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Bill Falk, Editor In Chief, The Week Magazine, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “I Feel An Even Greater Responsibility To Our Readers To Be Able To Sift Through This Information And Try To Detect A Signal In The Noise…” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

April 29, 2020

Publishing During A Pandemic (25)

“I actually think that it has made us more relevant than ever, because the amount of information coming at people now is exponentially greater than when we launched almost 20 years ago. There’s just a constant firehose coming at people on social media and various online sources. Our mission and our value proposition to the reader is the same, except that it may be even more needed now, which is: Let us read most of it for you and curate it, make sense of it, group it into categories, subjects and topics that cohere in a sensible way. And then give you a variety of opinions about a topic from a lot of different sources so you can get some perspective on the story and connect the dots, that’s what we’ve always tried to do, connect the dots.” … Bill Falk

“We’re rallying to meet this challenge and my message to staff has been that we have a real duty here to carry on in this crisis. In a sense, I think people in the information, journalism business are in the class of First Responders. People need information; they’re scared and worried and we have to convey information to them from experts and political leaders and various other sources. That’s been my message to staff. We do things to cheer ourselves up through meetings and Slack channels where we post photos of ourselves at home and our pets and families and things.” … Bill Falk

The Week magazine will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary, and its one and only editor in chief, Bill Falk, says never has the magazine been more needed than during this pandemic. As the curation is tight, and during these ambiguous times, extremely concise and as accurate as possible, each issue will alert you to all the important updates and COVID-19 information as possible, and quite often to a few sources to follow up on.

I spoke with Bill recently and we talked about all of the particulars of working from home, publishing a magazine with your staff via remote communications, and about how journalists and information providers rank right up there with First Responders to him when it comes to helping people get the content they need to stay safe and well.

And now the 25th Mr. Magazine™ interview in the series of Publishing During A Pandemic with Bill Falk, editor in chief, The Week.

But first the sound-bites:

On how a weekly publication such as The Week is operating during the pandemic: We’re actually doing pretty well. Again, I think we are fortunate in that our business model has always been to get the majority of revenue directly from subscribers, rather than to rely on advertising. And that has held us in good stead through various recessions and other problems, obviously through the whole digital disruption of the magazine industry.

On how easy, hard or disruptive the move to working from home was: It certainly makes it more difficult. It’s a degree of difficulty of about a seven or eight to a nine or ten. I miss the ability to communicate with staff instantly, face-to-face; to huddle; to discuss things. And not being able to do that easily and having to rely on electronic communications definitely adds a layer of friction to the process.

On how relevant he thinks The Week is today in the midst of the pandemic, and in the midst of everything that has taken place over the years with the industry: I actually think that it has made us more relevant than ever, because the amount of information coming at people now is exponentially greater than when we launched almost 20 years ago. There’s just a constant firehose coming at people on social media and various online sources. Our mission and our value proposition to the reader is the same, except that it may be even more needed now, which is: Let us read most of it for you and curate it, make sense of it, group it into categories, subjects and topics that cohere in a sensible way.

On whether he had ever thought of working during something like a pandemic and if he thinks someone could prepare for something like it: It’s impossible to be fully prepared for something like this. I think like a lot of other media, we have run stories in the past from experts predicting that this day would come.

On what message he is communicating with his staff during these uncertain times: To the staff, I try to convey the message that we have a really important responsibility here and this is the biggest story of our lifetimes. I guess we thought 9/11 and the aftermath would be the biggest story and this supersedes that. We have a great opportunity to use the skills we’ve honed to help readers understand this, make sense of it, to give them tips.

On any additional words of wisdom: I recently read an editor’s letter about this, that there is a reminder here that nothing in life is sure or guaranteed. We should appreciate every day. I find myself being very grateful for a lot of things , including the fact that I can continue to work under these circumstances. I know many people cannot and are in dire economic straits as a result.

On what keeps him up at night: In terms of the magazine, my big fear would be that members of my staff would become ill and this could interfere with our ability to work, so I have some contingency plans on that, but so far, we’ve all been healthy, thank God, but that is something to worry about. We are a small staff, we need all hands on deck, so that is a danger.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bill Falk, editor in chief, The Week.

Samir Husni: You’re publishing a weekly magazine, so how is The Week operating during this pandemic?

Bill Falk: We’re actually doing pretty well. Again, I think we are fortunate in that our business model has always been to get the majority of revenue directly from subscribers, rather than to rely on advertising. And that has held us in good stead through various recessions and other problems, obviously through the whole digital disruption of the magazine industry.

So, where our advertising has been hurt, just like everyone else’s, we can’t escape that, but subscriptions are going strong and we actually raised our prices before the pandemic hit. We’re actually anticipating an increase in revenue from subscriptions this year. We should be pretty solid through this pandemic.

Samir Husni: How easy, hard, or disruptive was the move to working from home?

Bill Falk: It certainly makes it more difficult. It’s a degree of difficulty of about a seven or eight to a nine or ten. I miss the ability to communicate with staff instantly, face-to-face; to huddle; to discuss things. And not being able to do that easily and having to rely on electronic communications definitely adds a layer of friction to the process.

But we’ve been increasingly moving to doing our surveying of what’s in the media to online sources, just because it’s so convenient now. Most of our major source newspapers and magazines we can access digitally. In a lot of ways, that hasn’t changed dramatically. We’re able to still look at all the original source material with relative ease.

It’s the actual making of the physical product that is more complicated. We have Slack communications among the staff. We also use email for certain things. And on deadline days, which for us are Monday and especially Tuesday and Wednesday, the messages are flying fast and furious. If multitasking makes you stupid, as they say, then we’re very dumb indeed. (Laughs) We’re multitasking like crazy, sometimes editing, fielding an email, looking at photos, answering copy editors’ questions, all at the same time.

It gets really stressful. I think that the degree of stress that we experience on deadline is greater. It’s more multitasking and more things to pay attention to. You miss something without the direct face-to-face communication. Sometimes in the office I could just pick my head up and say to the art director who was five feet away, “Did you get that photo from Mark yet?” (Laughs)

Whereas at home I’ve got to Slack him and maybe he’s doing something else and I have to wait and then I get interrupted by a different message and a different problem to deal with. It reminds me of that old Ed Sullivan Show skit where the guy would come out with 10 sticks and 10 plates and try and spin all the plates while the Flight of the Bumblebee played without dropping any. (Laughs again)

But it is doable. We’re fortunate that within the last year we moved our office and in so doing we upgraded our technology. We’re all equipped with laptops that can very easily access the server. It was more complicated before with the dial-in and all sorts of things. And now we can all be on the server and work pretty seamlessly remotely in that way.

Samir Husni: The Week launched almost 20 years ago, so how relevant is The Week today in the midst of the pandemic, and in the midst of everything that has taken place over the years with the industry?

Bill Falk: I actually think that it has made us more relevant than ever, because the amount of information coming at people now is exponentially greater than when we launched almost 20 years ago. There’s just a constant firehose coming at people on social media and various online sources. Our mission and our value proposition to the reader is the same, except that it may be even more needed now, which is: Let us read most of it for you and curate it, make sense of it, group it into categories, subjects and topics that cohere in a sensible way. And then give you a variety of opinions about a topic from a lot of different sources so you can get some perspective on the story and connect the dots, that’s what we’ve always tried to do, connect the dots.

And there are a lot more dots now, so it’s harder. What we’re doing is still very much needed and I think now in the midst of a time where we’re all frightened, worried, scared and overwhelmed, I feel an even greater responsibility to our readers to be able to sift through this information and try to detect a signal in the noise and give people an idea of what we know about COVID-19; what we know about the policy disagreements; what we know about the science and treatments; and where this may go. What’s happening in the rest of the world.

We had a briefing on a longer story recently about the South Korea experience with COVID-19 and how they were so successful in minimizing the number of cases and deaths without destroying their economy. And we explained that to readers.

There are many different ways we can cast light on this, and honestly, I’m pretty obsessed with the subject. I find myself going from reading three or four hours a day in preparation for work to maybe six hours a day reading constantly. I have CNN on and various other networks, switching around, trying to educate myself every day as to what the latest developments are and what the smart people are saying about this.

Samir Husni: Did you ever imagine that you would be working during a pandemic and do you think anyone could ever prepare for something like this?

Bill Falk: It’s impossible to be fully prepared for something like this. I think like a lot of other media, we have run stories in the past from experts predicting that this day would come. There have been many people in infectious diseases, after SARS, MERS, Ebola and HIV, who said there would be more new pathogens emerging, probably across the species barrier from animals and at one point we’re going to be very unlucky and one of these pathogens is going to be very infectious and spread easily.

So we have runs stories about that in the past, but it’s like running a story about an asteroid strike on the earth, we all know it’s possible, but you don’t really believe it until something like that happens. On one hand it’s not surprising, but on the other hand it’s shocking.

Samir Husni: What message are you communicating with your staff, advertisers, and readers during these uncertain times?

Bill Falk: To the staff, I try to convey the message that we have a really important responsibility here and this is the biggest story of our lifetimes. I guess we thought 9/11 and the aftermath would be the biggest story and this supersedes that. We have a great opportunity to use the skills we’ve honed to help readers understand this, make sense of it, to give them tips.

We actually created two new pages, we changed our format which we rarely do, but we got rid of the travel page, which is obviously irrelevant at this point, and we turned it into a page called “Life At Home” that’s full of stories about how to make-do in quarantine, and dealing with your kids and how to make a mask. We’ve devoted our art section to various streaming movies and series that people can watch. We’re heavily covering any kind of entertainment that you can still access online.

So, we’re rallying to meet this challenge and my message to staff has been that we have a real duty here to carry on in this crisis. In a sense, I think people in the information, journalism business are in the class of First Responders. People need information; they’re scared and worried and we have to convey information to them from experts and political leaders and various other sources. That’s been my message to staff. We do things to cheer ourselves up through meetings and Slack channels where we post photos of ourselves at home and our pets and families and things.

To the readers, we’ve actually put a few letters on the cover of the magazine addressed to our readers telling them not to worry, we will continue publishing and that we’re all working remotely and safe. So they don’t have to worry about us. And that should there be any disruption in the ability to print or distribute the magazine, we’ve asked people to give us their email and we can give them information. We will then make it available to all the print subscribers online, get them behind the paywall, or look at our APP version of the magazine. So, that’s been our message to readers, that we will continue to publish and we will be here for them.

Samir Husni: Any additional words of wisdom?

Bill Falk:  I recently read an editor’s letter about this, that there is a reminder here that nothing in life is sure or guaranteed. We should appreciate every day. I find myself being very grateful for a lot of things , including the fact that I can continue to work under these circumstances. I know many people cannot and are in dire economic straits as a result. It’s just particularly gratifying to be able to be immersed in this and to meet the challenge of trying to make sense of what is going on. And I’m grateful to be in journalism.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Bill Falk: In terms of the magazine, my big fear would be that members of my staff would become ill and this could interfere with our ability to work, so I have some contingency plans on that, but so far, we’ve all been healthy, thank God, but that is something to worry about. We are a small staff, we need all hands on deck, so that is a danger.

I worry about disruptions in delivery, but the postal service seems to be carrying on. And I obviously worry about the pandemic’s effect on our country and the economy, the political divisions. Some of what’s going on is very disturbing.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

 

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