Focus on Flipside with editor Sean Blair

Flipside, the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s magazine, covers topics for its teenage audience “with a subtle undercurrent of science and technology”.

This week, FeaturesExec caught up with editor Sean Blair to find out about the “yuck” the magazine covers, how he likes PRs to get in touch, and what it’s like to work in the space industry!

About the publication:

Tell us a bit about Flipside.

Flipside is a magazine for teenagers covering everything from music and films to sport and adventure. Check out the latest film and CD releases, gadgets and games. Flipside takes you inside your everyday stuff, to the depths of the oceans and way out to space.

How do you differ from other media outlets in your sector?

Flipside isn’t like any other magazine. Now in our fifth year of publication, Flipside is written for the otherwise neglected national audience of young teenage boys. Produced as a charitable endeavour, our purpose is to improve the image of science, engineering and technology among teens.

Our innovative distribution strategy puts Flipside’s small 15,000-print run right in front of our target audience, gaining us a readership of 300,000. Flipside is sent to the library of every UK secondary school, where it is displayed on the magazine rack alongside purely commercial titles rather than filed as educational material – teens discover Flipside for themselves and many consider us ‘their’ magazine, with a growing number choosing to subscribe. It’s a picture led glossy that is accessible and fun but never patronising – if we don’t think it’s interesting, it doesn’t go in.

Because of our schools distribution we come out eight times a year, taking a break for Easter, summer and Christmas; there’s no point coming out if there’s no-one at school to read us. Our website keeps in touch with readers the rest of the time.

Describe a typical reader for us.

Our readers have an average age of 13 – right in the middle of our target range of 11-16 year olds. They are people who first pick us up out of curiosity, perhaps in the library on a rainy day, waiting for their go on the internet, then come back to us. School librarians report an average of 63 readers per school, returning to each issue time and time again. Our readership is approximately two thirds male to one third female – the magazine is aimed more at boys than girls for the simple reason that girls are more likely to read a boys’ magazine than vice versa.

How do you try to engage with the younger reader?

We cover the full range of teenage interests including movies, music, adventure, celebrities, video games, wildlife, gadgets, sport, world records and everything yuck – but all with a subtle undercurrent of science and technology. We explain scientists aren’t only beardies in white coats, they’re people exploring the seabed, peering into the heart of hurricanes and taking up residence in Earth orbit. Engineers aren’t the oily mechanics mending your car, they’re the ones designing the world’s tallest tower, the first supersonic land vehicle or the 3G iPhone.

What stories are you most interested in covering?

Anything with a science, technology or gadget angle. Weird and yucky stuff are perennially popular topics – we detail the smelliest places on Earth, tell-tale signs of having parasites and the science of farting – as is the real life science behind popular movies and TV. How much physical training would a real-life Batman really need? Where would you shoot to kill a time-travelling dinosaur? What would a vampire’s blood-only diet do to their heath? Irreverence is a core Flipside value – we’ve faked our own UFOs, done pre- and post-fame comparisons of celebrity teeth and debunked the most prevalent scientific urban myths spread by teachers.

How do you decide the content and headlines?

The flatplan is refined and finalised through regular features meetings, headlines are a combination of editor and sub-editors.

How does the editorial process run? Do you have specific days when you focus on different aspects or is the planning on a much more ad-hoc basis?

For the first two weeks of our monthly schedule features are the priority, with regulars the third week and the final week ensuring everything is ready to go.

Do you produce a features list?
No – we are trying to keep the contents as timely as possible for our audience.

Do you use freelance contributions, and if so, are they for any particular section/type of work?

A large number of our features, regulars and reviews are prepared by freelancers, a regular group of ‘Flipsiders’ in most cases, but we welcome outside submissions.

About PRs:

Do you work closely with PRs?

PRs often give us the heads-up on interesting products we can feature in reviews or else in competitions (a popular element of the magazine). If there is an interesting story to tell around their product then we have been known to put features together around them, for example product-testing gadgets in action (most recently metal detectors). Our daily blog needs a steady diet of new material so PR-originated material of interest is most likely to see the light there.

What’s the best starting point for a PR who wants to tell you about their client?

Usually an email, with a follow-up phone call in a week or so.

Are you interested in press releases and, if so, how do you prefer to receive them?

Via email, but large attachments are pet hates and will swiftly get deleted unread. Why not just include a link to images?

When is the best time for PRs to contact you & when is your deadline for contributions?

Last week of the month is the quiet week, the start of the new issue. Morning better than afternoon – but introductory email better than a cold call.

Do you have a PR pet hate?
PRs phoning up who clearly know nothing about the magazine – Flipside readers are not going to be interested in data storage solutions.

About you:

Describe a typical day for us.

Varies according to stage of the publishing cycle: commissioning features, editing copy, researching relevant images along with the magazine’s photo editor, checking pages and liasing with repro.

What is the best or worst thing about your job?

Fun parts: new features, pictures and designed pages coming in, and seeing the finished product in my hand. Worst part – wading through dozens of entirely irrelevant press releases.

Where have you worked previously, and how did you end up in your current position?

Started on Focus Magazine (in the days before it became BBC Focus), moved on to Future Publishing and then Guinness World Records before writing for the European Space Agency website. The Flipside editor in chief had previously been editor of Focus so knew me of old.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Don’t get it right, get it written (for first drafts at least!).

A phrase I use too often is…

Insert headline here!

If you weren’t doing this, what would you do?

Still working in the space industry.

What’s your idea of a relaxing day off?

Walking and pubbing.


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