The “no room for error” checklist for your magazine stories

Over the past few months, I’ve been talking to editors who are feeling squeezed like never before — trimmed staff, smaller budgets, more responsibilities.

And the last thing that they can afford is a magazine story that goes off the rails for one reason or another.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.


Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen: Stories that seemed great on paper — and then disintegrated once the reporting started. Stories that made it through two edits before a high-level administrator scuttled the piece. Stories that were literally in design when a last-minute political issue decimated the project. And that was all pre-COVID! Right now, every story in every issue can seem in flux.

So how do you build guard rails into your story process at every step to make sure that the great idea you started with gets carried all the way to print? How do you pinpoint the stories that are destined to fail — so that you don’t spend time working on something that doesn’t stand a chance to make it all the way to your magazine?

4 essential questions to ask before starting a story

Today I’m excited to share details from the exact checklist my team and I use to ensure that a good story doesn’t get torpedoed before it makes it to print. These are questions to ask before doing a single on-the-record interview. And while there are always one-in-million circumstances you can’t predict, this checklist gives any story the best possible chance to succeed.

Who needs to weigh in on this story before we get started?

Is this a story that needs admissions, development, or administrative buy-in that goes above and beyond traditional approval channels? Are there other projects or stories that are happening elsewhere that might support the work we’re doing here — or worse, could directly contradict it?

Recently, I was working with a client on a project that would include a handful of interviews with 2020 graduates. During our conversation, the client mentioned that interviews on a related topic with new graduates had been conducted for another project, and that maybe we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. That connection was useful, and prevented lots of future headaches.

 What potential political obstacles should we be aware of before we do interviews?

Are there simmering tensions between certain departments? Concerns about providing equal time to more and less media-friendly faculty, divisions, or colleges? Is there a chance that the story could turn out to have a tone that is too negative or controversial? When these issues come up early in the process, it’s easier to find ways to reshape the story or pivot effectively.

For example, Capstone once had a client that let us know that the mathematics department was peeved about its limited coverage in the alumni magazine. The reality was that it could be much harder to tell a fun, visual story about the work that was happening in the department! But knowing that in advance, we came up with some creative solutions to make sure those faculty could get featured in a roundup — and they would have a nice piece to give prospective students and families who showed interest.

What does our sourcing look like?

Do a quick review of your sources and make sure you have the balance you need across class years, men and women, departments and colleges, race and ethnicity, and other important characteristics.

It’s easier to start with the right list of people than try to wedge people into the list at the end.

Also consider if you’re including a source too often! I’ve worked with clients who have go-to sources who are friendly, on time for every interview, and are extremely quotable. They’re amazing! But that might also mean you’re shortchanging other folks — who may have a few more questions for you, who maybe aren’t quite as polished — who could still provide valuable insight for a story.

If you find yourself quoting the same handful of people over and over, try to stretch yourself and find a few new sources.

What do we do if sources drop out or are not available?

For every story we do, we try to have backup options that we can pursue if we find out that one of our original sources isn’t available.

If we’re working on a feature story that we think should have about eight sources, we come up with two or three extras. If one drops off, we can seamlessly move to the next without running a new potential source through the gantlet.

The big question to ask yourself before every story is this: What could go wrong? And what is the work that I can do now to try to prevent that problem from happening?

‘Every page should make an attempt to draw attention.’

I was delighted to talk to this year’s Sibley-winning editor: Joe Wakelee-Lynch. Joe is editor of LMU Magazine from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The magazine is gorgeous and ambitious and singular. (You can read the report from judges here.)

Joe has been with the university since 2006, and the story topics and approaches reflect that deep institutional knowledge: they feel like they could only be done by LMU’s magazine.



Before we dive into the interview, here are a few more basics: the magazine comes out twice a year (read more about how COVID-19 has affected that schedule below) and goes to about 80,000 alumni, faculty, staff, parents, and friends of the Jesuit Catholic institution.

Finally: Want to read other interviews I’ve done with Sibley-winning editors and judges? You can get links to all of them at the end of this newsletter.

What a beautiful magazine. Ambitious topics, writing, and art. Has your institution always invested in the publication?

We had a pretty good magazine for a long time, but we had wanted to make it better for years.

In 2010, the university was heading into a 100-year celebration of its history and the final stretch of a capital campaign. At the same time, the university wasn’t happy with alumni participation.

We had an advisory committee that met after every magazine was produced to critique the issue. Whenever they criticized what wasn’t working, we were happy. We knew that that would filter out to other people who needed to know that. Other people also thought this magazine could be improved. So that criticism was really welcome to me, because I knew it could help us make the case.

Eventually, we went to leadership and said that we’ve been asking to do a redesign of a magazine for two or three years. If you let us do it now, we can boost alumni pride, engagement, and enthusiasm by giving people something they’re really going to enjoy. It’ll be qualitatively different. And we can use the newly designed magazine to help celebrate one of the biggest events in the university’s history.

That combination of circumstances helped us, and leadership went for it.

For us, it was like having our hands untied. We were pretty sure we would be able to deliver something that would stop readers in their tracks when they got the first issue.

That’s what happened.


Your choice of stories seem to be both extremely specific to your university while also being widely accessible to readers beyond it. For example, “Dramatis Personae” compares current-day politicians to Shakespeare characters — a story that was published about the time that LMU hosted the DNC Presidential Debate. Another was “Who Are We” about how people think about the identity of Los Angeles. Can you talk about threading that needle?

We do think about our magazine as one that anybody should be able to pick up and enjoy.

The magazine speaks to alumni, faculty, and staff, but it also ends up being a publication that gets handed to people as a way to introduce the university to them.

Prospective students and their parents are receiving a message that an LMU education will put students in the same classroom with faculty members who are on top of the most pressing issues that we all care about. To be a Jesuit university in Los Angeles puts LMU in a very unique and wonderful place. Our magazine should communicate that.

We try to address timely issues that connect to LMU’s mission statement and that our sponsoring religious orders, especially the Jesuits, are on record in addressing.

Let’s talk about what your magazine doesn’t have: a president’s column.

Polls of university magazine readership always say that the president’s letter is one of the least-read pages of the magazine. Readers will tell you they don’t want to read it, and they will proceed to not read it.

Why give people a page that they don’t want to read?

It’s like putting a stamp on the page that says, “You can skip this.” And you should never, if you can help it, have a page in your magazine that’s telling people that they can skip it.

Every page should make an attempt to draw attention.

How has COVID-19 affected your publication? 

We were midway through an issue that would have come out in the springtime when the COVID crisis hit. We had half a magazine ready and we didn’t publish it.

The next magazine that would normally come out would have been in the fall of this year. We are not printing that issue either. Our goal is to come back into print in the springtime, and be back with two issues a year.

Anecdotally, people seem to understand the need for drastic measures, but it is disappointing, especially after winning a big award.

But in the meantime, we’ve launched online a special series of election coverage. We’ll produce at least two things a week — stories, podcasts, interviews — until a week or so after the election on November 3.

[Erin says: here’s a link to that coverage.]


What do you and your team read for inspiration?

Editorially, the magazines that I’m looking at include The New Yorker and California Sunday Magazine. There’s a great magazine called Boom California. There’s a tiny, quirky magazine that I absolutely love called Desert Oraclewhich is about the Mojave. It’s all about place and location, but it’s a wonderful little magazine and it fits in your pocket. I’m trying to start reading Cha, which is a literary journal based in Hong Kong.

Our art director and photographer pay attention to California Sunday Magazine, The New York Times MagazineWired, and an amazing soccer journal called Eight by Eight, which is just an absolute feast.

What advice do you have for other editors ready to raise the bar for their own publications?

First: Don’t be like everybody else. Your university’s magazine, which is a major communications vehicle — likely the largest percentage of your following— should give readers a sense that your institution isn’t like everybody else’s university.

The other thing? Money matters. If you don’t have money for freelance writers, start a plan to get money for freelance writers. I think that goes for photography, too. If you can get some money, use it to get talented photographers in your area. Bring them into your magazine. Because that’s one way you distinguish yourself from others. You raise the quality of the magazine and you increase the pride among alumni and readers.


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Why I love source approvals (and a template to do them flawlessly)

Recently, I was talking with a client about a major feature project that used a lot of institutional VIPs as sources, and I brought up my source approval process.

“Wait,” she said. “You do an approval process for every source? On every story?”





Want to skip straight to the exact source-approval template I use, complete with notes on the wordings I use? Head over here.

Otherwise, read on to find out why I think it’s an essential part of every story process.

My team and I do lots of work on annual reports, campaign- and donor-related projects and (of course!) alumni magazines. For every project, I work with the editor to build in time for source approvals.

Here’s why I do it — and why you should, too.

  • You can showcase the high standards you have for your story and publication. Source approval processes take time (and sometimes some savvy negotiation skills). But they also show that you care about the story and the publication.
  • You can connect with your alumni and VIP sources in a meaningful way. Sources carve out time to talk with us, provide headshots or links to research studies, and suggest other great people to talk to. When we offer a chance for them to review the text about them, it’s a way to show them that we’re taking their words and ideas seriously.
  • You can make sure you get the story right. First, let’s be clear: we all make mistakes! Maybe we mishear a sentence or misunderstand some context. If you’re working on a print publication, once a story is out in the world, it’s out in the world. A misspelling? A misquote? In that print publication, there’s no fixing it, only running a correction in a future publication. Source approval is one way to get closer to perfect.

These things can all be true, but people always ask: ERIN, WHAT IF THEY WANT TO CHANGE THEIR QUOTES TO RUN-ON SENTENCES OF 3,000 WORDS???????

Guys, I get that this can happen.

But also: you’re the editor. In my own source approval work, I never promise to make changes, but I always offer the opportunity for review. The vast majority of the time, the corrections are modest and useful.

That other 1 percent of the time — which definitely can be a nightmare! — should not negate the 99 percent of good, valuable input that sources can provide.

So that’s why, from my perspective, story approvals are so important.

Over the years, some folks have asked if they could have the “magic words” that I use to get these source approvals. I’m happy to share them!

Here’s a template you can start using today.


‘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 Company and Orion. I also look through WiredEsquire, 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

Interview Fundamentals: 3 Perfect Questions

Years ago, when I first started interviewing folks for alumni magazines, I could not have been more terrible at asking questions. Once, while interviewing a recent grad whose short stories had been widely praised, I asked the following “question.”

“I read that your work has been compared to Italo Calvino’s. That must be pretty cool.”

Her response? “Uhhhh, yes. That was nice.”

GREAT JOB, PETERSON. Prepare for that quote to go viral.

Good interviews lead to great stories.

A good interview can help elicit incredible anecdotes, unique insights, and unexpected details. Bad questions often lead sources to share vague, unhelpful quotes and empty platitudes.

It’s true that there is no one-size-fits all list of interview questions that you can have for every source. But over the years, I’ve found that there are a few questions and approaches that have led to better interviews, better quotes, and better stories.

Here are three of my go-to questions.

1: How did you end up at [school]?

What makes this a great question? 

I’m not going to pretend that you don’t already ask this question of most of your alumni sources — you probably do! It’s not rocket science.

But I often make this the first question I ask after confirming the spelling of their name and title. You can, too.

I like this question because it eases people into the interview. It’s something people don’t have to “prepare” to answer. Many people have a surprising story behind their decision to attend a school, or will offer up information that is helpful later — perhaps they are the first person in their family to attend college, or they picked the school because of its chemistry program, but ended up majoring in English.

It’s also a good question because it immediately helps you understand how they’ll likely be answering the next questions.

Are they giving a curt reply, meaning you’ll probably need to ask lots of follow-up questions during your interview? Are they giving a 15-minute monologue, meaning you’ll probably have to pick just a few important questions to focus on?

Getting clues from the outset on a question like this can help you make some on-the-fly decisions that help you get great responses later on.


2. Can you paint me a picture of…

What makes this a great question?

Sometimes, people I’m interviewing speak to me as though I am an expert in their field.

For example, a scientist might tell me that they’re synthesizing molecules in their lab. Unfortunately, that means almost nothing to me.

When sources tell me about what they’re doing in a way that feels abstract, I dig in by using a variation of “Can you paint me a picture of…”

Can they paint me a picture of their lab? Paint me a picture of the process? Paint me a picture of the moment that they understand that they’ve found something meaningful?

I’ll even come up with some examples, both so they understand the level of detail that I’m looking for and so they understand my level of ignorance and tailor their responses appropriately: “Can you paint me a picture of what you mean when you say ‘synthesize a molecule?’ Are you looking through a microscope? Are you putting something in a petri dish?”

The details that come from that questions are almost always illuminating and worthwhile.

Yes, it sometimes makes me look really dumb. But I’d much rather look dumb in an interview than end up putting something in print that is vague, boring, or incorrect.

Versions of this question are very common in radio and podcast interviews — do a search for “paint a picture” and you’ll find it in all sorts of Q&A radio interviews and podcasts. Here’s one, for example, in an episode of Without Fail with Alex Blumberg and another in a modified Q&A on Reply All.

Start listening and you’ll hear it everywhere, I promise.

3. What are you optimistic about?

What makes this a great question?

Over the coming months, a lot of us will be talking to our alumni and administrators about tough issues, including COVID-19, economic challenges, and social unrest.

In my own reporting, I hear quite a bit of pessimism. But if there’s one thing I know about alumni magazines, it’s that it’s rare for stories to end on a note of cynicism or hopelessness. The whole point of education is to help people improve their lives and the world!

Asking people what makes them feel optimistic about the topic they’re being interviewed about can help change the frame.

One infectious disease researcher I spoke with shared with me his many concerns about the federal response to the pandemic, nursing home outbreaks, and testing gaps. I asked him if there was anything we could feel optimistic about during this moment.

He had to really think about it. But he came up with a response I ultimately used as the story’s kicker: “The whole world is focused on this problem,” he told me.

It’s true! And honestly, it made me feel better.

Mag going digital? Here’s how to get readers to click

I’ve heard from many of you that you’ll be taking your magazine digital for one or more issues.

While it definitely saves money on printing and mailing costs, it will also likely require some dramatic shifts in your editorial priorities.

  • You can no longer literally “push” the publication into your readers’ hands
  • A move online typically means putting class notes, the most popular section of your magazine, behind a reader-repelling password-protected wall

Even more than that, putting a magazine online means you lose a ton of control over the experience you give your reader.

When you send a print magazine, you decide the size of the publication, the feel of the paper stock, the design of that beautiful opening spread of a feature package.

But with a digital magazine, you don’t know if your reader is on their smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. They may be connecting to it from an email blast, a social media post, or directly from a website. Are they seeing the same thing you and your team dreamed up together?

Maybe, maybe not!

So now what?

Focus on what you can control

If you can’t know with 100 percent certainty what a reader is seeing or where they are seeing it, what should you prioritize to make sure you’re giving your magazine and your stories the best chance to make a big impact?

Two words: Your headlines.

Your headlines are by far the most important place to spend your time when it comes to your editorial content.

They’re the first thing your reader will see, and they’re what they’ll use to decide whether the story you and your team have spent weeks or months working on into is worth their attention.

This probably makes intuitive sense, but we often don’t act this way.

Headlines are almost always the last thing we add to a story. We spend 60 seconds coming up with a yawner like “Scene Stealer” or “Mentorship Matters” and call it a day. (No judgment here! I’ve done it too.)

But do you think that sort of humdrum headline is really going to persuade your smart (college-educated) reader to dive in?

Probably not.

A headline is your first, best chance to hook a reader. Don’t waste it.

The Ogilvy Rule for better headlines

I’m not the only person who thinks most of us need to spend more time on our headlines.

David Ogilvy, known as “the father of advertising,” believed so strongly in the importance of headlines that he had a formula for developing them. Take the time you spend developing the body copy and divide it half, and that is the amount of time you should be spending on your headline. Here’s how that might play out.

  • Spend 2 hours on your story? Spend an hour on your headline.
  • Take 4 hours on a story? Spend 2 on your headline.

Perplexingly, this is often known as Ogilvy’s “50-50 rule,” though simple math shows that the actual ratio is 67-33. MATH IS HARD, AMIRIGHT?

Okay, let’s step back for a second here: it is probably unrealistic to think that you can commit hours to the process of headline generation, despite its relatively importance to the success of your publication.

But you should at least be aiming in that direction. Instead of thinking of headline creation as something to dash off before you zip a story off to design, spend real time thinking of some options. Work with your colleagues to build on your ideas. Sleep on it. Spend 20 minutes on your headline development, not two.

The payoff can be enormous. Research shows that good headlines can attract anywhere between 5 and 10x more readers than crummy ones.

With a digital magazine, good headlines are a particularly valuable currency. Make the most of them.

These 6 techniques will transform your profiles

Nobody knows packaging better than Coca Cola.

I was reminded of this fact when I stopped into a gas station this past summer to pick up a soda. In a single refrigerated case, there were SIX DIFFERENT kinds of regular Coke: 12- and 16-ounce cans, 12-ounce glass bottles, and 16-, 20-, and one-liter plastic bottles.

The point is not that Coke is crazy: it’s that there are lots of different ways to offer what some might say is essentially the same thing to your audience. And they’ll love you if you do it right. (I, of course, was furious that they didn’t have a 12-ounce plastic bottle for sale, because I am insufferable. But I guess packaging really does matter.)

Anyway, experience got me thinking about profiles — the heart of many alumni magazines. So often, we’re tempted to tell profiles in the same one-size-fits-all narrative format (I include myself in this group). But some stories may be better told by breaking things down, building them up, and reshaping them in interesting ways.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent hours collecting samples of magazine profiles that are told by using unique formats and frameworks. Six of them are below.

Format: The Opening Quote
Source: Runner’s World Cover Contest
The details: This format launches the story with a tiny bio and an incisive quote before digging into the narrative.
Why it works: For a package of profiles on similar kinds of people, differentiation is key. Instead of committing to an entire story, readers can scan the quotes to find the profiles that resonate with them most.
Use it here: Got a package of profiles on a half-dozen professors who just got tenure? Ten alumni who are changing the world of technology? This approach is fantastic.
Other examples: HHMI’s “Indispensibles.”

Format: The Dossier
Source: Vanity Fair’s What You Should Know About…
The details: This format mixes quotes and narrative packed into easy-to-read chunks.
Why it works: You don’t need to rely on a super-quotable source, and the format doesn’t demand a clean beginning, middle, and end. This quick read packs in lots of information.
Use it here: Need to cram (what should be) a 1,500 word story into half the space? Drop the transitions and go straight to the best details. This format is also perfect for a wide-ranging interview that would feel too scattershot if confined to a strict narrative.
Other examples: Jason Segel got the VF treatment here. Read more