Episode 41: Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

Penmanship podcast episode 41: Nick Feik, interviewed by Andrew McMillen. Published in September 2017.Since its inception in 2005, The Monthly has been one of the few Australian publications to strongly invest in longform journalism. Each month, the magazine publishes a handful of essays from some of Australia’s best writers and critics, which regularly run in excess of 5,000 words apiece. Because of this dedication to funding and promoting serious journalism that concerns the nation’s culture and politics, The Monthly has built a large and devoted base of subscribers and readers. Nick Feik has been in the editor’s chair since April 2014, after joining the magazine’s publisher, Schwartz Media, several years earlier to establish online projects which included daily email newsletters and building a home for longform video.

I met with Nick at the Schwartz Media office in Melbourne in late July, shortly after he and his team had sent the August issue off to be printed. Our conversation touches on the origins of a cover story that Nick wrote about the effects that tech giants Facebook and Google are having on the media landscape; how the choice of cover photograph or illustration can affect The Monthly‘s newsstand sales; his routine for getting away from screens in order to read first drafts without distractions; what he’s looking for when commissioning work from first-time contributors to the magazine, and how he feels about being the first person to cast his eyes across essays by great writers such as Helen Garner.

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly magazine. Under the auspices of The Monthly, Nick created email newsletters the Shortlist Daily and Politicoz (later Today), and was The Monthly’s first online editor. As a writer, Nick has contributed political and current affairs-related pieces to Fairfax, ABC’s The Drum, The Saturday Paper and The Monthly. Previously he worked at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) as programmer, short film coordinator and travelling film festival coordinator.

Nick Feik on Twitter: @NickFeik

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2.30 Nick’s cover story for the July 2017 issue, ‘Killing Our Media‘, came about after a Senate inquiry into the effects that Facebook and Google are having on the rest of the media: “I thought it was important that we, at length, consider these kinds of issues and put a lot of the pieces together for readers”

4.00 “In terms of me writing it, I’ve been following these kinds of issues for a long time – Facebook especially. I kind of knew what I wanted us to say, so it seemed easier for me to do it myself”

5.00 This is the longest piece Nick has written for the magazine, which he says he does on an “as needs” basis: “Occasionally things drop out at the last minute, and it takes a little bit of pressure off my shoulders as an editor to know that, if push comes to shove, I’m there at the last minute if necessary”

5.30 “I’m kind of allergic to just writing for writing’s sake. I could never be a weekly columnist, or something like that”

6.00 By the time the piece went to press, it had been read over by at least five professional editors, including Chris Feik, Nick’s brother, who is editor of Quarterly Essay

6.30 Nick has “a lot of faith” in Chris as an editor, so “I think I probably let him get away with some things that maybe I wouldn’t let others [get away with]”

7.30 “It would be pretty weird for me, as an editor, to not respect the art of editing”

9.00 Nick says that the cover of The Monthly is arguably less important when compared to other magazines, because “something like three-quarters of our readers are subscribers, but it can make a difference of a couple of thousand copies, if you get the cover right versus wrong”

10.00 “Our readers are more interested in politics; they are more likely to pick up a magazine if they feel strongly about the person on the cover – but that can be a ‘hate’ as much as a ‘like'”

10.30 During his three-plus years as editor, Nick gives a couple of examples of getting the cover right, including David Marr’s 2014 essay on Tony Abbott (‘Freedom Abbott’) and Richard Cooke’s 2017 essay on alt-right politics (‘Alt-Wrong‘), both done by illustrator Neil Moore

12.30 For an issue of the magazine published in July 2016 – featuring Galarrwuy Yunupingu on the cover – 75% of the contributors were indigenous writers. “It didn’t sell that well on the [news]stands. It had a picture of Galarrwuy on the front, and he’s not greatly recognised. Even though that issue and that essay in particular are among my proudest publishing achievements in terms of magazine articles, and whole magazines, that particular issue didn’t sell particularly well, even though I thought it was so important”

14.30 For the March 2017 issue, The Monthly published a cover photograph of Donald Trump shot from the behind, with his arms aloft, to accompany a Don Watson Nation Reviewed piece  (‘American Berserk‘). “Either Morry [Schwartz, publisher] or our designer, Peter Long, had a theory that you could tell Donald Trump from any angle, because he has such a distinctive head, and hair shape, and neck. We were looking around for ways of doing a Donald Trump cover that was different from the others”

16.00 At the time of this conversation was recorded ,in late July, Nick has just finished work on the August issue a week ahead of it being on newsstands, then he’ll be straight into the next one

16.30 “I always like to have essays commissioned definitely for the next month, but for the next couple of months. Because if it’s a piece that’s 7,000 words, you really want someone to have been working on it for a couple of months, and a lot of really good freelancers are busy. You can’t just expect people to drop things and work on something for a month, when you want them to work on it”

18.30 By publishing eleven magazines per year, and three essays per issue, Nick says that gives The Monthly the space to write 33 essays about “everything that we think is important in Australia, and it has to be topical”

18.30 Nick says that The Monthly is “really the only Australian magazine that’s able to pay journalists by the word to do longform journalism… I mean, we almost are that, the only one, in terms of political and social affairs”

19.30 “An essay on the NBN, where you’re tracing it back to those moments where Kevin Rudd was reputed to have drawn the idea on a cocktail napkin and handed it to his advisers – which wasn’t the case, anyway – but for an essay that starts with a rumour like that, then traces it all the way through to the biggest infrastructure in Australia’s history […] You kind of need that length” (‘Network Error‘ by Paddy Manning, April 2017)

20.30 Nick cites Richard Denniss’s essay on the gas industry (‘Feeding The Beast‘, November 2016) and Jess Hill’s piece on power prices (‘Power Corrupts‘, July 2014) as examples of essays that couldn’t have been said in less than 5,000 words, and “had a big impact on the debate generally”

22.30 “There’s a lot of things that can’t be really be said properly in 800 to 1,000 words. By the same token, there probably aren’t as many new ideas in the media as we like to think, but when they do come around, it’s worth prioritising”

23.30 How Nick decides how long the essays in The Monthly should be: “It’s a kind of intuitive thing, really. You have to wonder about whether something’s going to be topical when the piece comes out; whether you’re adding anything new. How much value is there for us publishing this?”

25.30 When a writer’s first draft hits his inbox, Nick prints out a copy and moves to a different chair, where he sits and reads it with a pen in hand. “I try to do it when I’m not too tired […] It’s an important first read, and I find it much easier to  read it on paper”

26.30 Nick has followed this idea of going ‘offline’ for his first read since he began editing: “Like most people, I’m still struggling to get away from screens. These things really affect your attention span, even if it’s near you. For me, the act of getting up and sitting somewhere different is like sending a sign to your brain that ‘This is where you’re not distracted'”

28.00 Nick also puts noise-cancelling headphones on while sitting for that first read, and sometimes turns music on, “But only particular sorts of music actually help”, including classical music like Bach, Arvo Pärt and Erik Satie

29.30 What Nick is looking for when he sits for his first read of an essay: “I try to read it with a view to how a reader’s going to take it. I’ve trained myself to catch myself being bored. Points of confusion or boredom are the stop sign, basically”

31.00 “The first draft is very much about: how does it open? Does it have momentum? Does it kind of tick over? And is there anything here that people simply won’t understand? […] I sometimes think, ‘I wonder if my Mum would understand this?’ As an educated, intelligent general reader ”

32.30 How Nick frames his feedback to writers after reading their first draft: “I got a really good piece of advice very early on from Robert Manne […] who said, ‘Get back to writers quickly, and let them know what you think – especially if you like it, as much as if you don’t like it'”

34.00 “Almost every writer gets nervous. I’m still surprised by the kind of people who still go, ‘Oh, phew, I’m glad you like it!’ And you think, ‘God, of course I’m going to like it! How could you not think this is brilliant?’ But I know that people don’t really know, and it’s a really crucial part of the job for me”

35.00 In his feedback to writers, Nick always aims to explain his feedback with specificity. “I generally try not to get back to people with just a general sense of, ‘This part’s boring!'”

37.00 “Some writers are more fragile than others; some I wish they were more fragile. Sometimes you have to get a sense of where they think the essay’s at”

38.00 For Helen Garner’s June 2017 cover story ‘Why She Broke‘, Nick had been talking with Helen for six to nine months. “It was one I always wanted her to write, but there were complications in the sense that, I know that when she wrote [2014 book] This House Of Grief, it took her a long time to psychologically recover from [writing] that”

39.30 “The saving grace was that this was a way of writing about similar issues [to what she wrote about in This House Of Grief], but really in a completely different way. The fact that it was a mother, rather than a father, and that it wasn’t driven by hate made it easier to write about”

40.30 “Helen’s such a great writer. She writes almost perfect prose. It comes in extremely clean. It’s often just a case of looking at a few words here and there”

42.00 Nick feels privileged to be the first one to read an essay by great writers like Helen Garner: “It’s a gift”

43.00 “Any good writers knows, deep down, that if you have reasonable criticisms and objections […] then it should be fine, and it should be a mutually beneficial process”

43.30 “There’s a very, very small number of writers who think that their words are utterly perfect […] and I’m not enamoured of working in that situation where you get something and it’s like, ‘It’s take it or leave it; this is how it is'”

44.30 “The idea that you’re the perfect reader of your own work is completely absurd to me. How do you know what your biases are? That’s what an editor is for: an editor is fundamentally just a good reader”

46.00 In the front of the magazine are shorter stories for a section called The Nation Reviewed, which are “generally observational, and observing things from a perspective that others haven’t recorded”; Nick likes it to be “about something that we may not have thought about, or there’s a detail in there we hadn’t considered before, or something strange”

47.00 Penmanship host Andrew McMillen’s last contribution to The Monthly was a Nation Reviewed piece called ‘Dogs On The Inside‘ (March 2015), about programs inside Queensland prisons where inmates care for dogs and cats: “That’s a great example of an unusual perspective on something that we know happens in society all the time, but we don’t know about”

48.00 “Basically, if I feel like I’ve read it before, I won’t commission it […] After doing it [being editor] for three and a bit years, you have a strong sense of what the form is of that section. It doesn’t mean that they all read the same, but you become very quick at figuring out what’s just not right for that bit”

49.00 Nick says the idea for The Nation Reviewed was based on the Talk Of The Town section at the front of The New Yorker magazine: “Writers tell me that they really like writing those pieces, because they give you a chance to stretch out, and work every muscle”

50.30 On commissioning a pitch from a writer, Nick says he needs to “have a good sense of what it’s going to be like when it comes back. I have to really know about the writer, their style, whether it matches the thing they’re pitching,” which can make it harder for first-time contributors

51.00 Nick believes the magazine publishes one new piece from a new writer almost every issue, “which is really gratifying, and it’s nice to keep turning over new writers – but it is harder, because on the one hand, they’re writing into a new form for the first time, and we haven’t figured out what our working relationship is like”

52.00 In terms pitching, Nick says “it’s a combination of the idea; they have to demonstrate that they understand which part of the magazine it’s to be published in – so, at the appropriate length. It has to be a good idea, and they have to be able to show that they could pull it off”

52.30 Nick’s reading diet includes magazines such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books, as well as a lot of newspapers

54.00 Nick says he probably rejects more pitches than he approves, “but we receive a lot of unsolicited pitches that we say ‘no’ to, and it’s simply because most of them just aren’t appropriate […] It doesn’t take you long to figure out that they don’t know who they’re pitching to, or that it’s just not right for us”

55.30 “We still have to produce 30,000 words a month, so there’s a lot of saying ‘yes’, as well as saying ‘no'”; the summer issue is about 40,000 to 45,000 words

56.30 Whenever he can, Nick still reads books: “It’s difficult, but I make a priority of reading novels when I get a spare few days”

57.00 Nick came to work at The Monthly via “an unusual trajectory”: he studied politics and literature at university, then got a job at the Melbourne Film Festival before starting at Schwartz Media “about eight or nine years ago” by setting up a video arm called SlowTV, which involved filming and streaming longform interviews and writers’ festival panels

58.30 When former Monthly editor John van Tiggelen left the magazine in 2014, Nick put his hat in the ring and was hired as editor. “I didn’t ever feel like it needed a huge deal of surgery. It was a very strong product, brand, magazine: it had a personality already, which was working well”

60.00 “I was cognizant of the importance of strengthening it; bolstering it, basically. Not making radical change, but incremental improvements […] I think I’ve tried to make it a diverse publication in terms of subject matter and writers”

62.00 Nick says he’s never had a five-year goal for himself; he takes the job month-by-month. “One of my tests for myself, and for the magazine, has always been: can we hold onto the best writers, the ones that we most want to work with in Australia? That to me is one of the key indicators of success for me”

63.30 The Monthly has no staff writer, so relies entirely on freelance writers, who have been paid at $1.00 per word since the magazine’s inception in 2015 T: “It’s a respectable rate, and it’s important to us that we pay properly”

64.30 In June 2017, The Monthly announced a commitment to boost its online arts and culture coverage: “It was a deliberate decision, and this is a drop in the bucket in terms of what is required for a strong culture of writing about culture in Australia. But there are fewer reviewers, there’s less space, less time devoted to writing about culture in Australian than there ever was. The newspapers are struggling to deliver anything like what they used to”






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