I help you tell your school's best stories.

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.

Showing off real-world solutions

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

geniusFrom the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine, Vol. 91, No. 1:

Every semester, hundreds of students participate in Georgia Tech’s Capstone Design Expo, and they have dozens of reasons for participating. They’re excited to build a product with a team. They want to show off their work to potential employers. They’re eager to use the experience to launch a successful startup.

The teams spend countless hours doing customer research, developing product prototypes and testing their results. And the biggest payoff often comes at the expo, in which teams showcase their best work to earn prize money—and sometimes even job offers.

But for Brian Leach, a senior biomedical engineering major who worked on the Stroke of Genius team to build an adaptive golf cart to help paraplegic kids play the sport, the joy of the project—and the desire to make the product great—was even more personal. “I grew up playing the game of golf, and I took every opportunity to play with my dad,” he says. “I was extremely excited about giving a child that same opportunity.”

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 22).

Stories of change

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

Two men filming a smiling womanFrom the Winter 2015 issue of UMN’s Legacy Magazine:

Aaron Doering has traveled to the frigid reaches of northern Norway to visit nearly deserted fishing towns. He’s also been to the bright, hot deserts of water starved Burkina Faso. The locations are vastly different, but residents in both places say the same thing: the changing climate is transforming their lives.

For more than a decade, Doering, an associate professor and director of learning technologies in the U’s College of Education and Human Development, has traveled around the world, capturing photos, audio clips, and videos to share stories about the environment. Soon, he and his team will wrap up their most ambitious project yet: Earthducation, a four-year odyssey in which they traveled to “climate hotspots” on all seven continents to learn about the impact of global warming on an individual scale—and share those results with children and adults alike.

To date, millions of people—including students in more than 5,000 classrooms, all 50 states, and six continents—have tuned in to watch Doering and his team travel the world.

Read the rest of the story here.

Mind Behind the Muscle

Posted: March 19th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Winter 2014 issue of the Carleton College Voice:

In mixed martial arts, the ferocious full-contact combat sport that’s part wrestling and part jujitsu, anyone can be a brawler, says Roma Pawelek ’09. Short of eye gouging and hair pulling, almost anything goes in the octagon where fighters face off. But the ones who thrive in the sport aren’t the brutes; they’re the brains. “It’s almost like a chess game; you’re always looking for different patterns [in your opponents],” Pawelek says.

Pawelek serves as the perfect case study for her theory: the amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter has a 5-1 record and balances her hours sparring in the gym with her work as a full-time law student at the University of Oregon.

Although she was a basketball player in high school, Pawelek opted for a different path at Carleton. She liked the discipline—but not the politics—of team sports, so she started bodybuilding, spending hours in the weight room and following a strict diet to sculpt a perfect body. One day, while she was preparing for a bodybuilding show, she ran into Gordon Marino, a St. Olaf philosophy professor and boxing coach, who suggested that she try boxing. Eventually, she did. “Competitive bodybuilding is like a choreographed dance; it’s a performance,” Pawelek says. “But in boxing, I loved having an opponent and the physical back-and-forth.”

Read the rest of the story here.

The Indispensables

Posted: March 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

indispensableFrom the Winter 2015 issue of Macalester Magazine:

They get little fanfare, but these staff members help make Macalester’s campus cleaner, brighter, safer, and more efficient. In short, they make Macalester better for everyone. There’s no question that the people in the pages that follow help make students’ experiences at Macalester great. Students may not know these staff members by name, but they know the incredible work that they do.

They’re the ones who set up every single chair students and parents sit in on graduation day, who serve every hot meal on a cold winter’s day, who—quite literally—keep the lights on. At Macalester, they are the quiet but critical staff members who make sure that the community runs seamlessly while professors and students focus on their work in the classrooms, labs, and library. We chose five longtime staff members and asked them to share the details of their jobs, the joys and challenges of their work, and what keeps them coming back, year after year.

Read the rest of the story here.

Small but Mighty

Posted: February 24th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

nanoFrom the Winter 2015 issue of St. Olaf Magazine:

It sounds like a science fiction dream: A world where doctors fight cancer with tiny robots that target cancer cells one by one, demolishing the harmful cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed. A world where molecule-sized machines sop up oil spills or scrub pollutants out of the air. A world where the clothes we wear harness the power of the sun to power our smartphones and laptops.

But many scientists insist such advances are within the realm of possibility. And they are all within the purview of nanotechnology — science and engineering done on a molecular scale. While the term was coined in 1974, it’s been only in the past 15 years or so that nanotechnology has made its way into the consumer world. Nano-sized advancements have already led to better car airbags, lighter tennis rackets, and bacteria-resistant fabrics. And that smartphone or the iPod in your hand? You can thank nanoscience for the processor and memory components that help it run. “There isn’t a piece of consumer electronics that you have in your pocket that isn’t a product of nanotechnology,” says Jason Engbrecht, an associate professor of physics at St. Olaf.

Read the rest of the story here (PDF; p. 12).

This Is What Grand Gold Looks Like

Posted: February 9th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education | Comments Off

I love it when alumni magazines use their space to tackle big, ambitious stories.

And in 2013, perhaps the biggest and most successful was Harvard Public Health’s massive story on guns and suicide. The story made of the vast stores of data about guns and suicide, included thoughtful ideas from several Harvard experts about the topic, and included heartbreaking and insightful interviews with people who had lost a family member to suicide.

The CASE judges honored the story with a Grand Gold award. You can find the digital version of the story here; I particularly recommend the PDF here, which gives a sense of the story in magazine form.

gunsTo find out more about how the story was conceived, reported, and designed, I talked to the Madeline Drexler, the editor of the magazine and the writer of the story. She has some particularly interesting thoughts about finding sources, coming up with the right packaging, and designing for readers. I was impressed by how much she was able to achieve as a half-time staffer—and the only one fully devoted to the magazine.

Once you finished reading this story, I encourage you to check out Drexler’s new book: A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan and her website, madelinedrexler.com.

Tell me a little bit about your role with the magazine.
I am the editor of Harvard Public Health magazine. I have been on staff since May 2010. (I am a half-time staffer. During the other half of my work life, I do what I have always done: straight-up journalism, specializing in public health reporting and in travel essays.) I am the only person on our large communications team whose sole job is the magazine—but a number of colleagues work on the magazine as part of their job description: two designers, one assistant editor, two writers, as well as my two supervisors.

How did you first decide you wanted to do this story? Was there any resistance from anyone? And if not, how did you frame the goals of the story to help make it attractive to administrators/stakeholders who might be a little squeamish about the topic?
Gun suicide is a major public health issue in the United States, and several of our School’s faculty and academic staff are among the country’s leading researchers on this issue—so this was an obvious story for us. The fact that gun suicides outnumber gun homicides by a factor of two is quite surprising to the general public and gets lost in the avalanche of coverage of homicide and mass murders—another reason to pursue this topic. We never anticipated pushback from anybody and never received it. Public health professionals are hardly squeamish about subjects like this. Indeed, the issue of gun suicide demands a public health perspective.

This is a huge, 12-page feature, and it features 8 distinct parts, with the main story stretching just 3 pages. Can you tell me how you figured out how to package this story, and why you chose to do it the way you did?
We didn’t want to lose the reader by running a 12-page text block. And at our magazine, we have placed special emphasis in the past few years on creating visually engaging spreads that provide both “glance readers” and “word-for-word readers” with important information and insights that they will remember. The individual sections of this story seemed to fall out naturally. It was very important to us to frame the survivor stories separately, so that their emotionally riveting words didn’t get lost in the main text and to underscore that real lives—with all their poignant complications—are at stake. Read the rest of this entry »

Power to the Posse

Posted: January 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Winter 2014 issue of the HHMI Bulletin:

For Bryn Mawr College sophomore Fransheska Clara, going to college wasn’t just a personal goal: it was a family one. Neither her father, who hails from El Salvador, nor her mother, a native of Puerto Rico, had gone to college. And they had come to America—to Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour outside Boston—in the hope that their two kids could get a college education and fulfill a dream that they hadn’t been able to achieve themselves.

Clara was driven to succeed in high school. She got good grades. She was president of her school’s STEM club, a group focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And she spent a summer and a full semester doing internships through the biology and biotechnology departments of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

So when she first heard about the Posse STEM program—which would send 10-person “Posses” of the very best students to top-notch colleges across the country to focus on science—Clara was eager to learn more. The program is designed to identify high-achieving student leaders in urban high schools and send them to college as a group so they can lean on one another for support. The Posse members are also paired with mentors at the colleges and receive significant access to science research opportunities. It is a program tailored to help these students, who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed.

Read the rest of the story here.