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What’s Your Big Idea?

January 22, 2013

Dog Ear Consultants

nd.decWe’ve been noticing a trend with the alumni magazines that we would put on a top tier. It’s the idea of asking big questions or exploring big ideas. All of the alumni magazines we love to read are doing it. Notre Dame’s winter issue throws a big idea out, right there on the cover: “What America Needs Now.” The cover story is made up of short pieces by faculty members who were asked to pretend as if they were speech writers for Obama and draft 300 words for the next State of the Union address. The faculty members take on national infrastructure, public television, education, and immigration reform, among other topics.  In that same issue is an essay by Mel Livatino, called “Dogged by the Dark,” about a man grappling with loneliness, depression, and a nagging question about God. The dek? “Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder where His love is.” The essay is glorious (go read it, right now).

Here’s the thing: the best magazines are exploring real questions, real problems, real emotions, real life. The magazines that hit the bottom of the recycling bin first are often selling a script handed to the editors by the administration.

Now don’t get us wrong. We understand that this is a delicate job, often wrangled in politics.  It’s a job that requires editors to work both sides of the fence to get things done. We understand that many of you would love to stretch out and do stories that don’t revolve around institutional messaging or the current campaign, but you just don’t feel like you have that kind of breathing room. Our advice? Start small. Do a 300-word piece in the front of the book. Write a profile of someone just because they have a really great tale to tell. Or be bolder: Choose a feature that you think is worth the fight, then go fight for it.

Often our higher-ups hear about a topic, and don’t want to touch it for whatever reason. For folks who don’t work everyday in the magazine world, it can be tough to envision a story as it might appear in print (hell, it’s tough for us to see the end result sometimes). Ask them to let you try anyway—to your dismay and to their comfort, they can always decide to kill the story later. But our bet is that in most cases, they won’t. If you’ve done your job, the story will be engaging and provocative and smart—and they won’t be able to put it down.

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