An Interview with Eric Weider
President, Weider History Group
The Civil War Trust recently had a chance to sit down with Eric Weider, President of the Weider History Group. The Weider History Group publishes two of the most popular Civil War magazines: Civil War Times and America's Civil War.
Civil War Trust: As the President of the Weider History Group, how does your team of managing editors select historical topics to cover in your magazines? The possible subjects must seem endless.
EW: We are always looking for new research and fresh historical insights to write about. We don't want to just tell the same stories over and over. Thankfully there are thousands of talented and dedicated historians/researchers constantly coming up with a stream of great new information about topics we think we already knew everything about. Civil War Times just ran a story for example on some fresh insight as to why the Confederates didn't take Cemetery Hill on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg. We also look for topics that are not too narrow in their appeal to a consumer audience. We want everything we do to be credible and accurate but we have to always remember these are magazines for consumers and not academic journals. Our mission is to spark an interest and passion for history in as broad an audience as possible so we have to present topics that would be interesting to a broader audience and it has to be written in an engaging and approachable manner. Some elite historians sometimes think this is "dumbing it down" but that's the furthest thing from the truth. This is real history! It's just so important to think about presentation and approach so that it doesn't become dry and boring which turns off most people!
Civil War Trust: Tell us more about your own historical interests. What history topics interest you the most?
EW: I have a wide range of historical interests. In fact I would say I am interested in all history if it is presented in an interesting manner. Mostly though I am especially passionate about our Revolutionary/Colonial Era, the Western Expansion (or the Wild West in normal language!), and World War II. However as a Canadian born, American by choice, citizen I'm also very interested in the American Civil War as it was first hearing a reciting of the Gettysburg Address when I was a teenager that really lit a spark of passion in me for the United States and motivated me to become a citizen of this great country. Also my father was a leading Napoleonic historian and collector so naturally I am very interested in Napoleon. In fact he donated his Napoleonic collection to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where it is on permanent display in a special wing. But really, just give me a great book or story about any history whether it's biblical history, the Romans, the Turks, anything.... and I am game!
Civil War Trust: Amongst your catalogue of history magazines, you have two Civil War titles – America’s Civil War and Civil War Times. Why do you have two? And what makes each magazine different from the other?
EW: We have the two Civil War titles because they both already were part of the company that I bought in 2005. They each have their own voice but they do not have a hard and fast point of separation. Civil War Times is the older of the two titles and so maybe you can say that America's Civil War has a little more contemporary or lighter feel while Civil War Times is more traditional in it's look and feel. I've heard that some think one covers the North and one the South but that's not true.
Civil War Trust: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in putting together quality history publications?
EW: One of the biggest challenges is making the articles really engaging and relevant and visually appealing. There are many great historians doing superb work but not that many who can truly write in a magazine friendly format where you have limited space to tell the story. And writers have to remember that what we want is a story...not just a collection of names, dates and places...endless facts and data points. We want to learn something and be inspired about something some real person did. We want to have some dots connected in our minds and have some light bulbs go off so you think "ahhh, I get it now!" Also people's attention spans are just shorter today and most just won't make the time to read an article that goes on for page after page of text. We have to realize that a magazine isn't a book. Its job isn't to fully examine and explore a subject in limitless detail. That's what books are for. Think of magazines as the appetizer part of a meal. It's there to whet your appetite, expose you to new things, and pique your interest to delve deeper into certain subjects. Books can be the main course and maybe a great movie or video game can be desert!
Civil War Trust: With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on the near horizon, will the Weider History Group be doing anything special in support of those events?
EW: Yes we view the 150th anniversary as an important opportunity to create additional interest in the Civil War as there will be an unusual amount of exposure over those years. Each year beginning in 2011 we will have a special issue devoted to one year of the Civil War 150 years earlier. So in 2011 we will publish "1861" and in 2012 we will publish "1862" etc...through the end of the war. Also there will be special content in each of our titles and websites. We are also working closely with a number of Civil War associations such as yours to provide speakers at conferences as well as a number of other interesting opportunities. Our Civil War magazines are also developing partnerships with facilities like the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., and the Smithsonian Institute. By doing so we not only gain access to “fresh” material on the war that will help us with articles for the sesquicentennial, we also can stay abreast of seminars, symposiums, etc, that will take place during the next few years. It’s possible that we could co-sponsor a symposium, we’ll just have to see.
Civil War Trust: What can you tell us about the level of interest you are seeing in the American Civil War? Are there certain subjects or topics that seem to be growing in interest?
EW: I would say that the interest level the past few years in the Civil War has been steady but we expect the coming years to generate additional interest because of the publicity expected with many 150th anniversary events. There are always certain topics that generate high levels of interest such as Gettysburg and Antietam as well as Lincoln, Lee, Stonewall, etc... And people seem to be becoming more interested in how the war impacted local communities, etc. The personal experience of war I guess you could call it. How did soldiers and civilians react to the horrors and hardships of the war? How did the conflict change our society? Those topics seem to be as interesting to readers as much as learning about battle specifics.
Civil War Trust: The Weider History Group gets to work with many of the great authors, writers, and historians in the Civil War space. Who are some of the newer contributors that excite you the most?
EW: The Civil War is, you might say, well-plowed ground. Virtually hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written on the conflict. It’s very challenging to find new material and fresh approaches to the war, but our editors are dogged in that regard and turn over lots of rocks looking for fresh contributors. Since I bought the company the Civil War titles have brought columnists on board like Gary Gallagher and Harold Holzer to write thought-provoking commentary, and we’ve gotten some great contributions from cartographers like David Fuller from California. One of the reasons the article I mentioned about Cemetery Ridge worked so well is that it was basically a story told by maps as much as words, and they really brought out the circumstances Ewell faced on July 1, 1863. And lastly, you can get fantastic contributions from people, quite frankly, that you may never have heard of before. There are quite a few Civil War blogs that bring up some interesting topics, but don’t really explore those topics in detail. Our editors have been going after that material, and fleshing it out in our magazines. It’s a great marriage of two types of media.
Civil War Trust: There’s been a lot of talk about physical magazines may need to change and adapt in this new world of Kindles and iPads. How is the Weider History Group looking at these new developments?
EW: We are aware of these developments and view them as long term positives. Our job is to produce the best content and deliver it in any way people want to read it. Adapting it to new delivery systems like the ipad takes some effort and learning but we will embrace it. We already have several active websites and most of those work very nicely on the iPad. The Kindle is a great device but more appropriate for books, at least today.
Civil War Trust: The Weider History Group also operates a rich website (HistoryNet.com). How do you see your Internet offerings evolving over time?
EW: There's no question that digital content is here to stay and will grow in importance over time. Today most people over 40 would still prefer to read certain things on paper but they will slowly do more and more reading on digital devices of all sorts. And of course if we hope to interest anyone under 30 then digital is a must. Magazines for certain content like ours are here to stay for the foreseeable future but we cannot and will not ignore the opportunities that digital media offers.
Civil War Trust: We at the Civil War Trust are always grateful for the coverage of recent battlefield preservation efforts within your magazines. Is battlefield preservation important to your readers?
EW: YES! Our editors are passionate preservationists, and some have even served on the boards of preservation organizations. When someone reads about and becomes passionate about a topic like a battle there is a powerful urge to visit and walk the ground. It is the best way to fully understand and connect emotionally to a subject of interest. There is no substitute. Conversely a person can become interested in a subject because they visited a historical spot and something about it just clicked with them and they feel compelled to learn more. So the work that your organization does is absolutely vital and of great importance. We are eternally grateful for your efforts and the support of your members. Preserving our sacred ground is among the most important missions to the well being of our country.
God Bless you for doing it!
MORE ON ERIC WEIDER
Eric Weider is an experienced magazine publisher who has turned his passion to his life-long love of history. He is dedicated to bringing history to life and making it meaningful to a mass audience, especially America’s youth. Weider magazines strive to make history more accessible and exciting, amplifying readers’ interest in the past so that it can guide them toward a more productive future.