Eight questions for Jesse Tuel

vtbaldycoverJesse Tuel edits Virginia Tech Magazine, which makes him vulnerable to the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

I started in February 2010, so nearly four years.

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

Weighing and responding to story ideas has been a learning experience. I moved from a smaller, regional university to an institution with global ambitions and the research dollars to match, and I still find the scale of activity to be mind-boggling. Cover story ideas have a way of waltzing in and grabbing an editor by the lapels and demanding coverage. In other words, cover stories, at least for me, seem to naturally rise to the top of the heap. In my previous position, the sifting was simpler because there were far fewer cover-worthy concepts walking through the door. Now I see them every single day. They line up at my door, agitated and shaking their fists, all with legitimate claims to in-depth features.

Developing a framework for story selection—factoring in editorial instincts, survey results, university priorities, the tiers of coverage from news briefs to features, and some semblance of balance across disciplines and topics—was paramount. The framework isn’t rigid, though. We have wiggle room for the cool stuff. When I heard that the university president punched the commandant of cadets in an 1878 faculty meeting, I knew we had a cover story on our hands.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

feature3-football2Back in 2010, I wondered what happened to the air molecules inside a football when the ball was thrown or kicked, but the magazine didn’t have a way to field that question. So we launched a section called “How Tech Ticks,” investigating the inner workings of the university. A physics professor explained what happened inside the ball, and the football team’s legendary equipment manager described the life cycle of a single ball in a given season. Meanwhile, one of our photographers scoured the Internet for a sound trigger to set off his flashes, and we captured photos of a fully inflated football bending like a kidney bean around the starting kicker’s foot as the player blasted several dozen balls into the rafters of the darkened practice facility.

I’m equally as gratified by our analytics. In addition to our regular use of the CASE survey, we commissioned a professor to investigate reader behavior in the print and online environments. Published earlier this year in the Marketing Letters journal, the study finds that our print readers have greater prompted and unprompted recall of content. The findings complement the CASE survey’s indications of print vs. online preferences, because we’ve now quantified precisely how effective the investment in a print magazine can be.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

If I could change one thing, I’d have a dedicated line item in the budget for freelancing and travel expenses. Such requests are funded on a case-by-case basis out of the unit’s operations budget, and because we’re fortunate enough to have writers and photographers on campus and on staff, I’m more likely to rely on in-house talent. We still produce a quality magazine that resonates with readers—and survey results bear that out—but the funding too often influences editorial choices. Can a staff writer get to D.C. to profile an alumnus? Do we abandon a profile of an alumna on the West Coast because her submitted photographs are terrible?

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

For its versatility and creative potential, the aforementioned “How Tech Ticks” section is my favorite. At times, though, the execution falls a little flat. A piece on the logistics of commencement read as a recitation of facts rather than an investigation into, say, how much the black gown raises a graduate’s body temperature. Imagine the football-and-physics piece without the physics professor’s input. In other instances, we may have a good handle on the science, but the art doesn’t quite match what I first saw in my head.

vtspreadWhat story are you proudest to have published?

In the 1960s, a mechanical engineering professor invented an infant respirator that saved the lives of hundreds of newborns suffering from respiratory distress syndrome. In 1970, Life magazine captured one such newborn in her father’s arms. For the fall 2012 edition, we located her in Idaho and flew her back with her father for a reunion with the retired professor. Moreover, the professor’s ingenuity rubbed off on his students—one of whom is now a pediatrician and professor working with current undergraduates to create and commercialize medical devices for children. On the surface, the article stands on its own merits, which I take pride in. Secondarily, though, I’m also pleased that the story happens to touch upon all five of the university’s brand drivers in a subtle, organic fashion. I think university and alumni magazine editors often encounter the tension between literary-minded storytelling and the aims of marketing and fundraising—or, perhaps, perceive tension where it needn’t exist, in a nod to the spot-on assessment of several esteemed editors that pocketbooks follow hearts and minds—so I, for one, was delighted to present a story that covered all the bases.

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

That’s a doozy of a question. Do I have to pick one? Edward Abbey for anything outdoorsy. David Foster Wallace for his sentence structure. Tim Ferriss for his sense that anything’s possible. Studs Terkel for an alumni profile. Hunter S. Thompson for the power of his voice. I’m reading a lot of Grantland right now, so Zach Lowe for his snark and depth. Nikki Giovanni, because she’s on the faculty here and how in the world have I waited this long to ask her to write for the magazine?

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

I still like to pretend that I could train for a full year and land a spot on a semi-professional basketball team’s bench, but Benjamin Button and I are going in opposite directions . . . and then there’s my talent level. Other likely career paths, in no particular order: professor, novelist, architect, gym owner, nutrition expert, stay-at-home dad, world-traveler, professional dilettante. I probably ended up as a storyteller because I like to dabble and dream.

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