Tagged: texas

Clever images, good words

Clever work by the designers at Research, an annual published by Michigan Technological University. The opening spread for “The Healing Stent,” a story about using zinc in coronary artery stents, superbly conveys the size of the technology by setting an example of the life-saving arterial technology next to some red Life Savers. Too good. (Click on image to appreciate it.)

Screenshot 2015-04-20 10.31.28

The University of Texas has a clever and talented physics doctoral student named Frank Lee who likes to leave sketches on chalkboards in the physics grad student lounge. Alcalde, the UT mag, devoted a spread to some examples. My favorite is this one, derived from The Big Lebowski. The Dale abides.


Alcalde also has a worthy profile of Jake Silverstein, former editor of Texas Monthly and current editor of that hallowed scribsheet The New York Times Magazine. Writer Chris O’Connell starts out with a nifty bit of indirection:

Barbecue?” Jake Silverstein asks playfully, as he leans back in his chair inside his glass-walled office.

The 14th or so word out of his mouth, after pleasantries and a welcoming, familiar smile, is oddly pertinent. In the northeast, where we are presently, barbecue used to mean frozen hamburgers on a cheap charcoal grill. Not anymore, and partial credit goes to Silverstein. Barbecue is now familiar. It is wholly American. It’s fad-proof cuisine, the opposite of fondue or cronuts.

Do I want to ask him, a newly minted captain of New York’s media elite, from his perch on the sixth floor of the most famous newspaper and magazine building in the world, about barbecue? It hadn’t occurred to me, but yes. Yes I do.

Silverstein, MFA ’06, took over as the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine in May 2014 after nearly six years at the helm of Texas Monthly, and his legacy at that hallowed institution is already defined—beyond a profound emphasis on longform journalism—by a predilection for the ever-growing culture of slow-cooked meats.

One part of the story gave me chills. O’Connell spoke to Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff about working with Silverstein on her piece “The Innocent Man,” which won a National Magazine Award.

Executive editor Pamela Colloff had the same nurturing experience while writing “The Innocent Man,” the epic story of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. As her story ballooned to almost 16,000 words—vying for serious print real estate at that point—she panicked.

“He said, ‘Just keep going, just keep writing,'” Colloff remembers. “That’s not what you typically hear from an editor after the 16,000-word mark. He was not hemming me in, or urging, ‘You’ve got to finish this story.'”

Silverstein also made the unorthodox decision to split the story into two parts over consecutive issues, as it landed at a novella-esque 27,000 words when the dust settled.

An editor encouraging a writer to produce a 27,000-word piece? Oh, be still my fluttering heart.

As you’ll see if you follow the link, Alcalde did their usual exemplary job of applying HTML-5 to their online treatment of the story. Damn them.

UMagazinology inbox

Some recently published well-wrought pieces deserve your attention. Melanie Wang, a senior at Harvard, penned “Learning Space,” for Harvard Magazine‘s recurring column “The Undergraduate.” She begins in promising fashion:

I maintain that the foremost reward for returning to Harvard as a senior is to walk through campus knowing where the trashcans are. Forget theses and job searches and the social petri dish. It’s the small victories that are strongest. Being able to absentmindedly deposit an apple core or a muffin wrapper during the half-jog to morning lecture—this is a peculiar, important kind of wisdom.

 Then she follows through with a wry, seasoned essay that is unflaggingly charming. I have flipped it into the UMag flipmag.

warholAnother nicely turned personal essay arrived in Monmouth University Magazine. It’s by Jon Warhol and yes, he’s one of those Warhols—Andy’s great-nephew. Young Jon has a bemused take on his famous relation and what it means to have him in the family tree.

“Are you really related?” Yes. “Have you ever met him?” No. He died in 1987; I was born in 1991.

“Do you have any of his paintings?” No.

“You kinda look like him.” If you say so.

“That’s cool that you are related.” I guess.

My name is Jon Warhol, and the American pop art icon Andy Warhol is my great-uncle. For most of my life I didn’t have an understanding of Andy’s importance, or the origins of the Warhol family. It wasn’t until recently when I sat down with my father John and my uncle Mark that I felt an appreciation for the family name and history. To better understand Andy, and Warhols in general, you must first know the name’s origin and where our people come from.

“Warhols are unnatural. We’re not a natural thing,” my father John says.

My uncle Mark explains, “Warhol is a catch-all phrase meaning an argumentative quarrelsome person.”

wpicover-2If you’ve been following the Kickstarter funding and development of Neil Young’s Pono digital music player—ah c’mon, I can’t be the only one here who’s in mourning over Apple discontinuing the iPod classic—you will want to read Kate Silver’s “Righteous Fidelity” in the summer issue of WPI Journal from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. [The link takes you to the epub edition of the magazine. One of the drawbacks of alumni magazines posted online this way is I can’t place the stories in the flipmag.]

Speaking of that Flipboard publication, there are a few more new pieces:

— “Streams and Echoes,” Tim Page’s nice profile of composer Chou Wen-chung in the fall issue of Columbia Magazine.

— “Inside the Monkey Cage,” pertaining to political scientist John Sides, in GW Magazine from George Washington University.

— Finally, from the University of Texas’ Alcalde, there’s “Through the Unthinkable.”

And with that, ladies and gentleman, it’s past 5 pm on a Friday evening and there’s a gimlet out there with my name on it. I’ll be back soon with a post about the merits of deliberate mistakes and the value of antagonism. I know something about the latter.


Online stories are bigger in Texas

snowfallIn 2012, The New York Times published “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s long narrative recounting the avalanche earlier that year at Tunnel Creek in Washington’s Cascade range. The story filled a lot of column inches in the newspaper, but what got everyone’s attention was what the Times did with it online: A digital cover composed of video of windblown snow, plus embedded video interviews, a swooping video fly-over map, a slide show, a motion graphic of the storm system that dumped the snow that roared down Cowboy Mountain, pretty much every trick in the book. The newspaper inadvertently created a new colloquial term for this sort of online treatment. To do what the Times did was to “snowfall” a story.

40acresFor the past year, Alcalde, the magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, has been snowfalling stories. It started with a bit of natural history in the July/August 2013 issue, “A Field Guide to the 40 Acres.” Online, the story was spruced up with photos, video (I could watch that squirrel for hours, the ants for not so long), and graphic art that expanded when moused over.  (And who knew “moused” would become a verb.)

Alcalde followed its field guide with other snowfall productions: “A Classroom at the Edge of the World,” “The Robots Are Coming,” “Notes from the Violin Olympics,” and “Longhorn Rodeo Rides Again,” which begins with a nifty headline that you unfurl by scrolling down.

It’s latest snowfall is “Monday Monday,” an excerpt from a novel by Elizabeth Crook based on the 1966 sniper attack by Charles Whitman. For those of you not from Texas and younger than me—that last group is numerous—Whitman hauled an arsenal up to the top of the tower that is the UT campus landmark and began shooting. His rampage left 16 dead and 32 wounded. (In this case, the piece online only—it is not a digital version of an excerpt from the novel printed in the magazine, because only Texas Monthly had the rights to that.)

alcaldeEditor Tim Taliaferro described his magazine’s progress toward “Monday Monday” in an email exchange we conducted over the last couple of weeks: “Everyone talks about ‘Snow Fall,’ and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that seeing that presentation affected our thinking. That said, we had been moving in this direction for some time. The technology is there, between web video, responsive HTML5 coding and design, and some Javascript you can use now to trigger action on scroll. So we sat in a room, looked at what we had, put together a list of what we wished we could get, and then we went and did it.

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“The biggest hurdle to this is the coding. It takes someone who knows what they are doing—who knows or is willing to learn HTML5 and Javascript—to produce one of these. Then there’s a collective learning that has to happen among the team about how the process will work, what sort of design decisions you want to make and the technical implications of them. Like anything else, the best way to learn is to try. There is also a fair amount of browser testing that has to happen and that can be frustrating. Different browsers render things differently, and that can drive designers crazy.”

I asked Taliaferro if anything came as a surprise in producing these pieces. “The biggest surprise has been that, for so long, magazine pros thought the web a limiting space. A web version or online version of a magazine story has always been lesser. Until now. Now you are able for the first time to re-create the kind of reading experience that magazines have owned for so long and do it on the web. Plus, it’s totally freeing. It’s a blank digital canvas. As long as you ask from the outset, How can we best tell this story and with what media? Whatever you come up with for an answer, the web can accommodate it.”

Editors would be advised to keep in mind that something created on a 27-inch monitor may well be read on an iPhone: “My biggest mistake probably has been to forget that the majority of the audience will consume this fancy beautiful thing on their phones or tablets, so that should inform the design from the beginning. Just as the web used to be a lesser version of print, for some time mobile has been lesser than desktop. That is changing, and fast. So now we spend as much time or more on mobile as on desktop. The other mistake I might mention is to succumb to the temptation to put in stuff because you can and not because the story needs it. That’s a good force that print exerts on editors and designers—limited space causes you to be selective, even subtractive. That can be good force. Unchecked, you can stuff your interactive stuff with all kinds of flashy whizzbangs that don’t add to the story, and that does happen a lot.”

Media observers and pixel-stained wretches quickly formed a consensus after “Snow Fall” appeared in the Times: The project was shiny and cool and attention grabbing, but who actually read the story? The whole story? Show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? “I think the conventional wisdom about ‘Snow Fall’ is right,” Taliaferro said. “Its impact was maybe more on the industry than on the readers. And we have struggled a bit to get traffic numbers we think our ‘Snow Fall’ type stories deserve. But that didn’t stop us at the beginning and it doesn’t stop us now. What we try to do is marshal this technology in service of stories that deserve it. When we first started this we were more taken with the flash than we are now. It’s like a young writer who is amazed and thrilled at first by her ability to turn rhetorical cartwheels. As we have matured, like young writers tend to do, we try to move the reader back into the center of every decision. Is this feature necessary? Does it add something to the story? You can see the Times backing off the flash, as well. And that’s natural and OK. Doesn’t change the fact that the power is still there to tell stories better. It’s just about how you use it.”




The July/August edition of Alcalde, from the University of Texas at Austin, is notable for two things.

boomer-5680First, it opens its feature well with “The Lawn Rangers—A Longhorn Captures the Sport of Lawn Mower Racing in All Its Gritty Glory.” Yeah. Lawn mower racing. And page by page, it just gets better, with the Lone Star Mower Racing Association—you knew there had to be an association—and Bruce “Mr. Mowitall” Kaufman and one of the all-time great lines from a photo caption: “. . . Wes ‘Tha’ Kid’ Campbell comes from a long line of mower racers.” Life’s rich pageant.

University of Texas campusThe other notable thing in Alcalde is a field guide to the flora and fauna of the university’s 40 acres of campus. UT is an urban school, but that doesn’t mean you won’t come across a monk parakeet or a red-eared slider (that’s a turtle) or a blotched watersnake. Alcalde produced an online video field guide to accompany the print story, and you ought to check it out. I’ve watched the fox squirrel bit about nine times. UT is not in Beloit College’s league when it comes to squirrel video, but still, look at that little guy…

But now I’m nagged by an existential question: Is squirrel video cheating?

Texas reset: McCombs redesigns and renames

Texas, the biannual magazine of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, is no more, replaced by a redesigned, rethought publication titled Open, or OPEN if you’re a stickler for following typographic treat-ments.

Editor Cory Leahy reports that the 10-year-old design of Texas—OK, OK, TEXAS—had become inflexible. “As we were pushing our envelope with story ideas and formats, the design wasn’t keeping up,” she says. “It felt stale and limiting. We had done some brainstorming exercises to clarify the magazine’s vision and personality, and the old design didn’t match what we came up with. We also wanted to visually emphasize that the publication seeks to be as much an objective, credible, interesting, and compelling magazine as any it’s competing with on the reader’s night table. In other words, banish any notion that it’s a glorified brochure in its look and feel.”

Leahy had always contracted out the design. For the redesign, she decided the magazine needed new eyes and new thinking. “It was a great opportunity for us to get some new perspective on our challenges. We’d worked with the same art director for a decade, and it was time for a change.” The job went to Austin-based Erin Mayes and Kate Iltis of EmDash LLC—EmDash did the great Denison revamp—who came up with the new name. Says Leahy, “The plan was for the magazine to be called McCombs Today, like our school news site. TEXAS never made sense to me. We’re not the alumni magazine for the entire university, just the business school. When the designers were sharing the initial round of cover concepts, OPEN was their curveball idea. They liked the idea of being ‘open for business’ as a key symbol for success in business. The idea is to have a different kind of ‘open’ sign on [the cover of] each issue. It’s visually interesting, familiar but in a fresh context. Also, our school has only been named McCombs for 10 years, so that as a name doesn’t necessarily have deep impact for most of our alumni.”

A redesign presents opportunity for more than a new suit of clothes. “We rethought everything: department names, story buckets, purpose, personality, story mix, even mission. Because we were creating two new online sites—a school news site, McCombs Today, and a business knowledge/research site, Texas Enterprise—at roughly the same time (oy vey!), we had new opportunities to imagine how content could work across different platforms. For example, we had always included months-old news briefs in the front of the book . . . yawn. With our revamped news site, we felt more confident that those news bits would get more attention online and wouldn’t need to be in the magazine. Instead, the new front-of-book could include things like infographics and big images and service journalism that used to be a challenge to fit in among the briefs.”

As any editor who has gone through this knows, the inaugural issue of a new design tells you a lot. “Overall we’re very happy with the first issue,” Leahy says. “But we’re still struggling a bit with how best to use the new buckets. For instance, the designers added some new callouts (‘Aha! Moment’ and ‘Takeaways’) based on our departments brainstorm. These are meant to provide a nugget that gets underneath the story, perhaps giving a bit of background or a tidbit about the story behind the story. It’s a fantastic idea, but it’s totally new to our way of thinking, so we’re looking forward to our sophomore issue (which has a much longer lead time) to play with these new content types. We also still need to get better at creating some less text-heavy stories, and we’re not convinced the layout of the cover lines is the best it can be. But, again, it’s a wonderful new set of challenges to confront.”

So, Ms. Leahy, with the hindsight of experience, which is worse? Redoing your magazine or redoing your kitchen? “Magazine. While we were incredibly lucky in not having hordes of people/administrators/higher-ups that needed to weigh in, the whole endeavor still felt to me like we were preparing to run naked through campus, leaving ourselves open to pointing, laughing, and ridicule.  This place can be a surprising mix of super stodgy and remarkably progressive.  It’s just hard to know who’s going to exhibit which traits on which day. Happily, the feedback we’ve received has been all positive.”