Humans, Not Heroes

The other day, I was listening to an interview podcast on a run, and the guest said something that literally stopped me in my tracks. She was talking about her background, and she paused over her college education. Here’s what she said:

“I think I got a pretty nice education at [my university]. It wasn’t as good a school then as it is now, and I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into it now! I can see how competitive it is.”

The person who said this — the person who is not quite sure she would have the chops to get into her alma mater — was ELIZABETH GILBERT. You probably know her as the person who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, or maybe you know the movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts, or maybe you know her as one of Oprah’s BFFs.

I laughed when I heard it. It wasn’t because I thought that Elizabeth Gilbert was correct in her assessment. (I MEAN, COME ON.) I laughed because I’d heard a version of that comment from a million other alumni who had attended a million other schools. It was always some version of “I don’t know if I’d even get into [my alma mater] these days if I had to apply now.”

It’s easy to see why. In their alumni magazines, they’ve seen the announcements of their institution’s rise in the U.S. News rankings. They’ve seen the awards that the students are getting, the grants that faculty are landing, and the incredible work that everyone connected to the institution is doing.

If our jobs are to showcase our schools in the best possible light, it turns out that we might be doing those jobs a little TOO well.

Of course we want our alumni to feel proud of the work our schools our doing!

But we also want them to feel something else when they read about fellow alumni, current students, and even faculty. We want them to think to themselves: “These are my people.”

So how do we do that? To my mind, that doesn’t mean we scrap all the news about the incredible work our school’s people are doing. It just means that we should add in a few elements of humanity and humor into the mix.

gif of incredibles characters huggingMake your alumni superheroes lovable.

Here are three ways I think about doing that:

  • Ask the people you’re profiling about the elements that humanize them. Yes, that CEO/nonprofit leader/successful research scientist may have rocketed to the top of their field in relatively short order. But one thing you can do in your interviewing (and even give them a heads up in advance, so they can think about it), is to ask them a version of this question: “What was a significant failure you faced, and how did you overcome it?” The question still allows them to be the hero of the story! But it also requires them to share something that has humbled them.

  • Include a section devoted to non-braggy feedback. One of my favorite sections in my own alma mater’s alumni magazine is “Prompted” in which the editor asks a questions designed to get responses from…well, just about anyone.

    One example: “Write a memoir in six words, no more, no less.” Responses were funny, thoughtful, and humble. (Sample: “Resolved to make mistakes. Mostly successful.”) I could definitely see myself among this lovable pack of nerds and weirdos. Add a little section to your class notes if you can’t devote a whole page to something like this.

  • Restructure your feature concepts. Some of my favorite stories to report and read are ones that are more human by design. For example, years ago, I did a story for Macalester called “The Thing that Changed My Mind.” The very premise demands that people start at a point in which they were wrong!” Plus, the trajectory of the story is really what an education is all about: expanding our mind to open ourselves up to new ideas, empathize with other points of view, and seeing new ways of understanding the world we live in.

If you’ve got a little more leeway with your publication, you might even consider a story explicitly about failure! (This is hard! But it can be done.)

Your publications for your alumni should showcase the very best of your school. But they should also make your alumni feel that your school is a place they can still recognize, even as it improves and evolves.

Reach out to tell me how you’ve tried to humanize your own publications — or the struggles you face while trying to do this.

“I Wanted A Magazine That Would Make People Say, ‘I Don’t Want To Throw It Away.’”

One of my favorite things to do every year is talk to the winner of the Sibley Magazine of the Year.

This year, I was thrilled to talk to Maria Henson, who is editor of the knockout Wake Forest Magazine, a three-times a year publication for alumni.

Henson, a 1982 Wake Forest alum, has been at the magazine since 2010. And while the Sibley is a big deal for any alumni magazine editor, Henson had already earned some prettttttttty serious hardware before nabbing this year’s prize. In 1992, before she’d joined Wake Forest’s team, she won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials about battered women that she wrote for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. (You can watch a Moth-style talk that she did at Harvard about those editorials here.) Thirteen years later, she listed a second Pulitzer on her resume for her work editing a series of editorials in The Sacramento Bee by Tom Philp about the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

And even her return to Wake Forest is a tale in itself — she routed herself through Botswana (!!!!) before returning to Winston-Salem for her current job. You can read more about that here.

In the interview that follows, Henson shares some great advice, magazines you should consider picking up for inspiration, and the goals worth aspiring to for your own magazine.

Once you’re finished, check out the links at the end for other Sibley-related interviews.

Tell me about your team.
We have a team of four people.

I’m the associate vice president and editor at large. I edit the magazine and I teach one journalism class a year. My managing editor is Carol Hanner, who came out of newspapers. Kerry King, who’s worked here 30 years, is also a graduate. Michael Breedlove joined us last fall as class notes editor and deputy editor. He helps oversee our budget and handles our freelancers’ contracts and invoices.

Outside of our office, we have a freelance designer, Julie Helsabeck, who’s fantastic. She’s worked with us since late 2010, including on the redesign. The University’s talented creative director Hayes Henderson also collaborates with us.

When you arrived, you had lots of newspaper experience but no specific alumni magazine experience. How did you make that transition?
I did what a reporter does when I got here: I reported on the magazine. I went back for 10 years and looked at magazines really closely. I started to interview people.

[Denison University and Dog Ear Consultants’] Maureen Harmon was so helpful. I asked editors how they did it, how they thought about changing up their magazines.

I was looking at examples I liked, but I also went out to bookstores to look at general interest magazines. That’s where the learning came from for me. I didn’t walk in with any preconceived notion, other than that I loved stories, and it felt like we had a wonderful vehicle in front of us to tell really inspiring stories.

Can you give an example?
I love to walk through bookstores to see if anything sparks an idea. And one book I loved was The History of New York in 101 Objects. I thought, “We could do that for Wake Forest. What objects would we pick? That’ll be great fun.” (Here’s that story.) And I find things on Twitter that spark ideas, like “Letters of Note.”

What magazines inspire you?
Garden & Gun had a lot to do with my thinking when we were doing the redesign, starting in 2011. (Check out issue archives here.) I like Fast Companyand Orion. I also look through Wired, Esquire, and National Geographic.

I’m always looking at how they’re putting their stories together. How are they visually thinking about chunks of information? Before our budget year ended in June this year, I went over to Barnes & Noble, and bought a handful of magazines for all of us to look through.

Our table outside my office is filled with magazines from other colleges and universities.

What advice would you give to other editors who want to create award-worthy magazines?
Be in tune with your designer. The art piece is so critical, because people are looking for an excuse not to read your piece. Don’t make it hard on them to read it!

Another thing: pay for the photography, pay for the illustration. You will be rewarded for it, and people will keep the magazine around.

Do you give specific direction to photographers and other artists?
One thing I often say is “Look for small details.” It’s not just a headshot. What are those small details that could be spot images throughout the story? I give them final stories or at least rough drafts to help them shape their vision.

But mostly I say to people, “I trust you to get what you think is the right story, with the right visual. I want some options. I want to make sure I have some horizontal and vertical.” And that’s about it.

What do you think a good magazine should do? What has yours done that you’re proud of?
When I came here, I had spent 27 years in newspapers, but I had always looked forward to seeing my alumni magazine and seeing what people were doing at my university.

But in my newspaper job, my phone was ringing off the hook. I had newspapers stacked on my desk, books I wanted to read, magazines for my job, editorial board policy papers from politicians. It was too easy just to skim and throw the magazine away.

What I wanted was a magazine that would make people say, “I don’t want to throw it away. There’s another piece in there that I want to read.”
__________
Want to read more about Sibley winners and judges? Check out interviews from previous winners and a judge.

2018 winner Dan Morrell for HBS Alumni Bulletin
2017 winner Renée Olsen for TCNJ Magazine
2016 winner Heidi Singer for UofTMed.
2015 winner Dale Keiger for Johns Hopkins Magazine
Sibley judge Jeff Lott

Better Transcriptions, Grumpy Alumni, And Video Quick Hits

We’ve had a busy summer here at Capstone HQ, but we took some time to put together an update with what we’ve been up to. Enjoy!

First, here are a few stories the Capstone team has worked on:

I also take on a few projects each quarter. Here’s a sample:

  • Do you want to hear my opinion on politics? OF COURSE YOU DON’T. You want to hear the opinions of Harvard Law professors who weigh in on the history of presidential power grabs.

  • It’s a business truism that you never want to be the smartest person in the room. When you’re interviewing a bunch of Phi Beta Kappa members for a story about the prestigious, brainy organization, you can pretty much guarantee that you’re the dummy in the equation. I was! It was delightful. My story for Albion here.

  • Many women (and a lot of men) have had to think about whether to change their names at marriage. Does it matter what we call ourselves? This story for Smith Alumnae Quarterly will make you appreciate the complexity of this process — and why, as a culture, we seem to care so much.

Now, on to a few other things we think you’ll love:

  • Check out our video series. Over the past few months, we’ve put together a bunch of short videos to improve your communications. We’ve shared ideas on headlines, covers, sources, and interviews. Missed any? Visit our YouTube channel here.

  • Does your magazine make your alumni feel bad? Find out why your magazine may be alienating your alumni — and the simple tweaks you can make to draw them back in.

  • Could this Twitter account be the inspiration for your next story? Not long ago, I started following an irreverent Twitter account, @justsaysinmice. Its aim was simple: post all those breathless media stories about scientific research touting “new treatment” or “miracle food” with the caveat that few noted within the stories: the research had been conducted only in mice.

    In other words: all those tantalizing headlines weren’t a reflection of what was actually going on — not by a long shot.

    The account itself is making a big impact, but it also made me think of the work our schools do to promote faculty research. Could you do a story that explains the actual process of research? How does a smart idea go from lab bench to bedside? Why does it take so long? A story I did for Purdue awhile ago, Eureka!, gets at this topic.

Should you pony up for buck-a-minute transcription? I’ve made no secret of my love for Rev, a knockout transcription service service that does lightning-fast transcription for $1/minute. (Capstone is categorized as a “highly active user” of Rev’s service.)

Still, I often hear from folks who want to know how I feel about AI transcription for about 10¢/minute. Here is how I feel: THUMBS DOWN.

Recently, Rev’s AI division proved me right. In what seems to me an inappropriately braggy blog post, they shared that their AI transcription service got 14 out of every 100 words WRONG.

bar graph showing accuracy of different AI transcription services
AI transcription is terrible. The end.

Yeah, Rev AI was modestly better than the other terrible options, BUT THEY’RE ALL CRUMMY. Invest in good transcription! You’ll save yourself a *ton* of time that will allow you to do more important things than…well, transcription.

As always, we love to hear what you think about these ideas. Hit reply and let us know what you agree with and what you disagree with!

Harvard makes the case for a class notes section as long as “The Grapes of Wrath”

As a former class notes editor, I couldn’t possibly be more excited to share this interview and some incredible resources with you.

Here’s the scoop: Many years ago, I served as the class notes editor for an alumni magazine.

It was grueling, thankless work. I carefully transcribed cursive notes from alumni who were 3,000 years old. My eyes crossed while I captioned wedding photos with dozens of alumni faces. And the only time I heard a word was when alumni called to tell me I’d misspelled the name of their baby.

Trust me: I understand, at a cellular level, why editors want to put their class notes online to free up print real estate. I understand why they want to cut those sections in half or ditch them entirely.

But that might just be the wrong move.

It’s not just that alumni routinely rank it as the number one thing they turn to when they get their magazines. It’s that it’s one of the best ways to truly engage a huge number of your alumni — which is probably a big reason for your magazine’s existence in the first place.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

You can take the word of Bill Weber, the Director of Alumni Communications for Harvard Business School.

headshot of Harvard's Bill WeberBill Weber

HBS Alumni Bulletin, the quarterly alumni magazine for the school, enlists the help of nearly 1,000 (!) volunteers to produce their Class Notes, which stretches to 450 (!!!) pages for each quarterly issue. (Alumni are split into 3 different categories, and get the 150 most relevant pages for them, but still.)

In a year, that’s 1,800 pages — TWO copies of Infinite Jest stacked on top of each other.

We had a wide-ranging conversation about class notes, and below, you’ll find an edited version of our discussion.

Weber shared:

  • What it takes to do this kind of work for the magazine
  • Why Harvard values it so much
  • Specific benefits he sees for the institution as a result

He also shares an incredibly valuable PDF of prompts and ideas that I think you’ll love — no matter what your class notes are like.

So…without further ado:

You have, by far, the most robust class notes section of any school I’ve seen. Why does Harvard value this section so much?

Class Notes is the single most-popular piece of communication that comes from the school on a regular basis. We have done reader surveys for years. Consistently, 98 percent of the respondents say, “Well, the first thing I do is I turn to my page in the Class Notes in the Bulletin. Then if I have time, I’ll look at the front part.”

image of most recent cover of HBS Alumni Bulletin magazine

The most recent issue of HBS’s magazine

Is its popularity what makes it valuable? Is there an explicit return on investment?

People want to know what other people are up to. So you have to feed that interest one way or another. The whole point of feeding that is to remind people of their connection to the school and to strengthen the bonds among them as a group. Then, when other communications come from the school or it’s time to do an annual gift or we’re in a fundraising campaign, those alumni are positively inclined towards the school and supporting it. That’s what it’s all about.

I just don’t think, in the near-term future, we would consider getting rid of Class Notes. I think it would be World War III, frankly.

Let’s break down that ONE THOUSAND VOLUNTEERS number.

We have two kinds of class secretaries. For older classes, there is one secretary per class. (Our oldest class with an active secretary is 1950.) But the way the student body is structured, each class is divided into 10 sections of 90 or so people. At some point, we opened it up so there would be a class-wide secretary for each class and there would be a section secretary for each 90-person cohort. So there’s 11 secretaries for any one class, after some point.

They report to us through an online tool. It’s a content submission form, basically, where they can upload their columns and upload photographs. That’s the system that we use to edit all the notes. It has various editing tools built into it — like automatically shortening vice president to VP, or bold-facing names — to help.

How do you manage that many people?

We have a variety of guides and documents. We have a style guide that is sent to each of the secretaries. Then we remind them on a regular basis of certain things. For instance, there’s a length limit (1,800 words) and a photos limit (two, except for reunion classes) — which they push back on all the time, naturally!

The goal is to have them use the online submission tool, but we have certain older, longstanding secretaries who just can’t cope with the online form. So for those, they’ll have someone like their granddaughter email us the column.

There’s one elderly alum who cuts and pastes the letters and emails he gets from classmates into a document. It’s almost like a ransom note. Then he mails it in, so we receive it in its pasted, taped-together form. Then there’s another one who hand writes his 1,800 words. We serve them as best as we possibly can.

The majority play by the rules and use the online tool.

It sounds like you have guidelines, but you also let everyone use their own voice, within reason.

Right. We want to preserve the voice and the tone of however somebody writes. We know that particular kinds of people like to volunteer for this role. They’re networkers and social connectors. Their personality shines through in the way they communicate with people. So to keep it genuine, we want to keep their voice.

When we are doing the editing of the notes, the majority of the work involved in the editing is more like copy editing: making sure that punctuation is correct and that our automated abbreviation system didn’t turn something into gobbledygook. We’re looking for misspellings and that occasional “gone too far” political comment or swipe at a classmate.

The personality is part of what makes it appealing for the readers, because they remember Fred or Susan as speaking that way, and so it comes across. Having people who will put that bit of extra effort into reporting on their classes and things like that makes it hugely different.

There’s no institutional messaging or anything else like that in the Class Notes. It’s just building the bond among people who went to school together and having that then reflect on their personal relationships to each other or their personal loyalty to the school. (Want to see some of the tips and prompts class secretaries get? Get the 2-page PDF here.)

Folks get the most 150 relevant pages of notes for each quarterly issue. That’s still a lot of pages! How do you think about costs?

Yes, it’s a huge operation, and it’s expensive as all get-out. But it’s all worth it.

Every once in a while, we revisit the length limit for columns. I’ve been here 10 years. Just prior to when I came, they made a decision to get more strict about the length, because the notes were growing quite a bit. We’ve maintained that relative strictness, but we haven’t reduced it.

Then there’s the paper stock. It’s very thin but not terribly transparent, like newsprint. We choose that because it’s so much thinner than the paper in the front of the magazine and therefore weighs much less. From time to time, we have to make changes in that paper. It’s definitely worth it, in terms of keeping the cost of the notes down.

Everyone that we have a mailing address for is sent a copy of the magazine, all 84,000, regardless of where they live, including the two alums in Uzbekistan.

Let’s go through some of the other arguments against class notes sections. First, everybody’s already on social media, right?

That’s a challenge that we have in classes from the last five or six years in particular. They’re posting a picture of their breakfast on Instagram. Everyone in their group knows the minute they have a baby. So there we fight a little bit of an uphill battle of, “Why should I submit a report about my latest vacation when I posted 400 Instagram photographs of our trip to Nepal?”

But even for those classes, there are secretaries. They work to gather news as best they can. Not every class or section is perfect, but most of them do it. My feeling is that as those alumni age, as they get to their fifth or their tenth reunion, the classic nature of Class Notes will make much more sense. At some point, they’re going to lay off of Instagram.

Or get off certain platforms altogether. As people change social platforms, they might not bring all of their university classmates with them.

Platforms are changing. We’re present in all of that stuff, and we celebrate success and all the rest with classmates on those social platforms.

We monitor things. We keep a record of how many pages of notes were done by each class and section in each issue. We do it just to watch the up and down cycles. That’s where we noticed it was like five, six years out or so, is where the Class Notes are the thinnest. Then once you get past 10, it’s pretty consistent. Nearly every class and every section has a secretary, and they’re producing notes at least two or three times per year in the production cycle.

Another gripe: class notes aren’t particularly timely, at least compared to what most of us are used to.

Class Notes, in the form that we do it, runs completely counter to all other publishing trends because it’s on paper and it takes a long time to get the word out. The news, what’s going into Class Notes, is four to six months old by the time somebody receives it. But it has a sort of timeless quality that doesn’t bother the majority of the alumni.

That said, we post Class Notes online as soon as they’re ready in our production cycle. That’s usually three to as much as five weeks ahead of when the magazine arrives at people’s doors. We promote it in our e-newsletter and mobile app as soon as it’s available online. And people do read the notes online — especially international alumni, for whom it takes even longer to receive their magazine.

Are there other things that you think make the print version valuable?

The classic argument about why a print publication has benefits over a digital one is the browsing factor. We do run photographs. There are a couple photographs for everybody’s column. If you flip through the pages, you’re going to find interesting pictures that might pull you in. There’s the person riding the elephant or parasailing somewhere or on top of Mount Everest that gets your attention. It gets you to read the caption and maybe read a little bit of the item. That’s great if that happens, because those are reflections on the interesting lives that our alumni have.

Do you get story ideas from this section?

Class Notes are a gold mine for story ideas. Those ideas are both business-related (people starting new companies or second careers, writing books, supporting nonprofit work around the world, etc.) and personal experiences and adventures. One of my favorites from mining Class Notes was an alum who holds the Guinness World Record for having climbed the Seven Peaks AND sailed all Seven Seas. And he sailed some of them with his wife and their severely disabled daughter. Now he uses the experience as a motivational speaker on leadership and mission focus. (You can read the story here.)

**********

What do you think? How is your own class notes section working — or not working? Shoot me an email and let me know!

The 5x approach to campus news

Are your campus news stories starting to feel a little stale? Does telling one more exactly-the-same story on that new dean, award-winning student, or updated program ranking make you die a little inside?

Check out this short video on how to improve your campus news stories with a simple rule of thumb.

Let me know what you think!

The “five-year value” of your print alumni magazine

One of my all-time favorite podcasts is Longform, which features in-depth interviews with narrative nonfiction writers.

Recently, the podcast featured Casey Cep, the author of the white-hot national bestseller about Harper Lee called The Furious Hours.

In the interview, Cep mentioned that when she was a college student she got a fellowship that allowed her to write for her alumni magazine (Harvard, natch).

The two continue to talk about alumni magazines for a moment, and then the host, Aaron Lammer, says something very interesting about his experience with his own alumni magazine:

Black text on a white background with a quote from Longform podcast host Aaron Lammer that says,  "I bought myself five years of my parents not thinking I was a failure because the Wesleyan alumni magazine mentioned Longform [podcast] once.

Yes, this was just a few fleeting moments in a much longer podcast about something totally different. Lammer wasn’t dead serious about the exact value of that alumni magazine story.

But do you see what’s going on there, directionally?

Being featured in a print magazine gave his work credibility to other people.

Lammer didn’t have to hope that the people he knew would check out his alma mater’s website. He didn’t have to self-promotionally send out a thing on Facebook or Instagram or email. The print magazine is is literally being sent to people’s homes.

You can probably imagine that his podcast’s appearance in the magazine was noted by fellow classmates. You might imagine his parents keeping a copy of that magazine on their coffee table, which they might point to when their friends were over.

I actually emailed Lammer about this after I heard it; he said the Wesleyan magazine is one of the few magazines he still gets in print. And if you listen to his work, you’ll realize reading magazines is a huge part of his job! Wesleyan’s magazine still stands out to him, in part, because it is in print. (You can read more about my many thoughts about this in my case for print alumni magazines — with real numbers.)

In today’s world, print feels fundamentally more valuable than online. It is a thing people can hold in their hands, a thing that says: “We invested real money to bring this story to you. It’s worth the paper, the staples, the printing, and the mailing.”

GUYS, THESE THINGS MATTER.

It’s why I get so furious when magazine editors talk cavalierly about ditching their print magazine’s class notes sections or putting them behind a password-protected wall on a website. I get frustrated when schools decide to cut pages or cut issues because of the cost savings, without realizing the value they’re destroying in the process.

It’s not just information that people are after. It’s the validity and credibility that print provides that makes a difference.

How many people keep a magazine around their house for months because they’re in it? How many people tear out that tiny callout you wrote about the alumni author in the class notes? How many people tuck a story about themselves from your publication into a folder that they keep for their whole lives?

For many people, their appearance in the class notes, in a tiny blurb up front, or in the authors section, may be the biggest-deal recognition they ever get for their work. And it was their alma mater that cared enough to feature them! That’s a good look for your institution.

Even tiny stories might be worth a full five years of parental pride.

Find ways to do more of that, not less.

It’s not just those starting-out stories that matter. A few years ago, I wrote a story about a billionaire (yep, billionaire with a “b”) who owns dozens and dozens of television and radio stations across the country. This guy knows media inside and out! He controls it! And when that story about him appeared in the alumni magazine, his administrative assistant emailed me about three seconds after it was published to ask if her boss could get 10 copies, pronto. (I passed the note along to the editor and suggested she charge $1 million per issue, but I think she mailed them out for free. Nobody takes my good advice.)

I don’t want to take too much credit for the fact that he later went on to give millions of dollars to the school WHICH IS NOW NAMED AFTER HIM, but you can probably imagine that the story didn’t hurt.

Your print magazine matters. Feature lots of people at all stages of their success, and in lots of ways, whether you give them 20 words or 200 words or 2,000 words.

They may never tell you that it means a lot to them. But it absolutely does.

Do you need more exclamation marks in your writing? Yes! Here’s why.

Here are a few things my team and I have found lately that we think are worth your time.

Struggling with a roundup? Roundup stories are a great way to profile a series of alumni or faculty in a similar field, but how do you make that story reader-friendly? Here are a few suggestions.

Everyone can appreciate some dumb grammar jokes, right? Here’s the rest of the list from above.

And speaking of punctuation… Many of us spent our formative years learning to excise exclamation marks from our writing. But in some cases, we might want to use more, not fewer. If you spend a lot of time emailing — connecting with sources, writers, editors and others — read the argument for adding in a few more exclamation marks into your messages.

An intriguing oral history. I like just about any story about colleges that appears in mainstream magazines, so of course I loved this oral history about Bennington’s freshman class of 1982, which included literary heavyweights Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Letham, and Donna Tartt. I especially appreciated how they integrated meaningful ideas from Donna Tartt, even though she wasn’t interviewed for the story. If you’re considering doing an oral history of some part of your institution’s past but don’t have access to an important source, this is a worthwhile template to consider.

Thanks for reading!

Erin

How many sources do you need for a feature story?

When you’re mapping out that big feature story, how many sources should you have?

Check out the video below to learn the rule of thumb that we use to help every story feel robust and well-reported.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

Ugh, how do I tell this story?

Let’s set the scene: you’re planning out the next issue of your magazine, and you have that story to do.

And you don’t want to deal with it.

That story looks different for everyone.

  • Maybe it’s an annual update of the story you did last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
  • Maybe it’s that strategic priority story that doesn’t seem to have a lot of “there” there.
  • Maybe it’s that series of VIP donor profiles your president has been nagging you to write. But you can’t imagine writing more than 10 words about any of them.
  • Maybe it’s a really cool story — a topic you’ve been dying to cover — but now that it’s official, you’re panicking that you can’t make it as good as you imagined.

I’ve been there with you: the retiring faculty feature package, the campaign story, the roundup of alumni in XYZ field.

So how do you tackle it? How do you make it something that your audience actually wants to read?

This is an issue I struggled with for years. I’d procrastinate. I’d complain about it to friends. I’d do a cursory search of the web or post a message on one of the writers’ groups I belonged to in search of a brilliant idea.

And then I mostly just did what I’d done before.

But this started to change a few years ago — and now I rarely feel stuck.

It’s not magic! I’m sharing my exact process below.

Build your “good idea database”

A few years ago, I was having lunch with an editor who always seemed to have creative story ideas and knew just how to package them. Surely, I asked him, he had some sort of go-to list or editor encyclopedia that he could consult to figure out the best way to tell any story?
He said he didn’t have any specific resource that he consulted — but if I was so curious about it, maybe I should just build my own “good idea database.”

So I did! It took some real trial and error. But I consider it one of the most powerful tools in the Capstone arsenal. My team and I add to the database every single month. Here’s just a tiny slice of that database:

A snapshot of the database Capstone uses weekly—if not daily—for client projects.

We use this database to develop and refine story ideas, to serve as a launching pad for talks we give to higher ed communicators across the country, and to write this newsletter. It’s hugely important to us.

Here’s exactly how we did it:

1. Start with as much “data” as possible. Get as many magazines as your budget will allow. I subscribe to more than 20. My current favorites are The Hollywood Reporter, Fast Company, Bon Appetit, and New York. (Not a magazine editor? Do the same for the media you work in most frequently, and adjust the instructions that follow accordingly!)

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Spend a few minutes flipping through the magazines each week, and when you find something that looks interesting — especially if it’s a story that you wouldn’t normally be interested in, but something about the approach drew you in — snap an image of it with your phone.

3. Enter the story into your database. Use a tool like Airtable to store your images.

4. Categorize wisely. Make sure you categorize it in a few different ways so you can find when you need it. I often remember things by the headline and the publication it appeared in, but I also try to note various categories I think I might use it for in the future — a roundup, a story likely to lead to reader feedback, a story that focuses on pairings.

5. Keep it simple. One of the things I tried to do initially was to include a million different categorizations – bylines, dates, notes. But over time, I found that this was more of an annoying obstacle than a useful tool. I wanted to be able to add things to my database quickly, and if I had to spend 10 minutes laboring over each entry, I simply wouldn’t do it. In the words famously attributed to Einstein, “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

6. Use it! Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But make sure you’re carving out time at each part of your story process to review what you’ve collected. Sometimes, a single entry at the right moment can help unlock a story in a useful way. It’s easy to start building these resources and then let them collect dust. Don’t let that be you.
We use our database constantly. While the published story might only look a bit like the template that launched it, you can almost always see its DNA.

For example, when Purdue Alumnus wanted to do a big feature on its “Take Giant Leaps” 150th anniversary, Capstone used this New York magazine story from our idea database to create the Giant Leaps Academy feature package.

We used this Creative People feature as the launching point for Kenyon Alumni Bulletin’s How I Got Into Politics.

Yes, it takes time to build this database, and you have to be consistent. But the long-term payoff is huge.

Do you use any tools like this? Let me know.

Before & After: A magazine cover makeover

What do you do if you have a mediocre cover?

Check out this 82-second video to see the before and after images of the most recent Medicine at Michigan cover — including the exact process editor Katie Vloet took to transform the cover from so-so to spectacular.

Send me an email to let me know what you think!