I help you tell your school’s best stories.

Triple threat

Posted: November 17th, 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)

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.

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

Posted: September 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Do you include the 8 essential elements in your assignment letter?

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 on Macalester’s Coolest Classes

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 on Improvement by Degrees: How the U Turned Graduation Rates

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 on How to improve your publications: A Sibley judge tells all

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.

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The Insider’s Guide to Getting In

Posted: July 30th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The Insider’s Guide to Getting In

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).