I help you tell your school's best stories.

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.

Childbirth Gets Its Due

Posted: June 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off

KozhimannilFrom the Summer 2015 issue of Minnesota Magazine:

When Katy Kozhimannil (B.A. ’99) began to study pregnancy and maternity care, it seemed reasonable to expect she would be entering a crowded research field. Childbirth is the number one reason for hospitalization in the United States, with nearly 4 million visits annually. As a nation, we spend more money on maternity and newborn care—$50 billion—than any other single health care need.

But there might as well have been tumbleweeds blowing across that particular research plain. That needed to change, says Kozhimannil, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota. “There’s been a lot of attention focused on [healthcare for] older Americans—and rightly so—but taxpayers fund about half of all births in the United States. We have a stake in this.”

Today, Kozhimannil is one of the nation’s top researchers on pregnancy and maternity care. Her findings have helped propel statewide legislation on maternity care and are serving as a foundation to transform maternal care across the nation.

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 37).

Truth in Fiction

Posted: June 2nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Spring 2015 issue of Denison Magazine:

Luring a television audience can be hard work, and much of it depends on gaining the trust of the viewers through accuracy. We asked the experts to weigh in on which popular shows are getting it right, and which ones have gone terribly wrong.

In today’s “New Golden Age of Television,” we often have impossibly high standards for the shows we watch. We expect the plots to be compelling, and we expect the details to be right. A single wrong note can poison a show in a way that destroys our trust and causes us to abandon it for good. When NCIS aired a scene that fundamentally misrepresented computer hacking, for example, a furious viewer uploaded the cringe-inducing clip to YouTube and titled it “2 Idiots 1 Keyboard.” The clip has garnered more than 2 million views and inspired thousands of snark-filled comments. • It’s harsh, sure. But if a show asks us to spend dozens—if not hundreds—of hours in its world, we deserve television that delivers on every level. That’s why we asked Denison professors and alumni to weigh in on some of today’s popular and most talked-about shows that are linked to their areas of expertise. They shared with us the themes that these shows get right, the details they get wrong, and the larger human truths that the shows aptly explore.

Read the rest of the story here.

Case Study: Better Stories that Lead to Gifts

Posted: May 26th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education | Comments Off

mac successMost alumni magazines celebrate the accomplishments of professors and top administrators. But sometimes, the people that alumni really want to hear about—the stories that will even lead to alumni pulling out their checkbooks—are the ones who are a little under the radar.

Alumni are often eager to hear about the people they worked with as students in work-study jobs, for example. The ones who taught them about pursuing excellence whether their work was in the classroom or the cafeteria. Alumni want to hear out about the cashier they chatted with every two weeks when they came to pick up their checks, or the technician who guided their work in an introductory art class.

When I pitched a story about “the people who make the college run” for Macalester, I wanted to tell those stories. I talked to six longtime college employees who worked in maintenance, custodial, food service, and other technical jobs. To a person, these were men and women who loved working with students—and have even helped students launch their careers. They believe that part of the work they do is to educate, motivate, and guide students, even if it doesn’t happen in a classroom or require essays and presentation.

And alumni loved it: one alum wrote that the story “brought back a flood of memories.” He said that the work he did on a maintenance crew—along with the mentorship he got along the way—gave him the crucial foundation for many of his future endeavors, from working as a scene designer in a professional theater and renovating his home. “I owe them all an invaluable debt,” he says.

Another alum took the praise one step further, writing a check to the college in gratitude for featuring a beloved cashier—as well as all the other unsung heroes on campus who’d finally gotten some of the recognition they deserved.

The point is not that alumni don’t want to hear about the great accomplishments of the college and its professors. It’s that they are eager to hear about so much more than just those things. They’re happy to be reminded of many parts of their college experiences, including—perhaps especially—the ones that happened outside a classroom.

Contact me to find out how to tell great stories about the quiet heroes on college campuses. Read the story I did for Macalester here, and the letters to the editor that followed here. (page 4 on the PDF).

The Cool Course Catalog

Posted: May 18th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Spring 2014 issue of Bucknell Magazine:

Every course at Bucknell is designed to help students think in new and nuanced ways. Professors challenge students to tackle difficult problems, to find unexpected ways to understand the world around them and to re-evaluate the ways they live their lives.

And every year, a handful of courses offers particularly novel viewpoints on the world. They link pop culture and great literature, connect campus-bound students with swashbuckling worldwide adventures and address today’s most pressing technological problems with time-tested principles. They’re the courses that make us wish, if only for a moment, that we could be students again.

We talked to professors who teach eight of these audit-worthy courses to discover the compelling details that bring these classes to life.

Read the rest of the story here.

3 Lessons from the CASE Editors Forum

Posted: May 4th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off

Even if you didn’t make it to Philadelphia for this year’s Editors Forum, it was easy to absorb the advice of the conference’s best speakers.

The cool new tips and tricks from this year’s conference have been amply covered: You can find hundreds of great ideas at Twitter’s #caseedforum here. You can also check out Dale Keiger’s four-part series on the UMagazinology blog here, here, here, and here.


At Wednesday’s keynote, Sree Sreenivasan taught us that the Instaquote app
can help us make every sentence an inspirational one.

I can’t improve on the breadth of the reporting that’s already been done, so thought I’d pull together a few of the ideas from several sessions that suggested larger themes that I think are exceptionally important.

1. There is no shortcut to excellence. Good magazines got that way not because they’ve found some sort of magic bullet, but because they invest time and resources into their publication. At the much-loved New York magazine, writers craft 25 headlines for their stories. (They stole the practice from Upworthy, and you should, too.) Is it overkill? Maybe, but the speakers noted that once you’ve exhausted every possibility for your original idea after the 12th headline, you’re forced to come up with new concepts. And that, often, is where more interesting ideas lie. (Designers at New York go through a similar wringer: for a recent issue, After Midnight, the designer came up with 20+ different cover concepts.)

Similarly, at FIT’s hue magazine, writer Jonathan Vatner spent months reporting a 2-page story about how to make a shirt. (The spread was called “Shirt Happens,” because of course it was.) It’s a fun, speedy read, but it was still an astonishing amount of work, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. I recently talked to a poet for a story, and he admitted his breezy style was particularly hard-won. “A one-page poem might go through 50 drafts, but the real trick—the real work—is to make it so good that it looks like it was easy,” he said.

Even the deadly-dull (for us) class notes section is worth spending some real time and resources on. While Dog Ear’s Mo Harmon noted that your readers will head there first no matter what it looks like, there are ways to get your audience to hang out in the section for a few minutes longer by adding tiny profiles, service stories, and excellent photography. A great example is At Buffalo’s class notes pages (which start on page 44).

Finally, it’s worth noting that excellence must be delivered at every level, a fact made abundantly clear by the publications that were scooped up the most quickly at the magazine exchange. The best magazines don’t just have great writing and photography. They have exceptional design, smart topics, and even great paper stock. Readers might not be able to articulate what brings a great magazine to life—but they can feel it. Aim for greatness.

2. Widen your lens. We’ve all learned the formulas. We know how to write the 750-word alumni profile, the sports round-ups, the third-person class note. But the campus and alumni universe is so much more diverse and fascinating than the one we often share in our alumni magazines.

Middlebury’s Matt Jennings, for example, suggested looking beyond the field for sports-themed stories. Carleton’s Teresa Scalzo recommended budgeting for a mini-magazine spree to find new ways to tell stories. And the University of Puget Sound’s Chuck Luce proposed a way to get a broader array of story ideas through drinking.

St. Edward’s University’s Frannie Schneider offered some brilliant tips about planning your stories so that you don’t assign a writer to a magazine story and then realize later that with a tiny bit more effort, you could have spun the story into a blog post, email, Facebook post, and Instagram photo.

3. Embrace—and express—your school’s unique DNA. I love New York, The New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly. But I don’t expect my own alumni magazine to be those magazines, or even aspire to be them—and not just because its campus is in the middle of acres of Iowa cornfields.

Great magazines, alumni and otherwise, understand and own who they are. It’s why the Fashion Institute of Technology had a page called “Pumps and Circumstance” on commencement shoewear. It’s why magazines hit home runs every time they run stories on great school pranks, the truth behind campus myths, and the details behind all those ghost stories.

Think relentlessly about what your magazine can do really well, and go all-in on those strengths. As Serial’s Joel Lovell said in his outstanding Friday keynote: “Fight the impulse to be like others.”

That said, going all-in doesn’t mean focusing only on the great parts of your school. Lovell said one of the moments he’s most proud of in the binge-worthy Serial podcast is the moment when Sarah Koenig heads to Jay’s house for an ambush interview. On the car ride there, she expresses her feelings about the visit with a strange mix of ambition, eagerness, and perhaps even ugliness. In most stories, such candidness wouldn’t get broadcast—it would hit the cutting-room floor. But the raw honesty of the piece made many listeners trust the story, and the reporting, even more.

To be fair, all of our schools have their personalities and quirks, and sometimes we overdo it in our otherwise well-intentioned efforts to embrace that uniqueness: it’s what led to FIT’s unique magazine mandate and Carleton’s blue hair rule. It’s why I’ve been asked to banish the word “quirky” from my vocabulary in my writing for some schools. The point, obviously, is not to parody your school or its students, but to deeply understand them and give voice to them through your magazine.