Gold nuggets, chocolate chips

Age is an arbitrary number. Experience is a measured quantity.

I’ve written several times about the opportunities that Mizzou offers to hear significant names in their respective fields share bits of accumulated wisdom.

It is in that same pedagogic ideal that The Washingtonian brings staff members together for intern talks. The conversations are different, but the standard template involves an hour long session of stories, questions and observations with writers and editors here at the magazine.

Earlier this week, we met with the publisher, Cathy Merrill Williams. Her corner office is beautiful, and her wisdom is entertaining and meaningful.

• “Life is about sifting through information.” Someone who is a good researcher, she says, will be good at her job. Any job involves processing information and distilling it into a concise quantity.

• Women will still be reading a print copy of Vogue on the beach 20 years from now. She says it may not be Vogue, but the idea is that print won’t go away. Williams believes that there is something fundamentally different between reading a print magazine and reading a daily newspaper.

She’s right.

Among other variables that have surfaced in my focus group research, people want the physical feeling of touching pages and knowing that there is a concrete, finite product on their nightstand.

• Long form is good. “But what is long? And when do we use it? 2000 words? 7000, 11,000? It’s easy to be long; it’s hard to be short.” The old just because you can syndrome. Possession of a platform doesn’t grant discretion for unbridled verbosity.

• Most importantly, a company must always, ALWAYS pass the cookies test.

“We’d better get chocolate chip cookies right.”

Williams retold a story of when her father, Phillip Merrill, was the publisher. The Washingtonian’s best/worst list rated Giant Food’s chocolate chip cookies as the worst. At the time, Giant was the largest advertiser with the magazine. President Izzy Cohen phoned Merrill not to yell at him, but to inform him that he’d met with the bakery team.

There would be a new recipe of chocolate chip cookies in every store by Friday.

Aside from the noble lesson in management approaches, the chocolate chip cookie test is one of a higher value.

If people can’t trust the magazine on cookies, something they can test for themselves, Williams said, why should they trust us on choosing doctors, lawyers, dentists, vacations?

Even a simple chocolate chip cookie can be a little circle of trust.

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