Friday, March 02, 2007

When the Mail Ain't Coming

Have you seen this article? What do you think?

Hmmm, yes, I had seen it because it was the talk of several forums I frequent. For those of you who haven't or who are too lazy to click on the link, Gawker is reporting that a lot of magazines invent their letters. I'm one of the few freelancers who has never worked on staff anywhere, so I can't speak with certainty about the veracity of this, but some of the writers I know said that this isn't that unusual of a practice.

Which, I guess, leads me to ask: why??? I mean, if magazines aren't getting enough reader letters, maybe they should take this as a sign that readers don't care so much about the letters section and axe it altogether. It seems odd to me that they'd go through the effort of fabricating an entire section - a section that largely depends on their readers - rather than realize that maybe readers just don't give a damn.

I also certainly think that this expose (for lack of a better word) undermines the already sketchy leg of authority on which some magazines stand. What does this mean? Well, it's fairly well-known in the freelancing circles that a few magazines (which I won't name) make up quotes and sources when they can't find ones that suit their purposes. (Note: I don't write for any of these magazines, partially because of this reason, so please don't leap to judgment about any and all editors, including mags such as Women's Health, Self, Parents, Cooking Light, Woman's Day, Family Circle, Hallmark, etc, all put the stories through a rigorous fact-checking process.) As a writer, I can almost always tell when a quote has been made up...they're the ones you read and think, "I can't believe that they found a half-Asian, one-quarter Hawaiian 33 year-old mother of triplets who lives in Wichita, KS and is a former beauty queen who happens to have an IQ over 200 yet has found herself homeless after burning through her inheritance from both parents who died in a freak lightening accident." And the story just happens to be on racially-mixed moms of multiples who live in the Midwest and whose good fortune turned around on a dime. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but you get my point. If a quote is really, really, really too good to be true, in a few magazines, unfortunately, it is.

In fact, I remember a friend was trolling for quotes from parents who would go on record saying that their sex life had gotten hotter after their kids were born. Ha! Every person wrote her back and said, "er, you're kidding, right??" And she knew it was a total joke because how on earth was she going to find the maybe one person who thought that newborns were a turn-on, but her editor insisted that these people were out there. So my poor friend kept searching and searching to no avail. Now, I have no idea what happened with that story, but if it were being written for a few of the mags that invent quotes (which it wasn't), the editor might have just pulled Jane Smith, she who finds spit-up and sleepless nights arousing, out of thin air.

So...getting back to the original question. What do I think of the fact that magazines make up letters? Well, I just think it further undermines the idea that journalists are all too often happy to play fast and loose with the truth. 95% of us aren't.

So what do you guys think of the Gawker piece? Am I jumping to conclusions about its implications?


Anonymous said...

The question this has me asking, actually, is: what does this mean as a freelancer reading those letters to see what topics a particular magazine's readers really enjoy and the editors of said magazine might like to see more of?

Possibly that concept in studying a market is still viable; if the editors like a topic, they'll fabricate a letter saying just that.

But what if that isn't the case? What if it is all hogwash and has no bearing on what editors know readers want to read?

Cross that research tool off your list? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Allison, several years ago I wrote an article for one of those tabloid-style women's magazines that you find at supermarket checkouts. The editor changed my sources' quotes to make them more inflammatory, and then asked me to fact-check the newly made-up quotes with my sources! I said no way, and never got another assignment from them again (big loss, right?).

Anonymous said...

I always wondered how magazines managed to pick the few letters (out of what I assumed would be in the thousands)that were reasonably well written, and fit the writing style of the articles. I'd assumed that either they were heavily edited or that professional writers wrote letters to the editor when they were bored.

This makes alot more sense.