Category: Issues

Broadcasting to the Indifferent

The other day an editor announced on CUE that her magazine soon would “have to create a feature for our alumni magazine that introduces the college’s most recent strategic plan.”  Other editors noted that they face the same task.

I assume that these projects arise from someone in senior administration who believes that it is imperative to tell alumni readers something important about the institution. We could debate that imperative, but that’s not my point. My point is that putting an article in the university magazine about the strategic plan will not tell readers anything. Why? Because to tell them something, you have to get them to read it and no one is going to read page after page about the strategic plan. Our readers don’t care and we can’t make them care. The strategic plan has almost no bearing on their lives, and it certainly has no entertainment value.

The people who believe these articles are good ideas confuse transmission with communication. Were a writer to pry a compelling story out of the new strategic plan—unlikely but stay with me here, human ingenuity should never be underestimated—that might stand a chance of communicating what the big boss thinks is essential to communicate. People who ignore articles about things that have no congruence with their day-to-day lives still read good stories, sometimes finishing the piece and saying I can’t believe I just read a whole story about that. But we all know the articles that senior administrators have in mind when they feel the need to tell alumni about the strategic plan. There will be nothing compelling about them.

Fail to grasp the fundamental difference between transmitting and communicating and you guarantee that all you will do through your magazine is broadcast to the indifferent.

Why, yes, I do like the sound of my own voice

headshot-1This is self-aggrandizing, for sure, but…writer Erin Peterson, who publishes in several of our magazines, recently interviewed me for her newsletter, discussing the improvement of writing in university magazines. She put notice of it on CUE, but not everyone subscribes to CUE so I thought I’d point to the Q&A here.

I’ve abridged myself below; the whole conversation can be read here. Peterson will soon publish another interview, this one with Jeff Lott, and when she does I’ll make note of it.

From your perspective, what makes the stories you included here so strong?

Our strongest stories start with deep reporting. The writer has to put in the time: hours and hours with the central figure, multiple interviews with as many other sources as time will permit, lots of reading, lots of just hanging around taking notes. We encourage writers to tell the story that matters to them. I used to tell my writing students, back when I was the Hopkins faculty, “Write like you mean it.”

…I once profiled a horse trainer for The Penn Stater, and could have done it with an interview and a few hours of hanging out at the track. But I spent two full days, starting at 5 a.m., at the track and the trainer’s barn and in conversation with the trainer, and so was there when one of his horses broke a leg on the track and had to be euthanized right there. You’ve got to be present for that kind of stuff.

The story about George Kennedy is a 4,000-word piece — a length that many editors would never consider for a single profile. …Tell me a little about the actual reporting.

…As for the reporting, I spent about six weeks on it, interviewing George Kennedy about four times, interviewing his assistant coach, talking to numerous swimmers on the team and alumni who swam for George. I attended many practices, just hanging out, and also taking pictures because simultaneously I was working on a year-long project to photograph Hopkins athletes at practice. I researched articles in swimming journals — there are such things. I researched the history of the Hopkins program. Craziest thing I did was haul my sorry self in for 6 a.m. practices — I am not a morning person.

…Most stories that fail do so because of inadequate reporting. If you think two phone calls will suffice to produce a story, make 10 calls. Then make an 11th, because time and again I’ve found that the 11th call, the one I really didn’t feel like making, provides some clincher detail that makes a story. It’s perverse, but true. Hang out, hang out, hang out. Interview and observe your subject in a variety of settings, not just her office, but over coffee, over lunch, at her house, in her lab; watch her teach classes; watch her meet with grad students. Find out her dog’s name, look at what she has on the refrigerator door or the walls of her office, see how she interacts with her kids, have follow-up conversations by phone or email. Observe and take notes on everything. Read her writing. Talk to her colleagues. Talk to her rivals. Talk to her former doctoral students. Then, when you’re sick of the whole subject, call her again. It’s the only way.

Editors Forum Bulletin #3

Day 2 off to a roaring start. The Emory University crew—Mary Loftus, editor of Emory Medicine, Paige Parvin, editor of Emory Magazine, Maria Lameiras, associate editor at Emory, and Peta Westmaas, lead designer for Health Sciences Emory University—discussed what happened last summer when a person infected with Ebola entered the United States for the first time for treatment at Emory. Loftus had to tear up her planned Fall ’14 issue (actually, she mostly moved it to Spring ’15) and fill 20 pages with something high quality and meaningful about a situation of monstrous complexity and external media attention. The two magazines did tremendous, exemplary work in a situation that was volatile, emotionally charged, and sometimes absurd—for quite some time the magazine could not use the names of the (eventually) three patients brought to Emory because that would violate HIPAA rules; meanwhile, the patients’ names were in every American newspaper reporting on the crisis.

Not only did Emory get out two fine print issues, they worked with Adobe to craft an excellent iPad special publication devoted to Ebola and what transpired at Emory. (I am madly typing all of this in the hotel bar at lunch between sessions; I’ll link to some of this stuff in a later post when I’m back in Baltimore.)

Next I attended two of the better breakout sessions I’ve found in several years. First was Michael Freedman, editorial director at the Stanford School of Business, who discussed a startling decision made at Stanford Business. Like so many of us in our various editorial shops, Stanford Business had for years been concentrating on their thrice-yearly print edition, with digital stuff—web, email newsletter, etc.—coming second. Freedman, tamping down his emotional attachment to print, turned that thinking on end. Now, Stanford Business posts all editorial content online first, and subsequently collects stories that already have had a digital life, redoes the art, and publishes them again in the print magazine. Actually, he described the flow as website => social media push => email newsletter => print. They do not print the stories that generate the most web traffic; they select those pieces that will make a good print magazine. I plan more on this later, if I can get Freedman to agree to answer some questions after we’ve all gone home.

Up the stairs and down the hall I found Maureen Harmon, editor of Denison, and Patrick Kirchner, visual editor of LNP Media Group and Harmon’s partner in Dog Ear Consultants. Harmon and Kirchner are two of the smartest people in university magazines, and this was the “Dozen Don’ts” session I took note of the other day. I’d like to post more about some of this at a later date, too, but for now (another session in 20 minutes), here’s their dozen:

— Don’t think of yourselves as alumni magazine editors; think of yourselves as magazine editors who make magazines that have to work the same way as any newsstand publication.

— Don’t force things. Kill anything in the magazine that has grown stale.

— Don’t let the back of the book die from inattention. It may be the best-read section of your magazine.

— Don’t underestimate the importance and uses of typography.

— Don’t do 3,000-word profiles…at least, the bad ones that are just 3,000-word resumes. A great long profile is a thing of beauty that belongs in any magazine, but be sure the story justifies the length.

— Don’t always go for the “bold environmental portrait.” They’re often not bold and too often all look alike.

— Don’t operate in a silo. Get out of your office for advice, ideas, and feedback, and get off campus for stories.

— Don’t allow internal audiences to dictate reader needs.

— Don’t overwrite. Sometimes short is best.

— Don’t underestimate the power of sidebars.

— Don’t assign stories without considering “why would someone read this?”

— Don’t be stuffy. Have a little wit.

— Don’t be shy about being provocative when the situation merits.

Okay…check my phone, bathroom, coffee, the first afternoon session. Gotta run.

Due for a sabbatical

A short list of things that I’d like to see university magazines send on sabbatical for, I dunno, three or four years (if not forever):

— Photos of nerdy undergraduates who have formed quidditch teams. The last Harry Potter book was published six years ago. That places the expiration date on cute quidditch stories at about five years ago.

— The word “iconic.”

— “This Terrible Thing Happened and Some of Our Alumni Were There!” The latest iteration of this threadbare idea is the alumni-who-were-standing-too-close-to-the-Boston Marathon-bombing story, but there are plenty of other examples. I just don’t see the value for readers in months-old accounts of being in the wrong place at the wrong time from people they don’t know and don’t care about beyond normal human compassion. Were I reading a startling insight or a provocative perspective I had not encountered before, it’d be different. But these stories almost never provide anything beyond the pedestrian. “It was shocking. It was chaotic. It was frightening. It was awful.” I’m not belittling the experiences or dismissing the people who talk about them. What else do we expect them to say after such an overwhelming event? I’m just saying these hardly ever meet the basic criteria for a good story. And isn’t there something exploitative about it?

— Jumbled photo spreads of all the bands that have played on campus in the last 40 years, all the writers who have visited campus, all the celebrity speakers of the last five decades. Whoa, Night Ranger played at your Homecoming 1983? You guys rock.

— A few thousand words about the today’s campus housing system. If I’ve got a kid at your school, I have a mild interest in what the dormitories are like. Otherwise, who among our alumni readers cares?

— The superficial-because-your-writer-had-no-access 1500-word profile of some celebrity who happened to attend dear old Alma Mater 20 years ago. Also, the profile of the alum with the low-level job in the vicinity of a celebrity: “I fetch coffee and bottled water for the green room, which means Oprah has nodded at me! Twice!

— The word “brand.”

— The eight cleverest things posted about us on Twitter recently. I’ve seen this work when the tweeters—twits?—were poking fun at the school, or as a sampling of how a campus controversy played out on social media. But usually it’s just lazy use of found copy. #hiptothenewgenerationandtheircrazysocialmedia

OK, thanks, I feel better now.

How long do you think it will be . . .

. . . before we all move on from “By the Numbers”:



. . . or full-page, out-of-context boxed quotes:



. . . or reprinting graphically tarted up Twitter feeds and Facebook posts and pretending they’re editorial content? I don’t ask as a way of criticizing or teasing the magazines who published the pages I scanned above. Most of us are doing some variation on this; these examples were just near at hand on my desk. We’re all doing it because it solves the problem of getting some variety into our layouts, and breaking up text-heavy sections of the book. Plus we’re all under the sway of the Internet—why do we capitalize it, as if it were an institution instead of just another piece of infrastructure like utility poles or highways?—and its conveyance of information on the equivalent of digital 3 x 5 cards, stripped of most context and isolated from any narrative.

I’m not even suggesting that we stop doing it, at least for another year or two. Really, there are some other things we should stop doing first, like Cult of the President or headlines all in school colors or those “meet the incoming class” spreads that were tired tired tired 20 years ago. What I am suggesting is that it’s not too soon for some savvy, creative editors and art directors to think about what’s next, to invent something new that works, something new that all the rest of us can imitate and use and use and use until it becomes the next overused editorial gimmick.