Category: Guest Post

Guest post: Susan Allen

Susan Allen contributes a guest essay. A version first ran on her blog at St. Norbert College.

Today I’m practicing slow journalism. Today I said yes to an opportunity to which common sense dictated I say no. I drove south instead of north. I skipped the office, I went well off campus; out on a limb, on the lam and in the company of our college curator, Shan Bryan-Hanson.

Shan was intent on some art “shopping” at the warehouse conservation facility of the Kohler Foundation. The foundation acquires art, restores it, and then carefully thinks to itself, “Hmmm, we have all these nicely restored pieces, pieces of considerable merit. Now, what would be some sensible organizations to whom we might gift these pieces — organizations that would be well placed to take care of them, and to share them?”

Sometimes the answer to that question is, to MoMA. Sometimes it is to some local high school in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Sometimes it is to the Art Institute of Chicago and sometimes it is, why, to St. Norbert College, of course.

stnNow, for a future article on this generous relationship, I’ll need at most 600 words — along with some high-quality images mooched from the foundation’s inventory — in order to share with our readers this unlooked-for abundance and what it means to our students. This is all to happen in some forthcoming issue of St. Norbert College Magazine, date yet to be determined. Back at the office, the Fall 2015 issue lies untended. As I head south, I’m aware that there are maybe two questions still to be answered before I put pen to paper. There may be a third, but I haven’t thought of it yet.

I say to myself, Hey, how about you just let this one unfold?

So I tag along. I hang out. I don’t have much to do, but I watch. I listen. I pay attention. I put my first question. I touch. (You can touch, at the warehouse.) I cast my vote for one piece. (Not that Shan pays any attention — she knows what she is looking for). I ask my second question, and a third. I take a few poorly lit iPhone photos that will be of no use to anyone. I look at some boxes labeled for the Smithsonian and wonder what’s inside them. I clue back in to what is going on at the table, where Shan’s picks are accumulating. Suddenly it becomes evident that a show is being curated here, and I ask, how. I ask, what.

Lunch arrives. I poke around just a little bit more, and then I leave. It’s my birthday and I’ve given myself this day as a birthday treat. I’ve promised myself a walk on the dunes at Kohler-Andrae State Park. (Yep. Same Kohlers, bless them, the high-end kitchen-and-bath company family and their money.)

Producing a college magazine with a large vision and a small budget often feels like attempting to stretch a dinette-sized tablecloth across a table large enough for a Hogwarts-sized dining hall — a table upon which banquet after banquet of stories keep serving themselves up, the feast never ending.

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Amid all this abundance, economy and efficiency prevail at the magazine. Contingency dictates that many stories are stingily reported, via phone call and email. I worry that it shows. Just a week or so ago I myself sat down for exactly one hour with a new faculty member in order to write a profile of her. Mid-interview, I remembered once hearing Dale Keiger, editor at Johns Hopkins Magazine, talk about the three full days — I’m pretty sure it was three — that he spent hanging out with the champion thoroughbred Funny Cide’s trainer, Barclay Tagg, for a story. I bet that was a heck of a profile. Dale fielded a question from a room full of less well-placed editors about what to do if we found ourselves with only one hour to spend with a subject: “First of all, I hope you never find yourselves in this position.” I can tell you what it feels like, profiling someone with whom you have spent precisely one hour. It feels like an act of gross impertinence, is what it feels like.

I wouldn’t call what I did today deep reporting. But let’s call it slow reporting, and honor it as such.

And now here I sit, under a sky as blue as blue; sand in my shoes and one toe in Lake Michigan; some small shells and a seagull feather decorate my outdoor desk.

I’m shopping through my Kohler notes, curating my story.

It’s a slow day at the office.

Guest post: Erin Peterson on Cultivating Freelance Writers

(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.)

erin-2011When 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.

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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.

“A rhetorical Rubik’s cube”

viewpointcoverLast week, Christine Spicer, editor of Viewpoint out of Point Loma Nazarene University, made an interesting comment on the first part of the “Making a Better Magazine” series. She made the comment a few days into the series, so I don’t know how many readers noticed or went back to read it. When I asked her if she would expand her comment into a guest post, she graciously agreed. Ms. Spicer, you have the floor.

Dale’s recent series of posts about improving our magazines was rife with good content, but I take issue was with one of his points. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from university editors many times: that there is a line in the sand between marketing/branding and magazines that puts them at necessary odds. I disagree. I look at the issue not as a divide between marketing and journalism but as a rhetorical Rubik’s cube. The goals of editors and administrators may not seem to align at first, but the puzzle is solvable. And good writing is actually the key.

After all, isn’t good writing inherently purposeful? If so, why can’t an alumni magazine’s purpose be to share compelling stories that reinforce the character and identity (i.e., the brand) of the institution?

I’m not advocating for cover stories on donors or feature stories about the business school’s philosophy. Those kinds of stories are neither good journalism nor good marketing. That’s my point. As writers, we have frequent practice in the art of persuasion. When administrators pitch a dull, institutional piece, shouldn’t we be able to propose or even simply provide a sparkling alternative that achieves their goals in a way they hadn’t imagined? And if our piece really does sparkle and really does achieve their goals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to persuade them to use it.

Take the business school example. At Point Loma Nazarene University, where I work, we don’t write essays about the business school’s philosophy (even though its motto, “More than the bottom line,” is kind of cool). But we did share the story of a business alumnus who carried 70 pounds of wood on his back while walking from San Diego to Los Angeles to raise awareness for his social enterprise (which sells carbon offsets to provide clean-burning stoves to impoverished families in Africa). The story was interesting and sweaty. It also happened to suggest something about the kinds of students in the business school and the kinds of ventures that come out of it. It certainly supported the “brand” of the university and the “More than the bottom line” philosophy of the business school.

The fact is that bad writing is bad marketing just as much as it is bad journalism.

It’s a related fallacy to imply that mainstream magazines are only about their readers. Aren’t they beholden to advertisers just as much as we are beholden to administrators? Can you imagine Runner’s World printing an article advising that people no longer buy brand name shoes? I suppose that example isn’t really comparing apples to apples, but you get the idea.

Finally, I don’t believe that alumni readers have no interest in messages from their alma maters. I accept that some alumni have no interest in messages from their alma maters. But others do. They are just more likely to listen to those messages and remember them when they are presented in a compelling fashion.

It’s easy to feel disheartened or angry when we’re asked to write about something that we don’t think will resonate with our audience or when we’re given a prescription for covering a story in a way we know won’t shine. But instead of either playing the victim or taking up arms, I suggest we push back and forward with our best creativity and most strategic thinking. Facing our challenges as puzzles to be solved might just add a measure of enjoyment to an otherwise unhappy situation and make our jobs as editors more fun.

Guest blogger Claude Skelton on editorial illustration

My long-time friend and Baltimore colleague Claude Skelton has written some of the most-read blog posts in UMagazinology‘s brief lifespan. Today he offers some thoughts on illustration.

A good illustration can do what a photograph can’t. For communicating difficult and abstract concepts, drawn art says more with a single image than a collection of photographs can. Illustration can be technical, serious, quirky, or silly, depending on the tone of the piece. A really good conceptual illustrator can interpret a story in ways that surprise and delight, and in the best cases, introduce a whole new spin. Take a look at these Bloomberg Businessweek covers, for example. Could a photograph demand as much immediate attention or communicate so effectively? Not likely. [Throughout the post, you can click on the images to view them larger.]

Bloomberg Businessweek cover credits: Bernanke: David Parkins (after Milton Glaser); King of Vegas Real Estate Scams: Barry Falls; Coke in Africa: Nick White; Crisis in Japan: Noma Barr; creative director: Richard Turley.

So how do you find and work with illustrators to get innovative, thoughtful results? First, familiarize yourself with the talent that’s out there. Look for great work. Don’t limit yourself to local or regional illustrators (another advantage of illustration is that artists don’t need to be on location; almost all work electronically). Use the best, most professional illustrators you can afford. Amateur or mediocre illustration reflects badly on your magazine and ultimately on your institution. Look at sites such as,,, or, all of which can connect you to individual artists or artist’s reps. Another approach is to notice illustrations that grab your attention in publications you read; start a reference file with names and samples as you find art that impresses you.

As you plan a story lineup, consider illustration as part of the mix. If you’re profiling a professor or an alum, the natural default solution is to commission a photograph. An illustrated portrait, like this drawing of a disabled war veteran from Dartmouth Magazine, can add style and substance to an otherwise run-of-the-mill profile. If the work or activity of the profiled person is more to the point, illustrating that idea or topic is an effective approach. The full page image below, from Cambridge Alumni Magazine, illustrates a complex essay by a neuroscientist on movement and the brain—a far more intriguing and informative solution than a portrait of the author.

Illustration and text combine in a pop-inspired spread (above) by Design Army, Washington DC, from Kogod Now, the American University Kogod School of Business’ magazine. The article, on targeted food marketing to minority populations, is original, eye-catching, and unexpected in the context of a business school publication.

When you’re ready to choose an illustrator, think about the tone and emotion you want the story to communicate and find illustrators whose styles best fit what’s in your mind. You’ll need to be confident of the illustrator’s track record and ability to translate an idea into art. And you’ll need to sell a working concept, knowing that the illustrator will be bringing additional thinking and visual interpretation to the table.

This is a very subjective process and should never be attempted by committee. It’s a matter of trust—between publisher and editor, between editor and creative director, between creative director and artist. If approval from “above” is necessary before hiring an illustrator, you’ll be forced to justify your choice with nothing more than your idea and samples from the artist’s portfolio. It could be hard for an administrator to visualize the outcome, therefore the need for trust.

Art directors: it’s usually best to communicate a general concept and supply a draft of the story to illustrators, then wait and see what they come up with before making suggestions or over-directing. It’s your job to inspire creativity, not solve the problem. Trust your illustrator to find a solution that fits the assignment and suits his or her style. It rarely works to force a pre-conceived vision on an artist; be open to surprise and innovation and you’ll almost always get the best results.

A word on stock illustration: it is a less expensive alternative, but generally too generic to properly illustrate a feature story. Spots can liven up a news or class notes section, and stock can be a good substitute for those bland head shots that show up in faculty or alumni profiles—better to illustrate what they do (with symbol or icon) rather than what they look like (do readers care?). If stock isn’t available, original illustration can be cost effective for simple spots, drawing attention to complex, text-heavy pages (see news spread from Auburn Magazine, above).

Illustrated covers can be both challenging and satisfying. You have two big challenges: Finding the right artist for the job, and getting approval of concept, style, and budget. Then it’s working with the illustrator through sketches, revised sketches, more approvals, adjusted deadlines, and the holding of breath before the final artwork arrives. It’s the rare (and lucky) editorial staff or art director that has enough autonomy to move ahead through this process with no roadblocks. It’s the not knowing until it’s finished that can make you uneasy. What if it’s a disaster? What if readers are offended and cancel subscriptions? What if it’s just not quite what you had in mind? What if you hate it? These are the questions and fears that might keep you from taking a risk in the first place. But when that finished, original art finally appears, and your cover sings, it’s so worth it.

To illustrate my point, a few covers that sing (all very different tunes):

Guest post: Jeff Lott

Yr. Faithful Blogger has been a little overcommitted of late: feature stories, a section to edit, a thesis to write. Plus a visit to Ohio, to take my 90-year-old father out to visit his 82-year-old brother and 87-year-old sister-in-law. My colleague Michael Anft called it Geezerpalooza 2011.

So an unseemly amount of time between posts has elapsed. Which makes me all the more grateful for what landed in my inbox this morning: a guest post from Jeff Lott, editor of the esteemed Swarthmore College Bulletin. Thank you, Mr. Lott. You have the floor. Actually, the bathroom floor.

* * *

One of the great things about magazines is that you can take them anywhere. Throw a magazine in your backpack, read one in bed, even take it to the loo with you. Its battery won’t run out and it has far fewer distractions than your smartphone. It won’t ping or beep or bring you a depressing message from your boss. You can roll it up to discipline the dog or exterminate a stinkbug. And, when its useful life has ended, it can be recycled into something even more useful—like toilet paper.

At Swarthmore, the Bulletin staff bathroom—what a realtor would call a “half bath”—is where the best college and university magazines go to hang out together in the dark. There they stand atop the TP dispenser, cradled snugly by the grab-bar, their covers touching tenderly, with sensual scents of UV and ink mingling discreetly as they await the random reader who turns on the light and takes a seat.

University magazines find it glamorous and desirable to be in Swarthmore Bulletin bathroom, which sports a Van Gogh print, a blue vinyl floor, and a month’s supply of five-gallon carboys of water for the office cooler. The hottest magazines come and go, depending on their frequency and, frankly, on their covers. How a magazine dresses is a big factor at the rope line, and the doorman clearly has an eye for striking, sexy covers.

(Our doorman actually should be called “the bouncer,” for that’s what truly happens when the mail arrives—a lot of it bounces straight into the blue bin of oblivion. “From pulp they come and to pulp they will return, their ink scrubbed off unread,” the bouncer philosophizes as denies them a chance at bathroom fame.)

Some magazines, like Notre Dame and Duke and Portland, return to the TP dispenser time and again, like addicts for attention. They can’t get enough of the random reader’s eyes and hands, of having their pages riffled over and over, sometimes for weeks. Iowa and Carleton stop by, flaunting their white space; then haughty Sarah Lawrence shows up all smart and sophisticated. “Sarah’s got a lot of nerve,” Dartmouth whispers to Brown.

Occasionally the doorman takes pity on a new book that makes a show of itself. But after one turn in the bathroom, they usually disappear back into the crowd, painfully aware that their flashy covers can’t deliver the goods inside. There are lots of snappy dressers with designer pages who haven’t a word to say beyond “Look at me—I’m slick.” And ego-boosting books that remind the doorman of Donald Trump, all hair and attitude but cold, with no heart, no story to tell.

Steady customers have their own seats at the grab-bar. Oregon Quarterly, who enters quietly, sits in the corner reading Ken Kesey, talking modestly in delicious sentences about things that matter.  The doorman has learned that a smart and literate magazine is always worth having at the party.

(What is it about Oregon?  The doorman thinks Oregon Quarterly must have secretly dated Portland on and off for years. They’re both so smart and well read that a hookup might seem to be in order, but it could be that religious differences have kept them apart. Yet, the doorman speculates, perhaps when the light is off and their covers are touching. Could they be the ones who put up the handmade sign under the light switch: “Hey carbon bigfoot, turn out the light!”)

The crowd on the TP dispenser sometimes departs en masse, replaced by a whole new posse of pages approaching perfection. At times, one or two seem to slip away, perhaps in a reader’s backpack for a private tete-à-tete at home. This month, just as parkas are giving way to tank tops and sandals on campus, the late winter issues are being replaced by spring ones. The chatter in the bathroom is as lively as ever, undeterred by the arrival of a new issue of serious and studious Swarthmore, which must have slipped the doorman a twenty.

Mise en Place arrives with a bevy of beautiful food photos and Middlebury makes the random reader nostalgic for Vermont. Johns Hopkins sails in once again. Johns (what’s with the “s,” man?) isn’t much of a dancer and sticks close to the bar—but he’s got really great features that attract both Sarah and Carleton. Say, isn’t Carleton a guy? Does this mean Johnny goes both ways? We’ll have to leave the light on to find out, but Portland keeps switching it off, especially when that other magazine’s around.

Author’s note: If your magazine was not mentioned here, too bad. After all, it’s the bathroom. Get over it.