By way of the interesting people at Offscreen magazine, something we can all wish we had, or could, publish. (Click the image to make it bigger and more readable. At least, to my aging eyes.)
On July 1, I became editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine. I was already deep into a complicated feature story on pain science, so the plan was for Catherine Pierre, who was promoted to interim communications director, to co-edit the forthcoming issue with me. But Catherine had to step right up to her new duties, which meant I was on my own finishing the magazine. So time for blogging has been in short supply.
Today, though, there’s an interlude before I have to start writing captions and heads and cover lines. Speaking of . . .
A batch of striking covers have appeared in my mailbox in the last month. First up, great minds think alike:
The Carolina Alumni Review cover is for a special food issue, which includes recipes from alumni cooks. As a resident of Baltimore, I must take exception to Robert Stehling’s recipe for crab cakes. It calls for diced bread. You do not, under any circumstances, sir, put filler like bread in a crab cake. That sort of thing will get you in trouble in Baltimore.
Next . . . excuse me, but your cover is dripping:
Finally, there’s this one. Just because it’s so pretty:
More to come in the days ahead, because how much work could this new editor gig be?
Show of hands . . . how many of you would love to take a road trip on your magazine’s tab? I’m not talking about grab the tequila, grab the weed, grab the Oreos and let’s do a Kerouac. (Any hint that I came of age in the 1960s?) I mean a professional road trip that results in a story. So, once more, show of hands? Just as I thought—almost all of you. OK, one more: How many of you have a Dixie cup full of nickels for a travel budget? Uh-huh. A few hands down now, but not many.
Prepare to suffer terminal envy.
Carol Gieseke edits Visions, the alumni magazine of Iowa State University. In 2010, she was driving back to Ames, Iowa from Chicago with photographer Jim Heemstra. With not much else to do—I can tell you from experience that driving across that part of the Midwest is a less-than-riveting experience—they started batting story ideas around in the context of “if you could do any story, what would it be?” They came up with a dozen ideas. One of them was write about alumni in all 50 states. And damn if they didn’t bring that one off. The Spring 2014 issue of Visions was Visions Across America, a glossy, perfect-bound, 128-page tabletop magazine with stories about and photographs of Iowa State graduates in each and every state in the union plus the District of Bureaucracy and Partisan Bickering. Featured alums include a female DEA agent from Tennessee, a social worker from Kanasas, a marathoner in Oregon, and a computer science professor / cowboy in Wyoming.
Gieseke and Heemstra made 18 trips around the country, reporting and making images and no doubt having a helluva good time. The editor and I had an email Q&A about the project.
UMag: First editor’s question, the one first on every editor’s mind, is how did you pay for this project?
Gieseke: We normally produce Visions quarterly (48 pages). Since this was a long-term project I was able to tap into three fiscal-year budgets for travel and photography. I also obviously have a regular budget for printing and postage. The additional cost—over and above the cost of a normal issue—of producing this special issue was about $125,000. Most of that went to travel expenses and paying Jim Heemstra, our freelance photographer, who traveled with me to every state; the remainder went toward the extra cost of printing and postage for a 128-page magazine. Early in the process, our alumni association president pitched the idea to units and departments on campus (the president’s office, our foundation, colleges, etc.) and some helped support the project financially because they liked the idea. After that, we approached a few individual alumni and friends for donations. I also got a strategic initiative grant from the provost’s office, and we sold a few full-page ads at $5,000 each. We were always very aware of our expenses. Let’s just say that we did not travel in luxury.
U: What did you accomplish, in the end?
G: I love to tell alumni stories. That’s my absolute favorite thing to do in the magazine, so this project appealed to me greatly on that level. I especially wanted to tell stories that had never been told—alumni who were not necessarily award winners/donors/CEOs/usual suspects. I mean, I don’t think we had ever told a story about a math teacher or an engineering grad who had quit her job to stay home with her kids or anyone in Rhode Island. Someone who read the issue told me that they always hear about the “one percent”; Visions Across America told stories of the other 99 percent.
U: How much did the outcome match your expectations?
G: The project morphed in a lot of directions. We started out thinking we’d do one story in each state and put those stories in a special issue of the magazine. Then we decided to do a travel blog. Then we decided to feature more than one person in most states (for a variety of reasons, primarily because there were so many good stories to tell, but also because I was afraid that someone might cancel or otherwise not work out at the last minute). We told some of those “extra” stories in regular issues of the magazine (which also kept the project in front of our readers) and posted all of them on the blog. In a few areas we traveled, we hosted special alumni events. I worked with our alumni merchandise folks to design state T-shirts that say, “I’m a Montana Cyclone” (or fill in your own state), which were surprisingly popular. The largest outgrowth of the project was a portrait exhibit: 116 large-scale alumni portraits currently on display in the Brunnier Art Museum, the premier art museum on campus. The exhibit went up in early April, and it’s been a real thrill to see so many people experience the show—335 people attended the opening, including alumni from as far away as Utah and Nevada. The show turned out to be a perfect accompaniment to the magazine, and we received lots more media attention from the show than from the magazine. But to answer your question, yes, the magazine turned out exactly as I hoped it would, and it was incredibly well received by readers.
U: What did you learn?
G: I should have tried harder to get frequent flier miles; I’m just a sucker for lowest fare. Same with hotels and rental cars: I should have stuck with one chain, but instead I spread my reservations around too much and didn’t end up racking up the points. That’s pretty insignificant, though. The project itself ran smoothly, and I attribute that to good organizational skills, the world’s best photographer, and really awesome alumni.
U: What proved to be the hardest thing about putting this together?
G: Just the time factor. I’ve never worked so damn hard in my whole life.
U: That sound you hear is editors everywhere weeping over your hardship.
In 2012, The New York Times published “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s long narrative recounting the avalanche earlier that year at Tunnel Creek in Washington’s Cascade range. The story filled a lot of column inches in the newspaper, but what got everyone’s attention was what the Times did with it online: A digital cover composed of video of windblown snow, plus embedded video interviews, a swooping video fly-over map, a slide show, a motion graphic of the storm system that dumped the snow that roared down Cowboy Mountain, pretty much every trick in the book. The newspaper inadvertently created a new colloquial term for this sort of online treatment. To do what the Times did was to “snowfall” a story.
For the past year, Alcalde, the magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, has been snowfalling stories. It started with a bit of natural history in the July/August 2013 issue, “A Field Guide to the 40 Acres.” Online, the story was spruced up with photos, video (I could watch that squirrel for hours, the ants for not so long), and graphic art that expanded when moused over. (And who knew “moused” would become a verb.)
Alcalde followed its field guide with other snowfall productions: “A Classroom at the Edge of the World,” “The Robots Are Coming,” “Notes from the Violin Olympics,” and “Longhorn Rodeo Rides Again,” which begins with a nifty headline that you unfurl by scrolling down.
It’s latest snowfall is “Monday Monday,” an excerpt from a novel by Elizabeth Crook based on the 1966 sniper attack by Charles Whitman. For those of you not from Texas and younger than me—that last group is numerous—Whitman hauled an arsenal up to the top of the tower that is the UT campus landmark and began shooting. His rampage left 16 dead and 32 wounded. (In this case, the piece online only—it is not a digital version of an excerpt from the novel printed in the magazine, because only Texas Monthly had the rights to that.)
I asked Taliaferro if anything came as a surprise in producing these pieces. “The biggest surprise has been that, for so long, magazine pros thought the web a limiting space. A web version or online version of a magazine story has always been lesser. Until now. Now you are able for the first time to re-create the kind of reading experience that magazines have owned for so long and do it on the web. Plus, it’s totally freeing. It’s a blank digital canvas. As long as you ask from the outset, How can we best tell this story and with what media? Whatever you come up with for an answer, the web can accommodate it.”
Editors would be advised to keep in mind that something created on a 27-inch monitor may well be read on an iPhone: “My biggest mistake probably has been to forget that the majority of the audience will consume this fancy beautiful thing on their phones or tablets, so that should inform the design from the beginning. Just as the web used to be a lesser version of print, for some time mobile has been lesser than desktop. That is changing, and fast. So now we spend as much time or more on mobile as on desktop. The other mistake I might mention is to succumb to the temptation to put in stuff because you can and not because the story needs it. That’s a good force that print exerts on editors and designers—limited space causes you to be selective, even subtractive. That can be good force. Unchecked, you can stuff your interactive stuff with all kinds of flashy whizzbangs that don’t add to the story, and that does happen a lot.”
Media observers and pixel-stained wretches quickly formed a consensus after “Snow Fall” appeared in the Times: The project was shiny and cool and attention grabbing, but who actually read the story? The whole story? Show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? “I think the conventional wisdom about ‘Snow Fall’ is right,” Taliaferro said. “Its impact was maybe more on the industry than on the readers. And we have struggled a bit to get traffic numbers we think our ‘Snow Fall’ type stories deserve. But that didn’t stop us at the beginning and it doesn’t stop us now. What we try to do is marshal this technology in service of stories that deserve it. When we first started this we were more taken with the flash than we are now. It’s like a young writer who is amazed and thrilled at first by her ability to turn rhetorical cartwheels. As we have matured, like young writers tend to do, we try to move the reader back into the center of every decision. Is this feature necessary? Does it add something to the story? You can see the Times backing off the flash, as well. And that’s natural and OK. Doesn’t change the fact that the power is still there to tell stories better. It’s just about how you use it.”
(Ed.: Erin Peterson has worked as an editor at Carleton College, Macalester College, and Grinnell College. Now she scribbles full time as a free lance based in Minneapolis. She has some thoughts on consistently getting good stories from freelance writers.)
When I was at the CASE Editors Forum in April, an editor told me about a terrible recent experience she’d had with a freelance writer. The school was just about to open a new building on campus, and she was planning to include a feature story about it in the alumni magazine. She decided to go all-in and reached out to an architecture writer who wrote regularly (and spectacularly) for Vanity Fair. The writer said he’d do the story—for his normal rate of $10 a word. She balked, and they eventually settled on $3 a word, which was far higher than her usual rate. In the end, she got only a so-so story.
This is an all too common experience—writers who have done phenomenal work for other publications feel as though they can phone it in for alumni magazines. But you don’t have to settle for terrible writing and storytelling. The best award-winning stories aren’t written by ringers. In the “Best Articles” category for the CASE Circle of Excellence competition in 2013, for example, 100 percent of the bylines were from staff writers or editors—or freelancers who had written at least two (and typically many more) stories for the magazine in the past.
Getting great writers for your magazine is not about finding the “best writer.” It’s about finding good writers, nurturing them, and seeing them as partners who can help you tell your school’s best stories. Here are my best tips for working with freelancers who will tell great stories at a fair price.
Invest in the relationship. Think of your search for freelance writers the same way that New Yorker cartoon Robert Mankoff thinks of his search for cartoonists: He’s not looking for a good New Yorker cartoon. He’s looking for someone who could be a good New Yorker cartoonist. It’s a subtle but important distinction. One focuses on the thing itself; the other focuses on the relationship. You’re looking for writers who can be great [Insert your Magazine Name Here] writers. They may be student writers with potential, local freelancers who can spend a lot of time on campus, alumni, or freelancers who focus specifically on higher education. Instead of looking for the best “science writer” or “art writer” for a specific piece, look for a good writer, period. They may not be able to take on every story, but they’ll probably be able to take on more than you imagine. A writer who has a deep understanding of your school and your magazine will trump a writer who has technical expertise almost every time.
Think of your writers as partners. By the time they’ve finished their reporting, writers will know the story better than you do, and you can benefit from that knowledge. You might have your writers ask sources about photo ideas. (Every once in awhile, a source will have a great idea that you never could have anticipated.) You can also ask writers to check in with you once they’ve finished their reporting to find out if they think the story could benefit from tweaking the angle, packaging the story differently, or talking to a few more sources.
Budget accordingly. There’s not a linear relationship between fees and quality (see the Vanity Fair example above), but you won’t keep good writers long without paying fair fees. I once heard an editor say that she was happy to “get away with” paying just 50 cents a word, while simultaneously bemoaning the work she was getting. The problem is that freelancers paid low rates will also see what they can get away with—banging out a story in a couple hours with few sources and little research. Good writers aren’t always cheap, but they’re far less expensive than writers who turn in shoddy work—or worse, writers who turn in no work at all.
Offer regular work. When you find a good freelancer, do your best to give them projects as frequently as possible, even if that’s just three to four times per year. Not only will writers appreciate the regular work, but they’ll learn quirks and politics of your school, and that will help them craft better stories.