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

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(photo by Bruce Guthrie)

(part three of a four-part series)

Mark Koik has been editor of the Civil War Trusts magazine Hallowed Ground for more than a decade. In yesterdays segment, told ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski, “Its calculus, trying to figure out what to do” for each issue. Today, she goes into more detail.

Chris Mackowski: You mentioned a minute ago the battle of balancing what goes into the magazine. Can you walk me through the process of putting together an issue?

Mary Koik: It can come from a lot of different places. Usually I try to start almost a year in advance trying to figure out what a theme will be. One of those lessons learned along the way is that people really like the idea of this being the “X” issue, where the content in those non-newsy recurring departments is tied to one theme or one battle or one something. I will start brainstorming sometimes a year in advance, sometimes more. 

Back at the beginning of the Sesquicentennial, I laid out what every issue during the anniversary would be, because you have to strike the balance between Eastern Theater and Western Theater. You also don’t want to have three issues in a row that all feature “X” character prominently, because they switched between theaters. You don’t want to have too much of any one good thing. All of these are great stories to tell—but yeah, I laid out every issue and what they would cover, and that was nice to know.

In addition to that, I’ll look at major projects we have coming in the next year or that we’ve just completed. I’ll look at gaps we have in our back catalogue and on our website, because people do go to that site all the time to research and look up information. For any number of reasons there are subjects that are covered more heavily. You type in “Gettysburg” into any search bar on any Civil War anything, you’ll get a number of results that dwarfs anything else. But every once in a while, you’ll find a surprising hole and you kind of have to go and backfill. One of the great examples of that was in 2010. I was looking and noticed we’ve never done anything significant on Chickamauga. This is going back not just to 1999 when the old Trust and APCWS [Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites] merged and became CWPT, but even going back through the archives of those previous organizations. We’d never done anything long-form on Chickamauga, and that was just the most glaring oversight in my opinion. So funny enough, we had a Chickamauga issue pretty soon after that.

CM: That’s all really big-picture strategy.

MK: It’s definitely big picture strategy. Sometimes it’s a matter of also trying to look toward partnerships the organization has. One of my favorite issues I did last year was about the first century of the US Navy, and I got to work with the folks at the Naval Historical Foundation on that, and that was just a ton of fun because it’s stuff that’s just really different from what we usually do. And the membership response on it was great, because we have a lot of readers who have served in the Navy, and this is part of their heritage, too.

So that’s part of it, working with partners. So that’s kind of how we get to a theme, and from there, we’ll look at trying to find particular stories to tell. If it’s a battle that we’ve done work at, I’ll try and see if there’s a way to weave in, specifically, land we’ve saved there and show that there’s Civil War history, but there’s also the organization’s history, too. Sometimes the stories of how the properties are acquired are pretty dramatic: the candlelight vigils in snowstorms and contentious public hearings and all of that. And, then sometimes, like the Spring issue I’m doing now, things are designed to tie into a Trust event, in this case our upcoming Annual Conference on the Virginia Peninsula.

When I do reach out to authors who have a background on a particular battle, I like to talk to them about those goals, like, “I’d love to get something that focuses on this half of the battle where the Trust has done work,” but I don’t want to place too much of a direct order off of a menu for a story. I want the historians to tell a good story, essentially. The word “story” is in “history” for a reason, and that is what people are pulled in by. I have a pretty good background, and I know a pretty decent amount of history, but I’m not the expert on the subject matter on a lot of these battles, and I want the person who is to tell me what those great personalities and instances and unexpected consequences and great tales are.

CM: You talk about recruiting writers to pull these articles together. I imagine you’ve been able to talk to a lot of people over the years. What’s it like to be able to work with some of the great talent in the field?

MK: Sometimes, it’s intimidating—I’m not going to lie. When I was first taking over, these people didn’t know me from Adam, and I was self-conscious about asking folks for things. It’s gotten easier over time, but sometimes, cold-calling or cold-emailing someone is tough. But at least now, I have copies and links to send them to things I’ve done and things that the Trust puts out if they aren’t familiar with it already. It’s something to be proud of and say, “Wouldn’t you like to be part of this?” That’s helped a lot. (laughs) The journalist in me is saying, “Have some great clips to send and show people.” (both laugh)

It’s exhilarating, too, to get to read the first draft of things. I guess I’ve gotten a reputation of getting pretty good at it over the years. There are some historians who say, “Don’t worry about it. I trust what you’re going to do. I know you’re going to need to burn 1,000 words off of this—just do what you have to.” Which is really good for the self-esteem, to have people trust you to take their work and re-format it or make it work for this media, and that you’re going to respect their voice and know that you’re still going to be accurate and meet everybody’s needs.

CM: So you get the stories, then it’s time to go into production and layout. How does that all work?

MK: I have the greatest partner in crime ever. It’s like the “music and lyrics by” on a song credit; I’m the words and then Jeff Griffith is my fantastic creative director.

Jeff and I first met during the second Gettysburg casino fight and he is from an advertising and graphic design background. Now, he is much more freelance, but at the time he was working full-time at Mens Health magazine, so he was getting his history on the weekends for his creative outlet. We work together to refine what some of the themes are going to be and really try to come up with compelling visuals for the stories and brainstorm where and how can we get good photos. Increasingly, it’s something that comes into play when you’re trying to figure what stories we want to tell in general.

There was a recent consideration where we were looking for things related to our annual conference this spring in the Hampton Roads area, which covers this huge swath of history: the Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, all on top of each other. There are so many great stories. So we have to go through, saying we know we want to tell some of these big-picture stories, what are some of the things that are still there that we can get powerful imagery of—things that are there and can convey stories? Naval battles, as dynamic as they might be if you were watching them live—a picture of just the open ocean water doesn’t really get the point across in a modern-day image. That’s something we talk about a lot: how can we illustrate this stuff? We do engravings and paintings and things like that.

I will also say that one of the things with working for a non-profit is trying to find things that are in the public domain or images that people will let us use for only modest re-print fees. We’re always trying to keep in mind that our members are paying for this, so we try to keep the cost down. They want good content and a good magazine, but they also want the organization proving it’s a good financial steward of their donations, so bearing that in mind is important.

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Thus far, Mary’s been talking about the strategic planning required to pull together Hallowed Ground. Tomorrow, she’ll get into the trenches a little and talk about the production process involved in getting the magazine to your mailbox.

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