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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

An interview with Leslie Brokaw

Leslie Brokaw is a contributing editor to MIT Sloan Management Review and helps manage daily operations of its website, sloanreview.mit.edu. In recent years, Leslie served as editor-in-chief of Leader magazine, a quarterly publication for adult volunteers of Girl Scouts of the USA, and as a weekly columnist for the Boston Globe, writing about the New England film community. She wrote the most recent editions of Frommer’s Montréal and Québec City and Frommer’s Montréal Day by Day, and contributed to the most recent edition of Frommer’s New England. She also helps develop and manage small business websites, including anthonyrao.com, chrisbrokaw.com, and akeyinthedoor.com.

How do you think the digital revolution has reshaped the landscape for freelance writers?

Well, you have to start with the general economic malaise that we’ve been in since late 2008. Obviously, that has hurt the economics of the magazine industry. But when you couple that with the explosion in digital platforms in that same time span, you’ve got publications that, even if they’re still print-centric, are spending a lot of time thinking about how they can expand their reach through their websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, formatting for phones and tablets. The result is magazines overseeing a lot of technical moving parts and a lot of experiments with how to staff and manage the push of material into all these forums.

Some of that work is being done by people who have been at those magazines for awhile, but there are great opportunities here for freelancers who are comfortable with those platforms, confident that they can understand the voice and needs of a publication, and creative about working with the staffs to help out.

In terms of general writing and editing, though, magazine stories, whether they are shorts or longer pieces or something in between, still need the same kind of creativity, tenacity in reporting, and careful editing that they always need. That hasn’t changed for freelancers.

What kinds of new obstacles, if any, have you encountered when writing for digital publications? For instance, are there new formatting restrictions that have the side effect of shaping content?

Bloggers need to structure their writing more like newspaper stories than magazine stories—generally, the payoff and the point of the thing needs to come high up in the post, if not in the first sentence. Because people are reading on a computer screen or on a teeny phone screen, they’re only going to skim so far before they make a yes/no decision about whether to continue. Short paragraphs help. Lists help. Using bold helps.

And it’s necessary to write super short, like a good tabloid headline writer. I spend a lot of my time trying to come up with catchy but still descriptive headlines in 45 characters, max.

What are your thoughts on tablets, and their impact on the magazine publishing industry?

I’ll borrow from MIT Sloan’s Andrew McAfee, who predicts that the iPad will get some worthy competition in 2012: “When Amazon’s Kindle Fire came out I wrote that the tablet wars were starting in earnest, and when I hear Eric Schmidt promise a ‘highest quality’ Android tablet in 2012 I get excited to see what’s coming. Thanks to tablets and smartphones we’re moving past the PC’s longstanding WIMP interface paradigm (windows, icons, menus, pointers [i.e. cursors]) into one I’m calling VEST — voice, eyes, speech, and touch—that will change what computing devices we use most often, and how we interact with them.”

From a production point of view, some magazines got excited about formatting their web sites and/or print publications for iPads, but many thought it was a headache. With several tablet versions along with all the smartphones, it’s clear there really needs to be a template that magazines can use to feed all of those versions.

What do you think magazines tend to do wrong in the new publishing environment?

In anything in life, it’s always bad to overcommit and underdeliver. I would put starting something and not having the time or money or resources or attention to keep feeding it and keep updating it in that category.

Keeping web sites current and active is the biggest challenge. National Geographic has a great web site, a really nice design and a strong combination of bold photos, repurposed material from the magazine, daily news, links. But that’s National Geographic—lots of resources there. Smaller magazines such as Good, JPG, Dwell, and Yoga Journal do a great job focusing on a small number of things that can only be done online (videos, photo contests, photo essays) and executing them really well and very regularly.

New York Times paywall—yay or nay?

Yay. Make that a big yay. As readers, we have to be willing to pay for what we consume. It’s crazy to look to advertising to carry the entire financial burden. Good journalism costs money. Reporters and editors and photographers need to be compensated. To me, this question is like saying “paying for books—yay or nay?” or “paying for groceries—yay or nay?” I am happy to pay for the media I get in hard copy or online: the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Salon, Mediabistro, Wired, the New Yorker.

As a digital publishing professional, what is your favorite aspect of managing the MIT Sloan Management Review website?

I started my journalism career in radio, long enough ago that I was working with actual tape that I’d cut with razor blades and join with Scotch tape. I loved being able to use both sides of my brain, both the reporting/writing side and the creative/art project side, putting together five-minute stories in the editing room. Working on the website is a little bit of a return to that, with both the reporting/writing aspect and the HTML coding and photo formatting and general attention to visual detail on the other.

Do you prefer to read print, digital, or some combination thereof?

I read in print or on my desktop’s 13” x 11” screen. I sometimes read on my netbook when I’m traveling. The Kindle seems really convenient, but I’m happy having a New Yorker or small book in my bag when I’m out and about. I’ve tried reading on my husband’s Droid, but I can’t stay focused on so little info in front of me, and I still feel like I am all thumbs in trying to navigate forward and backward. I have discovered that I go back to re-read things a lot when I’m in the middle of a piece or story, and that’s way more convenient in print.

Is there any new technology that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m a slow adapter. It’s partly my thrifty side—if something still works, I am loathe to dump it for something shinier. I hate spending money unnecessarily, I hate throwing things out that still work, and I’m conscious of the fact that the manufacture and  land filling of all our electronic gadgets is not a clean business, environmentally. I love my flip phone but I sort of miss my shoe-size phone which sounded better and doubled as a defensive weapon. I haven’t gotten a smart phone yet. I like not having access to email 24-7, like when I’m walking my dog at the park.

When I ran the Inc. website, I purposely kept my computer and programs on the older side, to make sure that our pages would load quickly. As a web content creator, it’s a risk if everyone on your team is using fast computers and beautiful Apple screens. You want to make sure that the site experience is good for an audience that might not have top of the line equipment. On the other hand, I do love fast computers. I like Skype, I use bitly a lot.

In terms of big concepts, I love crowd sourcing and crowd science, which we’ve written a lot about at MIT Sloan. The fact that scientists are posting to the world projects they need input on, and then receiving international amateur participation that is turning up contributions in things like AIDS research, is completely exciting.

Any thoughts on the big three—Amazon, Apple, and Google?

I blogged about this in November. Fortune’s cover was “Facebook vs. Google! BATTLE FOR THE FUTURE OF THE WEB” at the same time that Wired’s cover claimed that “Amazon OWNS THE INTERNET.” I was most convinced by Wired’s take that Amazon is poised to be more significant than any of them, long term. Author Steven Levy, in the story “Jeff Bezos Owns the Web in More Ways Than You Think,” points out all the ways that the company’s product sales empire has expanded[,]: its move into manufacturing tablets, its cloud services arm for businesses, and even its project to finance movies. Although I thought its Price Check shopping app, which caused such a ruckus in December, was probably fair game for a capitalist operation, it left me with a bad feeling about the company.

Favorite font for writing? 

I’m generally an Arial 10 person, but I’m toying with this Calibri 12. Sometimes I hear the siren call of good ole Times New Roman 11.

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2012 by in Interviews and Events and tagged , , .

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