The Future of Civil War History: An Interview with Dana Shoaf (part five)

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part five of five

In part four of my conversation with Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf, he and I talked about the value of his magazine—or any magazine—as a forum with both wide reach and widely recognized legitimacy. But as he says today, that still doesn’t come without its challenges. As we wrap up our talk about “The Future of Civil War History,” we talk a little about the magazine’s place in it.

Chris Mackowski: I know you’ve talked a little bit in the past in other conversations we’ve had about what you have on the cover, because that will lure people in, and then you might be able to kind of come at them sideways with some other things they might not be expecting.

Dana Shoaf: As long as newsstands exists, you’ve got to use covers to try to attract attention.

This is a sort of an aside, but magazine readers have very long memories, and I have run into people who have told me they stopped getting the magazine in the late 80s and early 90s because they didn’t like it any more—and they haven’t looked at it since then. And you know what’s interesting? That was the era of reenactors on the cover. I have a theory that people didn’t like that because it was merging these two things, which people didn’t really care for. It made the magazine seem less serious, I think.

It seems to change every day, depending on who you talk to: “Newsstands and bookstores are dead,” and other people say, “Oh no, they’re not.” You know?

CM: I’m sure if you had a dollar for every time you’ve heard over the last ten or fifteen years that “Print is dead” or “Books are dead,” you could’ve probably retired by now. But people still seem to be buying books and buying magazines.

DS: Right.

We recently launched a direct mail campaign that, by any industry standards, was an outstanding success. I like to think it’s because the magazine presents well and contains really interesting stuff. And I try. And it’s not easy, because the Civil War is well-plowed ground. I try to bring in new stuff all the time.

Like the contraband camp article I mentioned earlier. I didn’t know anything about that camp. I kinda knew there was one there. The Tom Clemens/McClellan’s headquarters thing—that’s new.

We have an article I’m working on now about a dispatch Lee wrote to Pickett in ‘64—it was the only time he complimented Pickett. It was after the fighting at Bermuda Hundred in June. And for a long time, some people thought it was a fake, and maybe someone wrote it after the war. But a wartime copy has been found. So it actually was a wartime document and there’s proof of that.

So there’s always new stuff that comes out. It’s taken me a long time to stay networked in to be aware of this stuff.

CM: So, do you think there will be a place for magazines in the future of Civil War history?

DS: I hope so. I really do. I can’t predict the future. I would like to think, yes, of course, there is a future for print.

I know that young people—and by “young people,” I mean thirty and under—don’t seem to read print. What’s frustrating is, when they get the print in front of them, they’re like, “Oh, this is neat stuff!” But reaching them, marketing the magazine, is a real challenge.

It’s surprising to me, but there are people who are interested in the Civil War who’ve never heard of Civil War Times—which seems inconceivable, but it happens.

CM: That blows my mind. It’s always seemed to me like Civil War Times is a kind of institution in the field, even among the other Civil War magazines. Is it just that you’re competing with so much else in an overall busy media market?

DS: I think one of the things about Civil War history, because it’s so popular, is that a lot of people get their information from blogs now. They don’t have to pay for it. I’m still trying to figure out how to marry those two sources. But it’s not unheard of for me to read something on a blog and call someone and say, “Hey, could you fill that out a little for an article?”

A lot of people, I think, satiate their interest by going to blogs—and I think blogs are great—but blogs are unintentionally segregating because you can be really selective about the topics you read, so with some of them, you’re not getting a really rounded view.

Let’s say you’re into Confederate history. You can just choose to read Confederate blogs that just support your side or your view of slavery not being a cause of the war. Because of the way blogs are, you could just read that every day and not read anything else about the Civil War.

Whereas with a magazine, you might stumble across something that you normally wouldn’t be interested in but you’ll go ahead and read it because it’s right there in front of you. But with blogs, someone could get a real narrow, special-interest view of the conflict.

So I hope, I like to think, magazines still have a place, because what I try to do is bring a lot of different viewpoints into the magazine, a lot of different topics.

CM: I think it’s kind of ironic that you talk about it way—and I agree with you—when I think about the magazine business twenty years ago, and you went from those general interest magazines like Life and the Saturday Evening Post, and then suddenly you could get a magazine that was just for you if you raised reptiles in your home or if you loved knitting or something like that. So the special interest magazine rose up and allowed audiences to get specific with their interests.

DS: There is some irony because my magazine is very specific. People could say, “You should read a general American history magazine instead of the Civil War. They should lean about the broader pattern of history instead of just the Civil War.”

I think blogs are really effective when it comes to things like photographs. Like, there’s a lot of argument about where was this image taken. I see blogs as being effective like that because it’s a vehicle—you can zoom in and do all kinds of stuff.

CM: I think another value of a magazine is that you have some editorial oversight. On the internet, anybody can put up anything they want.

DS: Yeah. And sixty to seventy percent of the articles we get it, we have to clarify something. I have actually gotten book excerpts, and I’m reading the excerpt and thinking, “Well, that’s wrong.” And we correct it in the excerpt—some things that are incorrect or not clear or a bit misrepresented—but in the book it’s not corrected. With books, I’m not sure how that works all the time.

That doesn’t mean mistakes don’t creep in. What people don’t often realize because a magazine doesn’t look like a book: my magazine contains as many words as a lot of books. And we’re putting that magazine out in three and four weeks. Books take months. We have to edit and get that stuff turned around in three to four weeks. And they’re topics that are all over the place. So, because of that and the speed we have to work, things do sometimes slip by, unfortunately.

But in a larger sense, we have to make sure the things that are in that magazine and in those articles are credible and factually correct. It’s something I take very seriously.

CM: I guess that’s what will always make editors necessary, especially since digital technology has “democratized” history so much. So at least the future of Civil War history should have some jobs! (both laugh) Dana, thanks so much for taking some time to talk with me this week.

DS: My pleasure, Chris. Thanks for thinking of me.

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