Eight Questions for Leslie Stainton

findingsThe long-time editor of Findings, from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, responds to the UMagazinology questionnaire. Check the answer to the third question for a senior administrator we’d all kill for.

How long have you been in your job?

Seventeen years. I took the job because I was desperate to escape a corporate editorial gig, never dreaming I’d stay longer than a year or two. Despite its rather bland name, public health turns out to one of the most interesting fields there is — rarely a day goes by that it doesn’t make news somewhere. My husband says I can never quit  my job because if I did, what would he talk about at cocktail parties?

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

How to tease compelling stories from scientists who are inherently (and rightly) cautious about making big claims.

 What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Two things, really. More than a decade’s work with a terrific designer who’s smart, irreverent, curious, passionate, driven, deeply collaborative, and who shares my taste in scotch. The second is autonomy, of the sort few (I suspect) university magazine editors enjoy. Earlier this year I thanked my boss for the long leash she’s given me. “What leash?” she asked. It’s true.

 What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

A consistently paltry budget for freelance, coupled with no associate staff editors or writers. Our admins seem content with mostly one voice, mine.

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

The absence of a wide range of other voices in the magazine. (See “biggest frustration,” above.)

 What story are you proudest to have published?

A feature about a nurse, Elenita Congco, who was viciously attacked on the job by a psychiatric patient. During our interview, Elenita spoke at great length about the terrible ongoing impact of her trauma. The day after I finished drafting the story, I learned that she had died — most likely as a result of issues related to the attack. She was maybe 50. In effect, I’d gotten her last testament. What I didn’t know was that one of Elenita’s nieces was an SPH alumna. The niece wrote to us after we’d published the story to say how grateful she and her family were. Painful as the story was, without it they would not have known what Elenita was thinking and feeling in her last days. It’s hard to imagine our work getting much more important or meaningful than that.

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

Adam Gopnik (what can’t he write brilliantly about?).  Brian Doyle (imagine his spin on cardiovascular disease). Rebecca Solnit (few are better at speaking the truth to power).

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

I’d still like to work in the professional theater, probably as a dramaturg. I’m guessing that’s an option you haven’t heard before.

One comment

  1. Don Hammond

    As the designer who’s had the privilege of working with Leslie on Findings for more than a decade—it’s now longer than many marriages at 14 years and counting—the experience has strengthened my belief that a designer is only as good as the editor he/she’s working with. Drab content, dull writing, and a preference for grip ‘n’ grin photos are the death of many institutional publications from a design standpoint, and Leslie has been a constant voice for pushing far beyond those norms in the editorial sphere during the time we’ve worked together.

    That’s made my creative brief consistently interesting and challenging, and her strong intuitive design and art direction sensibilities have made our collaboration especially productive. We respect each other’s opinions, and we’re able to exchange views on both design and editorial without rancor or ego getting in the way. Many of the strongest design features of the last several years’ worth of issues are the result of editorial suggestions that Leslie has made early in the planning process, and this has kept the magazine lively and fresh from issue to issue. Findings has been a true creative team effort, and this has made the publication far more interesting and compelling to the audience than it would have been otherwise. I’ve been in the business long enough to know how fortunate I’ve been to have worked with an editor and writer like Leslie.

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