This is the third article in a four-part series on starting a college magazine, written by the Chairman of the Yale Record, America’s oldest humor magazine. There’s a lot of information here; pick and choose whatever seems helpful.
Hello again, and welcome to the third part of the Guide.
This article tells you how to go from:
“Okay, we have people interested, now what?”
“Omigod look at our first issue hot off the presses/internet, it’s BEAUTIFUL! We are so cool and thoughtful!”
I’ve written this in three parts: The “how to write an issue” checklist, a sample timeline for a monthly magazine, and an extremely long and non-mandatory special feature: “One year in the publishing life of the Yale Record“.
In the final section, I explain what we do during the year, and when. Whether you’re starting a magazine in the summertime or the middle of the school year, you should be able to pick up a similar rhythm.
The Checklist: How Do You Write an Issue?
What You’ll Need:
One (1) great concept for a publication; one (1) willing staff; two (2) cents to rub together (printing costs seem to get higher every year).
The Path to Victory:
(1) Figure out what content is going to run in the issue. These might be pitches that would-be writers send in, topics that your staff brainstorms, or anything in between. The Record has a monthly “brainstorming meeting” where we spend an hour thinking of 100-200 pieces that might work with our issue theme, then purging the ones that are terrible, then sending the rest out to everyone who ever asked to write for us. We also let people write whatever is in their hearts if they’d prefer — some of our best pieces have come to us because our writers know that we are willing to publish ANYTHING.
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(2) Assign pieces and/or assign writers to editors. If multiple people want to write the same story, you might give an edge to someone who is older, or is a more experienced writer, or who asked first… or you could just flip a coin. Your call. But make sure you acknowledge the desire of the person who asked to write, even if you don’t have room for them. (Have them write online! The internet never runs out of room.)
Also try to divide work evenly among your editors — in my experience, 5000 words per month seems to be the upper limit of the average editor’s sanity.
Some publications I’ve worked with require each writer to meet with an editor in person at least once before they finish a final draft. This is a very good idea, especially for publications with longer articles. Not only does it improve the quality of the final content, but it helps new writers feel more connected to your publication, and increases the chance that they’ll become staff members.
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(3a) Set strict deadlines (for first/second/final drafts), and start bothering people the moment they are late. Even if you have room to breathe on your publication dates, you shouldn’t get in the habit of letting late work slide. Ideally, editors can enforce these deadlines themselves. Be nice, but firm.
(3b) While your writers are writing and your artists are art-ing, you’ll need to figure out printing (unless you did this already). Negotiate with your printer to the greatest extent possible. Get sample prices from every local printer you can (using a non-local printer is asking for trouble if you have a specific release date). Offer to run an advertisement for the printer if it will save you a few cents. Consider printing in black-and-white, or with a cheap cover, if you have to — the first issue of any publication is an experiment, and experiments should be cheap.
(3c) Hopefully, you’ve locked in advertising by now, but if you haven’t… go do some locking. I have more to say about advertising than would fit in this space; ask specific questions in the comment section, or just email me. If you need a fast introduction, these two articles seem fine:
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(4) Once the articles start coming in, and the editors have cut as much length as they can, the design editor/design team should start fitting articles into your publication’s layout (unless you’re online, in which case, you’re already almost done). Once layout is finished, all you need to do is copy-edit the content and send it to the printer (as described below).
Sample Record Timeline
In case it helps, here’s a sample timeline the Yale Record (a monthly magazine) uses.
September 4th: The process starts they day after our brainstorming session. Send out all available piece ideas. Assign each writer to a Managing Editor (random assignment is fine if you don’t yet know which people will be writing). First drafts are due in two weeks, which gives writers plenty of time to meet in person with editors, if they want to or you make it mandatory.
September 14th: First drafts are due to editors. If the editors don’t have an article by the early evening today, they should start bothering the writer (nicely, but firmly).
September 16th: The editors should have all edited drafts back to writers by the end of today.
September 20th: Second drafts are due to editors.
September 22nd: If needed, the editors return edited second drafts to be looked over by the writers. (Hopefully, no piece will need more than two editing sessions; if it still isn’t ready after that, an in-person meeting between the writer and editor is probably best.)
September 25th: All final articles are done. The designers start laying them out, along with any art, advertising, or special features.
September 27th: The designers finish the first “final copy”. The copy editor, managing editors, and publication leaders look over the final issue and make note of any typoes that the designers need to correct.
September 28th: The file with the ACTUAL “final copy”, with all proof-reading finished, is sent to the printer. We’ll get our printed copies back in about a week. Meanwhile, it’s time to start brainstorming again!
(The process is similar for weekly publications — everything just happens much faster, with tighter deadlines and a close-to-all-night editing session the night before the issue is printed.)
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And now, here’s that special feature I promised you. (Skip to the bottom if you just want to read the next article — you’ll be fine.)
One Year with the Yale Record
(Title credits. An owl swoops ominously across the screen.)
The Online Editor uploads content to the website from the Graduation Issue that we published in May. Meanwhile, the Managing Editors and Editor-in-Chief take charge of new articles and design work for the Freshman Issue, which we will publish at the end of August, as well as the October issue. Finally, the Art Director searches for cartoons and cover art for the Freshman and October issues.
For much of the summer, the non-writing staff takes it easy. The Publicity Manager tweets about recent events and random topics; whenever someone thinks of something funny, we put it out on social media or save it for a later issue.
Then, in the second half of the season, activity picks up. The Chairman, Publisher, and Business Manager try to renew the Record’s advertisements with old clients, while picking up new clients through cold calls, cold emails, and whatever contacts we can find. At the same time, the Publisher talks to local printers, negotiating the best possible price for the year’s issues. Meanwhile, the Design Editor reworks the Record‘s layout to account for the new ads, and inserts the pieces that have been written for the Freshman Issue.
Finally, just before students arrive back on campus, the Chairman reserves a room for the first meeting and a spot at the Activities Fair, so that the Record will have places to entertain interested freshmen.
At the end of August, we print the Freshman Issue and distribute it wherever freshmen gather. Inside the issue, we introduce ourselves and invite them to our first meeting.
At the Activities Fair, we convince hundreds of freshmen to add their emails to our subscription list, supervised by the Recruitment Director. Then, the Supplementals Editor sends them a newsletter filled with our best articles from recent years (which also advertises the first meeting).
After our first meeting, the crowd thins our to the people who are genuinely interested in joining. We hand them sheets of paper explaining exactly what they’ll need to do to join the staff, and they sign up to write articles for the November issue. We also sign up to eat dinner with new members, one-on-one, so that they can get to know us.
Our energy at the beginning of the year is focused on bringing in new people. Once we have the people, the ideas can follow.
In October (and every other month of the school year), we go through a full issue-writing process from scratch. At the same time, we’re brainstorming our first major “supplemental issue”, along with a prank or two. The issues are the bread and butter of the Record, and other projects (supplementals, pranks, videos, inviting funny speakers to give talks at Yale) swirl around them.
As a beginning publication, you’ll be very tempted to focus on your own “bread and butter”. This isn’t a bad instinct — getting the basics right, and actually publishing something, is your first priority. But remember Rule #1 of the Guide: Be willing to Try Lots of Stuff. For all you know, you’ll wind up being better at viral videos or hosting guest speakers than publishing a magazine!
During November, in addition to publishing an issue, we start to keep careful track of who is coming to meetings consistently and/or submitting great work. We’ll be asking those people to join the staff in December — anyone who fulfilled our “heeling requirements” (what one must do to join) or who entered the process late but seems funny and/or cool.
Two more big things happen in November:
- We thoroughly plan the timeline of events for Staff Initiation. Ours is pretty complicated (a long, thematic night of games and events), but something simpler (even just a small party) would definitely work well for a new publication.
- We start working on content for our Very Special Issue in April. This is different from other issues — we print more copies, and it’s often a parody of an existing publication. It’s also much more complicated to put together, so we start working on it as early as we can.
In the first week of December, we hold Staff Initiation, which takes about six hours if you include the after-party. We normally don’t release an issue in December, since people are heading home for the holidays. Instead, we spend the month brainstorming other content and projects, as well as preparing for the January issue.
(Intermission for winter break. Go grab some snacks in the lobby.)
Over break, the Publisher calls in the order for the January issue. Ideally, students will see it almost the moment they get back to campus, when they’re feeling peak nostalgia for the college they haven’t seen in three weeks.
Another issue. Hopefully another supplemental (we sometimes write one for Valentine’s Day or Groundhog Day). More pranks and videos. Life goes on.
By the end of February, we want to have most of our material for the Special April Issue finished, since laying out and proofreading a special issue can take several weeks.
Another issue. In March, we give staff members the chance to apply for board positions (“named” positions beyond the simple Staff Writer/Artist title). Once all applications are in, each applicant gets a very thorough interview (half an hour, often more), where we ask them to discuss their feelings about the past year and how they’d like to see the Record change in the future.
When interviews are done, we spend a full weekend (15 hours or more) discussing exactly who belongs in which position. I’ve always thought this is too long, but then again, we will be spending the next year with the people we choose…
On Sunday night, we call every applicant, successful or not. Successful applicants get shouts of congratulation over speakerphone from the Chairman, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief. Unsuccessful applicants get a private phone call from the Chairman alone.
We host a special party where the new board members can meet the outgoing members. This normally leads to multiple rounds of Telephone Pictionary in the office, and at least one dark secret confessed in the dead of night. (Last year, we all learned about each other’s first kisses; bonding!)
This is an interesting month for writing; we’re finishing up our Special April Issue, and at the same time teaching new board members how the Record’s process works. After the Special Issue is released, we do some desultory work on the Graduation Issue (some new content, lots of recycled content — only seniors read it, so we don’t have to be very original).
Spring is also a great time for pranks, since the weather is nice and people are generally in good moods/ready to laugh. I also recommend Frisbee, because most people don’t throw Frisbees often enough.
All Year Long: Weekly Meetings
The most important factor to the Record’s success is our weekly meetings. Here’s how they work:
- Same place, same time, every week. Open to everyone.
- People submit fake letters (“mailbags”) and news headlines (“Snews”) before each meeting, and award a prize to the funniest submission (our prize is a rubber duck, which we can get very cheaply).
- After that, we’ll brainstorm a couple of list pieces, or ideas for future pieces, in big groups. The groups give everyone a chance to get to know each other, and lead gradually to deep friendship.
These types of meetings work best for humor magazines, but every publication should, at the very least, have a board-only meeting every two weeks, to make sure everything is on track. (In addition to weekly meetings, weekly dinners, and weekly informal gatherings in our office, the Record has a weekly board meeting.)
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All right! You now know everything you need to know to write your first issue, and plan a full year of publication-y goodness beyond that. The last entry in the series, “Growing the Organization”, will discuss different strategies for keeping a publication going once the first successful issue has been printing.
The Rest of the Story