The Messy But Rewarding Process of Finding Your Idea Factory’s Stories

I once heard a talk by Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle, who led the award-winning University of Portland quarterly for more than 25 years, in which he called colleges and universities the “idea factories” powering the world’s advancement.

We, his audience of those institutions’ communicators, were tasked with answering a single question, again and again: “What does your idea factory do?”

In practice, that task isn’t so simple. Our idea factories contain multiple warehouses, boiler rooms, and — yes — silos. And for many of us, our factories exist not on a single campus but across cities, states, and sometimes countries. How can we, members of typically small teams, possibly discover all the best stories our idea factories have to offer?

Our nine-person Johns Hopkins Development and Alumni Relations Communications team is a central office responsible for covering nine schools, umpteen institutes, a world-renowned medical center, and campuses located in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Bologna, Italy, and Nanjing, China. To tackle the challenge of finding stories in each of Hopkins’ corners, we went old school. Like 1970s Washington Post old school. We created our own newspaper beat system.

How does it work?

Beat Assignments: Just like newspapers have reporters for the crime, education, and business beats, each member of our team serves as a beat leader for an assigned array of schools, departments, and initiatives. The number of beat responsibilities varies based on a staff member’s core task. The goal: No one person carries the burden of finding every story idea Hopkins has to offer.

Beat Meetings: Our team members meet with their beat contacts about every other month. They’re trained to ask the right kinds of questions that will yield good story ideas. (Pro tip: “So, what story ideas do you have for me?” isn’t the right kind of question.) We try to be more specific about what we’re looking for. We’re a development outfit, so many of our questions center on fundraising. For example:

-What gifts recently have come in?

-Are there gifts made one or two years ago that are impacting students and faculty right now?

-Who are your rising-star students and faculty, and have they benefited from any philanthropy?

-Are there any donors you’re looking to cultivate or steward right now — and why?

Editorial Meetings: Guided by our internal rubric for telling compelling giving impact stories (see more about this in the previous post Keeping Development Content Fresh), each team member assembles a short list of four to five ideas to pitch at this first-Monday-of-the-month meeting. Colleagues ask beat representatives questions about their story ideas, fleshing out details to determine:

-Does the idea merit pursuit?

-If so, in what way? Print or video? Website or magazine? E-newsletter or social media?

-When would be the best time to publish the piece? Is it tied to a specific event? A milestone anniversary? A season?

Editorial Calendar: Story ideas that pass muster in the editorial meeting are added to our editorial calendar, a grid that tracks these ideas as they progress toward publication. But document serves a variety of purposes beyond basic project management. It helps us determine whether we’re giving each part of the institution its fair proportion of coverage and identifies gaps we need to fill. It also allows our director to share with his higher-ups information about the volume and diversity of content we’re producing. Finally, it provides a quick and easy way to identify previously produced content that can lend depth to new projects in development.

Great Success!

We’re a little more than a year into our implementation of this beat system for our team, and our website, e-newsletters, and social media are filled with continuous rich, original stories from across the Hopkins idea factory. We’re also much better equipped to respond to any questions about gaps or fairness in our coverage. I can report that it’s been at least 12 months since we’ve had any colleagues express concern that we hadn’t covered their area in a while. But I sleep soundly knowing that, if someone does raise a question, we’ve got ideas in the hopper that we can run with thanks to our beat system and editorial calendar.  

About the Author

Kristin Simonetti Hanson is a senior associate director of communications for Johns Hopkins Development and Alumni Relations. Since trading in her childhood dream of becoming a sports broadcaster for a career in nonprofit communication, Kristin has served as the editor of The Magazine of Elon at her alma mater, Elon University; a senior editor for CASE Currents magazine; and an alumni engagement and communications manager at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. Still a sports addict, however, she resists the urge to incorporate athletics cliches in the myriad articles and case statements she writes for the Rising to the Challenge Campaign at rising.jhu.edu.

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