Category: Ideas

Editors Forum 2017, Day Two

And on the second day, no rest for us. A full day of keynote presentations and elective sessions.

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— And more: Stories, deep meaningful stories, are essential to our primary mission, to engaging an audience in the only way that matters—sustained reading. And what matters is not the digital media metrics. “You’re trying to reach people. Clicks are not people. Tweets are not people. Downloads are not people.”

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Temple again: “When I say we cover the institution, we cover the institution. We are not a mouthpiece for the administration.”

— And again: In anticipation of controversy over a story you want to do, address the concerns of your bosses early in the process. “Don’t get too far out in front of your blockers.”

— And: “When readers get the magazine, I want them to feel like they’re having a visit to campus.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.

— More Braz: “Crop [photos] like a mofo.”

— Sean Plottner and Wendy McMillan, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: Stop shooting pictures of professors and students standing next to a globe, a bookshelf, or an open laptop.

— More McPlottner: Stop worrying about stealing. Stop running crappy headshots. Stop with the boring history. Stop being so serious with science stories. Stop with all the meetings. Stop running cutesy author’s bios. Stop running editor’s notes. And stop using semicolons.

— Richard Rhys, Wharton Magazine, and Renee Olsen, TCNJ Magazine: Casual conversations with senior administrators over lunch are much more fruitful than office meetings.

— Matt Jennings, Middlebury Magazine: “Recording an interview frees you up to notice things the digital device doesn’t. That doesn’t mean get lazy.”

— Jennings again: “Have a good plan [for an interview], but plan on deviating from your plan. The interview subject is driving the train.”

— Madeleine Baran, American Public Media and the podcast In the Dark: “Start [reporting] by assuming you’re wrong.” Continue reporting until you’ve run out of good arguments for being wrong. Only then are you probably right.

— Some more Baran: “It’s not just about knowing the facts of a place. It’s also important to know the feel of a place.”

Editors Forum 2017, Day One

 

The 2017 CASE Editors Forum wrapped up in Chicago last week, attended by about 230 magazinistas from dozens of North American colleges, universities, and independent schools. I thought it was a success, but then I would, since I co-chaired it with the wicked smart Pam Fogg of Middlebury.

Judging by what was posted to the conference’s Twitter hashtag, (#caseedforum, which quickly became known among the wags as California Seed Forum) here are the points that had the most meaning for those who attended Day One:

— Teresa Scalzo, Carleton Voice: University magazines are not competing for readers’ attention with other institutional magazines, they’re competing with all other magazines. We have to be that good.

— More Scalzo: “Print is now a luxury item. Let’s celebrate that and give our readers something they can’t get online.”

— And: Art in the magazine can start a dialog that the reader resolves.

— And: Plan content for the 5-, the 15-, and the cover-to-cover reader. Then plan to transform that 5-minute reader into a 15-minute reader.

— And: Photo captions can do more than just explain a photo. Because people commonly read photo captions before they read the story, captions can be to the story what a trailer is to a feature film.

— From Ann Finkbeiner, science writer: Don’t ask scientists why they’re doing their work. Ask them about their surprises, their struggles, their breakthroughs, their excitement.

— More Finkbeiner: In pursuit of an engaging narrative, never compromise the science by veering from fact.

— More: “You’ll know it’s a story when you’ve figured out where the tension is.” Is it between competing scientists? Between contending ideas? That’s where you begin.

— And one more: “The whole enterprise of finding the truth depends on our telling it.”

— Alissa Levin, Point Five: Limitations such as small staff or small budget can work for you. “Restraint breeds creativity. Restrictions are good. We need them to get started and know where we need to go.”

— Levin again: A digital redesign starts with what needs to happen on mobile platforms. “Mobile-first helps us focus on what’s most important and therefore leads to the best, cleanest design.”

— And: “Your website will never be finished. You always have more to do. But take it in stages, it’s less overwhelming.”

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.


And yes, UMagazinology has resumed. Thank you for reading.

Great minds think alike, damn it

coverimageThere I am at my office mailbox, innocently sorting the new issues of university magazines that have just come in, when Notre Dame Magazine catches my eye with a black-and-white, pen-and-ink cover of some sort. Closer inspection reveals that it’s a special, peel-away cover that’s meant to be colored. (Underneath is the same cover art on the magazine’s standard glossy cover stock.) What could be the occasion, I asked myself. Why, Notre Dame has devoted its spring issue to fun. It’s a theme issue, The Fun Issue!

jhmAt which point I began cursing because the forthcoming issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, which goes to press in 15 working days, will be a theme issue. Uh-huh. The Fun Issue. And the cover concept that the art director favors? Yep. That’s a concept composite on the right.

Damn you, Kerry Temple.

bisonAnd that’s not all. I peruse the spring edition of Bucknell Magazine, and there, between pages 32 and 33, is a perfed, tear-ou,t color-it-yourself drawing of a bison (Bucknell sports teams are the bison, don’t you know), for the magazine’s coloring contest. Entries due May 11.

What is it with you people? Now my art director needs a new cover concept, and I have to prove that Johns Hopkins is more fun than Notre Dame. Jeesh. Making my life more difficult for no damn reason…

Readers first

For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Antonio for the 2016 CASE Editors Forum, I thought I would rework my presentation and post it. I’ve revised it so that it works better as a piece of writing (first version was a script). Hope you get something out of it:

Most of us work for departments of communications. The department might be named alumni communications, development communications, marketing communications, even news and information, but the primary purpose, whatever the name, is communications. And there’s a curious thing about that.

I am always struck by how many vice presidents of communications and AVPs and other gold braid administrators mistake broadcasting for communicating. How many of you hear this on a regular basis: “We need to get the word out.” The VPs and AVPs believe that if we just “get the word out” then we have communicated. Get the word out about the power of giving. Get the word out about the president’s vision. Get the word out about how welcoming and inclusive we are. Get the word out about our dazzling students and dazzling alumni and dazzling new student rec center and dazzling football team. So we order up the appropriate stories that get the word out and satisfy our bosses and we publish them with the knowledge—the knowledge of actual working communications professionals—that many of those stories will never be read by anyone. And what we know that the gold braid seemingly fails to grasp is that when the stories go unread we have not communicated. We have merely broadcast to the indifferent.

The premise that underlies everything I do as editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine is that the magazine accomplishes nothing unless it’s read. We communicate nothing, we do nothing to sustain alumni engagement with the institution, we do nothing to enhance our school’s image or reputation. Every time one of our readers picks up the magazine, pages through it pausing only to glance at a photo or skim a story, checks their year in class notes, then chucks it into recycling, my employer has poured money down the drain. We only communicate when we’re read, and the argument I’m going to press here is that we won’t be read unless we put readers first. And never forget, no one has to read us. Not one person.

What does this mean in practice?

The first thing it means is that we have to embrace an axiom—We are not special. Of course we’re special to ourselves, but we are not to readers. To them, university magazines hold no special place in their daily lives. No one is going to read us just because we come from Alma Mater. We like to think they will, but they won’t. A few years after they graduate, the university no longer looms all that large in their lives. In their 20s, they have student loans, and they have to find jobs or they’re in the middle of graduate education or professional education. In their 30s, they still have student loans and they’re getting married and they’re having kids and acquiring mortgages and working at more challenging jobs. In their 40s, they’re still married, maybe for the second or third time, and they still have kids, but now their aging parents are starting to worry them and they’re trying to build careers and there’s still the mortgage. In their 50s, they’re paying for their kids’ college and their parents’ assisted living and beginning to wonder if any money will be left for retirement. By their 60s, they have sore backs, the kids are back living in the basement, and all the rock stars from their youth are dying and that’s spooky, and their employer is downsizing and damn, they really should have saved more.

Okay. Now imagine those people at any point in that story, at any point in that parade of decades, pausing to think, Good old Faber College…I wonder what the president’s vision is? The class of 2020…how diverse is it? What’s the history of our school colors—that’s been on my mind for years. I’d like to know more about the new dining hall meal plan.

Please.

They’re not going to read stories on those topics because those topics have no congruence with their lives. And as I said, they won’t read them just because they’ve popped up in the alumni magazine. We get no special consideration. When our readers bring in the mail, they make three stacks on the kitchen counter: bills, magazines, crap. That’s it. Three categories, three stacks. If there’s a fourth stack, it’s catalogs, it’s not our magazines. We have got to go into the magazine stack or it’s game over.

How do we get into the magazine stack? By being magazines. We have to look like magazines, we have to read like magazines, and like good, successful magazines, we have to put our readers first.

What’s that mean?

It means we have to favor good stories over dry articles. We can’t avoid publishing some articles—dry, factual, emotionally neutral reports on the new sexual assault policy or the president’s commission on gender equality or the master plan for campus beautification. And we’ll never avoid a certain amount of propaganda—the capital campaign is going great, the football team was undefeated, let us introduce our great new provost. That’s life at an institutional magazine. But I think every single issue of our magazines has to have at least one (preferably more but at least one) feature-length piece that tells a story.

What’s the distinction I’m making between a story and an article? A story has characters—it’s populated, it has people doing something and saying something. It has scenes from life. Narrative is good, but not every great story is built around a narrative, around a plot. Still, there should be scenes of one kind or another. A good story usually has conflict. It doesn’t have to be conflict between people. It can be conflict between ideas, or competing theories, or a scientist in conflict with the intractable mysteries of the universe or an artist in conflict with her own inner life. But there’s a source of tension. Good stories do not gloss over complexity. They acknowledge that life is complicated and process is messy and people are inconsistent and motives are mixed. Most of all, a story has emotion. It’s emotion that captures and keeps a reader’s attention, it’s emotion that keeps them coming back for more—and it’s emotion that, at the end of the day, motivates them to respond to what the magazine brings them by donating to the university.

A story can be missing some of these elements and still be a good story. This isn’t a checklist. But the best stories have these things. And after more than 40 years in magazine journalism, it’s my belief that if we put just one story with these qualities in our feature well, our readers will think of us as magazines the next time we show up in the mailbox. The will drop us on the magazine stack. It only takes one good. Two or three or four are better, but I really am convinced that it only takes one good story to bring a reader back to the next issue.

You’re likely to encounter some resistance to this sort of storytelling. Not from readers, but from bosses and other various stakeholders. I find that we are under continuous pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, to be superficial. “Don’t tell a complicated story, people don’t want to think that hard in their free time.” “Don’t get into conflict, c’mon, that’s not very positive.” “Do you have to have all this emotion in here? It’s kind of a downer…” “Why is there still this mystery in here, this ambivalence, these inconclusive bits? Can’t you tie up all these loose ends?” “Your job is to keep it simple, keep it positive, promote the brand.” To which I say resist!

Putting our readers first means never patronizing them. They are smart, well-informed adults. They read books. They read The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Economist. They can handle a real story. They want real stories. That’s why so many of the oldest continuously published magazines have real story meat on their editorial bones.

Putting our readers first also means never overlooking a fundamental question. “Who cares?” It’s a question we have to address for every story we publish, every headline we write, every decision we make for the cover, every story that deftly and effortlessly flows from our pens, and every idea we field from a senior administrator. A biophysicist has developed a new technique for studying cell motility. Who cares? A political scientist worries about the growing influence of professional political consultants. Who cares? Here are 10 freshmen and the favorite things they brought from home. Who cares? Faculty dogs, sexual assault on campus, the rec center’s new climbing wall…who cares? The answer to the question varies with the story, but it governs how we approach each and every story, and it ought to govern whether we do the story or not, because sometimes the answer to “who cares?” is “nobody.”

Things get complicated when the answer to “who cares?” is, “The president.” Or the vice president, or the dean, or the provost, or the donor so rich his name is on three campus buildings. But let me emphasize something big that we have going for us in regard to this whole question of “who cares.” If we have good writers, and if we do our jobs as editors, we can make readers care. And we can reframe the question. If the question is who cares about the Higgs boson, the answer will always be “some readers, not a lot.” Who cares about NAFTA? Who cares about a critical rethinking of Milton or John Donne, or about a little known Latvian composer? Hard to say. But there’s a much better question to govern how we approach our jobs: Who cares about stories? Because the answer to that is, “Everyone.” If we do a story not with the intent of serving the institution by getting the message out, but with the intent of serving readers by bringing them a good story, then can we get people to read just about anything. The great thing is once we’ve gotten them to read the story, we’ve served the institution by getting the message out. We just did in the way we know is most effective.

Case in point: On March 25, 1974, The New Yorker published a story by John McPhee titled, “A Reporter at Large: Firewood.” It is several thousand words about people who sell firewood in Manhattan, and the people who buy it. Believe me, when I came across this piece as a journalism student at Ohio University, I had no interest in reading about firewood. If you’d said to me, “Who cares that the second-best firewood grown in the United States is mangrove?” I would have replied, “Not me.” But this story was in The New Yorker, which told me it might be good. And this story was written by John McPhee, which told me it was going to be good. So I gave it a try, and it’s great. It’s a terrific piece. And notice how this worked—I was willing to give it a try because it appeared in a magazine that had brought me good stories in the past, and it was by a writer who really knows what he’s doing, and after four or five paragraphs I knew this was going to be a well-told tale so I didn’t care about the subject. I just wanted to tuck into a good story.

This is why it’s so important to be real magazines, why it’s so important to approach our work as professional magazine writers and editors, no matter how much institutional scrutiny and control we’re under. Readers will give a story a chance if it appears in a magazine that has brought them good stories in the past. And chances are that they’ll stick with that story if it was written and edited by professionals with the intent to tell a good story. Not to check off an institutional prerogative, not to please a donor or administrator, but for the reader.

Okay, so, as Steve Jobs used to say, “One last thing.” Think for a moment about the potential we have in our magazines. We have access to so many great stories. We have access to so much knowledge, to so many people who create that knowledge, to so many huge ideas, to so many fascinating scholars and scientists and thinkers and artists and people who know and do the damnedest things. There’s no getting around it: We’re special. That’s inconsistent with what I said at the top of the story? Mea culpa. But in this one regard, we are special, or at least we’re in a unique situation, and that gives us the chance to do great things for our readers. We can go time after time to such a deep, deep well of stories, we’ll never use them all.

Sooner or later, you will run into this question: “How are you serving the institutional goals?” And your answer is that you are getting inside the houses of your alumni and for weeks, on their countertops and coffee tables and nightstands, you are exemplifying the institution. You are stating loud and clear how the university still cares about its alumni. Every issue of the magazine that makes it to an alum’s nightstand says, “We made this for you because you still matter to us.” It says, “You are one of us. It may be 35 years since you last set foot on campus, but you are still one of us.” If we put readers first, that’s what we communicate. You are one of us. And that’s a potent message.

Yeah, we’ve been there

ca736e_55ac5f31fe134871aef36c6e06839055Neil Caudle has been central to a pair of excellent university research magazines over the years, Endeavors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Glimpse from Clemson. He has retired from that sort of thing, mostly to write fiction, apparently. But he also has a blog as part of his personal website, and a recent post describes a situation he found himself in as editor at Glimpse.

It was just a geeky science story, but a vice president was telling me not to write it. He was not my boss, but my sources reported to him and wouldn’t utter a peep without his say-so. The topic was toxic, he said.

I sat in his office and gaped at him, dumbfounded. Only in some alternate universe would the topic of wind turbines and power grids be toxic.

Patiently, the VP explained to me the alternate universe of South Carolina politics. According to doctrine in that realm, decent Americans pledge allegiance to fossil fuels and nukes. Only weirdo liberals truck with solar and wind.

So Clemson University could build and operate, in North Charleston, a fabulous new facility for testing wind turbines and simulating their use on the grid. And we could bank some big grants and contracts from the U.S. Department of Energy and companies such as General Electric to do the work. We just couldn’t write about it.

Caudle bided his time, the VP left, and the shrewd editor brought the story back, tuned up to dodge legislative wrath.

Insurgents afoot in an alternate universe rely on stealth. To save my boss a world of hurt, I would have to think like a native. And in South Carolina, the natives take pride in their history.

So I dug up some history. Three centuries ago, windmills designed by Dutch engineers powered the saws that cut the lumber that built a city called Charleston. The windmills also drained swamps and ground corn. So wind energy was nothing new. It was heritage, deeply rooted as indigo or rice. I had my lead.

ca736e_bdbe83d25bce4705a7790376a65df5fb

You can find the story that ran here.

By the way, lest there be any question about Caudle’s motive, he has titled his blog An insurgence of words, with a subtitle: “In which we attempt to puncture the culture of spin.” Man after my own heart. And my first suggestion as a presenter at next year’s Editors Forum.