Ted McGregor: Pitching a Special Section

Editor’s Note: This is the 29th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

For some alt-weekly publications, the advent of summer can be a time of dread.   After all, it’s the moment when editorial staffs are forced away from their real work and tapped to wrestle with the requisite Summer Guide — an annual newsroom event that can be marked by uninspired writing and don’t-wanna-do attitudes.

That’s not so at the Pacific Northwest Inlander, where editor and publisher Ted S. McGregor Jr. boasts that much of his staff, in recent years, has been excited about producing its most popular issue of the year.

The thread that runs through the Inlander’s “Summer Guide 2004” is reflections on youth. Scattered childhood photographs of staff members and chalkboard drawings give the pages a warm and whimsical graphic appeal. The pullout guide won a first-place AltWeekly Award for Special Section, the first top honor the Inlander has taken in the competition.

At the helm as editor and publisher since the paper’s beginning in 1993, McGregor helped co-found the Inlander after stints inside newsrooms on both coasts.  Between joking about how out-of-towners constantly make the mistake of calling his paper "The Pacific Northwest Islander" and the methods he uses to force ideas out of his staff, the Spokane, Wash., native talked about making a special section not only a good read but a fun project for the staff.

How does the creative process work when you’re putting together a special section?

Basically, we go into a room, lock the door and don’t leave until we come up with ideas.  There’s always the first half hour that’s spent kind of looking at each other.  Nobody really has any ideas.  But these are all creative people, and eventually we start coming up with something that will pull the section up to a different level.

The way we compete with dailies and other media is through our ideas, Just because another media organization is bigger than we are doesn’t mean its ideas are going to be any better.

Your award-winning section features childhood stories and photos.  Was everyone game to share those things?

There’s a write-up about wine country from a writer named Marty Demarest, and it has a picture of a bunch of grapes.  He refused to let us use a photo.  He basically said, "Oh, I don’t have any pictures of me as a kid," but we were kind of like, "Ah." Some writers don’t necessarily want their picture in the paper and we understand, but most people thought it was fun.

Speaking of childhood photos, how was the designer able to make them look more than ordinary?

The designer at that time dropped them into a format that made them look like a snapshot with the little white border. That element gave the photographs the look of an old snapshot that you dug out of your mom’s drawer.

The design goes pretty fast if you get a template going.  Obviously, you don’t want to make your design on your biggest issue of the year too precious — because time is an issue — but a few little flourishes like that that can be done fairly quickly are nice. 

How do you keep writers engaged in producing the summer guide each year?

A lot of editors struggle with how to make these kinds of sections not only interesting for the readers but interesting for their staff.  It’s a real challenge.  My attitude is, it’s one of our best-read papers of the year.  The return rate is under two percent.  Let’s have some fun with it.  Let’s do something that we’ll all enjoy writing, that fits within the confines of the summer guide, rather than just doing something perfunctory.

What’s the biggest challenge you face when producing a special section?

There’s always a lot of work.  You can bite off a lot more than you can chew on these things.  Over the years I’ve learned what can we do to make this a little bit easier and not quite so overwhelming because at the end of the day our production people have to put this together, we’ve got to get it on the page, and we’ve got to get it proofed.

Writers can sit in a room and dream up a lot of stuff but not all of it is going to be practical on a week where you’re doing essentially two papers.  That’s kind of the biggest thing for me — realizing what we can do and what we can’t do. 

What other, more creative types of summer themes have you done in past years?

One year for summer guide, we did the top 500 things to do, which was nuts.  It was our 500th issue of the Inlander — just randomly, it happened to land on a summer guide.  That definitely falls into the category of biting off more than you can chew.

This last summer we did kind of a cool thing inspired by a book these women in Manhattan wrote about merit badges for grown-ups.  The whole concept of the section this summer was that if you did this, this and this, you’d get your music merit badge; and if you did this, this and this, you’d get your camping merit badge.  We printed a page with all the colored merit badges, and we created this little form you could send in.  We didn’t think anyone would, but about 15 people did.

If you go back a few years before that, we weren’t doing as much of that kind of stuff, we were doing more straight-ahead. 

The target audience for the summer guide issue is a bit broader than your usual base.  How does that affect the editorial content?

It’s a chance to introduce people to the paper, so for those issues, I’m always focused on having a really good news lead and a really good arts lead in the regular sections.  It would be easy on those weeks to be like, "Ah, whatever, let’s just run something off the wire; that’s easy."  But I know that different people are going to read it, so I want to have a good section outside the pullout, too.

Part of it is the perfectionist side of me wanting to make everything perfect, but I do think that it’s important.  It’s a chance to bring in some new readers.  If people pick it up and are impressed by it, they might become our regular readers. 

How much does advertising affect what you do in the paper’s special sections?

Four or five years ago, we developed a long section of week-by-week listings. Advertising pushed for that because then they can go and say, "Hey, you can have your event listed by the calendar."  So we run the editorial across the top, and then we just gave away the whole bottom to advertising so they can sell people on a certain week.

That’s been good, but, you know, we typically try not to get into too much of that.  Reps here are pretty good about knowing that we don’t do pay-for-stories and stuff like that.  There are good ideas that come our way from the sales staff, but we’ve got them pretty well trained not to expect much. 

What advice would you give other papers on how to keep their special sections informative as well as an appealing pursuit for writers?

If, while you and your writers are writing it, it seems boring and stupid, it’s going to be boring and stupid.  The concept has got to be something that people walk out of the meeting excited about.  When we came up with the merit badge idea, everybody walked out of that meeting feeling really excited.

That’s the key for motivating the staff to do something great.  You can say, "Hey, this is how we pay your salary, with this kind of section," but that doesn’t really do it.  What motivates writers, as everybody knows, is that they’re creative people. They want to write and be funny and be interesting and get response.  So the key is to pitch it as something that isn’t like medicine; it’s more like fun dessert.

Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.

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