Case study: U.S. Naval Academy
We’ve all been there: a million different writing projects that you’d love to get done — and not enough people to do them.
Hiring a solo freelancer for the occasional project may not be enough. It can be time consuming to get them up to speed, they might not be great at all the diverse projects you want to throw their way, or they might not be available when you need them.
But if you’re a small shop, you might not have the option to hire a part-time or full-time writer, either.
So what’s next?
Here’s how Capstone worked with a communications VP to develop a system that helps her organization consistently publish fresh stories that their alumni love — and that are aligned with the institution’s larger goals.
Hiring a writer can feel like a gamble.
“You just never know,” said one editor, talking about her skepticism of freelancers. “They might phone it in. They might not turn a story in on time. The work might be completely off target.”
But what if the opposite were true? What if hiring the right writer felt like the surest bet you could take on an important story?
Imagine sending your freelancer the germ of an idea and watching them expand on it in kaleidoscopic ways—ways that will make the story richer and more fun to read.
Think about what it would mean if, halfway into the project, you got an email that said “Everything’s on track! I have two new source suggestions that I plan to follow up on and a fun sidebar idea I think you’ll like…”
It’s not impossible.
Maybe you’re in campaign mode. Maybe you’ve had staff turnover and you’ve got fewer people on hand to do a drinking-from-a-firehose level of work. Maybe you’re dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime event that deserves plenty of coverage, like a centennial or other anniversary.
Whatever the case, if you’ve got more work than you can handle, you may have to hire someone to take over a major project.
That can feel daunting. What if your freelancers don’t deliver everything you need? What if they don’t tell you about a major problem? What if they turn in pages and pages of work that need to completely overhauled?
Most 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.
Grinnell College’s publications office was in the midst of a major transition this past summer. The timing was challenging: one of their largest print publications, the annual Honor Roll of Giving, needed to stay on track for a fall mailing. In order to meet that deadline, the school needed someone who could manage a major portion of the project, deliver great writing about its generous alumni, and meet a tight deadline.
When Grinnell asked if I could take on the project, I immediately connected with other experienced higher education writers, researchers, and transcriptionists to help out. We laid out a detailed and ambitious plan that covered every piece of the project, with a color-coded spreadsheet that we updated daily.
College commencement is the time, quite literally, for pomp and circumstance. And when professors shift to emeriti status, they’re typically recognized at the ceremony through formal citations that describe their scholarly accomplishments and service to the school.
But when Grinnell College’s Rachel Bly asked me to write the school’s emeritus citations, I wanted to take a different approach. At Grinnell, teaching is paramount. Professors electrify their classes with powerful ideas. And their impact lasts for a lifetime: many students carry their professors’ advice with them into their careers and lives.
St. Olaf alumna Diane Havlir is considered one of the most influential AIDS researchers in the world. Last fall, her alma mater brought her back to campus to give her an alumni achievement award, and St. Olaf alumni magazine editor Carole Leigh Engblom contacted me to cover Havlir’s work and life in a feature story for the magazine. She wanted someone who could convey the importance of Havlir’s work in a way that was engaging and accessible to readers.
For a high-profile alumna like Havlir, it’s critically important for colleges to hire freelancers who won’t just do a great job, but who will represent the college well. No matter who I’m interviewing or what the story is, I know that part of my job is to be an ambassador for a school. In some cases, the writer is the only representative of the school that the source will communicate with, so I take great pains to ensure that their experience is a positive one.
When Jean Scoon, editor of Saint John’s Magazine, contacted me about a writing a feature, she knew she wanted to highlight the work of five alumni educators who’d risen to the top of their fields. But she hadn’t settled on the best way to showcase their work.
She wasn’t interested in a series of traditional narrative profiles that laid out the sources’ accomplishments like a highlight reel; the profiles seemed to merit a more creative approach. Yet it was hard to know what angle to take without learning more about each teacher. I promised to dig into the reporting and come up with a few different ideas.