Mary Koik with her oldest son at Gettysburg (photo by Bruce Guthrie)
(part four of a four-part series)
Mary Koik, the namesake behind Mary Koik Communications, serves as the editor of the Civil War Trust’s Hallowed Ground magazine. She’s been talking with ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski about her work with the magazine, but in today’s segment, she’ll share some of her other Civil War public history experience, too.
Chris Mackowski: From soup to nuts, how long does it take you, from when you conceptualize the magazine, to get it into my hands as a reader?
Mary Koik: Let’s say that right now (February) I am talking to feature authors about what to write for the fall magazine. I will shortly be getting in all the feature articles for the summer magazine, and we’re closing in on the full draft of the spring magazine in my email right now. So I’m working on three issues simultaneously at some capacity. My poor husband always says, “I’d love to toast you at dinner when an issue is ready, but I never know when it’s done!”
The magazine is quarterly, so there’s about three months of the most intense work on a particular issue. That’s from having the preliminary edit on the text, through the layout, copy-editing, and then I always send out my feature articles out for a to another historian to read through.
I had a nasty moment with that when I was just taking over the magazine and there was something funky when a partner promotion came in. I’m sure it was someone just dashing it away quickly, and because it wasn’t one of “ours,” I didn’t look at it as closely. Anyway, the text conflated Joseph E. Johnston and Albert Sydney Johnston—and that was just not good. I have learned my lesson there and always have someone that’s knowledgeable fact-check things, just because it’s embarrassing and doesn’t reflect well on me or the organization.
CM: And you do all that and you’re a mom, too. How do you manage all of that?
MK: Well, the Civil War Trust magazine, the primary staff is Jeff, the graphic designer and creative director, and me — I’m technically the editorial director — and we do most of the work. I need the help of the Trust’s staff to make sure the news is accurate, and to write some pieces. And I work very closely with them to make sure the magazine reflects the organization’s priorities and what not. Not just for themes and feature stories, but what partners have initiatives we should tie in, what donors are best to profile. I’m now a contractor for the Trust, rather than a full-time employee. After having small kids, it was just a really efficient and flexible path for everyone involved. I did that at the beginning of 2015.
So I do the Trust magazine, and I also do their event programs and annual report, and help with other publications as they need it. But I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day communications and PR work. And now I also work with Mount Vernon, so I’ve gotten to branch out into different kinds of history there.
CM: What I find so fascinating about what you do is that you’ve been able to piece together this career, I don’t know if it’s freelancing or just freelance-like, but it’s a type of history job that fifteen years ago didn’t exist.
MK: Absolutely not. I think you’re right: I’m so lucky that I have been able to meet so many amazing people when I was at the Trust full-time that really made this possible. I have two little guys, my older is four, and when this will go online, my little one will be about nine months at that point.
What’s helped is technology, being able to work remotely. I’m mostly at my house in the further reaches of D.C., and the Trust office is downtown. The magazine’s creative director is in Minnesota, and other designers I’ve turned to are in Richmond, in Florida. So the internet really makes most of this possible with online tools, even digital photography. When I first started this, plenty of photographers weren’t even shooting digitally yet, so it was tough to get high-quality versions of photos. The world has really changed.
CM: And yet there’s still some of that old-fashioned networking and shaking hands and meeting people.
MK: Absolutely. Like I said, keeping costs down is always important and almost universally, authors I’ve approached to write for Hallowed Grounds have done so as donations of their time to the organization, because they believe in what we do. Hundreds of hundreds of thousands of words written by some amazing historians have been done for free.
Photographers donate their time as well, and the Trust will do its best to recognize them. There was one particular photographer, while we were doing this story about the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, and I kid you not, he spent overnight in the swamp where Booth was to try and get amazing low-light pictures—and he did it as a donation.
I don’t know if it’s my winning personality or what, but people believe in this magazine and are eager to see their work published.
CM: I think a lot of that ties back to the organization’s mission, too, which is something they really believe in. That, and the editor is a professional worth working with.
MK: Well, thank you. I think way back when Emerging Civil War started. I got handed a tremendous opportunity at the outset of my career when I became editor of this magazine. So I am a firm believer in Emerging Civil War, because you and I have kind of mirrored each other with this idea of younger generations of historians, and trying new things and trying to be the new wave of Civil War history. I can never say “thank you” enough to you and all of the authors there. I have never pitched a wild crazy idea of, “Hey does anyone want to write about blah,” and had you guys say “No.” It’s incredible.
CM: It’s been our privilege.
Before I wrap things up here, it seems likes this has been a wonderful story of growth and change and innovation. How do you see that panning out in your personal career going forward?
MK: I am incredibly lucky and so excited about the path I’ve been able to forge for myself. I work with the Trust and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which is so much fun to work with because its such a different type of history. And so appropriate to talk about this month because their Board of Trustees has only ever been women. There’s never been a man on their board, and it dates back to when George Washington’s home was dilapidated and falling down, and one woman decided to rally the ladies of America to save Mount Vernon. If you want to talk about women’s empowerment and the ladies of historic preservation, they are your poster child for that.
Right now, I think I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and finding great stories. Whether it’s true military history of “the unit moved 3,000 yards to the tree line and then took cover behind a fence,” or something a bit more thematic, and talking about the juxtaposition of different eras or the interpretation of lost battlefields—I’m just going to keep trying to find the best stories I can and share them with people. I think they’re fascinating, and I hope other people do, too. The other thing I’m able to do is get those compelling stories and share them with the next generations. Right now, my older son is really into this stuff. He either wants to be an archaeologist or paleontologist, although I’m not entirely unconvinced that’s only because they both involve digging in the dirt. (both laugh)
CM: You just gave the same answer I give to my students: I love sharing the stories.
Is there anything I have not asked you that I should have?
MK: I think what I was really afraid you were going to ask me was if I would consider myself a historian, and I was going to say, “I don’t know—you tell me.” (laughs) I consider myself more of an editor and a writer and storyteller.
A couple of weeks ago I was at an event and talking to one of the other mothers at my son’s school about some of the stuff I had been reading that day. She said, “Wow, being a historian must be so cool.” It made me pause because I never defined myself as a historian. I never set out to be a historian. The fact that someone else thought of me as one. . . . I guess I straddle the line between historian and journalist, and I think that’s pretty cool.