Tagged: sean plottner

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.”

Welcome back

ndsucoverFrom a recent Facebook post—I get all my news via Facebook now, don’t you?—I learned that NDSU Magazine is back. This is welcome news. The magazine was created under the direction of editor Laura McDaniel in 2000. Ten years later, it suspended publication with its Fall 2009 issue. This was a real shame, because NDSU, from its inception, was a distinctive, well-crafted magazine, publishing a combination of university news, essays, and feature stories about North Dakota State researchers, scholars, and alumni, all dressed up with some superb photography and a lovely minimalist design aesthetic.

In a recent email exchange, McDaniel wrote, “We were forced to take a break for budget purposes, always with the goal of returning as soon as we had some other bills paid.”

The first issue of the revived publication is a bit skimpy, 28 pages versus the former 48-page issues. But it still looks great and has a feature story by Sean Plottner, better known in most parts as the editor of Dartmouth, about NDSU’s Vermont origins. You’ve read that right—Vermont origins, specifically Justin Smith Morrill, congressman and senator from Vermont and author of the Morrill Act, which did much to establish the land-grant system of universities that eventually included North Dakota State.

McDaniel said, “If you put an old issue next to this one, you’ll note some subtle facelift work and a slightly different mix in terms of content. We updated the flag, for example, and some inside fonts. Content wise, we’ve included more campus news. We will be pushing readers to more online material, such as class notes and obits. I should note that this issue is not the caliber to which I aspire. It takes a while to crank up the machine, and we did not make much progress on that, so this is rather cobbled together. But as ever, the idea is to produce a high-quality magazine that reflects favorably on North Dakota State University by producing a magazine people read.”

Or, as one of the magazine’s readers put it:

So many other university magazines I see are glossy, traditional house organs with a ho-hum promotional sameness about them. These are swiftly relegated to the recycle box in my garage. Your magazine, on the other hand, is flat-dab enjoyable to read, visually intriguing, and delightfully unpredictable. Reading it has become a small adventure I look forward to. So often, snobbishness invades publications containing quality writing and design, but you have managed to provide a full measure of quality and imagination with the intangible feeling of a smile and a firm handshake.

Well, that’s the sort of thing an editor likes to hear. As McDaniel observed, it doesn’t get much better than being flat-dab enjoyable.

Dartmouth’s war stories

Dartmouth Alumni Magazine devoted its entire Sept/Oct 2012 issue to “War Stories,” personal accounts by 48 Dartmouth alumni who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them, they’ve amassed 65 tours of duty, four bronze stars, and two purple hearts. Half participated in Dartmouth’s ROTC program. Sixty-four percent hold graduate degrees. Eleven played rugby.

The issue devotes nearly 60 pages to the soldiers’ stories. Via an email exchange, editor Sean Plottner said, “We backed into this one, unlike other special issues we’ve published. The quick version is this: A young alum-vet in the military sent us a survey of currently serving alumni vets he’d found. We didn’t use the survey but it got senior editor Lisa Furlong thinking about doing our own interviews with the veterans, and any others we might come across . . . and things snowballed, slowly, from there.” He added, “We didn’t have a clear vision initially. We had all these interviews and thought they’d make a decent feature, but they turned out to be a launch pad into something bigger as we kept finding more veterans and their stories spurred more editorial ideas. Special issues we’ve done in the past were originally conceived of as full issues. This was a wilder, considerably different approach.”

That survey that prompted the project came into DAM back in 2009. “We spent some time dithering before we decided to pursue interviews,” Plottner said. “Lisa started pursuing them then, off and on, but in no deadline-driven way. After she had identified a number, she and I started talking about what we might do with the interviews, and that’s when we felt we could turn them into some sort of cover story. But I rarely schedule stories before they near completion, so we weren’t sure when we’d run anything. Then she found a few more that got us thinking about maybe packaging it all into some sort of special issue. Then she found more vets, and I think it was in January [2012] or thereabouts that we said let’s do it, and let’s shoot for the Sept/Oct issue. She spent the rest of the winter and all spring hunting them down, right up until the week we went to the printer the first week of August.”

Dartmouth opens every issue with two-page photo spreads that it calls “Big Picture.” As a reminder of the grim, dangerous reality that soldiers face in theaters of combat, the magazine devoted “Big Picture” this time to a pair of images by the superb combat photographer James Nachtwey, who also is a Dartmouth alumnus. The pictures are of the aftermath of an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The first shows a quartet of soldiers racing to a helicopter with a stretcher. On the stretcher is a US Marine who had just had his legs ripped apart by the bomb. The second is a heart-wrenching image of the soldier in flight, tended by medical personnel determined to keep him alive. The GI survived; his legs did not.

The magazine solicited brief, three-to-five-paragraph pieces from the vets and published them with photos. The authors are soldiers and former soldiers, not writers, so the quality of the prose varies. But there are some striking statements, such as this one from Colonel Rich Outzen, who served in Afghanistan:

Because Americans use the world’s dominant language, and we have a culture that has been internationalized and globalized, we think we’re in the dominant position. The truth is the reverse. Because we think in the English idiom the whole world has a window into how we think and who we are—they get us, but we don’t get them. We are an open book to the world, and the world is a closed book to us.

“They said it and we just packaged it,” Plottner said. “The ‘in their own words’ focus also served as a nice unifying element throughout the issue.”

The best stories are two long pieces. One, “The Loneliest Job in the World,” is an excerpt from the 2005 book One Bullet Away by Marine Corps vet and alum Nathaniel Fick. It recounts Fick’s experience as a young officer in the first week of the second Iraq war. The other feature-length story is about Jon Kuniholm, who lost an arm in Iraq and now applies his formidable intelligence and determination as an advocate for development of better prosthetic limbs. Writer Matthew Mosk, who reports for ABC News, did fine work profiling Kuniholm.

The magazine shot covers of four different vets and used them all. “Running four covers was gimmicky but fun. It also helped to indicate this was not an issue about a single individual.” The biggest reward, Plottner said, was “seeing all the elements of the issue come together so nicely at the end, and knowing as a staff, as it was printing, that we’d accomplished something, that all the overtime and sweat was worth it. Furlong deserves a medal. Art director Wendy McMillan went so far above and beyond in terms of assigning and finding art, making something useful out of dusty, in-theatre point-and-grins, and creating a nice, varied visual approach to a subject that can easily slip into one-note design doldrums. I was grateful to have such a strong senior editor and art director leading the way.”

Reading the magazine, I could not help thinking about how different are the times now, compared to when I was an undergraduate. I started college at Ohio University in the last year of the Vietnam War, or at least the last year of US combat operations. I could not imagine an alumni magazine in 1974 or 1976 running a special issue acknowledging  and implicitly honoring the service of alumni-veterans. Vietnam had been so divisive, and campuses had been the scenes of violent, even lethal clashes over the war. I asked Plottner about this, and he said, “We’ve received several letters from Vietnam vets who point out, sadly, how different things were for them. I can’t imagine anything such as ‘War Stories’ working in the Vietnam War era, not only because times were so different but also because alumni magazines were too. DAM was much, much more institutional back then, and its pages from those years are filled with on-campus anti-war sentiment from professors and students. Today we are a vastly more outward-looking magazine, with an emphasis on alums, which allows for a special issue like our recent one. And while today’s veterans are not vilified, they do seem forgotten by the public and lost in the media. That presented an opportunity for us.”

Eight questions for Sean Plottner

The editor of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine steps up and faces the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

Eleven years.

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

Learning the lexicon of academia. My prior magazine experience in New York did little to provide me with an understanding of what a provost is, what deans do, and how a development office operates.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Winning the Sibley Award as best alumni magazine in 2008.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Getting the magazine online. It’s a long and not uncommon story. We’re finally up and running, but we’re still not close to meeting our electronic potential.

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

Our front-of-the-book news section. I think we’re strong when it comes to features, design, profiles, pacing, display copy, etc. But campus news? Not so strong.

What story are you proudest to have published?

Our July/August 2007 cover story about the warring alumni factions battling over representation on the board of trustees, a battle that has led to ongoing lawsuits that pit alums against their alma mater and trustee against trustee. As the fur was flying we got Washington Post political reporter Matt Mosk to investigate and sift through all the controversy and the soundbites. He did an excellent job of reporting and cut through a lot of pro- and anti-administration propaganda to give readers a balanced look at the players, issues and allegations involved. It was juicy stuff for a little alumni magazine.

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

I can’t decide between Frank Deford, still the best sportswriter of our time (his 2002 Sports Illustrated remembrance of Johnny “YOU-ni-tass,” is but one example), or Chris Jones, who’s rightfully won a few National Magazine Awards for feature writing. His 2008 Esquire story, “The Things That Carried Him,” is the best piece of magazine feature writing I’ve ever encountered.

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

Defensive back, Cleveland Browns.