Dan 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?