A Conversation with Hallowed Ground‘s Mary Koik (part two)

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(part two of a four-part series)

Civil War Trust President O. James
Lighthizer (left) with Mary Koik.
(photo by Bruce Guthrie)

ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski is talking this week with Mary Koik, editor of the Civil War Trusts magazine, Hallowed Ground. Yesterday, Mary shared a little about her professional background and how the chance the edit the magazine came up quite unexpectedly.

Chris Mackowski: So let’s circle back to the magazine. You had this sort of dropped in your lap as an unexpected opportunity. You’ve done fantastic things with that opportunity.

Mary Koik: Thank you. It’s a labor of love. 

While I was still was working full-time at the Trust, the magazine wasn’t my only job there. Something most people don’t know about the Trust is that everyone wears a huge number of hats. The amount of work the staff gets done per capita is remarkable compared to other non-profits. There’s focus on how things can be done efficiently and sharing the load. So I was also writing press releases and doing day-to-day PR. Over time, I had started taking over more PR work at the Trust, as opposed to the knocking on doors and putting in yard signs and things. It was a tremendous opportunity, and I took it and like to think I ran with it.

Some of my earlier issues—I don’t look back on and say, “I knocked that one out of the park.” But I think over time, I learned what the members really wanted to read about, and not just in terms of organizational news, but in terms of history, too. As a membership magazine, it’s important to balance those two things. A lot of our members now are on Facebook, they follow all our social media, they get newsletters, fundraising appeals. But that magazine remains one of the ways we know we reach everybody. So it’s really important to make sure that the achievements of the organization are portrayed consistently and accurately, but we also want to share solid history. That’s why people are members, because they love this stuff. So I’m always trying to find good stories to tell, especially in places that we’ve saved land and where we’re actively doing work.

It’s calculus, trying to figure out what to cover. I’m always trying to refine the content and, obviously, trying to improve the look and readability, too. We’ve done two complete redesigns of the magazine in the last ten years with some further tweaks along the way.

CM: It seems that if the magazine consisted of just promotional and fundraising material, people wouldn’t have the incentive to read it, but having that history gives people a reason to pick it up, while also having those messages you want to hit them with.

MK: That is the goal. You want to give them something that they want to read and learn about, and also then give them the update about, like, “Hey, these are properties that we’re seeking to buy.” Every other issue, we do the rundown on what closings we’ve had during the first or last half of the calendar year. Members give to these projects, and they want to know if it went through and the final disposition and what’s happening next, as well as how that contributes to what we’ve already done there. It’s great to say we got another two acres at Cold Harbor, but it’s maybe more important to say it was contiguous with other land we bought, and how we are now cumulatively up to “X.” There’s a lot of important stuff that people really do want to know. And you’re absolutely right, the history is just as important, because that’s why people belong to this organization, because they want to learn.

CM: That stewardship responsibility is so important, and I’ve always been impressed by how seriously you guys take it.

MK: It really is. It’s an ongoing effort by the whole organization to really keep people appraised of all of the good work that’s been done, because people are personally invested in it. In a lot of cases, people will send in a note with their donation forms and say, “This property matters to me because a regiment from my home town was there,” or, “I know an ancestor of mine fought in this battle,” so people really do have a personal connection to these properties, and want to close the circle and know what happens to them.

CM: You mentioned a second ago that the magazine has gone through two major makeovers. How would you characterize the magazine as being different now than when you took over?

MK: When I first took over, the printing and design, the process was completely different. Technology has had a big impact on all publications, even history ones. Like I said, digital photography was new and kind of novel still, and even just the layout programs were different. Back then, it was easier to make some kinds of changes in the layout as opposed to re-flowing the underlying text document, so there’s just been a whole ton of change in the process, and I think the visual shows that a lot, too. Also, if you look back at those old issues of Hallowed Ground, the departments were different. We didn’t do side-bars. There weren’t links listed for additional information online.

When I took over in the mid-2000s, the grass roots activism was so important, whereas for a period up until then, we’d been lucky just to be talking about land purchases and things like that. So for the magazine to have a way to talk about the challenges and the up-hill battles was something that was important to us. Now, I try to also revisit some of those ultimately successful campaigns and describe how it all came together in the big picture.

The way we think about photography has changed a lot. When I first started working on the magazine, some of the guidelines in place were that we shouldn’t have any buildings, monuments, or people in photos because we want to just show the land. Coming from a journalism background, I wanted to put more things in the foreground to make these pictures more compelling. I also wanted to reach out to modern artists who paint period pictures and things like that.

So we really have changed a lot over time. It always is evolving. It’s never going to be “stick a fork in it, we have the perfect format, everything’s done.” We do keep tweaking it every couple of issues. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll see small changes. It might be just a little different font that allows better readability in the captions—things like that are always being tweaked. Every few years, I joke I have to make the font bigger, because in a history magazine, your audience tends to skew to be older, and the last thing you want is for people to struggle to read it.

I think if you looked back at an issue from 2005 and a current one, you’d probably be pretty surprised they’re the same publication. We’ve changed the look and feel pretty dramatically.

CM: To use the old expression, “This ain’t your grandfather’s Civil War magazine.”

MK: Thank you for that—it means a lot. We want it to be beautiful. We want it to be something that you’d pick up at a doctor’s office or that you’d hand off to a friend. And we try to balance really hardcore history with “hey, did you know,” something a little more digestible. It’s hopefully something we achieve.

CM: It’s a beautiful magazine—and I think that’s something you can say across the board with all the Civil War magazines out right now. I don’t know if it’s just the environment or the business competition, but everyone has raised the bar to make these super-attractive magazines.

MK: I think you’re absolutely right. The days of the black and white pictures, and the engraving that gets bad moray lines, where it gets wiggly when reproduced—those days are gone. You have to be more dynamic and compelling. Part of it is that people are now so used to getting multi-media packages and crazy dynamic stuff online. The dead-tree edition can’t have video embedded in it, so you better make it compelling in some way.

CM: (laughs) I’ve never heard that before, “the dead-tree edition.”

Do you guys see yourselves as competition with the other magazines, or because you’re a membership magazine, that’s kind of a different beast?

MK: I think it’s a very different beast. I’m very lucky to be insulated from the issues of selling ads. Our subscription number is the membership number plus some additional partner groups and things like that, so I think it’s a very different beast.

It’s a small community, so I think we’re more comrades in arms than competitors.

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In tomorrow’s segment, Mary will talk more about the balancing act that goes into setting the editorial agenda for Hallowed Ground.

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