The Digital Companion

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Working with Contributors

"There are so many moving parts in a magazine and keeping everything in check has proven pretty tough in the past. How do you go about planning? Do you do things on the fly or do you follow a series of strict deadlines?"

Occasionally I get emails from other publishers (or those aspiring to be) asking about my process for handling contributors. Sharing how I do things has always been important to me as I struggled to get started myself. So here’s a bit of insight into my workflow with contributors:

As with most things in life, it becomes easier more manageable the often you do it. The first issue seemed like an impossible challenge to master, but it felt a little less overwhelming the second time around.

Planning is important, but don’t overthink it. Doing is more important than getting it perfectly right. I tried many project management tools, but always end up back in Gmail and Google Docs because that’s where I interact with people. You’ll refine your planning process over time as you’ll notice what does and doesn’t work for you.

One document that I rely on and have pinned in my browser for months until the files are handed over to the printer is my Content Plan. It’s a birds eye view of the entire issue in form of a Google Docs spreadsheet. Each page gets a row and I keep track of contributors, content submissions, open tasks, etc. in separate columns.

Being an independent magazine with no editorial board or pressure from advertisers, my deadlines are more loose than those of other publications. Besides my (vague) publishing cycle of 3-4 months, the main deadline to keep in mind is the one I agree upon with my printer. Once I have an idea of how far away the issue is from completion, I arrange a date for the printer to start with their pre-press job and from then onwards, I have a clear deadline when all of my work has to be done.

When it comes to giving deadlines to contributors, the rule of thumb is always “the sooner, the better”. Dealing with so many different folks is still the biggest and most frustrating challenge of them all. Everyone is busy and everyone has different priorities. Even after five issues, I still find it hard to accept that there are extremely unreliable people out there. No matter how stoked they tell you they are to be in your magazine, sometimes you’ll never hear from them ever again. Even after several reminders or follow up emails. Whether it’s courteous of them or not, every publisher has to deal with “dropouts”. The sooner you don’t take it personally, the happier you’ll be.

What to do if a contributor drops out? It’s a case-to-case situation for me. If it’s an important contributor, try to have a few alternatives up your sleeve. It’s usually OK to be upfront about your situation and tell the new person that someone dropped out and you need an emergency replacement. Bigger publications often produce content for a whole second issue in advance (or at least partially) so that they have a buffer to fall back on.

When I approach potential contributors, I try to be as concise as possible with my emails. I tell them who I am, what I’m trying to do and (most importantly) what they would have to do to participate (deliverables). I also give them a rough timeframe (deadline) so that they can start scheduling things accordingly. For regular, bigger features — like our interviews — I’ve prepared a set of guidelines that I refer them to, so they know what tone and length I’m after, and understand the photographic style that we’re aiming for.

Once agreed upon, all my contributors receive a shared Google Doc with clear instructions at the top and space to actually submit their contribution below. This has worked great for me in the past, as I can comment on their content as it’s being added. It’s definitely challenging to keep tabs on 50+ active documents, but so far I haven’t seen any other tool that makes this part much easier. Maybe soon?

As I get closer to my editorial deadline, I check on all submissions on a weekly basis, reminding folks, following up content, checking facts, etc. This is one of the most stressful periods as I realise again and again how dependent of other people the success of each issue is.

Once most of the content is in, I lock the individual Google Docs and start collecting all content in one master document. This is where I start the final editing stage and collaborate with my proof-reader to iron out typos, inconsistencies, etc. I keep adding text as late submissions are coming in. It’s a very manual process.

With the final copy ready to be transferred to Indesign, the more visually creative part begins. This is the most fun part for me as I (finally) see the mag come together as a real thing.

With all of the above said, please keep in mind that Offscreen is unlike many other publications. It’s still very much a one-man-show. Working within a larger team requires a different approach that accommodates the various workflows of your teammates. Offscreen’s content consists mostly of first-person stories or interviews — they are not commissioned pieces by hired writers. This has many pros and cons. It’s usually “free content”, but the submissions vary greatly in quality and reliability.

Offscreen is by definition a “slow medium”. If your publication is purely digital, different rules and challenges apply. So you should take my advice with a grain of salt. Much has been said and debated about how to get publishing right in the digital space. Besides the content (and its contributors) you’ll have to think a lot more about your delivery method and how that, in turn, defines your content.

I should mention again that I’m still “learning by doing”. My process has lots of room for improvement and I’m eager to hear how other folks collaborate with contributors.

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