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Building a Better Magazine

Editor's Notes

Now that I am entering my eighth year as editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on what this magazine means to me—and to its readers.

One way to think of the magazine is as a bridge to understanding. And I, as editor, am at turns surveyor, architect, and bricklayer: all three of which are constantly working toward consensus as to what we are doing and how best to do it. I’ll admit that at times I also happily make the bricks and mortar for this bridge. But the real raw material comes directly from the hearts and minds of the writers and artists who commit their words and images to our pages. Without them there is no bridge, no understanding.

But it isn’t always easy for me to gauge how far this bridge is taking us. As such, it helps to get reader feedback. While letters to the editor and e-mails expressing one’s opinions are one way to tell me what we’re doing right or wrong, surveys provide a bit more detail due to their capacity to show reader consensus around certain themes or ideas. 

Many readers of this magazine took the time to complete our Academy member survey this past May, which revealed that many of us would like to see more of three things: essays about contemporary Wisconsin culture, features about environmental topics, and articles by and about interesting Wisconsin people. Too, survey respondents indicated that they highly valued the original poetry and fiction we publish, which, as one of the last remaining print vehicles for original literary composition, makes me quite happy. 

Over the past few weeks during time off spent with my new baby—Maxwell Roman Smith—I’ve been thinking about the survey results and how to build a better magazine. One of my goals as editor is that the magazine should be eminently readable and that our articles need to be interesting to anyone with a degree of intellectual curiosity. In short, articles should be able to stand alone as what one would consider “a good read.” 

At the same time, I realize that people value the magazine and the articles therein because they come together under the polydisciplinary umbrella of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. So, we are working on better contextual elements in the magazine, some stars by which readers might navigate any particular article to better understand why the Wisconsin Academy is committing it to print.

You might notice new thematic headers running across the tops of pages or the “About this Program” popouts in this issue that help identify the type of article you are reading and its connection to the Academy’s larger spectrum of programming: the brief description of our Academy Fellows program of which essay author Stanley A. Temple is a part, or information about our James Watrous Gallery in the article about artist David McLimans. 

While these popouts help remind our readers that many of our magazine articles reflect aspects of current Academy programs, just as many if not more articles in this issue at first glance don’t directly connect to our programs. That is, until you begin to think about the themes we are exploring—the changing face of Wisconsin farm life, microbes and human health, the loss of a species—and how they all reflect a desire to understand life and how to live it with meaning for yourself, and how to make it better for all. This is the whole reason the Academy exists: to explore, explain, and sustain thought and culture. We do it for the people of our great state of Wisconsin.

Any new magazine content, then, much like the recent photo essays we’ve been publishing, has to do a good job of showing us “ourselves.” Lately, I’ve been considering a section of the magazine called Wisconsin Table that includes interviews with Wisconsin chefs who use locally sourced ingredients (and who might share a recipe for a favorite dish), artisan or small-batch producers of specialty food and beverages, and creative food-related events or endeavors that celebrate Wisconsin’s food heritage and future.

Too, I think we’re overdue in revisiting a little utilized feature called Inside the Academy in which we provide glimpses of life inside our venerable organization. Of course, this doesn’t mean a running description of staff meeting minutes or updates from the water cooler. Rather, it is a way to show the broader Academy community at work and at play: our members, Fellows, and friends participating in a Watrous Gallery exhibition or poetry reading in Madison, an Academy Talk in Wausau, a Waters of Wisconsin Summit in La Crosse, or panel discussion on climate change in Ashland.

The people who comprise this organization are so expressive, so compassionate, and so darn smart. To be honest, we need to remind ourselves—and point out to others here in our state and around the world—that there is a Wisconsin simply bursting with these kinds of people right now. 

So, while we’re working to build a better magazine, perhaps you can help us by extending to family, friends, and colleagues an invitation to share the best of who we are in Wisconsin. Share your copy of this issue with a friend, bring a colleague to an Academy Talk or Watrous Gallery exhibition, purchase a gift membership for a relative, or find another way to share what you love about the Academy.

Help us build the bridge to understanding, build a better magazine, and build a better Wisconsin for all.

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Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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