Brian Wolly: Smithsonian Magazine Digital Editorial Director


Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host, Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today, we are talking with Brian Wolly, the digital editorial director for Smithsonian Magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Hi, Brian, welcome.


Brian Wolly  00:40

Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.


Angela Tuell  00:42

Yes, I have to say I love the new layout of the website.


Brian Wolly  00:46

Thank you. Yes, it was a long time in the works. But it’s so nice to get it up and live. Last redesigned the site about eight years ago. And so it, it was just it’s so great to see a new look, a new fresh approach to how we display our amazing journalism. So it’s been a, it’s been a long time coming. But we’re really happy we’re there.


Angela Tuell  01:11

Yeah. And I know the amount of work that goes into making that happen. So it’s always a good feeling. I would love to talk about what your job entails as a digital editorial director of the Smithsonian.


Brian Wolly  01:22

Well, so a lot of meetings nowadays. But that’s, that’s seemingly the case with so many of us, especially now that Zoom somehow allows us to have more meetings. But really, it’s, I am sort of in charge of a team of editors who, all of whom are working to create what you see on the Smithsonian Magazine website. And so we have editors devoted to history, science, travel, and innovation, as well as one devoted to our coverage of the Smithsonian Institution itself. And so we meet daily with that team. And we talk about, you know, what are we going to cover today? What is the big news? And, what are more long-term features that we are thinking about, and that we’re publishing that week? We also try and think you know, I sort of organized brainstorming sessions where we talk about, hey, here are the movies coming out over the course of the next three months. Here are the holidays, here, the exhibits that are opening, the events, that the anniversaries, you want to make sure that we’re aware of, we talked through it as a team, we talked about it, you know, toss out all sorts of ideas, there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. And so on the one side and thinking through the content of what we’re doing, as part of my role, I’m also thinking through bigger picture strategies of how we collaborate with colleagues in the Smithsonian, how we collaborate with our colleagues in other parts of the revenue-generating parts of the Smithsonian. So that includes our store, our licensing group, and our travel group. And so it’s a number of thinking of, coordinating that way. And also thinking through new programs that we’re doing. We, during the pandemic, we launched a virtual live event series. And so I’m working with the team there to think through, you know, what, what are we, what do we need to get this one up? And what do we need to do for our next few? So it’s just a lot of coordinating, a lot of ideating, and strategizing.


Angela Tuell  03:24

Yeah. And you mentioned a lot of broad areas, you know, the science and the culture and the history, how do you decide – those are such broad topics? How do you decide what to cover and what not to cover in those areas?


Brian Wolly  03:35

Really challenging. Because there are so many amazing things, interesting things happening in the world. We talk about putting a Smithsonian lens on the world. And what does that mean? It means thinking about, the two things that we don’t do that maybe some of our competitors cover are celebrity news and politics, or, like current politics, and that’s fine by me.


Angela Tuell  03:59

Right now, especially, right?


Brian Wolly  04:01

Yeah, exactly. Um, you know, we cover the history of politics or the history of celebrity, but not the actual news that you see. Now. I mean, on other sites, you’ll get tons of traffic off that stuff. But that’s fortunately not a game we need to play. So one of the other things we talk about is, if the Smithsonian museums had endless space, what would they cover? What would they include? What would they exhibit? And that’s sort of how we think about our charge. Unfortunately, that also means that there’s so much that we can’t cover. So how do we know how to your question is how do we make those calls? we look for things that are new, things that are novel, you know, what can we say here that, that’s actually new, that’s actually cool? Are there superlatives that we could put in there that this is, this is believed to be the oldest ever or the first or the largest? What’s something that we could put in a headline? And we often think about our headlines when we’re commissioning. And what would I headline this piece what would, how would I visualize this story, what’s the lead image? With so many publishers in ourselves including comp with traffic coming from Facebook, we need to think through like, what is that image that’s going to show up on that Facebook card that shows up when you share an article? It needs to be something captivating. So if we’re talking about an old historical object, it’s probably not going to be that visually appealing. So we have to think through, you know, can the headline sell it instead? If it’s about an art exhibit, are the visuals something that’s going to convey well, online? That’s a big part of it, too.


Angela Tuell  05:36

It’s so much more than when we were just writing print articles for a magazine.


Brian Wolly  05:40

That’s right. Well, Ebola. Yeah, I mean, our magazine editors to you know, they’re all you know, they’re perhaps even more reliant on visuals, because they, they have award winning for photographers out in the field and often a genius creative photographer can think of a way to make an old art, an old dinosaur bone look cool, right? But for us, you know, we’re working on a faster turnaround we don’t, we’re not sending people out in the field. And so we have to think through, you know, we might often be working with press photography, and so we want to make sure that we’re able to have something that, that will really be a good hook.


Angela Tuell  06:19

So working in the online digital space, and you’re dealing with an ever-changing medium, how do you stay on top of it all and keep up with what readers want, and with the medium that’s changing?


Brian Wolly  06:30

We use some analytic tools. Parsley is a really great tool that we’ve been using, that helps track you know, what are our most popular stories. And we, you know, look at long-term trends and see what stories are popping. We have some stories that are seasonal, that you know, I’m sure, by the time this goes up, these are the history of the Salem witch trials will be among the most popular stories on our site. Every October, it’s back up there. But so we think through you know, does this story have a long tail? You know, could this be something that’s going to be interesting to people in six months and six years? It’s not a high priority, but it is something we think about, especially as we headline a story. But in terms of how do we keep it? So how do we keep track of what our readers are interested in? That’s the analytics is a good tool. But also, we also need to lead our readers to things that they might find interesting. To lead them to stories about indigenous populations, or to stories of under-covered groups, and underrepresented minorities. So it’s not just, you know, what are the giving them what they want, but it’s thinking about, you know, what are the ways in which we can take their love of archaeology, but give them some history that they may not have heard before and about, or about a community that they may not read that much about otherwise.


Angela Tuell  07:55

Yeah. And that’s why your stories are so fascinating, what you said, is kind of an answer to this question, but I was going to ask if you haven’t had advice for PR professionals in getting stories in front of you, and I would assume a lot of it is giving you those things that you said you look for. But you know how we can help you do your job and not be that annoying person whose emails you delete without even reading them?


Brian Wolly  08:15

I get a lot of those.


Angela Tuell  08:17

I’m sure. You know,


Brian Wolly  08:19

I think it’s, I tell writers this often when they’re pitching the stories keep it short. Like I don’t have time to read a 300, 400 word pitch, when the story itself is only going to be 1200, 1500 words. The you know, a good way is for just to be pretty short, like, if I want to learn more, I’ll be like, hey, this sounds interesting – tell me more. You know, give me just a little taste like, “Hey, we’re doing this thing. We have this artifact.” You know, I know this is possible for most PR professionals, but personalized email, you know, that’s not, you know, one that’s clearly sent out to a bunch of reporters is helpful. But that’s hard to do. And not realistic. But to me that, you know, I know, you have sent me emails that, you know, based on our work, the way we’ve worked together is like, Hey, I’ve got this thing. Is it something that would interest you? And it’s pretty conversational, pretty short. And that’s a big help. And if I want more, I’ll reach out for more.


Angela Tuell  08:21

Right? And if you don’t answer, should we follow up once or should we know that you probably read it and you’re not interested?


Brian Wolly  09:21

I would say follow up once.


Angela Tuell  09:23

Okay. So did you always want to be a journalist?


Brian Wolly  09:26

Oh, I think so. Yeah. I mean, I always was interested in it. Did that in college. Worked at the News Hour, our PBS News Hour. That was fine. That was the early days of I mean, not the early days, but the early days of online journalism in the mid to 2005-2006. And then I sort of went and saw an exhibit at the New York Historical Society. That really was like pay me to go wow moment of oh, my god, like museums are. I always love museums. I grew up in the DC area. I went to Smithsonian museums. My mom had been a docent at the Air and Space Museum. So I was always interested in it. And I was sort of looking for a job that sort of balances those two interests. And there was no better place for that than Smithsonian. So I was lucky enough to get hired here 13 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s yeah, so I would say history has always been a passion of mine. And journalism is a part of that, too.


Angela Tuell  10:28

Yeah. That’s an incredible 13 years, you know, to stay at one media outlet. What keeps you excited about the job?


Brian Wolly  10:34

I think it’s that we learn I learned something new every day. It’s like, we’re there. There’s not a, I mean, it is sort of weird that when I had been planning coverage for like, the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, and then I was kind of covered for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Like there’s a little bit of weirdness going on there. That I’m now around for the next round of anniversaries. But what’s cool is, is that um, yeah, I am. There’s something new every day. And I really love stories that are that intersection of our various verticals, just like the Smithsonian has an art museum, has a history museum, has many art museums, has many history museums, and science museums, as a design museum, has a center for rural culture and folk Folklife Center for Education like we find our site works best, I think when we when we combine those disciplines together. And so when we have a story that can be interesting to a history buff, a science geek, an art lover, and a history above a world traveler and a tech wizard kind of thing. Like those stories that come that don’t just live in one vertical corner, say but live in multiple verticals. For me, that’s the most exciting part. And it’s the kind of stories that I love for us to do.


Angela Tuell  11:54

Do you work with a print magazine team often?


Brian Wolly  11:57

I do. You know, I work with them closely to how we prep how we present the print stories online. And then when they’re, when they’re sort of in the planning stages of features, I talked with them, they you know, they definitely have their own decision-making process, editorial process or how they decide to put stories up, but I do connect with them in our approach to how we talk about certain topics.


Angela Tuell  12:21

And you’ve mentioned, you’re especially fascinated by how journalists and editors can work with educational institutions, like museums to tell great stories, and inform their visitors and readers. What are some great examples of this?


Brian Wolly  12:32

Well, so I think one of the things, museums, museums have cool stuff, and they know they have cool stuff, but they don’t necessarily have the audience, have the online presence to be able to bring readers to those stories. And so I think that there’s often a, you know, museums, also are storytellers when they have an exhibit, whether it’s online or in person. But people consume content in a different way online. They’re either on their phones, or they’re looking for sort of more of a shorter form narrative. And so I think that museums and educational institutions can reach out to journalists and say, Hey, I’ve got, you know, we’ve got this, although not other journalistic organizations only Smithsonian magazine, because I don’t want them, you know, taking their great ideas elsewhere. So one example is that you know, the educational institution can have, say they’re a presidential historical site, or a famous author, historical site or something, where like, they wrote this letter about the influenza pandemic in 1918, we think it’s really interesting. Present, its present that thing, think of the or think of themselves as news or as, you know, looking at those anniversaries, looking at how irrelevant today’s news and send it to, you know, your local website and say, like, isn’t this interesting? Like, this person wrote about their experience, and it’s relevant today, people might find that interesting. And I think that that is, so they have to sort of think, a little bit like a journalist looking for a way to contextualize today’s news. And I think educational institutions can do that really well.


Angela Tuell  14:10

So I know you mentioned you’re a Maryland native, and you’ve lived and worked in Washington, DC for many years. So we’d love to get your insider scoop on the best current exhibits or the under-the-radar gems at the local museums.


Brian Wolly  14:23

So it’s a hard question to answer because, you know, we’ve been in quasi quarantine COVID world for the past 18 months, and before that, I had a tiny toddler. So it’s been a while since I’ve really been able to really, really get out there but um, you know, there are a number of amazing sort of memorials in the city. There’s a new Eisenhower Memorial right across from the Air and Space Museum. That’s pretty cool that that opened during the pandemic. And then my favorite is there’s right on the flip side of the National Archives. On the north side, there is just a marble slab that is a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And there’s a plaque there that says that he apparently spoke about how if there were to be any memorial to him, he’d only want, the only thing he would want people to do is to there’s a, there’s a green patch of grass in front of the archives that he thinks that’s where it should be. So they did that at the time, I guess. And then they went ahead and built the whole big FDR Memorial decades later. Yeah, so it’s, it’s a neat little thing. If you’re if you go to the National Archives, it’s right there. And the archives itself is, of course, an amazing spot. But that is one of my favorite hidden gems in DC.


Angela Tuell  15:40

That’s great. I can’t wait to visit Washington DC again soon and check that out. Hopefully, we’ll be moving in the right direction. I think things are opening and getting back. Yes. Thank you so much for joining us today, Brian. I really appreciate it.


Brian Wolly  15:55

It was my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.


Angela Tuell  15:57

You can find Brian on Twitter at Brian Wolly W-O-L-L-Y. And of course follow his work That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined. Please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe to our show. We’d love to hear what you think. You can find more at I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time

In today’s episode of Media in Minutes, Angela speaks with Brian Wolly about combining disciplines to lead readers to interesting and informative digital content, as well as some of his favorite DC historical spots.  Listen to learn more about how he and his team at Smithsonian Digital Services brainstorm and plan for engaging historical digital content.

Brian is the Digital Editorial Director for Smithsonian magazine, a Nats fan, and thinks about museums online often.  He currently lives in Washington, DC.  

Articles by Brian Wolly on Smithsonian

Smithsonian Digital Services

The PBS Newshour

New York Historical Society

Smithsonian Museums

Eisenhower Memorial

National Archives

FDR Memorial

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