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Post Magazine: Editor Tom Shroder

Tom Shroder
Editor, Washington Post Magazine
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; 12:00 PM

This Week:Tom Shroder, editor of The Washington Post Magazine will be online Wednesday, March 30, at Noon ET to field your questions about the Magazine and its features -- from cover stories to restaurant reviews, just Ask The Post.

The Washington Post Magazine appears as part of the Sunday newspaper 51 weeks per year. It is produced three weeks in advance of publication, but articles usually are completed more than a month before the publication date. These articles take many forms -- ranging from deeply reported features to reported essays to first-person memoirs -- but they generally have in common narrative writing, or storytelling. The Magazine also includes several regular features, including Tom Sietsema's restaurant reviews, columnists Gene Weingarten, Joel Achenbach and Jeanne Marie Laskas.


Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Tom Shroder: Thanks so much for joining the chat. I'll do my best to answer any questions you have about how the magazine operates, stories we've done, dirt and dish on Weingarten, Achenbach, Sietsema,Laskas, Richard Thompson or any of our other regulars, heck, I'll even answer questions on international diplomacy, about which I know nothing.

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New York, N.Y.: I met David Von Drehle at the triangle commemoration on Thursday. I'm the teacher that gave him the map.

His e-mail address doesn't seem to work I'd like to e-mail him some more info.

Tom Shroder: The Vonster gets around. That book he wrote on the Triangle factory disaster was a Master's course in non-fiction writing. His e-mail is vondrehled@washpost.com

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Washington, D.C.: You treat Weingarten horribly. You are abusive to him, in word, in tone and in deed. You mock him pitilessly. You are dismissive of him and even of his noblest efforts. Why do you torment him?

Tom Shroder: Gene, is that you?

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Alexandria, Va.: Where do you get the people you follow around episodically for week after week? Couldn't you find anybody normal?

Tom Shroder: Is anybody really normal? Ask yourself that question the next time you attend a family gathering. That said, we want people who have something at stake and in flux in their lives: a new restaurant, a basketball team to get through a season, a comedy career to develop. We hope that makes it a little more suspenseful for the readers.

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Columbus Ohio: I haven't been able to find the Sunday Magazine since your Web site was redesigned.

Am I just blind and not seeing the link? Where do I click to find the Sunday Magazine? I miss it! thanks.

Tom Shroder: Hear that loud and clear Web People???? Anyway, you can always find the Post Magazine by going to the drop-down menu under the "News" heading in the blue strip across the top of the Post.com home page. Very often magazine features are also displayed individually on the home page.

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Vienna, Va.: Now that you're moving into a new character whose adventures we'll be following for the next few months, any chance you could bring us up to date on the old ones? Is the Red Bean restaurant flourishing, or not? How about Freddy's DJ career? I'm sure I'm not the only one who's interested. Thanks.

Tom Shroder: I'm glad you enjoy that feature. It was the new feature that we were most nervous about, and I know it takes a certain leap of faith for readers to tune in to the life of some more or less random stranger. But Tyler Curie has a sharp eye and a subtle touch, and I think we've had some luck with the brave folks who have volunteered to live under a microscope for a few months. Your idea about giving updates is a good one. I'll get right on it.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: If you must have a "humor" column, why won't you replace Gene with someone who is actually funny?

Tom Shroder: Joel, is that you?

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Annandale, Va.: I'm only an occasional reader of the Post Magazine. The cover stories are way too long.

And the mix of stories sometimes seems odd to me. How do you decide which stories will get cover story treatment, which ones will get less space? Also, what's your philosophy about how the magazine fits with the other sections of the paper?

Tom Shroder: Thanks for the input. We put a tremendous amount of effort into making our cover stories "taut" -- with just the right amount of detail, scene and narative story telling to satisfy readers' curiosity and make them feel they've experienced something, without boring them. Obviously, some will hit the mark with more readers than others. What we're trying to do is find stories that in whatever way define our region, or the subjects that Washingtonians are most passionate about-- pieces that will engage the imagination. We want stories that will make people WANT to read them -- not necessarily because they think they ought to read them, or that it will be good for them to read them, but because they just can't help wanting to know what happens next.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I read your book about reincarnation which I found very interesting. I wondered if you believe in past lives and why you wrote the book. Do you plan on producing any future books?

Tom Shroder: Glad you liked Old Souls. I wrote the book because I found the work of Ian Stevenson, who traveled the world investigating cases of small children who claimed to remember previous lives, and sometimes even provided very specific -- and confirmable -- details about the dead strangers they said they'd been, to be very compelling, and not easily explained away. This was in sharp contrast to much of the "hypnotic regression" material, in which there was very little reason to believe people were doing anything more than fantasizing at the suggestion of the hypnotherapist. In the end, I came away personally convinced that intentional fraud and self delusion could not account for all the cases I came in contact with. But I didn't think that necessarily proved we all have souls, and the souls inhabit another body after we die.
Some day, I hope to write another book. I loved working on the two I've written (though I whined plenty while I was doing them). I've got some ideas, if you know anybody who has oodles of advance money lying around.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Mr. Shroder,

Please let Mr. Weingarten use bad words in the newspaper.

Thank you,

Donny Novello

Tom Shroder: Why? Do you need to learn some new ones?

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Nashua, N.H.: How open are you to using new writers? Or do you prefer having a trusted group you've worked with before?

Tom Shroder: We are open to using writers we haven't used before. We won't give assignments unless a writer has extensive clips that demonstrate the ability to write quality magazine stories, and an unblemished track record. But we are always open to looking at manuscripts written on speculation. If something really knocks us out, we'll work with the author to make it work for us.

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Washington, D.C.: I love the Post Magazine, and I'm interested in interning/working there, if I can. Do you take interns the same way the paper does? How can I find out more?

Tom Shroder: Thanks! We have not had interns here mainly because magazine writers tend to be among the most experienced and accomplished at the paper. Lisa Frazier in news personnel is the person to talk to about the intern program.

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Arlington, Va.: May I suggest a final 6- or 12-month follow-up with your "Adventures with..." subjects? While I was initially indifferent to the adventures of Frank and Maggie, I came to empathize with them and would be interested in where life may be taking them... thanks for this opportunity.

Tom Shroder: A second for the suggestion earlier. Who needs normal?

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Arlington, Va.: Why doesn't the Magazine have "Letters to the Editor" anymore? It's possible that letters may appear in the daily newspaper, but I feel that they should appear in the magazine, since the magazine is sort of a separate entity. I would guess there are a lot of "Sunday Only Readers" who never get to see reader feedback on specific articles. I always find it interesting to hear reader reaction to articles, and I think the magazine loses a lot by not including that feedback in its pages.

Tom Shroder: We decided to handle letters like other Post sections and send them to the centralized letters page for two reasons: severely limited space and our long lead time between preparation and publication. Taken together, it meant we ended up running letters referring to stories that had run months earlier, which started seeming silly. But I understand your point, and am sorry we can't do letters in a timely way with the space we have available.

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Alexandria, Va.: How do you feel about being referred to as "Tom the Butcher" and how much glee do you derive from hacking text to pieces?

Tom Shroder: I prefer to think of myself as "Tom the Surgeon"

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Laurel, Md.: I think I remember from Weingarten and Sietsema that the magazine is in final form (or at least the columns have to be) three weeks in advance. But a lot of the cover features seem pretty ever-green; how far advance are the eldest stories before they reach print?

Tom Shroder: We finish production on issues a little more than two weeks in advance of publications, but some stories have been in the works for many months. Monte Reel, for example, followed the plight of a soldier wounded in Iraq for more than a year before publication.

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Clifton, Va.: I think the Post Magazine cover stories are great, but often too long. Have you thought about cutting down the size and using the extra space for a third or fourth weekly story?

Tom Shroder: We do have issues that are three, four or five shorter pieces from time to time. Interestingly, in most reader surveys I've seen, the large majority of readers, asked if they think the stories are too long, say no.

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Washington, D.C.: Who do you consider your main competitors? Washingtonian or City Paper or something else?

Tom Shroder: I consider our main competitors are: walking the dog, getting the kids to soccer practice, watching a movie on cable, paying bills, making actual conversation with the spouse -- all the demands of weekend life in general. And that's pretty tough competition when we want people to sit down and send some time reading.

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Bowie, Md.: Wiengarten was MIA from his chat for a couple of weeks. Does he have a cover story coming up?

Tom Shroder: Yes, indeedy

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Laurel, Md.: Don't know if you personally are involved in this, but the Post Magazine's is my very favorite crossword. Compared other big-city Sunday puzzles, you use fewer obscure references and use a greater quantity of clever puns.

Tom Shroder: That's good to hear. I get about three spaces filled in and give up, personally, but this is produced specifically for the Post Magazine

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Gaithersburg, Md.: You can judge a lot about the target audience of a publication from its ads. You seem to carry many for high-end furniture.

Do you have a profile of which Post readers are most likely to be magazine readers?

Tom Shroder: We have all sorts of demos -- but what I think about when I'm considering our content is all the incredibly smart, interested people of all ages and classes in this area who are just flat out curious about the world, and our little corner of it in particular.

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Eastern Market, Washington, D.C.: Tom the Surgeon! I like that. He specializes in spaying and neutering.

-- Weingarten.

Tom Shroder: That reminds me, Gene, it's time for your procedure.

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Washington, D.C.: Any thought given to making the magazine bigger? I'm sure you don't have a hard time finding content.

A few times a year, I'm so excited when the magazine seems a bit thicker, then just disappointed to find it is mainly advertisements.

Tom Shroder: I'm glad you like the mag. Don't be too disappointed when you find some of the thickness is attributed to ads. As our business manager is fond of reminding me, we aren't PBS. So many magazines have gone under around the country for lack of advertising support, so I'm happy to see it.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why don't you combine Outlook and Magazine into one thicker glossy? I think the two complement each other and would drive traffic of each usual section to the other's offerings.

Tom Shroder: Outlook, by it's nature, has to be of the moment. The magazine, with its gloss, has to be printed in advance.

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Falls Church, Va.: What has the response been to newer features like Question Celebrity and The Adventures of...?

One thing that I find just horrible is the My Life in Pictures feature. There aren't enough photos featured to give much insight into the person and, truth be told, the photos are often horrible.

Tom Shroder: The response has generally been very positive. I think Richard Thompson's cartoon Cul de Sac has become a fixture of a lot of folks' Sunday mornings, and you've seen some of the responses to our Adventures of... feature. Editor's Query is a big hit, as far as I can tell. As for My Life In Pictures -- we hope that the fact that the photos represent the subject's eyeview of his or her own life adds a certain interest -- we know they can't compete with the professional photographers we otherwise use.

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Washington, D.C.: In re the upside down editions: They really bug me. Can you stop doing them?

Tom Shroder: Sorry about that. No.

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Crofton, Md.: Can you give a recent example of something Weingarten wrote that you doctored, and then, upon further consideration, decided to print as it was originally intended to be?

Tom Shroder: Tom the Butcher, um, Surgeon, never makes a mistake.

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East Falls Church, Va.: Ok, we are among those subscribers whose Suday inserts are delivered on Friday evening. I confess -- I cannot wait, and read the Magazine on Saturday am. Do you know if Friday delivery is common with Paper Subscribers? And, if it is common, maybe you could use that as evidence the Magazine could be even longer? (Two days to read it instead of one!).

Tom Shroder: I love that enthusiasm. Actually Friday night is pretty durn early. It shows up at my house on Saturday.

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Annapolis, Md.: Several weeks ago I sent a message to the ombudsman discussing a story in the magazine that I considered to be unprofessional in its tone and intent -- a hatchet job. I received a response from the ombudsman saying that he had sent my note to you for response. Well, I never heard anything from you.

The story was "The Snow Riot," in which the author makes it clear that he wishes to discredit Francis Scott Key, and he goes even further in his online discussion of his article when he says that "I think that the article provides people with a more realistic picture of Francis Scott Key. That might change how people think of the 'Star Spangled Banner.' I hope so."

I am disappointed that you did not respond to my comments about this article.

Tom Shroder: Sorry about that. I thought the article was an interesting insight into a famous figure in history, and that most of what it said about Key came pretty much from his own mouth, or pen.

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Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Dear T the B: I don't envy you making deadline given the cast of characters who regularly appear in the magazine? Who is the hardest to edit? Who is the most dilatory? Is there some info which we can use to shame Weingarten on Tuesday (ie, like being caught eating a dark chocolate Easter bunny)?

Tom Shroder: You have NO idea. As for shaming Weingarten, I need to be diplomatic. The man has his own chat!

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Arlington, Va.: I love the entire magazine, but wanted to specifically mention how much I enjoy "Significant Others" by Jeanne Marie Laskas. I enjoy her quiet reality, which is provides a refuge from the frenetic nature of the other columns and stories.

Thanks!

Tom Shroder: You know what I like about her? She's very funny, in her own, very unique way. Especially as a man, I feel I get an insight into that very complicated (for men) place: a woman's inner mind.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: the Key article -- are Keys' relatives writing in again? They dominated the chat with the author about how incorrect he was, blah blah blah.... I thought the article was very even-handed.

Tom Shroder: I'm just saying.

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Fashion: I want to complain about the miniscule amount of coverage given to fashion and design in the magazine. The most recent special issue (turn upside down for spring fashion) was a ridiculously small layout featuring only one model. Can't we do more than one feature in a special issue?

Tom Shroder: Noted. Thanks for the input.

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Tom Shroder: Thanks for the good questions. Got to head out to butcher a few humor columns. Let's do this again sometime.

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