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 the most of the university’s vast stores of data about guns and suicide, it included thoughtful ideas from several Harvard experts about the topic, and it featured 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.
To 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.
Not all of your sources are Harvard alumni, faculty, or employees. How did you find these sources, and why did you feel it was appropriate to include them?
I found the survivors through survivor support groups. I found the gun shop owner and other sources through faculty contacts and through press coverage.
As you pulled the feature together, were there parts you wanted to include, but couldn’t? Why didn’t they make it to the final piece?
All of the key findings appear in the article. The only element I wanted to include but couldn’t was a male survivor of either a male or female suicide. I didn’t want all the emotive voices to be female. But alas, I couldn’t find a male survivor who would speak with me in the time frame allotted for researching this piece (about two months).
Tell me about how you thought about making a design that both pulled in readers but also treated the story with the seriousness that it deserved. Were there models from other magazines/specific stories that you used as inspiration?
Our designer, Anne Hubbard, says that she did not follow other models for this layout. Her main goal was to show the faces of survivors without exploiting their pain, and to present their faces alongside their narrative voices. The cover was intentionally austere and graphic—again, to pique interest without exploiting individuals.
This story seems like one that particularly benefits from magazine/print treatment. How do you think about what makes a good magazine story vs. what would work on the web?
A magazine story can unwind at a more leisurely narrative pace than a web story, because on the web, search engine optimization requires key words to appear high in the text. Multipart stories like the “Guns & Suicide” special report also lend themselves to a “flippable” magazine page format. That said, more people read our content online than in print versions, and we have devoted a good deal of time to making the web versions of our stories readable and visually engaging. Moreover, many readers want long-form narrative on their electronic screens—witness the proliferation of websites devoted to that genre—so for us it is not an either/or proposition.