I love talking to editors about their story development processes for their magazines. I’m particularly interested in the ways they work on their feature wells.
After all, a print magazine is a school’s flagship communications tool for alumni. It’s often one of the most time-consuming and expensive communications tools, too. In a magazine, the feature well is where schools have the chance to showcase their very best stories, design, and art.
It makes perfect sense for us to have a thoughtful, methodical process to choose the handful of feature stories our readers will see in each issue.
Instead, I often hear about a process that looks a little more like this:
For many of us, it’s a process that is (at best) reactionary.
No judgment! We’re all stretched thin, and even those of us who like to plan out stories well in advance sometimes find that a piece will fall through for reasons beyond our control. Over the past year, we’ve all had to tear up our story lineups.
That said, it helps if we can at least START with a structured approach that gives us the very best chance to provide a solid mix of interesting and relevant stories for our audience.
Here’s how I like to think about it.
Build your feature well story structure.
Most magazines have space for a small handful of feature stories — let’s say between 2 and 5.
One of the ways that you can make sure that your feature well provides a wide range of meaningful stories is simply to provide some “buckets” that your stories will generally fall into for each issue.
For example, at one school I worked at, we had a simple structure:
- A general higher ed topic story (“Are the liberal arts too liberal?” “Is college still worth it?”)
- A campus/college specific story (The history of a specific campus event, a campaign story)
- An alumni story (A longer profile or roundup story)
- A larger trend story that uses faculty and alumni for experts (What does patriotism mean right now? How podcasting is changing everything.)
Every story had to fit within one of these four categories — and that meant if it didn’t fit, we had to find another place for it or we had to rethink the story so we could make it fit.
These categories actually sometimes helped us think more flexibly about a story we assumed could only be done one way.
For example, an alum who won a big-deal award linked to climate change might be a good topic for an alumni profile. But what if we also knew that a mathematics professor had been doing some number crunching on the long-term impact of temperature increases and a biologist was studying how certain animals were responding to extreme weather events?
Maybe we could do a little more digging and write an expansive feature on the approaches that people in the school’s community were using to address the issue.
You get the picture.
Having a structure to guide us made it easier to collect, organize, and develop story ideas. We might not know what to do with the alum who shared that he’d gotten into a startup accelerator, but if the story was good enough, we might make him the anchor profile in a roundup of entrepreneurs.
If we weren’t sure where to even start with the feature well, we had some guiding principles to begin our process.
Knowing that we needed to do a story about a higher ed topic in every issue made it easy for us to start collecting evergreen topics in a list. We could easily refer to it when we began the work on each issue.
Even more than that, after we got buy-in from the advisory board for the four types of stories we’d feature in feature well in each issue, we avoided a lot of fights.
We didn’t have to argue every time they suggested that we use the entire feature well to run stories on a campaign, a new strategic initiative, and a recently-hired dean. Instead, we could just point to our previously agreed-upon feature well priorities.
It also meant that when we got a request from an alum to devote 15 pages of the magazine to his poetry, we could easily explain why it wouldn’t be making the cut for our next issue. (Sorry not sorry.)
Think expansively about feature well categories
The example I gave is just one approach — there are countless others!
A smaller feature well might have categories like:
- 9-5 (Work/research related stories)
- 5-9 (Fun, off-the-clock stories)
You could organize your stories around specific formats, rather than specific types of topics:
- Narrative feature
- Longform Q&A
- Packaged service piece
There are tons of different ways to think about this, and I’m barely scratching the surface.
The most important thing is to be intentional, not reactionary. A simple structure for your feature well can help make sure you’re telling a wide range of different stories to your alums — by design.