Eight questions for Dan Morrell

bulletin_cover_2014_septemberDan Morrell edits the fine HBA Alumni Bulletin out of the Harvard Business School. He’s also one-third of Dog Ear Consultants, with Maureen Harmon and Patrick Kirchner, and a participant in DogBlog, which is among my RSS feeds despite their irritating habit of publishing posts that I wish I’d written.

How long have you been in your job?

Two years in January.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

That you have to work like there isn’t a ceiling. A lot of jobs have a definite endpoint, and that’s fine. But we’ve been able to pursue a number of things here—a redesign, tablet editions, multimedia production—in a short amount of time because we have the energy and the will to do so. This has a lot to do with an incredibly supportive management team, of course, who provide us with a net. (And who read this blog when they aren’t busy being the greatest bosses on the planet. Wink.)

It takes awhile to feel comfortable enough to push for those kinds of changes, of course. But living through a few awkward moments so you can make some real gains seems like a fine trade to me.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Making our first video. We’ve done some awesome stories, for sure. But video production was foreign to most of us on staff. So we invested some serious time to learning the form and using the equipment, and in a year or so—while still doing everything else that we have to do—we got to a point where we could produce a useful, 45-second video profile. (Note: This came after producing several slightly-less-useful 45-second videos.) This sounds incredibly small and the video won’t win any awards, but it was an eye-opening triumph for us. [Here's one to gander.]

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Photo shoots. And perhaps it’s not fair to call it my frustration, because it’s mostly the frustration of our fantastic art directors (Erin Mayes and Kate Collins of EmDash). Because we shoot a lot of executives and executives have minders whose job it is to defend their calendars, our June issue had two photo shoots—both features, one a cover—for which we were given a combined total of 21 minutes to shoot. (Yes, we were given six minutes for one of them. Which, admittedly, is slightly better than five.) Then there’s the complexity: Recent cover shoots have forced us to navigate through territory in Nigeria controlled by Boko Haram and wait out stability in post-election Afghanistan. I always promise EmDash that the next cover will be an accountant in some sleepy American town, but that never seems to happen.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

Front of the book. Specifically our news section. I don’t think we do ‘digestible’ well enough yet. Or service, for that matter.

What story are you proudest to have published?

There’s been two—one for personal reasons, one for professional. The first is a story I had been working on as a freelancer for a year or so before I came here, that I ended up publishing in the magazine. (Just happened that a key player in the story was an alum.) I felt like it was a really important story to tell about Big Pharma—this unassuming maverick who wanted to change the industry, and this little kid with a mortal disease who was the impetus for the whole movement. It wasn’t mission journalism, but I certainly wasn’t unhappy that the story resulted in some positive attention for the family of the ill child. The second was a story we did on two Nigerian alums who were working in agriculture and trying to fight Africa’s dependence on imported food. There are potentially huge implications for the global food crisis, and it was an ambitious topic to throw our arms around. But I think we did a decent job. Plus, the Nigerian ag minister requested “a few copies for his library,” which we thought was pretty cool.

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

William Langewiesche. But that fantasy would probably be best left a fantasy. He’d give me 50,000 words for a 1,500-word profile or come in weeks late, and then I’d get mad and throw out all of my William Langewiesche trading cards.

I guess I’ve grown a bit disenchanted with the longform movement, though. I told a friend recently that longform journalists are fast becoming the jazz artists of the ’70s—we’re like a year away from one of them declaring they are actually from the future or came to earth from a distant, funkier planet.

Mostly, I just want writers who have passion for the work. Hungry types. People who like to hunt and make those three extra phone calls because they know that is what it will take to make the story better. Francis Storrs of the Boston Globe magazine is a favorite. I’d love to work with my friend Sasha Issenberg someday, too. He’s always the smartest kid in the room, but not much into navel-gazing.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

Burrito critic.

Visitors

nd

The summer issue of Notre Dame Magazine contains a superb essay by Andrew J. Bacevich titled “Lessons from America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” Bacevich is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, a Vietnam War combat veteran, a PhD in history, and now on the faculty at Boston University. In the essay, Bacevich explores 10 lessons that he believes should be derived from more than 30 years of warfare in the Middle East, three decades of fighting that he thinks should be regarded as a single long conflict. Here’s one graph that gives you the flavor:

Let me state plainly my own overall assessment of that war. We have not won it. We are not winning it. And simply pressing on is unlikely to produce more positive results next year or the year after—hence, the imperative of absorbing the lessons this ongoing war has to teach. Learning offers a first-step toward devising wiser, more effective and less costly policies.

When I heard that Bacevich was in Notre Dame’s magazine, I perked up. He taught for a time in the 1990s at Johns Hopkins’ international affairs school, and I’ve wanted to get him into my magazine for years. How did he end up in Notre Dame Magazine? He is a former visiting fellow at the school’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

For a lot of our magazines that would be too slender a connection. Overseers often want only subjects or writers who are on the faculty now, if they’re not alumni. More rare is the piece written by an author with no connection to the university at all. I see such essays in Portland Magazine, where Brian Doyle is the master at cajoling words out of Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez, and other fine scribblers. But otherwise, almost nothing.

Yet most, if not all, of our campuses feature guest lecturers and speakers and participants in colloquia, several per year. This seems to me like justification for publishing the occasional piece by a guest contributor who is not an alum, not on the faculty, not a former anything at your school. The speaker series brings in interesting people to speak on your campus in the belief that this broadens the discourse and provides something stimulating to students, faculty, and people in the community. Why shouldn’t the magazine follow the same reasoning and bring in guest writers to produce thought-provoking content for your alumni?

A tough sell for the conventional mind of the overseer. But worth a try.

Forward

A toothsome challenge facing university magazine editors is how to keep it all moving forward. Lurching forward. Trundling along toward print-it-bind-it-box-it-mail-it. We don’t have populous staffs, we work with subjects who have no sense of urgency because their idea of a tight book deadline is six years down the road, we have to coordinate production of class notes and design and photography and illustration and proofing and, oh yeah, those damned stories from overcommitted writers.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep everyone on track to meet our print date without becoming a nag. My only progress on that project has been to become not a nag, just naggish. Not a great solution.

What feels like a semblance of a method is to concentrate on moving at least one part of the issue forward at least one step every day. That alone will not get you to the finish on time, but it will cut down on those days when you make no progress at all. Moving one thing forward one step might be a matter of making a single decision about a photo or assignment, conferring with one colleague about how a story is progressing or the layout on a feature spread, making a couple of calls to check on the status of an interview. Or it could be clearing six hours in the day and getting that feature edit done. At your university, the magazine will be the top priority of only one person—you. For everyone else, your magazine is way down their list of urgent concerns. So one step every day becomes important.

Recently there was a subreddit—I actually know what that means now—on productivity in creative work. Someone signed on as “Ryan” offered this awkwardly phrased but pungent bit of counsel:

Rule numero uno—there are no more zero days. What’s a zero day? A zero day is when you don’t do a single fucking thing towards whatever dream or goal or want or whatever that you got going on. No more zeros. I’m not saying you gotta bust an essay out every day, that’s not the point. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to make yourself, promise yourself, that the new SYSTEM you live in is a NON-ZERO system. Didn’t do anything all fucking day and it’s 11:58 PM? Write one sentence. One pushup. Read one page of that chapter. One. Because one is non-zero. You feel me? When you’re in the super vortex of being bummed your pattern of behavior is keeping the vortex going, that’s what you’re used to. Turning into productivity ultimate master of the universe doesn’t happen from the vortex. It happens from a massive string of CONSISTENT NON-ZEROS. That’s rule number one. Do not forget.

Have a non-zero day.

 

Decked

Among the current stack of university magazines on my desk, this stands out as my favorite deck so far, from the Summer 2014 issue of Tufts Medicine:

CHERIE HANDRICKSON LEFT A HIGH-FLYING RUSSIAN HOCKEY CAREER BEHIND TO ENTER TUFTS’ PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT PROGRAM

Hard to see what recommended that for a story, eh?

tuftshockey

Oh yes

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.)

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