I help you tell your school’s best stories.

Money Well Spent

Posted: January 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Money Well Spent

This is one of my favorite times of the year: ASME Ellies nominations! The American Society of Magazine Editors announces finalists for some of the very best work in magazines, from design and photography to public interest and service journalism.

My favorite category, though, hands down, is the one for general excellence. The publications competing in this category are at the top of their game every issue, and I use these lists to help me decide what to subscribe to in the coming year.

I love studying the best of the best, because no matter what the topic of the magazine, I always come away with new ways to think about how to tell stories in unique and compelling ways.

If you want to subscribe, I’ve included links that go directly to the subscription section of the publication’s website.

Keep in mind that some subscription agreements are pretty sneaky: they’ll autorenew you until eternity if you’re not careful, so you’ll want to put a note in your calendar at the end of the subscription term so you can cancel before they charge your credit card.

Finally: the winners will be announced on February 1, and I’ll update this list to highlight which magazines won in their categories.

Update: The winners in each category are marked by a *.



News, Sports and Entertainment

Esquire (1 year print: $15)

Fast Company (1 year print: $10)

GQ (1 year print: $15)

New York (1 year print: $29.97)

The New York Times Magazine

The New Yorker (12 weeks print: $12)

Newsweek (12 week print and digital: $14.99)


Service and Lifestyle

Bon Appétit (1 year print: $12)

Golf Digest (1 year print $12)

Harper’s Bazaar (1 year print: $10)

Lucky Peach (4 issues: $28)

Parents (2 years print: $7.99)

Seventeen (1 year print: $10)

T: The New York Times Style Magazine (varies)


Special Interest

Backpacker (1 year print: $12)

Car and Driver  (1 year print: $15)

The Hollywood Reporter (1 year print + iPad: $99)

Modern Farmer (1 year print: $19.95)

San Francisco (1 year print outside California: $29.97)

Smithsonian (1 year print: $12)

Tablet Magazine (1 year print: $39.99)


Literature, Science and Politics

Aperture (1 year print + digital: $75)

Foreign Affairs (1 year print and digital: $27)

Nautilus (print + digital: $42)

The Oxford American (1 year print: $24.98)

Poetry (1 year print: $35)

Virginia Quarterly Review (1 year print: $32)


The Insider’s Guide to the 17-Year-Old Mind

Posted: December 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The Insider’s Guide to the 17-Year-Old Mind

17From the Fall 2015 issue of St. Edward’s University Magazine:

There are few people on the planet who are as well-versed in adolescent psychology as Sara Villanueva. A psychologist and author of the book The Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It, she’s also got plenty of on-the-ground training as a mother of four children. Despite her vast expertise, she says she is still sometimes upended by the interactions she has with the teens in her own life.

Take this past spring, for example, when she casually texted her college-bound daughter. Villanueva suggested that they take a family vacation to spend some concentrated time together before her daughter started the next phase of her life this fall. “Mom, no,” came the immediate reply. “I don’t want to spend time with you. I want to spend time with my friends because I’m about to be gone.”

It knocked the wind out of Villanueva. “Wow,” she responded by text. “Thar’s harsh.”

Read the rest of the story here (p. 20).

The Great Big Giving Guide

Posted: December 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The Great Big Giving Guide

purdueFrom the November/December 2015 edition of the Purdue Alumnus:

Purdue has long inspired big thinking—from Amelia Earhart’s teachings to Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. And as it launches the $2.019 billion “Ever True” campaign—its most ambitious ever—its visionary approach will carry the school from its first 150 years into a brand-new era.

The enthusiasm starts at the very top: President Mitch Daniels believes the campaign will open up massive opportunities for the university. “We’re excited about what the generosity of the Boilermaker family will allow us to achieve, especially in terms of investments in student success and affordability, and in critical teaching and research areas,” he says.

And for Chris Burke (BSCE ’77, MSCE ’79, PhD ’83), a member of the campaign’s Champions Committee, the campaign will help make Purdue better than ever: “This campaign will ensure that tomorrow’s students get an education that is just as valuable—and maybe even more valuable than—the one we got.”

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 38).

Triple threat

Posted: December 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Triple threat


Earlier this month, stories I wrote for three different clients won awards at the Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association’s Excellence Awards event.

And while my main goal is always to connect with the readers of my clients’ publications, it’s awesome to get outside recognition, too.

Details, plus links to the stories, are below:


Feature Article, Education

St. Olaf College, St. Olaf Magazine
Small But Mighty (p. 13)


Feature Article, Education

Saint John’s University, Saint John’s Magazine
The Right Medicine for Global Health (p. 22)


Profile Article, Education

University of Minnesota, Murphy Reporter
The Pioneers (p. 9)

The impossible alumni magazine story. Should you run it?

Posted: December 9th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The impossible alumni magazine story. Should you run it?

As a culture, we hate failure.

We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We search for the window that opens when a door closes. Recently, I even heard someone describe “fail” as an acronym: First Attempt In Learning.


And in a lot of ways, it’s great! Who wants to wake up every morning believing that setbacks from yesterday will influence them today?

But I wonder if alumni magazines have taken that impulse—to focus on success to the exclusion of failure—too far.

A couple years ago, for example, I came across an essay in which the author described the deflating moment that happened every few months when she received her alumni magazine and realized her life might never merit a profile—let alone a more modest class note. Alumni magazine syndrome, she called it.

This year, a different writer posted another brutal takedown of alumni magazines and their focus on super-successful grads. The author reserved a special level loathing for writers like me who wrote for her school’s publications without actually attending the institution. (I was kind of excited to be noticed, TBH, but that’s for another day.)

Anyway, I digress.

It’s no secret that few alumni magazines want to talk about failure. Dale Keiger acknowledged as much in his recent UMagazineology post that highlights HBS Alumni Bulletin’s cleverly named story about failure, ‘The F Word.’ (“Not your usual umag fare,” he notes.)

But should we be talking more about failure? Columbia College recently tackled the issue—sort of—in a brilliant, funny essay.

Recently, I talked with Julia Hanna, a senior content producer at Harvard and editor of the previously mentioned story on failure in the HBS Alumni Bulletin. She shared what fueled the story, how they did it, and how people have responded.

How did you come up with the failure idea? Did you get any pushback from anyone on this idea, or did you have to persuade anyone that it was important to cover?

To be honest, I don’t remember when the idea first came up…it’s a story that I’ve been interested in doing for a long time (years!).

I remember bringing a cover story from Wellesley (“When Life Doesn’t Measure Up,” Winter 2011) to an editorial meeting as an example of how failure had been treated in an alumnae magazine. [Erin’s note: it’s an amazing cover story. Take the time to read it.] I don’t remember getting direct pushback on the idea, but somehow the stars didn’t align for the feature until this year. It could be that the growing climate of acceptance around failure, particularly in the area of entrepreneurship, made it a more natural sell.

When we talked about doing the feature, we already knew about get-togethers like FailCon, where founders of startups gather to learn from one another’s mistakes. You know it’s okay to talk about failure when there are entire conferences devoted to the topic! There were also a couple of professors who were teaching cases that focus on failure, which also gave it an academic seal of approval.

How did you decide on the format you did (people telling stories in their own voices and drawing their own lessons)? Did you consider something else before you settled on that?

I don’t remember considering another format, although I knew that I would write an introduction to the article that referenced the faculty-written cases. The fact that one of the case protagonists (an alumna) would be visiting campus when the case was taught also provided another way into the article, particularly because she had always been the prototypical HBS alum in everything she did—super smart, driven, accomplished, and successful. She was personal and candid with her interview responses, which gave me some great quotes.

How did you get people to participate? If there was something that didn’t make the final story, what was it about the story that didn’t quite work?

We put out a call through our formidable army of class notes secretaries. At HBS, every class is divided into 10 or so sections of about 90 people each. It’s not unusual to have a class notes secretary for every section, with separate class notes for each. We didn’t send the call out to all alumni, just graduates of our Executive Education and MBA degree holders in a certain timespan.

Twenty-five or 30 responses came in—12 made it into the magazine, and 7 more were included in the online magazine, with three additional stories included as short audio files. I did go back to a handful of people via email to get them to fill in some details or provide a stronger sense of what it was they learned from the experience. And of course there was a fair amount of editing of too-long or repetitive submissions. The two or three that we passed on were off-kilter responses that didn’t really address the question we posed: What mistakes have shaped your career? How have your failures led to your success—professional, personal, or otherwise?

Did the story turn out as you hoped? Is there anything, in retrospect, that you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, it did—I was happy with the variety of responses. Some of the contributors are well-known (like Alan Horn, chairman of Disney) but the majority are not. There are plenty of nitty-gritty business failures, of course, but also personal failures, regrets over a road not taken, academic failure, and youthful errors of judgment. In that sense, I think the piece offers something for everyone. And a few of the stories are really funny—we have some good storytellers out there!

Failure is a tough topic to cover in an alumni magazine. So why do it? What was the thing that made you realize this was as important as any other topic you might cover in an issue?

I think many of us read as a way to figure out life. When someone else opens a small window into a time when things didn’t go well, we don’t feel so alone for having been there ourselves. We want to know what did they do wrong, what do I recognize in their experience that relates to my life, and how can I learn from what they went through?

It seems like an important topic to cover for those reasons, but particularly in an alumni magazine where our default mode is often to celebrate an individual at the height of his/her professional achievement. Not everyone can be a smashing success. And often failure is more interesting!

How have people responded so far?

The article has had 3,000 hits online to date, which is great.


Posted: December 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off on Insatiable


From the Fall 2015 issue of Denison Magazine:

We love our belt-busting Thanksgiving dinners and our door-busting Black Fridays. We gorge on unending buffets and unlimited data. And these days, we refuse to wait even a minute— let alone a week—to watch the next episode of our favorite TV shows. There’s little apparent shame in such gluttony: We don’t hide our House of Cards Netflix benders; on the contrary, we broadcast them to the world.

But what should we make of our immoderate tendencies? How do they reveal who we are, and how can we harness our never-enough impulses once and for all?

We asked Denison professors and staff members to weigh in on the many ways we take things to the extreme, and what we can learn when we overdo it. Let the bingeing begin.


Read the rest of the story here.

Do you ask sources these 4 essential questions? (Plus 200+ question vault)

Posted: November 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Do you ask sources these 4 essential questions? (Plus 200+ question vault)

When I first started writing for magazines, I was nothing if not diligent. I wrote pages of questions for every interview and worked my way down the list methodically. The interviews were reliably awkward and terrible.

It took me years to learn that a great interview isn’t supposed to be a series of rapid-fire questions. It’s supposed to be a conversation. (Colin Marshall, a public radio reporter, discusses this idea brilliantly here.) That doesn’t mean it’s not important to have questions prepared; it just means they shouldn’t be a crutch. Deeply listening to a source is a powerful interviewing technique.

Since I started writing for alumni magazines in 1998, I have done thousands of interviews. Each has been a tiny test that I’ve tried to learn from and improve upon. And through this testing, I’ve found four go-to questions that have the potential to transform almost any interview and story.

Question 1
“Do you have any questions of me?”

Before I start any interview, I want to make sure that sources and I are on the same page.

No matter how much I might try to prep them before an interview, I know that the people I’m talking to are busy. They don’t always know if I’m doing a story for an alumni magazine, the school newspaper, or a development project. They might not understand why I’m talking specifically to them. Spending a couple minutes up front to answer their questions can prevent many headaches down the road.

Also, whenever they ask—and assuming it’s the school’s policy—I let them know that they’re going to have a chance to review their quotes. This can be a big relief to them, or they might say something along the lines of “just make me sound smart.” Either way, I try to make sure they understand that we’re on the same team. If I write something they’re disappointed with, we’ll work together to get it right. That can give them the reassurance they need to be more forthcoming than they might be otherwise.

Question 2
“What else are you working on?”

I got this great question from science journalist Robert Frederick, who wrote about the idea of “saving string” for The Open Notebook, an incredible blog about science writing and storytelling.

In the best cases, this question can take the interview in a couple different directions:

1. It can provide a new angle on the story you’re trying to tell.

You might go into an interview with a professor assuming that one piece of her expertise will be useful to the story you’re working on, for example. But when you ask about the other things she’s studying and publishing, she might share details about her work that turn out to be even more relevant to the story. Your sources may not see these connections because they’re not writing and reporting the story, but often these conversations about other projects add nuance to the story you’re working on.

2. It can offer ideas for new story topics and future projects.

Maybe the professor has a cool grant in the works. Maybe an alum has a blog that’s being turned into a book. Whatever the case, we can all use more great ideas, and your interviews are a perfect opportunity to unearth ones that can be both unexpected and valuable.

Question 3
“Is there anything else you wanted to mention that we haven’t discussed already?”

It’s easy to wrap up an interview with a “Thanks, I think I’ve got everything I need,” but this question can help uncover a quote or an anecdote than can transform a story.

Sometimes there’s an angle you’ve never considered, and it opens up a whole new line of questions. And sometimes, someone you’re interviewing will have gone to the trouble of taking notes for the interview; they’ll go through those notes, point by point, to make sure that they haven’t missed anything.

Even if the answer to this question is no, you’ll benefit: you can feel confident you’ve done your job well.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Sometimes, no really doesn’t mean no.

Years ago, a fellow writer lamented that sources told best anecdotes after she turned off her recorder. This happened to me, too. How was I missing the best stuff?

As I thought about this problem in the interviews that followed, I noticed something very interesting. In a small but significant number of cases, I would ask if there was anything else, they’d say ‘no,’ and then they’d pause.

I’d shut off the recorder.

And then the person I was interviewing would say something along the lines of “But I think that…[some amazing anecdote or angle I hadn’t thought of here].” And I would grind my teeth while they told their perfect story.

I have no idea why this happens, but I do know how to deal with it: I keep the recorder on for those extra couple minutes before I leave the room or hang up the phone. Often, those few minutes are incredibly important.

Question 4
“Who—or what—else should we be doing stories on?”

At the end of many interviews, I give my sources the chance to brag about a fellow classmate or colleague who’s doing something great that the school should know about. Sometimes they ask for a day or two to think about it, so I’ll put a reminder in my calendar and email them later.

FINALLY: Don’t take my word for it.

If you’re stuck thinking of interview questions, there are tons of great resources. If you’ve got some time and want to go down the rabbit hole, start here:

What other questions are on your must-ask list?

Email me at erin@erinpeterson.com and let me know what questions are essential to your interviews.

The Bird-Watchers

Posted: October 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The Bird-Watchers

Woman in outdoor settingFrom the Fall 2015 issue of Legacy Magazine:

Carol Cardona knows that if you want to get answers to the most vexing problems in bird health, you can’t be afraid to get dirty. When a deadly avian influenza virus infected and killed millions of chickens and turkeys at more than 100 commercial farms in Minnesota this spring, Cardona, the University of Minnesota’s Pomeroy Chair in Avian Health, headed straight to the farms experiencing the problems.

She and other researchers col­lected water samples, swabbed dust from fan blades and mouse bait stations, and even gathered the litter that stuck to the cloth booties they wore into the barns. They then took these samples back to the lab and tested them to find clues about the way the virus was spreading. “For example, finding the virus on the fan blades might mean it came in through air vents, while finding it near bait stations might mean mice were involved,” she says.

In this case, the answer was more complicated: the cases were so spread out geographically that they seemed unrelated. In the end, Cardona and other researchers found no single smoking gun, though some speculate the disease was carried in the feces of wild waterfowl as they migrated north.

What Cardona did know was that the virus’ miniscule “infectious dose” meant that any tiny weakness that the virus was able to exploit—heavy winds that blew dust and debris into the barns, for example—could lead to the infection of the birds, with a brutal 100 percent mortality rate.

Read the rest of the story here.

To Infinity and Beyond

Posted: October 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off on To Infinity and Beyond

From the Fall 2015 issue of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine:

Former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, PhD MSE 96, had been preparing for her 2002 mission to the International Space Station on the Space Shuttle Atlantis for years. She knew, intellectually, that when she got her first glimpse of the Earth from space, it would be like nothing she’d experienced before.

Still, when the moment came—when she opened the shuttle’s payload doors and saw the Earth in the context of the vast expanse of outer space beyond it—she instinctively understood that her seemingly sturdy home planet was no more durable than a robin’s egg. “I said, immediately, without even thinking, ‘Wow, our atmosphere is so thin’,” recalls Magnus, who now serves as the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). “It looked so fragile, and it’s something we have no sense of in our daily living,” she says. Her experience of seeing the Earth as a fragile, tiny ball of life felt transformational.

Until recently, the only people who ever had a real shot at experiencing this kind of sublime, otherworldly experience were those who’d spent years pursuing that dream: a few hundred highly educated, rigorously trained, and keenly ambitious men and women. It makes sense: nine-figure mission budgets made anything else implausible.

Today, space tourism for the masses is getting tantalizingly close. Private space exploration firm Virgin Galactic has sold more than 700 tickets (at up to $250,000 a pop) for suborbital spaceflights in the coming years, which would more than double the total number of astronauts the world has seen. Another player, XCOR Aerospace, expects to be carrying eager customers on its suborbital vehicle, Lynx, by 2016.

In other words: Our sci-fi future in space has arrived.

Read the rest of the story here.

Research Brief: Bankruptcy as a better—not bitter—end

Posted: October 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off on Research Brief: Bankruptcy as a better—not bitter—end

hbsFrom the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin:

Are big banks using bankruptcy as a bullying tactic? A recent report by the American Bankruptcy Institute suggested that a longtime—and increasingly popular—mechanism in the US code that allows for expedited, less-democratic asset sales (known as Section 363 sales) is unfairly benefiting secured lenders and liquidating otherwise viable companies. As the theory goes, the deep-pocketed secured lenders at the front of the line have a bias toward shutting down viable operations, selling off the assets, and collecting the cash they’re owed without regard for other creditors. The less sophisticated creditors at the back of the line, meanwhile, lose out on the value that could have been produced had the company kept operating.

A new working paper coauthored by Professor Stuart Gilson challenges that assertion. Gilson and his colleagues studied 350 public companies that filed for Chapter 11 between 2002 and 2011, and found that just over half undertook Section 363 sales. But of those, a full 21 percent sold the entire company as an ongoing enterprise, instead of simply breaking up the company and liquidating it. That approach indicates that the use of the mechanism was more nuanced than some have suggested. “For one out of five of these sales, the process is really just about transferring ownership of an ongoing, operating enterprise to another owner,” says Gilson. “That’s exactly what happens in the market for mergers and acquisitions.”

Read the rest of the story here.