ContentWise Blog

Award-Winning Work By Our Students

We had an exceptional crop of students in the Urbino Magazine Project this summer (as we did last year). You can judge their work for yourself by checking out the magazine stories on the Urbino Project website. And, within a week or so, you’ll be able to order your very own copy of the 2012 Urbino Now magazine from MagCloud (details to follow soon).

In the meantime, we’d like to highlight some particularly well-executed stories, which were honored in our now-annual “Raffie” awards. The name of the event comes from the small (and cheesy) bust of Raphael, the Renaissance master who was born in Urbino, that is given to each winning student.

FEATURE ARTICLE (best overall story that exhibits both exceptional writing and reporting)


  • Milana Katic for “Where Beer Maketh Glad the Heart of Man,” which introduces the reader to Apecchio, the heart of Italy’s emerging trend of craft beer making and beer-and-food pairings.
  • Leah De Graaf for “Simplicity,” a profile of Ashley and Jason Bartner, American ex-pats who teach the Italian philosophy of slow food and slow living to their agriturismo visitors.

Runners Up:

VISUAL STORY (a well-conceived package where words and photos enhance each other)


  • Azia Touissant and Allison Butler, “La Diva della Via.” With Azia as stylist and writer and Allison as photographer, this package went way beyond the original, simple idea of finding cool fashions at the Saturday market.

Runners Up

  • Leah De Graaf, “Simplicity.” Leah’s photographs beautifully communicate the pleasure this couple takes in their adopted Italian life.
  • Allison Butler, “Behind the Mask.” Allison uses both words and pictures to profile two Urbino mask-makers and illuminate the theatrical tradition of Commedia Dell’Arte.

REPORTING (best evidence of enterprise in reporting, including live interviews and background research)


  • Megan Northcote, “In the Footsteps of Ancient Rome” and “Driving the Via Flaminia.” Using research documents, repeated interviews with multiple major sources, and several visits to the excavation site, Megan vividly recreates a major archaeological discovery, and developed an interactive sidebar that shows visitors where they can see the ancient Roman road.

Runners Up

  • Sofia Lugo, “Healing the Cracks.” For Sofia’s story about restoring art damaged in a 2009 earthquake in Abruzzo, she interviewed not only several restorers to learn about the process of art restoration and the earthquake paintings, but also interviewed a quake victim and Abruzzo’s arts and culture director.
  • Milana Katic, “Where Beer Maketh Glad the Heart of Man.” In repeated visits to Apecchio, Milana toured two breweries and interviewed their brewmasters, as well as town officials and the staff of a beer-themed agriturismo.

SHORT ARTICLE (sidebar or stand-alone short article that exhibits excellent writing and reporting


Runner Up:


Notable: Pinterest for Publishers, Popular iPad Apps, Pricing Bundled Access

PinterestPinterest promotes publishing: The social pin-board service is driving more traffic to publishers’ sites than Google and Twitter. And visitors who get to sites via Pinterest stay there longer. (MediaPost)

How Country Living taps into Pinterest: The magazine is using it to engage its audience in a number of creative ways, including online contests. (

The 25 most popular free iPad apps: Of all time. (Mashable)

Journalistic e-books, a review: Critic Dwight Garner gave 15 “minibooks” (all Kindle Singles) a close read. “Most are blah; a few are so subliterate they made my temples ache. But several — like John Hooper’s reportage on the Costa Concordia disaster, Jane Hirshfield on haiku and Jonathan Mahler on Joe Paterno — are so good they awaken you to the promise of what feels almost like a new genre.” (NY Times)

Sports Illustrated backs down on high-priced “bundling”: The magazine’s $48 charge for an all-access subscription, accompanied by the elimination of print-only subs, proved too pricey for readers. Plus more news on the pricing of digital versus print content. (AdAge)

Let’s Make a Magazine in Italy This Summer!

Urbino, ItalySusan and I have the good fortune of being able to return to magical Urbino, Italy, this summer to teach magazine journalism in ieiMedia‘s study abroad program for American college students.

If you’re an undergrad pursuing a degree in journalism or communications—or you’re a college student who’s just interested in writing and photography and would like to work on them for four weeks in Italy’s gorgeous and undiscovered Le Marche region—why not come and make a magazine with us?

Urbino Now magazineThere are still a few slots open for the magazine program, in which students earn college credit as they work with us to create a travel publication aimed at English-speaking visitors to Urbino and nearby destinations. Participants split their time among classroom instruction, in-the-field reporting and photographing (working with interpreters who are themselves local students at the University of Urbino), and writing (and rewriting) their magazine articles. At the same time, ieiMedia runs a similar program on multimedia journalism in Urbino—and this year, we will be encouraging  multi-platform cross-pollination among the two groups of students.

Visit the ieiMedia site to read a full description of the Urbino program, to check out Urbino Now (2011), the magazine that we created last summer, and—if you’re ready for an amazing experience studying international reporting and magazine journalism—to apply online for one of the remaining slots. Technically, the application deadline has already passed, so hurry.


Food and Environment Stories Wanted

Food & Environment Reporting Network logoIf you report on food, agriculture, and environmental health issues, you need to know about a new outfit called (not surprisingly) the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Like California Watch and similar journalism enterprises, the non-profit, non-partisan Network funds reporters to do the investigative stories that aren’t getting told these days.

Says Editor in Chief Sam Fromartz: “We’ve chosen to focus on food, agriculture, and environmental health specifically because we feel these are under-reported subjects that touch people’s lives every day.”

The organization publishes their stories in mainstream news outlets including newspapers such as The Washington Post and magazines such as The American Prospect and The Nation. A recent Network-commissioned story about ractopamine, a drug fed to U.S. pigs but banned in exports to the European Union, China, and other countries, appeared on MSNBC and has so far received 420 Tweets, more than a thousand Facebook shares, and more than 180 comments.

The group is led by well-respected journalists such as Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc., and Naomi Starkman, founder of Civil Eats, and counts as advisers Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth Royte, and Allison Arieff. Financial support comes from, among others, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, and the McKnight Foundation.

I had the honor of editing the first story published by the Network, an account of one man’s successful drive to fight the water pollution caused by New Mexico’s mega-dairies, which appeared in the award-winning Western publication High Country News. I’m now on the editorial board of the organization and working with writers on a couple of other Network-commissioned stories as well. I’m enjoying the chance to watch a new journalism enterprise take hold.

Be sure to check out the Food & Environment Reporting Network‘s site. And if you have story ideas, feel free to contact me or Editor in Chief Sam Fromartz at sam[at]thefern[dot]org.

What Scholarly Publishing Can Learn from the Consumer World

Several weeks ago, I spoke at a meeting of specialized publishers who serve professional and scholarly audiences. Because the session was titled, in part, “Thriving on Disruption,” I did what I could to disrupt things—such as showing screenshots of oddball content plays I had dreamed up.

For instance, websites like “eHow for Surgeons”: Right there next to the video tutorials on how to make the greatest guacamole ever, I suggested, would be step-by-step footage showing how to do the best appendectomy ever! Or “Groupon for Aerospace Engineers”: Save 30 percent on launch pad time (group rates available). Or “Law-Yelp,” a service that lets trial lawyers share ratings and recommendations with their fellow litigators about judges, jury pools, courtrooms, transcription services, bail bondsmen, and private golf clubs.

I should explain that the full title of this panel was “Thriving on Disruption: Lessons for Scholarly Publishing From Consumer Content.” So my thought was, why not map blatantly mass-market, consumer-focused, online publishing strategies right on to the professional and scholarly realm—and see what happens?

Though the exercise may have seemed extreme, I billed it as a warm-up to get people primed for thinking outside their usual boxes. And, as I pointed out, while things like eHow for Surgeons may sound like a joke, in fact some smart publishers in the medical realm already have first approximations of such sites up and running. (See the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery’s Essential Surgical Techniques, a project we helped develop.)

Angry Bosons gameSo, while we’re at it, what about a variation on a popular smartphone game to serve a specialized audience of physicists? Instead of using a slingshot to hurl birds at pigs, players would throw protons at each other in the hopes of creating the elusive Higgs particle. Call it “Angry Bosons!”

If you’d like to see all my fake screenshots or review a list of other consumer sites I recommend as inspiration for thinking outside of your own particular box, please feel free to download my presentation slides (as a PDF document).

Notable Links: February 19, 2012

The problem with non-profit journalism: Says Jeff Jarvis, “I’m not against not-for-profit, charitably supported journalism any more than I’m against pay walls. But…Lately we are seeing too much evidence that the siren call of not-for-profit journalism seduces news organizations away from sustainability, survival, and success.” (BuzzMachine)

Don’t be a Twitter monkey: Seven ways social media editors can avoid being pigeon-holed as “Twitter monkeys.” (Poynter)

Newspapers earn online: Digital earnings are a bright spot for some newspapers. (Online Publishers Association)

Social networking for scientists: ResearchGate—a funny name, but a good idea for a niche-specific network. (The Economist)

Social Media: Career Path or Dead-End?

Twitter MonkeyA recent post on Mediabistro’s 10,000 Words blog (Should Social Media Be Taught in Journalism or Business School?) got me thinking about social media as a career for young journalists.

And then I read Mandy Jenkins’s post about why she left her job as HuffPo’s Social News Editor. Seems “social media editor” could be more of a dead-end job than a career path.

At some news organizations, the social media editor role is one based largely in strategy, product development, evangelization and training. In other cases, the “social media editor” is manually running a newsroom’s branded social media accounts alone or as part of a small team, in a role I fondly refer to as “The Twitter Monkey”….

The truth is, I’ve rarely had time in the past four years to actually step back and look at the big picture of what I’ve been doing. You have to be able to study, research and read to be able to create and evolve social strategy. You need to have time to experiment with new tools and practices and to work on new products to engage readers. You have to be available to help others with their own social media dilemmas. All of that is very difficult to do when you’re shoveling coal to power the Twitter Machine 24/7.

Jenkins isn’t  a 20-something just starting out in journalism. She’s an experienced editor and reporter who has worked at places like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Cincinnati Enquirer. She moved into social media as a natural evolution in her career. And then it looked like there was no next step.

It used to be you could start as a copyeditor, reporter or web producer and eventually (with good work) move up to be a mid-level editor, then an editor, then a director and so on. There was a system. The social media specialist, as a fairly new role, often isn’t in that system (from my anecdotal evidence-gathering). Their skills, while useful for their purposes, may not be likely to translate into larger digital roles in the minds of top level managers.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve expressed interest in jobs outside of social media – in content editing, digital management, news editor-type jobs, and been rebuffed with “but your experience seems to be in social media”. Lucky for me, I had a career before social media – and I’ve managed to do enough outside of my Twitter monkeying to keep those skills sharp.

Long story short, I was afraid I would be forever branded a “Social Media Person” – and then wouldn’t even be able to be hired for those existing social media positions, anyway.

So Jenkins is returning to her “local journalism roots” with Digital First Media, owner of local-news outlets across the country.

Jenkins managed to escape the Twitter Monkey treadmill for something with more of a future. Social media skill is a must-have for newly minted journalists. But let’s make sure they cultivate other abilities (such as these basics from my alma mater) so they can keep their options open.

(Be sure to read Jenkins’s full post, as well as the thoughtful comments.)

Guerilla User Testing: Give Your Site a Reality Check

Fellow slapping his head (a usability tester?)There’s no head slap like the head slap you give yourself while watching an innocent visitor stumble through your website. Sure it stings, but you know that it’s good for you and that soon you’ll feel better. It’s a zesty, positive head slap.

←That’s why this guy is smiling.

What’s that? You haven’t done any user testing lately? People: This is more important than flossing and Pilates.

Seriously, you’ll be amazed at the practical power of this relatively simple process. As users stare cluelessly at what you thought were crystal clear navigation labels, as they look right past that big important button as if it were invisible, and as they wander off in search of their quarry along paths that you never intended them to take—you’ll be collecting a nice, specific to-do list of inescapable, undeniable, fundamental flaws that need fixing.

If I sound a tad zealous, that’s probably because Susan and I have been in the midst of user testing for the re-designed version of the West Gold Editorial site—yes, the very site you are looking at. If you could see me right now (no, that’s not me in the picture), you’d be able to make out the palm prints on my forehead. But it hurts so good. We’ve made necessary renovations and will check that we’ve solved the problems with another round of testing. With each set of revisions, our site is becoming vastly more user-friendly.

The good news is that user testing doesn’t have to be a major production. And, according to such experts as usability guru Jakob Nielsen, you can do it yourself using a handful of test subjects. Nielsen advises that testing with just three to five users should help you spot the most critical problems on your site.

Ready to try it? Then help yourself to Guerilla User Testing, our guide to giving your site a usability reality check in a few hours.This is an update of a simple, step-by-step routine we used for many years in website critique sessions at the Stanford Publishing on the Web workshop.

The guide has examples of user tasks that you’ll need to write up ahead of time, step-by-step instructions for taking each subject through the test in a neutral manner, and lots of other tips.

Here’s one piece of critical advice to keep in mind as you conduct this humbling, sometimes nerve-wracking exercise. The user is never wrong. Or dim-witted. Or too unsophisticated. Your site must accommodate the way that real live people think and act. The user is always right.

But (sound of head being slapped) you knew that.

Download PDF: Guide to Guerilla User TestingPDF download

Notable Links: February 5, 2012

Coming soon in Esquire“: Esquire creates a video trailer for a magazine article. (Media Decoder)

Print news media go live with video programming. (NY Times)

David Carr on HuffPo spin-off BuzzFeed: “No longer is it just about so-called sticky content that keeps readers around, or even clicky content that causes them to hit a link; it’s also about serving up content that is spreadable.” (NY Times)

The Assignment Letter, An Editor’s Best Friend

Update: Ever since this article first appeared on our site back in 2004, it has consistently drawn more interest than any other resource that we’ve offered. So when we re-designed our site in 2012, we figured we would publish it anew here in the blog to make it easier for people to find.

Sure, you and the writer had a long talk when you commissioned that story idea. But two months later the manuscript is on your desk, and who can remember what the article was supposed to be? That’s where an assignment letter comes in handy. After you and a freelancer have agreed on a story, recap the discussion in writing and send your letter (or e-mail message) to the writer. It will help you get the piece you want.

Once you’ve read through the guidelines below, have a look at our sample letter (a downloadable PDF document).


  • To build an editorial foundation for the story: A clear assignment letter puts you and the writer on the same wavelength. If your written description differs from the writer’s recollection, you have a chance to resolve the discrepancy before the first draft comes in. And when the manuscript arrives, the letter allows you to judge whether the writer delivered the story as promised. You can also circulate the letter to higher-ups to make sure they buy into the assignment and recall it later. When you distribute the manuscript to other editors for review, attach the letter so they too know what the idea was.
  • To build a relationship with a writer: Writers want clear instruction; an assignment letter provides that and gives the writer something to refer to while reporting and writing. A careful summary of the story idea assures the writer that you’re a careful editor who wants to prevent those nasty surprises that so often pop up between writer and editor. The letter also lets you address a writer’s weaknesses—get two sources for every fact, avoid clichés, and so on.


  • A clear, specific statement of the story’s concept, content, and approach: Quickly and specifically outline what the article will cover and the depth of information you expect, including perhaps the types of sources you desire (personal interviews, scientific studies, etc.). Send research materials you have collected. Enclose a sample story from your magazine that could serve as a model. Confirm the approach you have agreed to and, if you two have discussed them, outline the lead and structure.
  • Your worries: Is the reporting going to be difficult? Say so. Are you concerned about the structure? Ask to see an outline. Are there points that absolutely have to be covered? Make sure the writer knows.
  • Logistical information: Describe the magazine’s payment procedures, editing process, fact-checking needs; tell the writer if you’re going to be out of town and whether you prefer to work by phone or e-mail. You can create some of this information ahead of time to cut-and-paste into your assignment letters.

For more suggestions on working with writers, see our model rewrite letter and tips on getting the most from freelancers.

Download PDF: Sample Assignment Letter PDF download