Editor Jocelyn Bell. (Photo: Regina Garcia)

Topics: Ethical Living | Editor's Letter

Making editorial decisions in a pandemic

Mapping out a magazine when each week contains a year’s worth of upheaval

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As any magazine editor knows, having six empty pages in an issue that’s weeks away from going to print is enough to induce heart palpitations. That’s because magazine editors typically start planning their issues many months before they’re delivered to subscribers. At Broadview, it’s a five-month process that involves multiple drafts, edits, fact-checking, design and more.

So when a freelance writer emailed me about a week ago to suggest we pull her story because it seemed out of touch with the frightening realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, my adrenaline kicked in.

The writer, Dorothy Palmer, is a fierce disability rights advocate whose upcoming six-page feature is scheduled to be published in June as part of our July-August issue. The story is about how her mobility scooter gives her a sense of freedom and empowerment. In her email, she wrote: “I am increasingly uncomfortable about publishing a piece about a disabled senior woman happily bopping around outside on a scooter. It may be very insensitive given the expected death toll for disabled people and seniors.”

The truth is, we’ve been looking closely at our upcoming stories ever since COVID-19 started making headlines in Canada. As the virus continues to spread, we are seeing all of our upcoming coverage through a “COVID lens.”

More COVID-19 coverage on Broadview:

COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine time. This isn’t bad.

Amid COVID-19, my church is proving it’s more than a building

Snowstorm didn’t stop this church from hosting drive-in service

 

For example, is it insensitive to publish a piece about advance requests for medical assistance in dying — legislation that’s currently scheduled for parliamentary review in June — when so many people will succumb to COVID-19? Is it tone-deaf to run a story about thriving churches when ministers are scrambling to keep their congregations together through livestream services? How about an upcoming travel package? Planned stories about other critical issues impacting our world — the climate crisis; the mistreatment of migrants heading into the United States; religious freedom in Quebec — also seem somehow muted compared to tracking the path of an invisible killer.

We’ve pivoted by turning our attention to our digital platforms, stepping up efforts to provide timely content through our website and social media channels.

But the print challenge persists.  We’ve considered scrapping most of what we had planned and starting over. Staff resources aside, we’ve wondered what we could say from the vantage point of the end of March that would still be relevant to readers in May or June. It’s impossible to guess what the world will look like months into the future — especially when each week seems to contain a year’s worth of upheaval.

In the end, we held back a few of the short pieces we had slated for the June issue to make space for some COVID-related content. I’m learning to roll with the rest, trusting that readers will understand our constraints. And for the July-August issue, we kept Palmer’s scooter piece, inviting her to write an addendum to give it context, and also added a feature about the faith community’s response to the pandemic.

Although I’m making editorial decisions, there’s a sense of uncertainty behind my choices — and I’m not alone. A colleague at another magazine told me he swapped an assisted dying cover story for a coronavirus piece. Another is holding off on all travel stories. A third darkly joked that there should be an award next year for the most untimely magazine story to land during the pandemic. That’s not an award I want to win.

Nevertheless, I’m wading through this experience painfully aware that any struggle I have pales in comparison to the many ways this virus is impacting our lives, and the lives of our readers. I only hope that by sharing my story, we can help one another through this unprecedented time, both personally and professionally.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of Broadview. She is also the winner of this year's National Magazine Awards Editor Grand Prix award.

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  • says:

    I appreciate the predicament that editors and writers face for each publication. It needs to sell or it comes to an end.
    Personally I would love to see the next publication missing the words COVID 19 and coronavirus. In the national news I now really miss the words: climate change; Trump called "whoever" an idiot; and Kardashians.

    Trusting God has a purpose for these trying times, stir the pot and shed some humour or some positive things that have happened these past months. I know I could use some encouragement.

  • says:

    Covid 19 is an intensive distraction. I wonder what is going on re pipelines, social services cuts etc when all the news coverage is pandemic and Trump. The bad guys are free to pull any scam cause no one will notice or protest.

  • says:

    Oh, the life of an editor! (Been there, done that, have the scars.) You have a beautifully planned edition — and a bomb is dropped on you. As you have explained very well.

    When you took over as editor, I wasn't sure what was going to happen to The Observer. You've adjusted a few things, added more pages, and come up with a wonderful magazine, still focused on spirituality, justice, and ethical living.

    I'm glad I have a subscription. Each month I wonder about what treats will arrive in Broadview.

  • says:

    Dear Jocelyn during these uncertain times may God be with you in all you do.

  • says:

    Hi Jocelyn
    I just read your March 30 piece on content choice challenges in the covid era. I know it has not become easier. But I offer one word. Grace.
    If covid is teaching us anything it should be humility. Once humbled we do a better job of offering grace.
    In the garden that is your audience, grace should thrive.
    Be strong.
    Blessing.