The editor of Wits Review (winner of 2021 Best Corporate Publication in SA), Peter Maher, says a striking aspect of successful publications is the deep respect they convey towards their readers when it comes to story content. ‘In my experience, being intimately connected to readers beyond just producing a publication is invaluable.’
We caught up with Peter to get insight into how they go about gathering the engaging, informative content that made Wits Review a winner in the Corporate Publication Competition of 2021.
By Peter Maher – Alumni Relations WITS
Crucial steps to producing a winning publication
If the headline did its job, readers are curious to learn more, and that is probably the first step to producing a great publication. I don’t in fact have a sure-fire recipe for success; but I suspect that an eagerness to learn is a crucial first step, along with a dose of ambition to serve your institution to the best of your ability while always respecting your readers.
My first observation is that we weren’t always considered excellent, but we always entered competitions, whether the SAPF’s Corporate Publication Competition, or any of the other competitions in the market. There are at least three good reasons to submit your publication for scrutiny. Firstly, by signalling your ambition, it provides a psychological boost to your determination to achieve excellence. Secondly, while we languished in the black hole of not being mentioned for many years, the judges’ comments did start alerting us to areas of weakness. Thirdly, it gives you the opportunity to see what is considered excellence and compare that to your publication.
Find examples of best practice
This flows into my second observation, which is that being curious and open to learning is crucial to improving a publication. It is extremely easy to look for and find examples of best practice by browsing through publications available online and, of course, especially the award-winning ones. Most of what I have learned about publications, and how to improve them for our readers, has been through careful analysis of existing publications in our field in the USA, UK, Australia, and Canada. In doing so, it soon becomes clear that there is a formula for content success.
The first striking aspect of publication best practice is visual appeal; to be enticing to the reader and to make it easier for the reader to navigate the publication. As a result, we are hyper aware of the quality of layout and design, photographs, graphics, and illustrations. In South Africa, most of us don’t have the luxury of having an art director on our team, but if your budget allows, it is well worth investing in quality visual material.
Readers first and foremost
Another striking aspect of successful publications is the deep respect they convey towards their readers when it comes to story content. This may seem a no-brainer, but some editors may feel pressure to produce a publication that impresses superiors and management rather than readers.
Reader surveys are a useful tool for getting feedback from readers on the current state of a publication and for their areas of interest. But while you may receive some useful comments and suggestions, readers are judging the current state of your publication and are not experts in advising you on how to improve your story content. In my experience, being intimately connected to readers beyond just producing a publication is invaluable for figuring out what interests them – so grab any opportunity to engage with your readers through personal contact as this may provide you with a rich source of qualitative feedback. It is also immensely motivating to meet your readers in person.
Analyse and read publications
But, while each publication’s readership may be slightly unique, there are likely far more areas of common interest they share with all readers in your particular field. Thus, one easy way to improve content is to invest time and effort to analyse and read award-winning publications in your field for both the types of stories they include and for the quality and tone of writing. In my field, there are very easily identifiable trends in the type of content that readers find engaging and this is often the result of intensive research undertaken by some publications. The take-away here is, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Finally, and most importantly for me, is to have an editorial team that feels 100% invested in the success of the publication. My role as editor seems to become more superfluous each issue as a fantastic, committed, and talented editorial team take ownership of the publication and are highly motivated to not only produce the very best publication they can, but to continually seek to improve on each issue. The key to a great publication is to never be complacent. If you are able to say with confidence that you have managed to improve your publication, in one way or another, with every new issue you produce, you will be astonished at what you can eventually achieve. Step-by-step.