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Virginia Quarterly Review former editor values content quality

By Ben Kreimer

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

While editor of the literary magazine the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways tried an experiment.  He noticed a split in his readership.  The aging print readers were more interested in the magazine’s literature offerings while the younger online readership was more interested in news reporting.

Ted Genoways

Ted Genoways

To meet this challenge he took three poets whose work was regularly featured in VQR and sent them on a trip.  Their assignment was to report on their trip rather than write poetry.  Genoways’ goal was to ease the poets’ fans out of VQR’s literature and expose them to the magazines journalism offerings.

To meet the interests of the younger online crowd, Genoways sent poets out with radio reporters and photographers to create multimedia content for the VQR website, while also including a broadcasted radio component.  As for the poets, their reporting took the form of poetry.

“The challenge was always to figure out ways to broaden that readership on both sides,” said Genoways, 40, in an in-person interview.

His involvement in literary magazines began as an intern at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Prairie Schooner from 1990 to 1992.  Throughout graduate school he did editing work at various university presses, small book presses and literary journals.  In 1998, while attending graduate school at the University of Virginia, Genoways started the student-run literary journal Meridian.

Genoways has a background in poetry and creative writing.  He has a master’s degree in English, a master of fine arts in creative writing and poetry and a doctorate in American literature.

He is an award-winning poet, writer and editor, having been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous National Magazine Awards for his editorial work at VQR.

Genoways said he prefers editing journals over books because the editorial process is shorter and less strenuous.

“I’ve never met a book editor or book author who manages to still feel enthusiastic about their work by the time it’s actually published,” he said.  “It’s usually kind of a slog.”

Genoways was the editor at VQR from 2003 to 2012.  The magazine is published quarterly out of the University of Virginia and features fiction, poetry, book reviews, photography, comics and non-fiction essays.

As a magazine editor working with so many different types of content, Genoways’ role was largely curatorial, paying close attention to how everything fit together in the magazine.  This was his favorite part of working as an editor at VQR.

He paid close attention to the layout of content, considering the ways different stories and media “speak to each other” by complementing or complicating each other.

“It’s like a bonsai tree,” he said, laughing.  “You start out with a huge bush and you’re trying to figure out how to keep pruning it down to keep it shapely and that communicates something emotionally and aesthetically with the least amount.”

Regardless of the type of content he was working with, Genoways recognized the important role quality plays in attracting readers.

“You have your best chance of getting broader attention with the best material,” he said.

This was demonstrated when he serialized a 20,000-word story for the VQR website about the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.  The story was great at 20,000 words, he said, thus he could not justify shortening it, hence the serialization.  A new piece of the story was released on the VQR website daily for five days.  The response was huge, especially in India, where newspapers picked up the story.

“If you worry first about making the piece, whatever it is, as good as it can be, then the rest will take care of itself,” Genoways said.

Genoways said that for editors to survive today they need to be excited about change, whatever the change is.

“They need to see possibility instead of cataclysmic destruction of everything that they’ve known,” he said.  “And they may be one in the same thing.”

With media gathering technology becoming smaller and more affordable, Genoways sees more opportunities for small publications like VQR to compete with bigger forms of media.  When media outlets began scaling back their foreign bureaus in the 2000s, Genoways expanded VQR’s foreign reporting, taking advantage of new and cheaper technology.

He once had a reporter bike across west Africa with a computer rig attached to the back of donkey.  At the end of the end of each day the reporter could process his images and remotely upload them to the Web.

The capabilities of technology were reflected in the content production expectations Genoways had for his reporters in the field.  It was not unusual for his reporters to submit text, audio, photographic and video content.  Because of the demanding amount of content production, he said that the most successful reporters were couples – as in romantic couples – or “super-human multitaskers.”

All this content also made work as an editor difficult, especially when editing for the web which has a seemingly endless amount of space.  With so much content available, the challenge is to help media consumers find and navigate everything that’s available while ensuring that a barrage of multimedia content doesn’t obscure the delivery of the story.

“That’s not easy,” Genoways said.  “Oftentimes the online strategy becomes the kitchen sink approach.”

To become an editor at a literary magazine, Genoways said it’s important to read broadly and deeply, and to compare publications you admire and how they respond to trends.  He also said that successful editors he knows love reading non-literary magazines, newspapers, television news and online media.

“Every successful editor that I know is a total media junkie,” he said.

Today Genoways, now based in Lincoln, Neb., is an editor-at-large and writer for OnEarth Magazine, and a contributing writer at Mother Jones.  As an editor-at-large, he suggests writers to the publication and occasionally edits stories for the OnEarth Magazine website.  Most of the time he is in the process of writing a long story for both publications.  They range from 4,000 to 9,000 words.  He also publishes a short piece each month for OnEarth Magazine.  Genoways also works as a freelance writer and is currently working on a piece for Harper’s Magazine.

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