Q&A with Peter Stockland, Editor-in-Chief, Reader's Digest Canada
I'm the editor-in-chief of four magazines produced by Reader's Digest Magazines Canada, Ltd. Technically, that means I'm responsible for every word and picture that appears in any of those magazines. In reality, it means I'm in charge of a staff of editors and artistic designers who do the hard work of making sure everything is as it is supposed to be.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Peter Stockland: I'm the editor-in-chief of four magazines produced by Reader's Digest Magazines Canada, Ltd. Technically, that means I'm responsible for every word and picture that appears in any of those magazines. In reality, it means I'm in charge of a staff of editors and artistic designers who assign, check, correct and place within each magazine all of its non-advertising content. While I do review finished pages, the editors on my teams are the ones who do the hard work of making sure everything is as it is supposed to be. I offer advice, make suggestions and stop things I think will displease the readers of the magazine or make the magazine look less than its best. I also make sure that we plan far enough in advance so we have enough content when it comes time to start filling up the magazines with words and pictures—and that we have enough money in our budget to pay the people who produce the content. A way to imagine it would be to think of me sitting in the driver's seat of a huge paint machine that has images—words and pictures—poured into a great big tank, with a team of skilled technicians operating hoses that spray the word-picture "paint" with just the right thickness and in the exact spot where it's needed.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
PS: I have been a writer or editor working for magazines and newspapers for 30 years, but my "call" to work in this field goes back to when I was eight years old. I had a little paper route and I used to sit down to read the paper before I delivered my papers—I was always late on my route. I knew then that I wanted to be someone who wrote in newspapers. In fact, at that time, I was in the audience of a local children's TV show in the town where I lived, and the host asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I answered "a writer and a reader." He laughed, and so did the other kids. Last laughs are the most sweet, it turns out, since I have spent all my working adult life writing and reading. I have always loved the puzzle of putting words together with other words in a way that offers other people the possibility of meaning.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
PS: The first real story I covered for a daily newspaper involved a school bus being hit by a flatbed truck, killing five kids. When the photographer and I arrived at the scene, he put his hand on my arm and said, "Go slow, kid. Everybody knows everybody around here." He was warning me to remember these were human beings involved in a tragedy, not just unfeeling quote machines for my story. He was cautioning me that if I failed to respect their fundamental dignity at that horrible scene, word would get around and I would be finished as a reporter in that town. In other words, he was telling me that the human always comes first no matter what the story. I never forgot that, and I have always tried to conduct myself on that basis.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
PS: As a young reporter, I was whining once to a flint-skinned city editor who kept pushing me to write shorter sentences and fewer paragraphs. I protested that I couldn't possibly tell one particular story in the meager number of words he'd assigned. He looked at me and said: "There's only so many effing pages in the paper, mate, and they're the same effing length every day. Start fast, get to the point and stop." There was a lifetime of advice in those two sentences about remembering what was important (the newspaper, not me) and about the importance of proper stewardship of resources (don't produce waste words that the effing pages couldn't accommodate just for the sake of ego).
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
PS: Jesus wept.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
PS: My morning trio is calendar check, voice-mail retrieval and answering e-mail. We have a LOT of meetings—I mean a LOT of meetings, so it's critical to know from the instant I walk in the door where I am expected to be at what 15-minute increment during the day. I also insist on returning messages as promptly as I can so I do that first thing as well. And I easily get 75 to 80 e-mails a day so I don't ever want to fall behind. After that, my attention (when I'm not in a meeting; did I mention we have a LOT of meetings?) turns toward whomever is first in the line that forms outside my office door right after I take my coat off.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
PS: Questions. I've gotta million of them.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
PS: I was editor-in-chief of The Gazette in Montreal and it involved the 2002 Soccer World Cup, which is a bit odd because I'm not a soccer fan at all. We were debating whether to send a reporter overseas at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000, and I decided we would spend the money instead having a network of Montrealers from the various ethnic communities involved in the Cup cover the games that were relevant to their teams. We had them go into bars and restaurants and community centres and individual homes to report on how each community was cheering on its favourites. Then we ran their reports in their mother tongues and in English translation. It was not easy, but to me it epitomized the inclusiveness that is possible in a multicultural country such as Canada, and that should be the goal of every media organization in the country. It is, after all, about putting the human first, no matter what the story.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
PS: Well, I finally taught myself to stop using napkins from the café downstairs as planning documents because the mayonnaise from sandwiches and the rings from the coffee cup give them an artistic dimension that cloaks their total unreliability when it comes to decoding what I've written down. We have a very detailed scheduling system that allows us to map out issues a year in advance, but the truth is that I mostly wander around and ask the team, "What are we doing now?" If they don't know, we're all in trouble, but someone always does. All of this is to say that in this business, knowing how to change plans is a lot more important than knowing how to make them. In magazines, content falls through, pictures don't arrive, pages get bumped by advertising and then the advertising gets pulled and the page has to go back in. Change is a day to day reality, which is a little easier than newspapers where it can be hour to hour.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
PS: It has been a long, long time since I was eight years old, but I am still determined to be a reader and a writer when I grow up. There is a reason our Lord made such powerful use of parables: human life is all about stories and the images that illuminate them for us.