefs or opinions held about us and our products are conducive to our achieving organizational objectives.”

Or as Albert Einstein once said:

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Sadly, most communicators spend nearly all of their time and energy executing communications. A very small amount of effort goes into planning and of that almost none of the planning is spent on developing performance indicators. I believe this is primarily because we communicators are not particularly drawn to accounting. And traditional evaluation can start to look like a whole lot of bean counting in a hurry.

But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be so complicated, or onerous. Look at your organization’s mission and set a few simple result indicators to help you learn whether you helped it move the needle.

Evaluation does matter. Done right, it guides our efforts, helps us justify our results and gives us a place to start for the next trip.

What’s your opinion? Do you think directional alignment indicators would be enough for your organization to acknowledge a link between communication efforts and your organization’s accomplishments? Could it be enough to help you define and assess your strategy?

The First Wonder of Writing: Storytelling

I feel I should apologize for the hiatus I’ve taken from this blog. First, I was buried in work and something had to give. Actually a few things had to. But this blog was one of the ones I missed the most.

The work barrage lifted eventually, but then there was this terrible backlog of things that also needed doing—like laundry, preparing for the holidays, enjoying the half dozen yearend concerts and performances my kids were involved in, and going to the dentist.

By the time I felt caught up, I had a strong desire to curl up in front of the fire, crochet myself a snuggie and re-watch the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey and/or play mindless word games, for at least a month.

But now I am refreshed, reenergized and ready to blog like crazy.

So I decided to kick off with a positive spin. A trade publication I get recently ran a “Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing” series.

It’s fun to read and helpful but, the negativity got to me. Don’t we business and organization writers ever do anything right? Have we nothing to celebrate?

And thus came to be this first installment of what I’m calling the Seven Wonders of Writing. To me, there is something pretty inspiring, and yes even wonderful, about the opportunity to tell a story so I’m putting that as he first wonder I’ll write about, because it really is that important.

Bottom line, you want to be read. You want to write well. And moreover, you’ve got something to communicate. With any luck it is something important and meaningful.

But it’s a challenge since each and every one of us speaks our own personal language based on our age, stage, wage, gender, race, education, life experiences, id, ego, baggage, filters and favorite breakfast cereal.

If there’s one thing no one can resist, no matter whether he or she wakes up to fruit loops or oat bran, it is a good story.

Robert McKee, the award winning Hollywood screenwriter, in Story writes that stories are our most prolific art form. Just consider the daily stream of prose, films, shows, broadcasts, online legends, water cooler anecdotes, office sagas, bedtime children’s tales, barroom bragging, social media gossip, and more that we take in each and every day.

Why? McKee says we can’t get enough because stories are the most accessible way we have of trying to answer the ever elusive question of how we should lead our lives. In other words, stories give us insight or as McKee writes:

“(Stories are) but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

In another life, I was a student teacher in high school English. Teens aren’t an easy audience. I learned quickly that the surest, fastest and most effective way to get every one of those adolescent eyes on me was to tell a true, personal story.

So what gets in the way of telling stories when we write?

Mainly, it takes time. Too much is written from behind a computer screen. To get a great story, you can’t do all the research and interviewing by Internet and phone. You can convey all the essential information very accurately, but you won’t get the story behind the story, the surprising tales that pop up when people relax and get to know one another.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on a family who made a significant gift to further research on autism. It was great news. A nice story. The family lives in my state but on the far side of it, meaning more than an hour’s drive for me, one way. What’s more, the only time they had to talk to me was late on a Friday.

I already had a boatload of material. I could have phoned them for a few additional answers and followed-up with email. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

It wouldn’t have been much of a story. I wouldn’t have heard firsthand about their journey with a grandson with autism. When the grandfather recounted the day he heard his grandson say “Grandpa” for the first time in seven years, the storyteller within me said wow. I’ll never forget it. It’s the kind of detail I know that readers will remember to.

And It might just help someone sort out the anarchy of existence.

Yep, story telling can be pretty wonderful.