The incredible thing everyone in editorial has the opportunity to experience is the beauty of demographics. Whether you’re a hunting and fishing mag or a travel site, the inescapable “Who’s our reader?” experience leads to one, universal destination. Before the word’s are out of your mouth, the reader has inevitably made themselves known, and opening up two-way communication with your audience is a one-way trip into the middle of America.
I first dabbled in dealings with the general public at Good Housekeeping. Interns have the privilege of fielding all reader mail, which was any and every question or criticism you could think of, or never think of. The typical letter was in scribbled cursive from a Dorothy or Eleanor who was outright peeved they couldn’t enter contests without entering online. “Not everyone owns a computer you know!” they nearly all mentioned. “If so and so from when I was a girl knew what a turn this publication has taken she would roll in her grave.” It was that or a demand for a recipe for some kind of pasta mentioned sometime between 1947 and 1963 that someone’s mother just had to have in her scrapbook of sentimental things by Tuesday.
In your first magazine internship, your first time in New York City, these letters cause a bit of undue panic. It takes months to realize you can stop scrambling for the impossible response while working overtime, sweating, in heels. Right when I developed the ability to play it cool and effectively only involve the editors who needed to be, I got a four page confession of incest on the back of what was meant to be a change of address for our subscription office. No matter who I divulged the letter to, everyone was bound to read the horrific, detailed account, and that’s what happened. The painful aspect was follow-up questioning, as if I knew more than what was articulated on those pages, and in the end a social worker was outsourced…for the first time in their reader mail history.
I was relieved to pass reader mail on to a summer intern when I became an editorial assistant at Field & Stream, but once you’ve developed an inkling of trust you unfortunately advance to answering phone calls. It’s one thing that people write outlandish inquiries or unreasonable complaints, but it’s another thing when they call every time there’s a deer in the yard.
This happened on more than one occasion (which I referenced in my blog), and the dialogue consistently drowned on with sudden exclamations of, “It moved! What should I do?” and “I don’t have a camera, but it’s THIS big.” I was never of any assistance, but I answered which became positive reinforcement. My favorite reader sent a letter from prison during a target shooting contest telling us how she caused a corruption in the cafeteria and intentionally stayed standing with our target when the guards told everyone to hit the ground. She was knowingly shot with pellet guns so she could send a completed target in and the letter was so priceless we printed copies and posted them all over our offices. That’s called engaging the reader.
Best of the Road, my current work project, involves approving or removing thousands of reader reviews. This process has regrettably exposed Middle America. It rings true that anytime you ask the entire country to give you feedback, you’re asking for a seriously diverse assortment of responses, but these are unreal. For example, one read: “My woman are a good cook, so I don’t eat much pie. And they don’t grow rhubarb in the hills and hollers where I come from, so I don’t like the stuff. “Bitter”, I say. But I bin to the Clinton Kitchen Restaurant, and agree that they got really good grub.”
As informative as that was, it doesn’t meet the standards set by reviews like, “Because my wife told me to,” or “I hate it here.” When a bunch of New Yorker’s decide to only ask the small towns of America what this country has to offer, answers like that don’t really compel any of us to ever see for ourselves. I want to say we’re not elitists, but then Billy Bob has to come out of the gates with “My woman are good cook.”
When a woman can say the following in a meeting without any objections, you know we’ve all been here too long…because we agree, “America is getting a little too close. It makes me nervous.”