Mental Floss Managing Editor Jessanne Collins talks fact checking, e-commerce and tears in outer space.
Breaking down the best clashes through history (Mar/Apr 2013)
Mental_floss likes to describe itself as a “liberal arts education beyond college.” If you subtract the lectures and homework, mix in some quirky factoids and take seven pages to break down the history and significance of beaches you scratch the surface of it. As a managing editor, it is Jessanne Collins’s job to conceive and arrange a nearly endless array of content into a monthly read for hungry minds. Collins holds a degree in creative writing and worked on the marketing side of book publishing before switching to magazines. Before joining mental_floss in August, 2011 she worked at OUT and Playgirl. Zinio chatted with Collins over the phone prior to the National Magazine Awards.
Congratulations on the ASME nomination. You’re up for special interest magazine. Is that an accurate category for mental_floss?
To be called a special interest magazine is fascinating in and of itself. In terms of the ASME categories, I understand totally why the category we are qualified in was “special interest magazine” in terms of our circulation, etc. And we do identify, after all, as a magazine for “knowledge junkies,” so in that way, yes, there’s something niche about us.
But, in some ways it is a bit of an ironic designation, because the range of the topics we cover is so incredibly broad that really almost anyone who picks the magazine up will find something of interest to them in our pages. We’re basically a magazine for people who are curious about all types of things, so in that way our “niche” is hardly a niche. It’s a pretty broad swath of people. Maybe we are best defined as a “special general interest” magazine.
There are quite a few publications that deal with just a small part of the left side or ride side of the brain. Is the amount of material you are dealing with overwhelming?
The world is our oyster, and there is never a shortage of stories to tell. Generally, we know it when we see it, and focus on the type of story and angle after the material is solidified. Things that are a bit quirky and offbeat tend to crowd our radar. Our main goal is to shed light on something that doesn’t exist and give a fascinating look into a subject. Whether it is pitched or researched the story needs to wow us. In a sense, we want our readers to share the awe we had when we first came across a story. Then they can retell friends in conversation and at parties, infusing this sense of awe all over again. For this reason we tend to produce upbeat and joyful stories over the heavier topics.
What would you recommend to a reader who is not familiar with the magazine?
Scatterbrained, which is one of our front of the book sections. It’s a nutshell of what mental_floss is all about. We take seven pages and explore one topic from various angles. We mix in statistics with interesting anecdotes to present the topics in fun ways. Some of the things we’ve done in the past include vegetables, coffee and bears. This idea of taking a broad, wide overview and doing a deep dive is in line with our mission of telling great little stories.
Is there a sense from your readership that the sciences or arts are most popular?
Our readers are broadly curious. We describe the magazine as a liberal arts education beyond college. Regardless of what we do we do it in an accessible way. Science is compelling narrative stuff, but we try to stay away from the nitty gritty academic side. If you are not interested in particle physics, it won’t be like reading a textbook on the subject. We look to spark a reader’s appetite for all types of knowledge.
What percentages of stories are conceived in house vs. pitches?
We conceive a bit. Scatterbrained is in house, and the cover package and expanded story are usually products of the editors. As a functional whole it can be hard to fit different things together, but that is the job of editors. We accept a lot of pitches and ideas. Perspective is unique when it comes to our stories. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t hugely reliant on talent of writers on assignments.
Fact checking must be nightmare for a magazine like this.
It’s daunting. We hire freelance fact checkers for all of our content. Some stuff is harder than others, but it can really get down to every line being a fact. We hold writers to rigorous research guidelines to try to ease the burden on everyone involved.
You have the Table of Contents alphabetized. What other unique design stuff is there?
The table of contents is redefined in a way that makes sense to us. We have a traditional table of contents on the third page of every issue. On page two there is an index that is a lot of fun. It’s basically a list of quirky things and patterns you will find in the magazine, usually in alphabetical order. As far as other sections, Scatterbrained is a recurring seven-page section that we design as a complete entity. That is a bit unusual.
In the March/April issue Laina O’Donoghue wrote in and said the best thing to wipe windows with was a tampon in response to a piece entitled “Your Time to Shine.” You must get some wild letters to the editor.
Readers love to point out when god forbid we get something wrong. We receive drawings from people a lot. Hanging up in our office is a one from a 13-year-old girl. It’s basically her under a ‘mental_floss’ tree reading a bunch of mental_floss issues. It raises morale when we need it.
What does the future of mental_floss look like?
We’re going in all directions at once — website, twitter, etc. We also run a web store, which is not run of the mill for media brands. Our e-commerce side of the business really got its start with our line of t-shirts. Readers submit slogan ideas and we pay $125 for any idea we end up using. We now sell over 40,000 shirts a year and our store has expanded to included games, books, children’s products and other fun items for knowledge junkies
What is the weirdest thing you have come across at mental_floss?
Piranhas attacking fruit as if it was an animal was a good one. My favorite factoid is that it’s impossible to cry in space — tears just stay in the eye because of the lack of gravity.
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