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Do you include the 8 essential elements in your assignment letter?

Posted: September 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off

Over the course of my career, I’ve gotten assignment letters that could fit within the character limit of a text message, assignment letters that were twice as long as the final story, and assignment letters that were parceled out over the course of a dozen emails.

And they’ve all worked out just fine. Editors all have their own styles, and mostly, they’re great.

That said, there’s something incredibly satisfying about getting a good assignment letter—one that’s organized, that includes all the relevant details, and that allows for some flexibility to find the heart of a story.


Your favorite writer, receiving a great assignment letter.

If it’s my first time working for an editor, a solid assignment letter makes me feel like we’re going to be a good team: we’ll both be doing some of the lifting to make the story amazing. And a good assignment letter doesn’t just benefit the freelancer: it’s one of an editor’s best tools to get a great story, because it sets the expectations right from the start.

Here are the 8 things you should consider putting in an assignment letter to someone you’re working with for the first time:

1. The big idea. Nearly every story has some animating idea behind it—maybe you want to honor a big donor or develop a feature linked to an upcoming campaign. Maybe the story you do in the magazine is linked to a larger marketing campaign or one of the top priorities of the college. Maybe it’s just a cool story! Whatever the case, context can help a freelancer understand how to best position—and tell—the story.

2. The story as you know it. I know, I know. Obvious. But there are a few nuances. For example, you may already know the general arc of the story you want to tell, or you may want to let the freelancer decide where to take it. If there are specific details you know must be in the story, include them here. When it makes sense, acknowledge that the story might head in a different direction than that one you’ve suggested, and let the writer know that you’re open to their best ideas once they’ve finished their reporting.

3. Sources. Your writers will love it if you include a complete list of sources, including email and phone information, but if you’re using on-campus sources and have a publicly accessible directory, it’s not strictly necessary. That said, a direct link to the directory is useful.

4. The numbers. Deadline, fee, word count. Though I always come within 10 percent of assigned word count, you’ve probably already learned that some freelancers consider word counts as suggestions only. If you don’t want a 2,500 word feature ballooning to 6,000 words, you may benefit by recommending a range, like 2,400 to 2,600 words.

5. Above-and-beyond requests.  Many freelancers aren’t accustomed to doing source reviews, asking sources for photos or photo ideas, or developing sidebar ideas. If you’d like a freelancer to do any or all of these things (or something else entirely), let them know in advance so they can plan for it.

6. Models. When you assign a story, you may already have a vision of what it will look like in your head—and that’s great. To give your writer the tools they need to turn that vision into reality, you can send a few things:

  • Links from your magazine. Is the profile part of a recurring department in your magazine? Send links from a few back issues—especially if there are examples that you think have turned out really well—so that your writer can get a handle on what you like and how they can deliver something similar.

  • Links from other magazines or publications. Maybe you haven’t done a story exactly like the one you’re assigning, but you’ve seen something similar in New York, Esquire, or your local lifestyle magazine. Send those story links along.

  • Tone samples. Freelancers—especially ones who don’t do a lot of work for colleges—can easily adopt a stilted and overly gushing tone when they write. If you want a tone that’s lighter or more literary, send along a sample of something that captures that voice. My favorites, whom I often consult before writing certain kinds of stories, include Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, and Patricia Marx.

7. Contract. If you’ve got a contract, send it along with the assignment letter. It’s convenient for the freelancer to have everything in one place, and you’re less likely to have to resend it later if the writer loses track of it.

8. A vote of confidence. Hey, we’re all professionals here, right? Nobody needs pep talks or words of encouragement. Yeah, it’s technically true. But just as it’s a little scary to hand off a piece of your publication to someone you’ve never worked with before, it’s also a little scary for a freelancer to receive a project from someone they’ve never worked with before. Ending an assignment letter with something along the lines of  “I’m really excited to work with you on this. I know you’re exactly the right person for this project,” can make a big difference for a writer.

BONUS: Make the call. I know tons of editors that *hate* using the phone. I used to be one of them! But if you’re assigning a story to a freelancer for the first time, it’s worth making a 10-minute phone call to hash out the details and make sure you’re on the same page. Not only is a phone conversation quicker than a dozen back-and-forth emails, but you’ll get a sense of the writer’s professionalism, which will be on display when they talk to sources.

Here are few things you can discuss:

  • Pet peeves. I’ve worked with editors who have very specific requests about grammar, spelling, and titles—things that a freelancer wouldn’t necessarily know from the get-go, but that make the editor completely furious when they’re not done to specifications. You can include this in an assignment letter, but talking it out will help prevent a writer from making a careless mistake.

  • Off-the-record politics. You’re probably not going to write an email that mentions that one of the required sources is completely bonkers. There are ways to euphemistically refer to these issues, but a phone call may allow you to be frank about the issue.

  • Logistical issues. Will the freelancer be reporting the story right before finals or in the middle of spring break? Are professors heading into sabbaticals? These details can help a writer stay on schedule.

  • Keep-em-in-your-back pocket ideas. You may not know enough about the story to understand if there’s something that would be perfect for a sidebar, a photo, or an infographic. But if you’re interested in including it, let the freelancer know so she can be thinking about it during her reporting.

  • Note requests from the call. It may sound insane, but asking a writer to send their notes from the call can make a big difference. I do this frequently, and sometimes there are one or two things that I’ve missed or overemphasized, and the editor will help me get the balance right before I begin my reporting. Asking a writer to share their version of what you’ve told them can be eye-opening, and it can help you correct misperceptions before they become headaches that you’re dealing with on deadline.

  • Midpoint check-ins. After your writer has finished the reporting, they’ll know way more about the story than you could—and they may have discovered nuances that change the story entirely. Ask the writer to contact you at some point during the story process, either to confirm that the story will be written roughly as you’re expecting, or if more significant changes to the story might be required.

That’s it! I hope you’ve found this helpful. If I’ve missed anything, or you found one of the ideas particularly helpful, let me know. I respond to every email.

Macalester’s Coolest Classes

Posted: September 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Spring 2015 issue of Macalester Today:

Every year, Macalester professors dream up new courses that examine important ideas from new perspectives, build on the latest research and technology, and bring unexpected subjects together in ways that shed light on today’s most pressing problems.

We scoured the course catalog to find some of the most amazing classes that students can take today, then asked the professors who teach them to share some of the insights they offer in the courses. You may just wish you had one more semester on campus to sit in on their classes.


Julia Manor, visiting assistant professor, neuroscience studies, Psychology Department

You come home from a long day at work to find your dog—loveable Rover!—staring sheepishly at the floor. He’s tipped over the kitchen trash can while you were away, leaving a mess that he’s clearly feeling guilty about.

Or is he?

“People tend to anthropomorphize their animals way too much,” says Julia Manor. “You can show that the dog doesn’t feel guilt by knocking over the trash can yourself, leaving the house, and then coming back in. Your dog will respond exactly the same way. What they actually know is that ‘human plus stuff on the floor’ leads to bad things.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Improvement by Degrees: How the U Turned Graduation Rates

Posted: September 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Fall 2015 issue of Minnesota Magazine:

When a freshman arrived on campus at the University of Minnesota in 2000, the likelihood that he or she would don a cap and gown four years later was just 30 percent—the worst four-year graduation rate in the Big Ten. The six-year graduation rate for that same student was also last in the conference at 57 percent.

Fast forward to 2014, when 61 percent of students who began their college career at the U in 2010 graduated—nearly double the rate of a decade earlier. The six-year graduation rate for the same class is expected to see a similar increase, with the most recent six-year graduation rate at nearly 80 percent.

What happened to make such a significant difference?

Nothing less than a painstaking overhaul of admissions, student support, curriculum, financial aid, and campus culture, implemented in steps both large and small over a number of years, says Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the U.

Read the rest of the story here.

How to improve your publications: A Sibley judge tells all

Posted: July 31st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off

sibleyI’m going to keep this intro short: what follows is a huge interview with Jeff Lott, the former editor of Swarthmore’s alumni magazine, and one of this year’s Sibley judges. (You can read judges’ reports here.)

During our 45-minute discussion, we talked about:

  • * What makes Sibley winners different from their competitors;
  • * One thing he wishes alumni magazines didn’t do;
  • * Work you can do today to start making your publications the best they can be.

Make sure to read to the end! There’s tons of great, actionable advice. Once you’re finished, shoot me an email and tell me what you wish I would have asked him.

How many magazines are you actually reading and judging for the Sibley?

We see the gold medal winners from the various circulation categories and the special interest category. This year, that meant five magazines.

I see. You’re choosing from the very best.

Right. We can really go below the surface in the magazines and evaluate the writing and the editing of the magazines. The magazines arrived in my home a week before the meeting in Washington, so I put them out next to my chair where I read, and I would read one for an hour and then another for an hour. I spent probably six hours in advance of the meeting reading those magazines.

When you’re not reading alumni magazines, what magazines do you read regularly?

The New Yorker. The Atlantic. I read Sky and Telescope because I’m an amateur astronomer. I read Cooking Light because I like to cook. I read the two alumni magazines that I get, one from Middlebury College and the other one from Rhode Island School of Design.

One of the things that was in the report was the idea that alumni magazines, at least at the very highest levels, have gotten better over time. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

I think that close communications, and the ability to stay in constant touch with other professionals who are doing this kind of work, has led to an overall elevation of these magazines.

What am I observing? Greater attention to design, illustration and photography, and more emulation of standard magazine architecture—front of book features, back of the book, things like that.

A lot of magazines 20 years ago were put together like a salad. A good magazine, to me, is a three-course meal. You have the great front of book, something really good in the features, and then something, in many cases class notes and alumni stuff, in the back. One of the things I think RISD does so well is their class notes. It’s like the visual class notes.

Can you describe them to me?

They’re very colorful. The writing is terse. So-and-so had an exhibition at such-and-such a gallery in such-and-such a place. There is a color photograph of something of the work. It’s a lot about the art. [Erin’s note: Go to pages 66-67 in the spring/summer issue to see it.] It is very much art forward. It’s wonderful to browse because everybody loves to look at good art. You don’t necessarily know any of these people, but it’s cool and it represents the school really well.

I like that idea. Can elaborate on other things that you saw that worked because they were good and because they completely fit the institution?

The University of Richmond was a surprise entry to us. It’s not one that’s been on the table ever before. It’s just so fresh and new, and it gives a view of the university that is warm and friendly and positive and strongly academic as well.

Through its writing or through its illustrations? Do you remember what struck you?

Everything. There was great art and well edited, lively writing. It represented a school that is alive and well and moving forward. If you just saw it on the table at the doctor’s office, you might pick it up and be engaged by it just by opening a few pages and seeing what’s going on there.

Is that expected? I imagine their magazine appealed perfectly to their alumni base and to their readers, but it sounds like for the Sibley, it has to go beyond that. Is that what you’re saying?

I think the magazines that have won the Sibley are showing leadership in the profession and in the category of magazines that we’re talking about. I think that category used to be sort of a backwater of publishing. Whereas in the last 15 or 20 years with the advent of CUE and the Editors Forum and all the opportunities for professional growth that have been provided, alumni magazines can attract first-rate illustrators, first-rate writers. There is a story by Jim Collins [page 30] in the Richmond magazine, and Jim Collins is one of the leading magazine writers in the country. He’s a former editor of the Dartmouth magazine, but he’s made much more of a career for himself as a writer. To just reach out to somebody like Jim Collins—granted, it’s an excerpt from something else that he’d written before—it says, okay, we can have great writing in this magazine. That kind of leadership is what the Sibley is about.

Are there things that you still wish alumni magazines did better? Even if, as a whole, they’re light years beyond what they used to be?

One thing I noticed was jumps. There are magazines that have all these stories that jump, sometimes just two paragraphs, into the back of the book. So you get to the bottom of the fourth page, and it would say “Continued on page 74.”

Wow, 74! That’s a robust alumni magazine. But you’re saying it’s annoying to jump?

Right. Why couldn’t they edit the story so that it would fit in the four pages? And really, there’s no excuse for it, to run 100 words over in a 2,500 word piece. There’s obviously something in there that could be cut. My motto is that there is no piece of writing that can’t be shortened.

I like that motto, even if I’m usually paid by the word. Let’s talk about ambition. Why is it important for alumni magazines to be ambitious?

It’s important for all alumni magazines to aspire to be read. People have very limited time. When a new magazine arrives in my mailbox—except for the ones I subscribe to, which I pay attention to because I’m paying for them—usually it’s magazine I don’t pay for. In order to sit next to The Atlantic or even a trade magazine like Sky and Telescope, which has a very narrow focus of interest, it has to be good. There’s no point in publishing one of these magazines unless people are going to be engaged with them and read them.

In what ways have you noticed that magazines are trying to be very ambitious or paying attention to detail in a way that seemed really important?

The best magazines are just totally integrated from top to bottom. There’s no detail left un-managed. That has to do a lot with kind of a thoughtful combination of design and editorial. Those relationships between the elements of a magazine have to be balanced, just like an eight-cylinder car engine. All the cylinders have to be firing at the right time in order for the thing to run smoothly.

That’s true of magazines too. In the best magazines, all those elements are working.It’s design, it’s architecture, which means, to me, the way the magazine is structured. No bad photographs. No crappy pictures, right? There’s not that one that some alum sent in because you didn’t hire a professional photographer in San Francisco to take a good portrait, so you get this found object that really sucks. Sometimes that has to do with resources, but other times it just has to do with editorial enterprise.

Are there other ways to know if a magazine is good, beyond awards?

In in our bathroom in our publications office, I used to tuck six or eight magazines near the toilet paper racks. I was constantly rotating those magazines consciously as an editor because I knew the staff was using the bathroom. I could put what I thought were good examples of magazines in there for everybody to read, for me to read. It’s kind of a dirty story. But there was another level, too: if it made it to my briefcase, it was really good and I really wanted to take it home and read it.

Briefcase-worthy. Interesting. I thought you were going to say you were testing which ones actually got read. Like you were going to look at the magazines two weeks later and see which ones were the most dog-eared, or whatever.

No. I don’t know whether anybody really read them or not. But isn’t that the best thing about a magazine? Unlike a blog it’s really easy to take a magazine to the bathroom?

It’s a benefit, for sure. If if I still worked at a college, I might do exactly what you did with your magazines as an experiment, to see which ones got read, then reverse-engineer why that was.

Another thing I would do occasionally with the whole publication staff including the photographer and the designer and the administrative assistant, is go out to lunch and then go in those days to Borders right next to the restaurant. I would give each person $15 of college money to buy magazines.

Then a day or two later we would have a stand-up meeting in the office where people would explain why they chose those magazines. You could really think about how magazines have to attract readers.

That’s a great point. Get as many opinions as you can. It sounds like it doesn’t just need to be the designer and the editor. You can bring more people in it and they will offer very different and valuable perspectives.

Some of the magazines people chose were special interest magazines. One of our administrative assistants really loved needlework, so she would always get the fancy needlework magazine, for example.

And that’s good to know, too: A good magazine is a precious object.

Right. Everyone has a different reason for picking up a magazine.

We had a staff photographer and he would choose things that were really intensely visual and show us the things that he really liked about them. Our designer would look for magazines that he thought were well designed and then talk to us about why he thought that was true and what we could do to improve our work by emulating these magazines.

I like the idea that great magazines don’t happen in a vacuum. You need to get those outside references. Is there an assignment that you would give editors who want to improve? A thing that they can do today that can help take their magazine to the next level?

The caveat here is resources—some publications’ staffs are underfunded or understaffed or both, right? But I would say to look at other magazines—and not just other alumni magazines or other university magazines. See what you do best and just try to do those things more. Let them pull up the things that you don’t do so well.

Play to your strengths.

Right. One of the strengths that Johns Hopkins has, and has had for a long time, is that they don’t mind running long stories, a kind of long-form thing. We’re seeing a little more of that in other magazines as well. The University of Chicago, which won the Sibley a few years ago, had great long form stories. You can read these 5,000 word pieces because they’re really well written and very well edited with great reporting. I’ll read a 5,000 word piece in The New Yorker if it’s of that quality and the same goes for a good alumni magazine story.

At the same time, that seems a little bit dangerous to advise all editors to tackle huge stories like that. It requires a very specific kind excellence at so many levels, from the reporting, to the writing, to the editing. It’s so hard to do an exceptional 5,000 word story. As a reader, you have to feel you’re in great hands to commit yourself to it. But it does seem like there are lots of ways to pursue excellence. It’s not just New Yorker-style stories or beautiful design and photography.

A lot of people think “Oh, I just need a redesign,” but a redesign really needs to be a thorough rethinking of the goals and purposes of the magazine and how the editorial and design can work together to meet them.

In really practical terms, the other problem is that a lot of magazine editors are doing three other things as well. They can’t put the time into a magazine and really edit it the way these top magazines do. Great magazines are typically put together by people who are not also writing development copy or doing the admissions brochures as well. We had a big staff so we did all of that stuff but we had two or three people where 70 percent or more of their time was dedicated on the magazine.

The thing that seems important here is that you’re saying there’s no magic bullet to creating a great magazine. It demands time, it demands money, it demands a thoughtful, strategic approach.

I think that’s a very good statement. A redesign needs to be more than a new layout. It needs to be a re-examination of what you’re doing editorially. You may have had a certain department in your magazine that you’ve had in the magazine for many years, like a Q&A or a little one page research thing or something like that, and you have to look at all those things and not just do them over again with new typography. It’s really a matter of thinking through the whole package. Sibley magazines are firing on all cylinders.

Like this interview? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter. Next month’s topic: how to write assignment letters that get great results from your writers.

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The Insider’s Guide to Getting In

Posted: July 30th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

getting inFrom Purdue Alumnus:

Across the country, college applications are up and acceptance rates are down. To compete in the high-stakes world of college admissions, students are applying to more colleges than ever before, packing their schedules with challenging courses, and filling up their after-school hours with clubs, jobs, and volunteer work.

Purdue is seeing the same trends as many other schools — particularly in increasingly competitive programs such as nursing, engineering, and computer science. Thanks to other bold initiatives, like a four-year freeze on tuition costs, Purdue is attracting significantly more attention from prospective students. “We’ve had great things happening at the institution for a long time,” explains Director of Admissions Mitch Warren, whose office read close to 45,000 applications for admission this past year alone. “We’re attracting more students, and better students than ever before.”

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 44).

Immediate. Primal. Emotional.

Posted: July 13th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off

For the Smith College Alumnae Spotlight:

Four times in five days last November, soprano Inna Dukach ’94 performed the emotionally draining title role in Madame Butterfly for the Anchorage Opera; it was a schedule so grueling she compares it to “running a marathon three days in a row.” But her week was just beginning: From Alaska she hopped on a seven-hour flight to Georgia, where she spent hours rehearsing the same role with the Atlanta Opera before giving another performance two days later. A few days after that, she was in Florida, auditioning for yet another opera company.

Sometimes she even gets to go home to New York for a few days.

Dukach’s travel and performance schedule can be exhausting, but the rewards of being an opera singer, she says, are worth every cramped minute in coach and every heartwrenching scene onstage. She recalls a high school matinee performance: “People in the audiences were screaming, shouting, clapping. You just feel like a rock star.”

Read the rest of the story here.

How to improve your writing today: Sibley winner shares his secret

Posted: July 1st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education | Comments Off

hopkins magIn 2014, Johns Hopkins’ team took home the gold medal for periodical staff writing, thanks to in-depth stories on travel writer Matt Gross, composer Oscar Bettison, Giants trainer Ed Mackall, swimming coach George Kennedy, and cancer research.

In 2015, the school upped the ante and took home an even bigger prize: Johns Hopkins Magazine landed the Sibley, a national award and the highest honor for alumni magazines.

So what does it take to succeed at the very highest levels? To find out more, I talked with editor Dale Keiger about the work he’s done to make sure the magazine’s writing stays consistently high. He shared the lengths he goes to to get the story, the way he maintains as much editorial independence as possible, and the thing that every editor and writer at a magazine can do today to make their work significantly better.

It looks like you’ve got two staff writers. That’s pretty small for a campus of Johns Hopkins’ size. How do you make sure you’re finding and telling the best stories?

We really have only one staff writer, Bret McCabe. We just put another member of Communications, Greg Rienzi, on the masthead as a contributing writer, but I don’t have first claim on his time. I have no doubt that we’re missing good stories. We monitor releases from the various divisional news offices, Twitter, Facebook, stuff on bulletin boards in academic buildings, etc. I try to get out of the office to meet with faculty to ask them what’s going on in their departments. It’s a hit-or-miss process, with more misses than I like to contemplate.

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 believe the best stories come when a writer immerses himself in the subject, then finds the story within the subject he most wants to tell. We encourage writers to use narrative, to write with clarity and precision, and to not be afraid of some literary flair. I’m not much interested in articles — I want stories.

How do you find the time for that? For example, if you know you want a big story to run in the summer issue, when do you start reporting on it? What is the fundamental difference in your thinking about that story, as compared to someone who wants to do, say, an hour-long interview with the primary subject plus a few other shorter interviews? What is a detail in that swimming story that came as a result of that fourth interview or fifth hour of observing practice? Something you wouldn’t have noticed or understood as important in that first pass?

How do I find the time? I make the time. I mean, it’s a big part of my job. Typically I’ll spend six weeks reporting a feature, but I’ve spent as much as eight months reporting a story for Johns Hopkins Magazine. Depends on the story. As for my thinking about an hour-interview-plus-a-bit-more story, that’s not likely to be a story I’ll want for my magazine. That’s just not the level of reporting we require. That’s newspaper feature writing, not good magazine journalism.

As for the swimming story, I can’t pinpoint precise details that came from various stages of reporting, but the sort of things that come out of repeated conversations are like the story about the coach’s ineptitude as a bowling alley manager, and the time the swim team stumbled upon a special at a McDonald’s in Florida and ate an obscene amount of ground beef, or the coach putting up his first itinerary as the new coach at Hopkins and finding, the next day, that his smartass swimmers had vigorously edited it. In a one-hour interview all you’ll get are the obvious answers to the obvious questions. You get all those other stories and details from the seventh hour of conversation, not the first.

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. What made you realize you could tell an exceptional story at that length, and why did you feel it deserved it? Tell me a little about the actual reporting.

Regarding the swim coach piece, it’s at a typical length for a Johns Hopkins Magazine feature; most of those come in between 3,000 and 4,000 words. There was no realization, per se. I try to let a story settle in at its own length, let the story dictate, so to speak. How did I think I could tell an exceptional story at that length? The arrogant answer is because I was writing it and I’m confident about my work. But also, and more to the point, I know good material when I see it and knew I had a wealth of good stuff here.

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.

Why does your administration trust you and your team to do ambitious, unexpected storytelling? Is there any advice you would give to editors and writers who say “my boss would never let me do that.”?

Hard to say how we’ve been able to maintain our relative editorial independence. Winning 10 Sibleys helps. The magazine was founded 62 years ago on the premise of being allowed to operate as a “real” magazine, and though that’s not written into any bylaws, it has been mostly respected by every administration since. There is sort of an unwritten agreement here: administration keeps interference to a minimum, and in exchange I don’t surprise them.

If we plan a story that might be controversial or provocative in some way, I alert them to what’s coming. By no means do I have autonomy, and I always have to carefully navigate the political waters, but I try to be thoroughly professional at all times and produce an excellent magazine, and hope that buys me the space I need to keep doing it.

Can you give an example of a provocative or controversial story that fit this description? How did you let your bosses or the administration know what you were doing? Did you have a specific way of talking through your goals for the story that gave you the leeway you needed while also convincing others that you were all on the same team and that they could trust you?

Years ago, Johns Hopkins put something in the lungs of a healthy research volunteer for an asthma study, and it killed her. Subsequent reviews, both internal and external, found deadly flaws in the IRB protocol and the informed consent. It was excruciating for the institution. The editor at the time approached senior administration and told them the magazine had to write about this and had to do it right. That was a rare instance of senior administration reviewing a piece before publication—ordinarily we grant no one that privilege—because of our legal exposure at the time.

I wrote 8,000 words which we put on the cover, and it was the CASE article of the year and resulted in a lot of credit going to the administration for being so open and candid. When we alert our VP to a possibly controversial piece, we don’t pitch it in terms of our goals, etc., because our only goal, always, is to be a great magazine. The alert is more along the lines of “just so you know, we’re planning a story on ___.” We only make a pitch if we get pushback. The administration trusts our judgement and professional record.

Not every editor or on-staff writer has the confidence or administrative flexibility that you do to pull off a really big story. But let’s say they want to aim in that direction. What assignment would you give writers or editors who want to take that next step to kick a story to a new level, even if it’s just 400 words, or 1,000? What is a concrete thing they can do today or this week to make their story, say, 10 percent better than it was?

Easy. Double the reporting. With a lot of writers and magazines, that means merely doing a second interview.

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.


If you made it to the end, thank you! Leave a comment or email me at erin [at] erinpeterson.com if there’s someone else you’d love me to interview, or if there are specific questions you wish I would have asked.

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A Million Ways to Win

Posted: June 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

Maya Warren ’07From the Spring 2015 issue of the Carleton College Voice:

Maya Warren ’07 had planned for everything. A PhD student in food sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Warren was in peak condition mentally and physically when she arrived in Times Square in May 2014 to begin a three-week around-the-world odyssey for The Amazing Race. A triathlete and marathoner, she’d honed her strength and speed with two-a-day workouts for months. Warren and her lab partner, Amy DeJong, who was also her teammate on Race, analyzed all 24 seasons of the popular reality show to suss out the secrets of winning teams. And the fact that they won—besting 10 other teams while traveling 26,000 miles through nine countries—well, that was just step one on a much larger journey for Warren.

Warren learned how to swim as part of the “Triathlon Training” class she took with Carleton physical education professor Andy Clark. The skill proved useful for the competition—during which she had to swim in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But that wasn’t the only benefit of the course. “Training for triathlons at Carleton was one of my first physical challenges,” says Warren. “There was value in having to get up every morning. I learned to be disciplined and motivated.”

Read the rest of the story here.

The Pioneers

Posted: June 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

pioneersFrom the Spring 2015 issue of the Murphy Reporter:

Stanley E. Hubbard loved radio. The young entrepreneur spent countless hours tinkering with radio equipment in the early 1920s, and he believed the relatively new medium held enormous promise. But at that time in the Twin Cities, opera singers belting out tunes to piano accompaniment was just about the only entertainment on the local station, owned by the Washburn Crosby Company. To Hubbard’s ears, it was dreadful.

Hubbard—then 26—had no money and no media connections, but he did have an idea. He headed over to the popular Marigold Ballroom in Minneapolis and proposed a deal: if they let him have a little studio in the building, he would build a transmitter and broadcast the live music the ballroom played nearly every night. The owners of the ballroom agreed, and in 1923, the radio station Where All Minneapolis Dances (WAMD) was born.

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 8).

From Insight to Action

Posted: June 22nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Spring 2015 issue of the HHMI Bulletin:

Sometimes the best way to solve big, national problems is to start by talking to your neighbor just down the road. Take Jenny McFarland, for example, a biology faculty member at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington. Many of her science students continue their studies at nearby four-year universities and colleges – but seldom do faculty members from the various schools interact with each other. Yet if professors don’t coordinate their teaching of key concepts, like the structure of cells or the growth of organisms, that can hurt students who transfer.

Recently, McFarland joined faculty teams from 14 schools in the Northwest for a three-day workshop to think about how the institutions could learn from one another for the benefit of their students. “We wanted to look at our region as a system,” says McFarland. “How could we work together? What resources could we draw from each other?” For some institutions – even those just a few miles apart – it was the first time their faculty members had talked to one another.

Read the rest of the story here.