The final morning of the Magazine Innovation Center’s Act 6 was devoted to the craft and the power of storytelling.
As a child, Liz Vaccariello expressed a wish to her father that she might, through writing and editing, share stories with others. Decades later, she told that story in her first letter as Editor in Chief of Readers Digest, and the response of her readers was extraordinary. She received 400 letters that week. Since then, she has told a story in every editor’s letter, and her use of storytelling to connect with her readers has become a hallmark of her time at the Reader’s Digest.
Storytelling, Vaccariello told the group of students, faculty, and publishing professionals at Act 6, has made Reader’s Digest first among its competitive set in time spent with the magazine, with readers spending almost a full hour with every issue.
So what is a story? It has a beginning, middle and end; it is designed to interest, arouse, or instruct. But the key to a great story is its power to connect emotionally to the reader. Through that connection, Vaccariello said, stories become a powerful way to change something, to provide meaning, to build connections. And part of the job of a great editor is to find the great stories. That requires reading everything, and in so doing, to ask: do I feel something?
Readers look to Vaccariello’s publication to make them feel understood. To surprise them with a secret, or a laugh, or moment of delight, or an unexpected cause for pride. Even sadness and outrage are emotions that a reader will welcome when a great story elicits them.
Great stories can change lives, Vaccariello told the group. Storytelling in the context of family is a powerful bond from generation to generation. Children who hear stories from their parents and grandparents about how they, over the years, met and overcame adversity, are more resilient.
Sherin Pierce, the Publisher of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, North America’s oldest continuously-published vehicle for journalism and storytelling, followed Vaccariello with a story of her own: the story of how the Old Farmer’s Almanac was launched, grew and prospered for “225 years of love, luck and tradition.”
“We speak of disruption in publishing,” Pierce told the group. “Think of the disruption in the life of Robert B Thomas, who was born in 1766, and launched the Almanac when he was only 26 years old. He was born on a farm, and before he was grown he saw how a ragtag group of farmers stood up to the might of the British Empire.” That first issue was 46 pages, with a print run of 3000 copies. And there was no RDA, no placement fees…and no returns. With this auspicious start, Thomas tripled the draw the following year.
In 1816, Pierce related, late to meet his press date, the printer called to ask for Thomas’ July weather forecast. Thomas irritably replied, “Call for rain, hail and snow!” And the printer dropped that prediction, which briefly made a laughingstock out of Thomas, into the publication. But that was the year that the eruption, in the Dutch East Indies, of Mount Tambora, brought “The Year Without a Summer”—along with a July snowfall in Boston. It was a disaster for farmers, but it made a lasting name for Robert B. Thomas, and for his Almanac.
While the Old Farmer’s Almanac has changed with the times, many things have remained the same. The cover engravings of seasonal images and portraits of Ben Franklin and Robert B Thomas hark back to 1851, as does the iconic hole in the corner of the cover, useful to hang for year-round reference. The 1858 Almanac was used by the young lawyer Abraham, defending a client accused of a midnight murder. The Almanac’s corroborating proof that the night in question was moonless was key to Lincoln’s client’s acquital.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has long been proud of its trend of continuous publishing. When the US Office of Censorship asked the publisher to cease publication for the duration of World War Two—two German spies had been found in possession of a copy, thought to be helpful in planning forays around weather and tides—the publisher asked for, and was granted, permission to continue, with the agreement to leave out the weather and continue with indications and proverbs for the duration of the war.
In a newsstand-challenged, era, the Old Farmer’s Almanac prints 4 million copies per issue, and sells 40% on the newsstand. And its brand pre-eminence, established the Year Without a Summer, remains as strong today as it was then. “There is only one Old Farmer’s Almanac,” Pierce told the group. “We’ve had that name since 1842. It’s what you think of when you think of an almanac. And rightly so, based on the specificity of its identification. “Farmer’s almanac’ is, after all, a generic term.”
Click on the video below to watch Liz Vaccariello presentation at the ACT 6 Experience:
Click on the video below to watch Sherin Pierce presentation at the ACT 6 Experience:
Stay tuned to watch the rest of the ACT 6 Experience on this blog…