Every year, I eagerly await the announcement of CASE’s Circle of Excellence awards. (Fact: I’m a nerd.)
I pay particular attention to the awards for general excellence in the general interest magazine awards.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to work in the editorial offices of—and as a writer for—many CASE award winners, and I’ve noticed that they often approach things differently than their peers. And while I gathered this information working for alumni magazines, I think many of these lessons apply much more broadly to college publications and communications in general.
Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from those experiences.
1. Details matter. In all of the best magazines I’ve worked for, details are critical. At the Carleton Voice, for example, we didn’t see headlines and captions as afterthoughts, but as entry points. We spent hours crafting clever headlines. (My personal favorite was a story about the school’s croquet club called “Something Wicket This Way Comes.”)
In a more recent story I wrote for the magazine about an alumna who balanced law school with mixed martial arts, I wrote a caption that used a quote that didn’t make it into the body copy. The alum said she assuaged her mom’s fears about her high-risk fights by assuring her that she’d “crush her opponents like bugs.” Many of us do interviews and discover we can’t pack all the great quotes into the story; captions are the perfect place to use them.
Great magazines find new ways to pack in interesting details: Self, Runner’s World, and Esquire, for example, boost interest in their boring masthead by adding one-question Q&A’s that their editors, designers, and writers answer. Men’s Health runs a “Top 10” list (last month: top 10 beers) running along the top margins of the magazine’s pages, creating a whole new reason to flip through the magazine more than once. I love the care that these editors take in making every facet of their magazine interesting.
2. Playing with format leads to better stories. There’s no question that there’s a certain reverence for the long-form story, perhaps bolstered by the viral think pieces that appear every so often in publications like the New Yorker and The Atlantic. It’s been helped along by sites like Medium and The Atavist. But in the end, sometimes a long story is just…long.
I do plenty of stories that are 2,500+ words of straight narrative. But I would argue—and I think the best editors would agree—that you can tell a different kind of story by breaking that story into smaller parts, not just through subheads, but through sidebars, interesting packaging, or simply stories on a theme.
Denison does this particularly inventively with a front and cover that bleeds into the first six pages of the magazine (You can see an example here, though its full power comes only when you’ve got the magazine in your hands).
Instead of doing a mammoth feature on an innovative capstone course, Georgia Tech’s alumni magazine is breaking it down into four 1,000-word mini-features over the course of a year, walking readers through the challenging process of creating brand-new inventions.
There are inspiring approaches to stories in magazines like GQ, Mental Floss, and New York. It’s worth studying the best to see how you can use other approaches to tell stories in interesting ways.
3. Knowing your readers makes a difference. Kenyon’s Shawn Presley once told me he surveyed his readers after every issue. He learned, for example, that the most popular stories were campus-based tales about parties and ghost stories and myths. He learned that readers were more likely to read alumni profiles if they were embedded in class notes, rather than placed in the feature well. More important, he used that magazine to create a publication that alumni loved—and that earned critical raves.
4. It’s okay to be funny. In 2001, when the Carleton Voice won a Sibley, my editor and I pored over the judges’ notes. The judges noted the magazine’s photography, design, and story selection. But they also mentioned something that surprised me at the time: the magazine’s sense of humor.
In part, it represented who we were as editors and writers. We were happy to profile the campus Quidditch club or craft a quiz about the wacky metaphors offered up by a visiting campus speaker. It was partly who we were as editors and writers, but that sense of joy and playfulness was also deeply embedded in Carleton’s campus culture. Students were always planning crazy events—24-hour jugglathons, for example—and the president himself loved choreographing the occasional April Fool’s prank.
Those things weren’t part of any strategic plan or capital campaign, but to us, the represented the energy and inventiveness of the campus. And that was worth highlighting. Kenyon does a great job with this, including a totally amazing and stealable Rural Legendspiece on campus myths.
5. Good ideas can always get better. With the stories I am most proud of, there is almost always give and take between the editor as we develop the idea and shape the final story. Years ago, I came up with an idea for a story package about cheating. I pitched it to editor after editor, and got turned down time after time.
Then Denison’s Mo Harmon saw it—and figured out how to make it better. A story about cheating was kind of edgy. But what if the story was about how all the ways that cheating is actually good? It was a brilliant way to take an okay story idea to the next level, and you can see the results in Bluffs for a Better World.
The point is that you never have to accept a boring story idea as given—there are almost always ways to give it an interesting twist.
University research scientists are expected to be pioneers in their labs. A new group of HHMI professors will be meeting those same high expectations in the classroom.
The traditional systems of rewards and recognition and allocation of resources at research universities often encourage an imbalance: most science faculty members are far more focused on their work as research scientists than their work as educators.
“It has been a great, missed opportunity,” says Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI. “Research universities attract some of the brightest young minds in the nation, and they are home to some of the best scientists. They offer a potentially superb environment for engaging students in both the classroom and the laboratory.”
Fifteen years before the Pyramid of Giza broke ground, the Pharaoh Sneferu oversaw the construction of what is believed to be the first-ever pyramid with smooth, rather than stepped, sides. The plans were grand. The sides were steep. And halfway through construction, the pyramid began to crumble. The 54-degree angle was simply too steep to maintain. The builders scrambled to salvage the massive structure by changing the pyramid’s angle to a more moderate 43 degrees. Today, the wonky-looking structure—known as the Bent Pyramid—still stands.
Egyptians had learned the hard way about the limits of pyramid construction and the power of mathematical slope. The pyramids that followed, like the more famous one 20 miles north in Giza, were steep—nearly 52 degrees—but the angles were never quite as sharp as those that nearly did in Sneferu’s project.
From the Summer 2014 issue of the University of Minnesota’s Legacy Magazine:
For decades, Karen Oberhauser has tracked monarch butterflies from sites in Minnesota and elsewhere to their winter home in central Mexico. Oberhauser, an associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, has long been in awe of the fact that an insect that weighs no more than a paper clip can make this epic journey. In recent years, however, her awe has transformed into concern: these gorgeous, fragile creatures are dying off. In some cases, specific monarch populations have declined by nearly 90 percent during the past decade.
Their dwindling numbers aren’t just a concern on their own. They’re also a barometer for even greater environmental concerns, like the increasing presence of insecticides in the environment and diminishing prairie habitats, says Oberhauser. “Monarchs are an indicator of what’s probably going on with a lot of other, harder-to-measure species,” she says.
But thanks to Oberhauser’s research and outreach efforts, which have been supported by both individuals and corporations, she’s helping rebuild monarch populations one lawn, one schoolyard, and one student at a time.
A couple years ago, I asked an editor what she found frustrating about editing her alumni magazine. She had a beautiful magazine — the stories were smart and topical. The design was gorgeous. The problem, she said, was the letters page. Alumni had a million ways to contact the magazine. Regular mail, email, phone, Twitter. But she and her staff practically had to beg for reader feedback.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that problem. I’d worked as an editor at an alumni magazine for five years, and I remembered having the same concerns.
So I started asking other alumni magazine editors: What’s the story that’s gotten the most feedback for your magazine? I asked 5 editors. Then 10. Then 20.
In all, I’ve talked to more than two dozen editors about this topic during the past couple years, and while every magazine is a little different, I began seeing patterns.
The stories that garnered the most letters and emails weren’t the stories about amazing alumni or presidential transitions. They weren’t even the deeply reported narratives that landed CASE awards.
Here’s the story that consistently won out: campus myths, and the truth (or the half-truths) behind them. Did a student really lead a horse to the top of the tallest building on campus? Are there secret tunnels beneath campus? What about that one story about the famous alum?
Skeptical, I tried it out on the Facebook page linked to my own alma mater. I asked alumni to share any campus legends that they remembered and might like investigated. Within an hour, I had more than 80 responses. By the end of the day? Well, you can see for yourself:
The story I ended up writing, which includes the back stories of the six most-requested legends, will appear in an upcoming issue of the magazine. I hope the editors get a thousand letters.
But the real story is this: You don’t have to come up with great ideas on your own. You can use successful templates from other magazines and make them unique to your school.
Sign up for my free quarterly email newsletter and I’ll send you a 5-page Insider’s Guide with detailed information on other alumni magazine story topics that generated lots of reader feedback — and that you can use for your own magazine:
From Vol. 90, No. 3 of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine:
If you fractured your femur, a doctor would likely insert a rod into your bone shaft to hold the bone together and help it heal. It’s an effective solution, but the process of inserting the screws to hold the bone and rod together is difficult. And because radiation is involved, it’s also somewhat risky. Or, at least, it used to be: In tandem with the medical company Smith and Nephew, a team of five Georgia Tech students last year—working together on their Senior Capstone Design Project—developed a simple, low-cost technique to help overcome these challenges.
Thanks to the Capstone Design Project’s emphasis on real-world development, these students didn’t work on the problem in a vacuum. They talked to doctors, studied cadavers and tested numerous options. After zeroing in on the best solution, they built a successful prototype that required no radiation. The product and the technique they developed has the potential to benefit people who often cannot afford expensive medical care. And although her team can’t discuss the project in depth—thanks to a nondisclosure agreement with Smith and Nephew—Elizabeth Morris, BME 14, says the company was “thrilled with their work.”
From the Summer 2014 issue of Saint John’s Magazine:
Most doctors are hardwired to help. They want their patients to live healthier lives. They want to make an impact in their clinics and in their communities. And for doctors who graduated from Saint John’s University, there’s often a pull to think even bigger. “Saint John’s nurtures the idea that we should be part of the larger global community, and that it’s important to make things better for those in need,” says anesthesiologist Ryan Jense ’98. “We’re asked to pursue these ideas in many different ways.”
Jense isn’t the only Johnnie who feels that way. We talked to five doctors who have traveled the world to help those who need it most. Often, they say, their patients are not the only ones who benefit.
From the Summer 2014 issue of TheGrinnell Magazine:
Plenty of people agonize about if (and how) they should change their last names when they tie the knot. But few people tackle the problem with the zeal of Caryn Platt ’92 and Paul Helwing in the months before their 1994 marriage. Both were eager to change their names to something different, because they felt it represented a concrete way to show that they were embarking on a journey together. The question was how to find a name that perfectly captured their new union, while also recognizing their pasts as individuals.
First, they tried to tackle the problem through technology; Helwing wrote a computer program to generate new last names based on the letters of their birth names. The only problem was that the program worked a little too well: Helwing tried to print out the results at his office over a weekend and returned on Monday to a 2-foot-high stack of pages. The printer was still running.
Next, Platt bought packages of refrigerator magnet letters, then pulled out four sets of the letters in their last names . They invited a few friends over, mixed up a batch of margaritas, and had their friends rearrange the letters like a high-stakes game of Scrabble. The right combination could result in a name that would be carried forward for generations. Still, although the results were better, they weren’t sure they’d found just the right one.
College commencement is the time, quite literally, for pomp and circumstance. And when professors shift to emeriti status, they’re typically recognized at the ceremony through formal citations that describe their scholarly accomplishments and service to the school.
But when Grinnell College’s Rachel Bly asked me to write the school’s emeritus citations, I wanted to take a different approach. At Grinnell, teaching is paramount. Professors electrify their classes with powerful ideas. And their impact lasts for a lifetime: many students carry their professors’ advice with them into their careers and lives.
In the past, Grinnell’s citations highlighted professors’ scholarly work over teaching successes, but I wanted to flip that emphasis. Why not showcase the work that professors say they were most proud of?
To learn as much as I could, I collected more than 70 stories from alumni, who shared their memorable moments, favorite sayings, and remarkable lessons from these professors.
I used these stories, along with CVs and phone conversations with the professors themselves, to craft short citations that captured these professors’ dedication to their students, the enthusiasm they shared in the classroom, and the high standards they demanded that their students meet. Through these stories, I hoped to share the profound influence they had on generations of Grinnellians.
The citations were a success, and Bly says she was relieved to have someone else focusing on the details. “[I knew the project was] in such good hands,” she says. “I love that I can just send you everything and I don’t have to give it another thought. I know they will be perfect!”
But that’s not where this story ends. Because I could use just a tiny number of the anecdotes I collected, I spent hours compiling, editing, and organizing the stories that alumni offered, and I shared them directly with the professors themselves. Though this was not part of the assignment, it became clear to me that the professors should know the kind of impact they had had during their decades at the school.
Professors were grateful, even overwhelmed. Said one professor: “Congratulations. I have managed NOT to cry about retiring … until this morning. You were so kind to take the time to put together these documents for all of us.”
For Grinnell, the nominal goal was to have written citations for a ceremony. But I understood that the real goal was to recognize and honor the incredible careers of longtime professors. That meant crafting citations that highlighted their best work. And it also meant using the materials I had collected in a way that would recognize them in a different and more personal way.
Many times, the traditional approach to a project is the right one. But whenever possible, I also want to improve on what’s already been done. I want to think more broadly about the best way to tell a story, and the best way to accomplish the larger goal.
Read the citations here. And to find out how I can help you think bigger about your projects by contacting me at erinspeterson [at] gmail.com.
Climate change often evokes hazy visions of a grim future. But Kristin Raab’s focus is on this generation. Raab (b.A. ’92, M.P.H. ’00, M.L.A. ’09) is director of the Minnesota Department of Public Health’s Climate and Health Program, which helps shape the state’s public health policy on climate change. It is funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Raab’s degrees from the U—a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in landscape architecture and epidemiology—make her uniquely suited to understand and communicate how extreme weather affects health. She spoke with Minnesota about how the changing climate is leading to an array of measurably increased health consequences.
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Higher Ed? Hire Erin.
I have more than 15 years' experience writing for the nation's top college and university publications.
I've written stories about the growing cost of higher education, innovative new teaching methods, and the business of liberal arts education. I've also done fun projects on political optimism, debunking common myths, and social entrepreneurs.
My clients include CASE/Sibley award winners, top education grant makers, and highly ranked colleges by U.S. News and World Report.
How can I help you? Contact me at erin [at] erinpeterson.com.