“What Will People Care About Most?” Editor Diane Harris on Delivering Value
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
Know your voice
Diane Harris spent 22 years at Money Magazine, most recently as Editor-in-Chief. Now she’s Editorial Director of Considerable, which calls itself a “financial and lifestyle media brand for people who are redefining what it means to grow older” (read Harris’ welcome letter to Considerable readers).
We turned to Harris to find out how she defines great storytelling, what she looks for in freelance contributors, and more. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Beat: Tell us about your transition from Money Magazine to Considerable.
Diane Harris: I left Money after 22 years. It definitely was the brand that defined a large part of my career. When I left Money, my intention was to start a personal brand around financial wellness and write a book.
I spent about a year working on that and I loved it. Then, this opportunity dropped in my lap. I took a call with the CEO of Considerable and within the first few minutes of the conversation, I was just immediately taken with the idea that the audience that Considerable is trying to reach is very underserved, that the mission and the vision was something very different and exciting. I was immediately consumed with ideas and enthusiasm for it.
I left Money to finally pursue these dreams and then all of a sudden, another dream appeared in my path and I went for it.
How is editing a brand new website different from editing an existing magazine?
It's very different to be a start-up than it is to be at a well-established media brand at a legacy media company. It's very different to be at a brand that is born as a digital brand instead of transitioning to becoming a digital-first brand.
What's the same is the journalism behind it. Journalism really is journalism in the end and so is the desire to advocate for your audience to understand who they are, what they want, and the information they need to know. All of those different parts of the process that make for a great story ideas and great storytelling, that part is the same, even though the medium and the resources of a start-up versus a legacy media brand are very different.
How do you define great storytelling?
Great storytelling is what best serves your audience, and serves it in a way that they will want to read what you're writing or view the content that you're putting in front of them. That means you have to really understand who they are and what their needs and interests are. I think one of the really important things is to understand the right language and tone. It's one of the things we take very seriously here and we took very seriously at Money too.
What challenges would you say that you've overcome to get where you are professionally?
My professional challenge is the same as the big challenge for a big part of the industry, which has been making a transition to the different way that journalism and content is consumed and really embracing it. A lot of people who have been in print their whole lives and love it find it hard to embrace that it's a digital world.
How did you navigate that?
Like everybody else, I learned by doing it. At Money, for many years, we did not have an independent website. We were part of a joint venture with CNN, and we ran a joint website called CNNMoney that now is just part of CNN. That was very, very difficult not to have our own digital identity. When Time Inc. was spun off from Time Warner, CNN got to keep CNNMoney and here we were a brand that was maybe 40 or close to 50 years old in a digital world without a website and we were starting from scratch.
I was part of the team that launched that website, and you just learn it. It was definitely diving into the deep end of the pool. It was fascinating and fun and crazy. We got better at it, like all things, as we went along.
How do you know if a freelance writer is a good fit for Considerable? What do you look for?
We have writers of all ages who are writing for Considerable, and it's wonderful to get different voices. Sometimes we're working with people as an editorial team who the editors have worked with for a long time, but we've also had an unbelievable flood of response from freelancers who are excited about what we're doing.
We ask for people who we haven't worked with before to pitch us. We work with the best of them and try them out. We're seeking additional writers. We'd love to find a stable of really great people who understand the brand to become regular contributors.
What's the best writing advice you've ever received?
Write the hed and dek first, so you know what you're writing about. It forces you to think about really what is the point? It may change, but you should sit down with a sense of knowing what it is. What is the overarching point of this story? What will people care about most? Another way of framing that advice is, just before you sit down to write, is to have that question first and foremost in your head. What's the single most important takeaway that I want readers to get from this story? Everything should be crafted around that simple thought.
For me, it's also just to write in a way that they'll want to read. It doesn't matter how strong your reporting was if you're not writing it in a way that is entertaining, informative, and conversational so that people will want to read what you've written.
The other thing that I would say is, when you're on a deadline, write it and then walk away. Give it another refresh so that you can refine it. If you can build that time into your writing schedule, it really pays off.
You’ve mentioned voice a few times and that can feel elusive. Any tips on finding your voice as a writer?
I think what makes you compelling as a writer is your individuality. To the extent that you can, write in the style that feels natural to you. I tend to be very conversational. When I'm writing, you can tell it's me and that's important, because it's what sets you apart.
It is really important for writers to understand the voice that we're looking for. The number of people who pitch or write for a publication who haven't really read what the publication is already doing is shocking.
You should know whether that publication uses the “we” voice or the “you” voice. When they talk about things like, "we, as a generation,” well, we at Considerable don't do that. We say you. We are very conversational. When we quote, we use “says,” not “said.” It reflects that you care enough to try to absorb how this brand wants to talk to its audience. It's also about are you aspirational or is it more informational? Things like that will help inform how you write for that publication. The toughest thing is blending that with your own personal voice.