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On The Record with Brandi Broxson: Long-Lead Publications in the Time of COVID-19

May 19, 2020
By Katrina Stern

‘On the Record’ is a new series where we sit down with our colleagues and friends who are often at the receiving end of our pitch emails – journalists. We will be tackling hot topics, learning and growing from their perspective and thoughtful advice.

For the second ‘On The Record’ post, Katrina Stern explores how long-lead publications are being impacted by COVID-19. Specifically, how are the digital and print departments collaborating on content, and what are the biggest concerns and standouts from media mailers to video briefings. Their candid Q&A session took place at a safe distance (video chat), as at the time it was conducted, New York City was still on a shelter-in-place order.

KS: First off, how are you doing?

BB: It is just a crazy time. I was reading something today saying that we are “in a permanent state of today.” Couldn’t be more the truth right now.

KS: Agree! Tell me more about the current climate of long-lead publications right now.

BB: So we have been working from home now for the last few months and as you can imagine, producing a magazine is so collaborative. Since we’re working from all over the country right now, it has definitely been a challenge. But it’s really cool to see how our team has come together and, in some ways, we have been able to streamline our day-to-day work flow which has been awesome.

Our April issue was the first one that came out since social distancing, and it was kind of wild because the issue was all about cleaning. It’s a topic that’s really true to the Real Simple brand but was even more of a win, given the current scenario we are in. We saw a real boost in our newsstands sales because people were out shopping and wanted something comforting to read.

And then our May issue which most recently came out was themed around the idea of “getting it done” issue. It was all about little projects you might have put off that you can finally check off your list. That, also, felt in-line with the times and what people are thinking about.

At a long-lead publication like Real Simple, our goal is to provide valuable service to our readers, whether it’s relaxation, inspiration to get something done around the house or cleaning – we want to be solution-oriented.

On our team it has been great to see that sense of unity.

KS: Thinking about something you have shared with me before, are you still having those online and print meetings virtually? And how is that going? Are people on the print side doing more online right now?

BB: Yeah, for sure. We get this great newsletter from our executive editor on the digital side and it’s a breakdown of what everyone is working on. Also, it shares what is going on in the news so we stay “up with the times.”

But something I have seen that is neat is how we’ve come together to produce more video. At the beginning print and digital editors were sent these video kits that had a tripod and ring light. So actually, I am using one of those ring lights right now, so already going to good use. We got these kits so that we have the ability to do videos from home and we are doing them based on our beat. I’ve done a couple videos with it, so far, that you may have seen. One of my franchises is New Uses for Old Things and with how popular toilet paper and paper towels have become during all of this, I came up with ways you could repurpose them into stamps or even a bird feeder.

I think it has been very comforting for readers and viewers at home to get a look at our life and what we are doing, while still giving them something entertaining to read/watch.

The continued collaboration between print and digital has been inspiring to see.

KS: What are the biggest concerns you are facing and how are you handling it?

BB: So I think the questions we are asking ourselves as editors are probably the same questions a lot of people in the world are asking themselves right now. How will things change over the next few months?

We are starting to look at content for our fall and holiday issues. What will Thanksgiving look like this year? Usually there is a mad dash around the holidays with travel – how will that be different?

Editors at long-lead publications are used to looking into their crystal ball and trying to anticipate what readers might need three or four months in advance. And I think that is even true right now because there are so many unknowns. Thinking about: how will the virus change things? How will people be thinking about money and their career?

So that is our biggest concern: how will we anticipate the needs of our readers in a time of uncertainty?

KS: Has anything changed in how you have developed content?

BB: We are really lucky at Meredith, we get these reader surveys that help us to understand the reader and how they go through the magazine, and what stands out to them. What we have heard from our readers is that they come to our magazine to relax and recharge, often reading the magazine if they have an hour at the end of the day to get their mind at ease.

What we’ll continue to do is make sure there aren’t a lot of pain points in the book that might stress readers out during an already worrisome time.

In our June issue we have a big feature on chicken recipes that take you around the world, which I think is so smart since we are all looking to escape our day-to-day at home – traveling through food is interesting. We, also, have a career story coming up and how to make a career pivot – which a lot of people are thinking about. But it is focused on how to do this without going back to school since loans are such a burden.

We’re taking the current climate and inputting it into our content.

KS: This all applies. You kind of touched on this, but what topics are you honing in on more right now?

BB: We’re definitely thinking about personal finance and how we can empower readers. We have some very helpful stories coming up in the next few months. For instance, one is how emotions affect your purchasing habits and money rules you can break right now. Really empowering.

As you know, our September issue is money-themed and there has never been a better time for it to come out to help our readers in this difficult time. Readers are rethinking their finances and ways to save.

KS: Now moving away from content, and talking about the once again popular – media mailers. How are you receiving media mailers?

BB: It is so interesting, my office address has always been in my signature and your home address is something that is a little more personal. It is not something I am putting in my signature for everyone to use.

At the beginning of all this, I was getting a lot of requests for someone to send me wine like every day! And I’m thinking, “you know exactly what I am going through right now, you know what I need.” In the beginning and ever since my inbox has felt like a community. A place for virtual hugs where people are checking in on each other which was nice.

But now I need to be a bit more mindful of what I accept since I don’t have a product closet, like I do at my office. I live in a very tiny apartment with my fiancé, who is often the one bringing the boxes up from the lobby, wondering “what is this?”

But media mailers are super important for my column. I try to make sure they know “don’t send me surprise stuff” – I am not sure I will be able to store it.

KS: So you are saying, no beta fish? Got it! Any media mailers that stick out?

BB: There is this crafting brand and the idea behind their business is that there is an expert video and they craft along with you. They sent me a punch needle kit, similar to embroidery, and it is so genius since I needed something like that to fill my time. And I have the time to do it! Very smart of them.

I received a fun mailer from a food brand. It was a whole Cinco de Mayo kit for a dinner. We cooked along with the food founder. It started with a cocktail, loosening everyone up to get to know people on the briefing. Then we made these chicken tacos, super easy. That one stands out since it was helping me with something I would have to do anyways. A brand saying you can “cook along with us” and here are all the materials. When I got done, I can enjoy the dinner with my fiancé – so nice.

KS: It definitely is interesting to hear. That makes me also think of video briefings, what are your preferences?

BB: Recently I’ve attended a lot of financial video conferences open to the public on investing and budgeting. I thought it was great to see what the public was thinking about the topics, as well as how those in the space are discussing it. I, also, appreciated the briefing since there were multiple ways to submit a question. You could’ve sent in questions beforehand, through the chat, and vocally. Since finance is really personal and private to people, I respected that flexibility.

As for launches, any kind that is engaging in some way where I am not just sitting and watching a presentation – always is a plus. But also, like a number of editors, keeping in mind that we have even more limited time than before is important. Sometimes we are unable to attend and need to default to a product sheet.

KS: This was great, thank you for taking the time to chat!

BB: You know I love to share the knowledge. Chat soon!

Brandi Broxson is senior editor at Real Simple Magazine where she oversees the brand’s service, products, career, and money content. Connect with her here.

FleishmanHillard's Katrina Stern discusses the impact of COVID-19 on long-lead publications with Brandi Broxson from Real Simple.