Friday, February 8, 2013

Lyle Lahey, 1931-2013

At about 7:15 p.m. Central Time, on Friday, February 8, 2013, Lyle Lahey passed away. Known to many in Wisconsin as an independent (and ever-opinionated) political voice, Lyle was also my stepfather.

I don't remember the first time I met Lyle Lahey, but it was probably during a visit to my mother's office at Brown County Publishing in Denmark, Wisconsin. There, lots of talented albeit underpaid professionals assembled a number of local newspapers and one magazine; the magazine was my mother's brainchild; the newspapers were where Lyle worked as a political cartoonist, editorial page editor, and designer.

At some point, Mom must have taken me down to her friend Lyle's office, and there, amidst his drawing board and reference material and stacks of books and magazines and newspapers, was the tall, lanky political cartoonist whose work I saw every day in the Green Bay News-Chronicle and stories of whom I had heard my mother retell.

Over the years, I saw Lyle numerous times, and he eventually became my stepfather. I knew people in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who subscribed to the News-Chronicle soley because of Lyle's political cartoons. I had a (friendly) argument with a friend in high school who was certain Lyle's last name was pronounced laHEY and who didn't believe me when I said I was pretty sure my own stepfather pronounced his name LAhey. For 35 years, Lyle produced political cartoons on a daily basis for Brown County Publishing and the Green Bay News-Chronicle. He rarely took vacations, he never stopped (he had high respect for Bill Watterson, but I think Lyle thought him to be a bit of a weakling when Watterson called it a day after 10 years of "Calvin and Hobbes"), and he did something that artists almost never do: When he had to decide between producing material that was blander and more commercial so it could be syndicated nationally, he chose to stick to local topics because he felt that the people of Green Bay, Wisconsin, deserved to have a cartoonist who addressed their issues.

Lyle also, many years before, created "Bunky," a weekly comic strip in The Farmer's Friend (another Brown County Publishing newspaper). A year ago, I suggested republishing his "Bunky" comics through the magic of Amazon's print-on-demand service; he and my mother gave their blessing. Now, it's an imperative that that be done. Lyle's desert-dry sense of humor is perfectly transmitted in that strip's mixture of a befuddled space alien, a farm boy, and a sojourn to Maoist China.

Lyle Lahey was the man who sent home from the office a couple dozen issues of Omni magazine for me to devour. He was the man who helped my mother come to terms with it when I came out. He was the man who brought home library books of early Superman, Little Nemo, and (the greatest of all) Krazy Kat. He was the man who was the staff political cartoonist for the smallest daily newspaper in the country to have its own political cartoonist. He was the man who shared copies of Car Design and Comics Scene magazines with me, because he knew we both liked the publisher and I really knew nothing about cars. He was the man who shared Harlan Ellison and thriller books with me. He was the man – the stepfather – who got along great with my father; they traded stacks of car magazines each time they saw each other at frequent family gatherings.

And, like a generation so removed from my own ironic generation, he said what he meant and he took you seriously when you said something serious.

Lyle was a good man, a better man than I am or ever have been. He was, in the best sense of the term, an old-fashioned man. He read widely and a lot; he cared about what he talked about, and when you spoke to him, he always focused on what you were saying.

No man is perfect, but you won't get any admissions from me of errors in Lyle Lahey.

 Rest in peace, Lyle; you've earned it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Art of Making Magazines

Ten minutes ago, I finished reading my copy of The Art of Magazines, a fun and fascinating book from Columbia University Press. A slim book (Amazon calls it a 200-pager, but this paperback has just over 180, even if you count the blank pages at the end), the book is subtitled "On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry."

Page count aside, it's a book every aspiring and practicing editor and writer (and publisher and entrepreneur) should read. Forgive the occasional typo (an odd failing to find in this type of a book, especially considering its chapters on fact checking and copyediting) or some of the out-of-date comments in the chapters; this book's central messages are applicable to every writer, editor, and publisher in print and online. For that matter, it should also be mandatory reading by those Silicon Valley types who are eager to drive a stake through the heart of magazines, when what they're really saying is that they want to drive a stake through the heart of professional journalism.

The Art of Making Magazines is comprised of 12 chapters, all but one of which is a speech given by a high-profile magazine industry professional as part of the George Delacorte Lecture Series at the Columbia School of Journalism. The one exception is a Q&A conversation between moderator Victor Navasky and Vanity Fair Design Director Chris Dixon.

The speakers range from writer John Gregory Dunne to editors Ruth Reichl, Robert Gottlieb, Michael Kelly, Roberta Myers, Peter W. Kaplan, and Tina Brown; from fact checker Peter Canby to copyeditor Barbara Walraff; from art director Dixon and publisher John R. MacArthur to publisher/businessman/poet Felix Dennis. Get this book and read every one of those chapters; they will not only tell you how magazines are really put together (for better and worse), they will give your professional and creative imagination a boost for how to do things differently and better.

Reichl provides a pretty exhaustive run-through of what a high-powered magazine editor's day is like (and how little of it actually has anything remotely to do with editing), and as such she gives readers a good sense of how the editor-in-chief position has changed as technology and markets have changed. At the far end of the book, Felix Dennis also touches on the technology-and-changing-markets theme, but his is a more inspiring (albeit over-the-top) take on the subject; he says there will be a continuing need for good writers and editors even if ink-on-paper periodicals die off.

He also succinctly sums up something that is a theme through many of these talks, but he says it better (hence my use of "succinctly," I guess) than the others. He urges writers and editors and publishers to pay attention first to the reader, and only then to the advertiser. "My advertisers are welcome to attend the party. But they are not the guests of honor," Dennis writes. "They are welcome to a glass of champagne and piece of the cake, but I am married to my readers and not to my advertisers."

With that advice, along with his statements about the need to produce something the readers actually want to read and not something they're receiving simply because it's too much trouble to cancel their subscriptions, Dennis echoes a theme I've played on this blog numerous times, especially in its early years when I focused more on magazines; it's something that is central to a digital-only magazine I produced a couple years ago called Magma (hey, read it free).

Think about why people actually read magazines, or would read magazines if they're not; think about why magazines are failing even though the highly paid MBAs running them are doing everything by the book to cut costs and reduce article size and maximize revenues; think about why you would spend time reading a 5,000-word article and what you could get out of it that you don't get out of a 400-word blurb on a website; think about how many magazines have death wishes because their editors and publishers and owners don't know what they're doing or why readers should want to buy their publications, invest time and energy (and become emotionally connected) with it.

If The Art of Making Magazines has a major flaw, it is that it is very New York-centered in its chosen speakers; in fact, it is very Condé Nast-centered. What's missing, of course, is what most magazine writers and editors will experience: the small magazine, with no copyeditor, everyone including the publisher proofreads, and readerships in the tens of thousands rather than the millions. Also not included is someone speaking about the work of editors, writers, and publishers in business-to-business publishing, or in non-profit and associations publishing. There are some very successful publishers and editors in these ignored markets who could have given very valuable advice to the Columbia students and to readers of this book.

But in the end, the narrow focus is not any more of a hindrance to benefiting from this book than are the typos. The value is in the advice shared and stories told by the speakers – and in any degree of perceptivity that may be employed by the reader.
The Art of Making Magazines was edited by Victor S. Navasky and Evan Cornog, published by Columbia Journalism Review Books, an imprint of Columbia Journalism Press, and released in 2012.

The Newest New News Quiz

My latest Week to Week News Quiz, available in two different locations:

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