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?