Telling the “non-story” and other great ideas

Head down on big projects? I know the feeling.

Still, it’s worth it to take the occasional breather to see what other folks are doing and to get new ideas. Here are some cool things worth your time this week.

•  Focused ambition. When a lot of us think about ambitious pieces in our publications, we imagine long, Kathryn Schulz–style features tackling major topics through deep reporting. But I want to show you what I think is equally impressive — and it was accomplished in a single page.

Could you do something like this in your publication?

The one-page graphic story for Forward, the publication for the Iowa State University Foundation, is a beautiful synthesis of many elements. It tells the story of a scholarship recipient, Reannon Overbey. Click here for the PDF.

Here’s the insider view from Forward editor Jodi O’Donnell. “Reannon is a recipient of the Elizabeth Kirke Memorial Scholarship in Graphic Design. Kirke’s parents established the scholarship after their daughter’s death during her senior year at Iowa State. The Kirkes were touched to know that their scholarship went to a student who’d experienced the untimely loss of a family member and has similarly tried to turn the loss into doing good for others.”

Let’s also be crystal clear. These kinds of unique storytelling approaches take a ton of work: “The comic-strip-style story is among my most favorite to appear in Forward,” Jodi says. “It took quite a bit of work — developing and communicating the assignment to the writer, Sue Flansburg, who then interviewed Reannon; working with Reannon, a graphic design major who sketched some initial panels and then ensuring her vision was realized in the illustrations; and finding and assigning it to an illustrator (who happened to be local). We found a time for Reannon to come to our offices, where our creative services director had her do various expressions/poses (e.g. grasping her head in frustration, etc.) that he photographed, so the illustrations would look like her. She also provided photos of her dad and her dog to work with. In the end it turned out just as we all had imagined, most of all the ‘Awww’ factor. Such fun.”

I encourage you to come up with your own “swing for the fences” stories. They’ll often turn out better than you imagine. If they don’t? You’ll definitely learn a ton and gain experience for next time.

• Writing about generations. When I was an editor, I often got “story ideas” that sounded something like this: “Did you know that the Johnson family has had FOUR GENERATIONS of students at our college? That’s incredible! We should write a story about that.” I would politely nod, tell them I’d file that away, and promptly forget about it. Because — let’s be honest here — IT WAS NOT A STORY. It was a moderately interesting sentence, maybe.

Or was I getting it all wrong? A recent story I saw in the New York Times sports section about fathers and sons in professional baseball made me rethink my assumption. Check it out here.

See what you notice about the way the story makes comparisons and notes contrasts between the generations. Pay attention to the way the story shares details of fathers letting go and sons carving out unique identities for themselves. There’s a lot going on here, and if you have to do a similar “generations” story, there are many good ideas.

• What Capstone is up to. My team and I worked on “The Pursuit of Meaning,” a cool story for St. Ed’s, the alumni magazine for St. Edward’s University. Our team also did a project for Blue, Drake University’s alumni magazine, about reasons for optimism.