"One big explosion of type just before the deadline"

526969_10152052230845247_381558094_n.jpg

Peter Carter is the editor at Today’s Trucking, a monthly magazine that covers trucking in Canada. I’ve known Peter for a long time, we’re friends, and, in the interest of full disclosure, he replaced me as the magazine’s editor in 2004. 

Peter has worked at newspapers, big-time consumer magazines (including Canada’s largest women’s magazine), and B2B publications. He’s freelanced, been on a payroll, and published his own magazine, City Dog.

He’s also game for just about anything. Which is why Peter was a natural first interview for this series about B2B journalists and their jobs.

Tell me what your office is like:

I have a fantastic office. It’s huge, actually, for my purposes. It has a big window that looks out over the 427 northbound, so I’m seeing trucks go by all the time. Watching all that activity is a reminder that trucks do lots of jobs, they’re not all particularly clean, and they’re not all brand new. I’m so glad I’m doing this here and not in an office in downtown Toronto.

I remember when I first came here you said something interesting: that the editors drove places when they could. It’s such a good idea. When you’re on a long drive, you start to appreciate what it takes to get from place to place—what the roads are like, what the traffic is like, how driving can be boring, and how it can be challenging.

Is it important for you to work in an office?

I used to be a freelancer and I hated working in isolation. When I worked at home I was productive but not happy.

We have roughly 20 people working here and it’s a very collaborative place, not just with editors and art directors, but the entire staff. And that’s OK with me. I couldn’t work in isolation.

How much time do you spend editing and writing versus doing other things inside or outside your job description?

The majority of my time is not spent writing and editing unless you count “editing” as story research and development—talking to other people, trying to get a sense of what’s interesting and what’s going on. I was, just before this call, talking to a guy in Arizona who ships elephants. There’s a story there. Story hunting is, I think, my primary responsibility.

That can take up an incredible amount of time. Are you efficient at finding stories? 

No. I don’t think you can be. I think it’s a matter of being inefficient until the deadline comes and then you scramble.

We have projects that we know we’re going to cover several months or weeks in advance, but in almost every case they come out in one big explosion of type just before the deadline.

It’s like putting a baby to bed. You start off very methodical, singing lullabies, making sure the lighting is just right, the bed just so. Then, toward the end, when you can’t get the crying baby to sleep, you just put her in the crib, turn out the lights, and close the door. You have other commitments. It’s not how you planned it, but you have to put the baby to bed and move on.

Tell me about the editorial cycle. Planning, editing, and so on.

Generally speaking, our printing schedule dictates my working life. We print during the third week of each month—say the files have to be at the printer on the 20th. The art department needs about a week to get the magazine ready to go to press. So the last time I will touch the copy is the 12th of the month before the magazine comes out.

For me, the editorial cycle really kicks in two weeks before that, when I get an ad list from the publisher. That list tells me how big the magazine is going to be (Today’s Trucking strives for a 50-50 ad/edit ratio). 

So you map out the issue, determining where the ads go and how the various stories and sections fit around them?

Right. Once the map is made, that’s when my brain is working the hardest about what’s going to go into that issue. I have about two weeks to write, edit, fight fires, fill gaps, cut copy, and so on. That’s when I’m most in the zone for work and don’t want to be interrupted. Unless I have a hole and you’re able to help me fill it.

Are they long days during production?

Not anymore. Not like when I was younger.

Has your reporting process changed over the years? 

Incredibly so. I don’t physically write as much—pen to paper—but I compile more notes than I ever have. I record more audio. I gather quotes by email. I use the web for research. The web is phenomenal. The tricky thing is you have to work at distinguishing between what’s a press release and what’s original reporting. Sourcing and attribution has become very treacherous.

Do you use PR material?

Yup. A lot. One of my freelancers turned in a piece of dreck this morning. It was essentially a press release that I already ran. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. We’re on deadline. I can’t send it back.

So I snagged something from a supplier’s web site. One of those “7 Tips” type of stories. I attributed the supplier, of course, but it was a cut-and-paste job. I don’t see anything wrong with that because everyone wins. The reader gets something decent to read, the supplier gets some publicity, and I get to move on to the next job.

There was no planning, no pitch from the PR guy?

The thing is, all of this happened on the fly. On deadline. So no planning, no pitch. None. I feel guilty about that sometimes. Like I’m taking PR people for granted.

Did you consider whether that supplier is an advertiser?

No. I just searched the web and found material I could use.

As far as covering advertisers goes, I worked at small-town papers where the advertising was always in your face, so that’s not a problem with me. Weighing those balances has never been a problem for me. I don’t think that’s uncommon. I don’t know anybody respectable who is just doing stories on advertisers.

You mentioned how important is it to get out of the office. If your view of your industry is through a computer screen...

Yeah, that’s a problem. Not too long ago I was working on a story and I visited a moving company. I could have gotten my questions answered with a simple phone call. But I said to the guy, Do you mind if I drop in? In doing that, I added 80% more information to what I was already working with. Just by showing up. If you’re having a hard time getting a story out of someone, go visit them.

Do you ever feel intimidated by the subject matter?

Every day. And if you’re not intimidated by the subject matter, or your audience, you should be worried. Because you probably think you know more than you do. 

My advice to young journalists is to look at this old journalist. You have to get out there. No one is going to write and complain that you did too much research. Besides, people want to help you. They want to tell you about their lives.

You’ll also hear what readers think of your work when you get out. At consumer magazines, you’re getting regular circulation reports but here, there’s nothing like that. I mean, fortunately, there is this great system where the circulation is audited and people have to renew. But beyond that, it’s a guessing game. Is anyone going to read this?

Do you monitor your web traffic?

I’m not that rigorous about it. It’s funny what people are interested in. One story that I don’t know will ever be touched in terms of clicks is the “50 Best Trucking Songs of All Time.” We put it up as a joke and man, oh, man, the traffic was unbelievable. For all the stories about hours of service and emissions and whatnot, what do people want online? Entertainment. Is the same true when they have the magazine in their hands? I don’t know.

Do you use social media? 

Not consistently. It’s a time commitment. I like tweeting at conferences—reporting live. I really like doing that. Also, if I’m tweeting from an event, I like asking truckers for questions that I should ask.

I think my Twitter feed and Facebook postings provide clues about what turns my crank generally. Northern Ontario stuff. Family business stuff. I’m a pushover for those things. If you’re a PR guy, that personal insight can be powerful if you’re trying to get inside my head.