Managing a magazine
Eric Chan, Editor of Men’s Health Malaysia, talked to doctorjob about what goes on behind the scenes of a men’s lifestyle magazine – and advised aspiring journalists on what to do to impress.
The word which immediately springs to mind when describing Eric Chan is enthusiasm. The twinkle in his eye, the way a smile spreads across his face when he elaborates about a particular facet of his job – a perfect picture of someone who has found his niche in life.
Chan is Editor of Men’s Health Malaysia and as such is the self-confessed ‘kid in a candy store.’ Like every job, an editor’s life does come with its ups and downs. Yet his face doesn’t show any telltale sign of worry lines – evidence that he derives a lot of pleasure from his work.
Life at the top
It’s stressful,’ according to Chan. ‘It’s more managerial. I miss not being able to write as much as I used to.’ Now he says it’s more of a branding exercise. It’s literally cover to cover. It’s about what goes in, how you work with clients because a magazine is a business. ‘Editorial integrity aside,’ he continued, ‘we still need the backing for us to produce a magazine.
‘I’m learning every day. That’s the cool part – the experience never ends and the fun never stops, good and bad.’
After university Chan started out in law but commented, ‘The minute I got out of law school I wanted to do writing. I tried to pursue the law aspect of it for a while but then very quickly I got my first job in a magazine. Ever since then I’ve been writing.’
He found work as a junior writer and freelancer on a number of titles and with varying degrees of success – until becoming a writer for Men’s Health.
‘I was hired as a writer for a while. Then the editor left and I wanted to try it out but it was never a conscious thing for me to become an editor. I thought it would be less chaotic if I did it myself. I knew where everything was – including the paperclips,’ he chuckled.
Hitting the target
Chan believes Men’s Health is successful because it has a specific direction: it’s a head-to-toe improvement manual. It’s not just about health, it’s not just about exercising, it’s not just about eating – it’s everything.
‘We always use experts in the field. We always say, “OK, let’s speak to someone.” Less of the writer, more of the subject. We give the public information, not just broad strokes.’
Planning a publication
Men’s Health was set up in the US in 1987 as a health-orientated magazine. It has since evolved into more of a lifestyle publication with 39 regional editions around the world. In terms of design there is a certain look Men’s Health has to achieve to look uniform across the world. However, it’s up to each regional editor to select the best pictures and the best approach to lay them out.
They work two months in advance. Writers and contributors have to work further ahead than that. At the time of the interview in January, they were working on the April issue.
- A publication begins with an editorial meeting, where Chan identifies ‘the next big thing' that’s going to happen in the field of medicine, exercise, etc. The writers and contributors say, ‘I have a great idea. Can we do it like that or can we do it like this?’Chan’s role is to get everyone in line, ‘Yes, you can approach that but can we tweak it this way? This is more Men’s Health. People have to go, "A-ha!" as opposed to "so what?"'
- There are also photoshoots that must be done. Everyone must be on the same page. That’s where tear sheets (quite literally, pages torn from magazines to provide a visual interpretation of an idea) and scans are important, so that everyone can picture the colour, the mood and the tone.
- During closing is when they just focus on getting the magazine ready to print.
- When it’s ready for print, things still have to be monitored because at the printers or colour separators, things can go wrong – colours, pictures or run sizes for example.
Men’s Health has six staff including an art director, designer, writers and an intern: ‘But when I joined, it was just me!’ Chan quipped.
Commenting about portrayals of magazine publishing in popular media like Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada, Chan said, ‘I love the fact that they make this industry seem so glamorous. I was watching a show and the editor was there just circling pictures. I wish that was me!’
On becoming a writer, Chan advises: ‘If your passion is in writing, then don’t stop writing, just keep doing what you do. Read a lot. See what other people are doing. Blogging is a really great tool now. You can use blogging to see where you are, eg writing a short story in 200 words – no more. If you do that every day, you will be able to write more without actually using more words and express yourself without using million-dollar words that you need a right-click or a Thesaurus to do for you. It’s not about vocabulary, it’s more about how you express yourself.'
There are people who like to write and contribute in that way. Then there are people who like managing the magazine.
He noted that in a managerial role as an editor you have to open your eyes because it’s not just about finishing the magazine. You really have to be curious.
‘Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions,’ Chan insisted. ‘I constantly ask stupid questions. I’ll be in a studio and I’ll ask, ‘What’s with that light, the really big light? How does it help?
‘You need to know how to skew a story, how to pick a picture and make it more interesting – you must have an eye for that. That only comes with asking a lot of stupid questions. If you don’t ask, you don’t know. Be curious about everything: how do you get this like this, how do you shoot those people, can I go see?'
What an editor wants
A new writer at a magazine like Men’s Health can expect to start at about RM1,500 a month, depending upon skills and experience. However, the first thing Chan looks for is any experience in writing: ‘I don’t care about your tertiary education, or whether you’ve been to college. I didn’t go to journalism school, so I think anyone can write with the right training,’ he pointed out but warned: ‘Have you written anything? Don’t tell me you want to be a writer if you don’t even have a blog.’
Chan usually asks for unedited work, because that’s when you really see. Most of the time, it’s the editors and the sub-editors who change everything. They make you seem better than you are, cleverer than you are.
‘I have made so many contributors look so much better!’ He laughed. ‘Then they go out and say, “I wrote for Men’s Health!”
‘Noooo you didn’t!’.
This article first appeared in doctorjob's coursesNOW! Art, Design and Mass Comm 2009.