05 August 2007 by Published in: Blogging 7 comments

I’ve had some opportunities to interact with Chris Lewis during his tenure as the editor of Civil War Times Illustrated. Chris published JD’s and my article on the charges at Fairfax Court Huse and Westminster in this year’s first issue, and we enjoyed working with him on the project. We were very pleased with the way that the article came out, and with the fact that it was chosen as the cover story for that issue.

Last week, Dimitri Rotov posted that Chris has resigned as editor. Chris circulated an e-mail announcing his resignation that included the following passage:

Naturally this is not an easy decision for me to make. As many of you know, I am a lifelong reader and care a great deal about this publication—which is why I cannot be a part of the “new direction” that the magazines in thisgroup are either already going in, or will be going in soon. There is no respect here anymore for history, historians or the core audience. I want to thank all of you for your support ofthe magazine over the last couple years.

I will miss Chris, as I think he’s done a fine job.

CWTI and America’s Civil War are part of the Weider History Group. Previously, these magazines were owned and operated by Cowles, but they were all sold to a company owned and operated by Eric Weider. Eric’s family has long been in the physical fitness business, and they made a fortune in that industry. They decide to foray into the realm of history because Eric also publishes Armchair General magazine, which is oriented toward military gamers. There are forum boards on the Armchair General site, and I post there occasionally. Consequently, I’ve been closely following the threads discussing the changes to Military History magazine, most of which have been extremely negative.

Tonight, Dimitri has added an open letter to Eric Weider on his blog. Dimitri raises some interesting points, and I agree with most of them. However, I definitely disagree with him on one of his major suggestions. He wrote, “Relying on freelancers for articles has long put your magazines at a quality disadvantage; it is better to hire a small but reliable staff who can produce to a standard you set and deliver that consistently. Booking articles from name authors to supplement freelance work is also very dangerous, for unless those authors are closely supervised, they will hand you their bottom drawer leftovers (see especially Geoff Norman’s piece on ‘surrender monkeys’ in the current Military History and William Marvel’s article on ‘McClellan apologists’ in the current America’s Civil War).”

I think that this is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. First, and foremost, people have areas of expertise, and hiring a staff of generalists will mean that experts will no longer participate. Second, if the same writers do every article for every issue, the writing will become stale and will be too standardized. It is, of course, an old cliche that variety is the spice of life. However, I really believe that maintaining variety in the types of articles and the authors who write them is critical to the future of the publication. While I understand Dimitri’s point, I think it’s a bad idea.

In any event, I do hope that Eric Weider takes the criticisms of his readers and the radical step of resigning by Chris Lewis (who was there less than a year, if I recall correctly) to heart. I certainly hope that these publications can be turned around and restored to their prior level of quality, or else they will wither and die. I would hate to see that happen.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Sun 05th Aug 2007 at 11:53 pm

    IIRC, Chris told me that the fellow who managed Discover magazine was hired as the new manager of the history magazines. This new manager wanted to turn CWTI, ACW, etc, into more generalized, slick productions. He was looking for less specific history and more appeal to the “mass” population.

    Chris is a terrific fellow and historian, and his resignation does not bode well for CWTI or any of the other Weider mags. If Eric Weider doesn’t get a real historian in control of them soon, I think his foray into history is over. And what’s more pathetic is that great mags like CWTI (the grandfather of CW mags) will be gone.

    J.D.

  2. Mon 06th Aug 2007 at 12:04 am

    I was surprised to receive Chris’ email on Friday, because I had just spoken with him a few weeks before. I’ve spent some time in the field (and on the bus) with Chris – he’s a “good guy”. I wish him the best in whatever he decides to do next.

  3. Mon 06th Aug 2007 at 8:53 am

    Eric,

    Thanks for the informative post and I share your dissent of Dimitri’s suggestion to minimize or do away with the use of freelancers. In my opinion, freelance writers have provided some of the more interesting material over the past decade-plus that I have been reading the glossies. To be sure, there have been mistakes and re-hashing of myths and old material, but this is usually due to editorial direction not to freelance contributions.

    I’ve been trying to do my part to inspire more and better freelance contributions through my “School of the Writer” series on my blog.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt
    http://civilwarmed.blogspot.com

  4. Valerie Protopapas
    Mon 06th Aug 2007 at 11:42 am

    We have more than enough ‘general interest’ magazines, thank you. The whole point of having a magazine that focuses on the War of Secession is to read about different points of view, aspects and new revelations regarding that war. It is a ‘limited audience’, certainly. But then, so are magazines about coin collecting, dog breeding and tropical fish. However, if I want to know something in those subjects, I wouldn’t be looking at People or Cosmo to find it.

    As for ‘freelancers': nothing gets things moving like a controversial article which turns the accepted orthodoxy on its head. The heat and light can lead to a renewed interest by lots of folks who have become bored by the ‘same old same old’. Even if one disagrees with the writer or finds his sources unsound, often something of value is revealed in the controversy. Again, if I want to read the orthodox position on a subject, there are books enough to go round. Sometimes we need to be challenged in our intellectual ‘comfort zone’.

    I hope that the magazine remembers its reason for existence. Many businesses in the U. S. went bankrupt when they decided to ‘diversify’ because what they had been successful in a limited market. Their belief was that they did well here, so why not take a winning strategy and spread it around! Usually within a few years not only was the ‘diversified’ store gone, but the original store was gone too. A shoemaker should stick to his last, as the old saying goes. It is better to do one thing well than ten poorly.

  5. Mon 06th Aug 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Dana Shoaf gave a talk on his experiences as editor of America’s Civil Warwith the Weiders last week at the Chambersburg seminar and seemed much more optimistic about the prospects for the magazines. If they lose him, then I think it will be time to really become concerned.

  6. Scott
    Tue 07th Aug 2007 at 5:51 pm

    I agree with most of what everyone is saying but at the same time we have to understand that Weider is in business to make money. Over the years, I’ve personally been told by the owners of 3 CW publications that these magazines are very difficult to keep afloat financially. We have seen several go under – Columbiad, Magazine of the CW Society. Remember, not every magazine can be North South or Blue Gray. You have your MAXIM and then you have your Playboy.

    Sounds like everyone is addressing this from the point of view of what we who are already engrossed CW students want to read. Weider’s growth potential (i.e. new readers) is not that great among serious students of the CW because it is a finite market, which is probably pretty close to being tapped out subscription wise. Those of you who lead tours probably note the same faces year after year on your tour groups.

    If Weider wants to grow his business, he needs to tap into the larger general population. In many ways this could be a good thing for the CW history community – many general readers who have had no contact with CW history at all will become junkies and want to read more detailed articles and books.

    We always, always complain that CW history is not marketed to the masses, people don’t care about history, and so on, but here is someone trying to reach out and expand the audience and I can only hope that he is successful as we will all benefit in the long run.

    There are many books to be sold and any new potential reader is a plus to me.

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