Runner’s World editor: New Boston Marathon issue was ‘most intense issue we’ve ever done’

June 11, 2013
Category: Newsletters

The latest issue of Runner’s World, now on newsstands, is dedicated almost exclusively to the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath.

“We all knew pretty quickly that we would do something like this, even on race day, even though we didn’t talk about it and we were consumed with a lot of other things — first and foremost making sure everyone was safe and accounted for,” David Willey, editor-in-chief of Runner’s World, said in a phone interview. Many of the Runner’s World staff were in Boston to run or watch the marathon.

By the time the bombings had occurred, the June issue had already been printed and bound, which meant they’d have to cover it in the July issue. Willey said the story meeting for the July issue lasted more than two hours. Team meetings usually last an hour or less.

“I started by saying that we were going to cover what happened in Boston in the July issue… it was going to be ambitious and it was going to be told from runners’ perspectives,” Willey said.

The staff scrapped the planned July issue and began developing new content. They had a full production schedule ahead of them, which meant they could “add depth and insight and new reporting” without feeling “like we were trying to break news or… keep up with the insatiable news cycle,” Willey said.

The team decided to reconfigure the first part of the magazine to fit coverage that readers expect from Runner’s World — information on training, injury prevention and nutrition, Willey said. They saved all the feature space for Boston coverage.

“We didn’t even know at that point how many pages that meant,” he said.

A staff-wide effort

Organizing the Boston coverage meant taking inventory of who was available to write for the issue. All 30 staffers who work on the magazine, from reporting to art and design, worked on the issue.

“We have a lot of people who are in Boston every year,” Willey said. “We had a built-in network of contributors who were there and who know the Boston marathon, who know its significance, and who saw and experienced what happened that day.”

One of the magazines’ features, “4.15.13,” is based on reports from 20 eyewitnesses. It’s told in sections by time, beginning with reports from 6:15 a.m. on race day, and ending at 11 a.m. the following day.

Willey suggested the format for the story based on one he had worked on while at Men’s Journal. There, they had told the story of what happened on 9/11 through a timeline focused on firefighter responders.

The “4.15.13” feature is 21 pages in the magazine, and the online version, while abbreviated, includes content that didn’t make it into the magazine version. The iPad version includes more interactive features, and more content.

“It’s a really powerful way to tell a story,” he said.

Another story looked at the attack’s impact on spectators.

“We were heartbroken by the whole thing, but especially heartbroken by the idea that the people who turned out to cheer other people on were the ones who suffered the most,” Willey said. “This event really caused all runners to look outward in a new way at spectators, at the people who are an integral part of any race. I mean, you couldn’t have a Boston Marathon without spectators.”

Mark Remy wrote the piece, and according to Willey, “wrote it pretty much the way we published it.”

Nick Weldon wrote a story on William Evans, the Boston Police superintendent who was present at many of the important moments in the event and investigation. Evans ran the marathon, stayed to secure the scene, met the president when he visited Massachusetts, and was in Watertown when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was finally apprehended. Willey said the story wouldn’t have come about without Weldon’s reporting.

“Within a small group that we were interviewing, his story was sort of legendary… but it wasn’t until Nick had immersed himself into that subculture that he heard about that story,” he said.

Runner’s World also profiled Bill Iffrig, the man wearing the orange singlet in the now-iconic photo of the aftermath, and interviewed numerous other runners who were near the finish line at the time of the explosion, or who ran earlier in the day. Willey said the magazine’s reputation helped earn their sources’ trust.

“The people we talked to were by and large more willing to talk to Runner’s World… because they understood how we were going to handle the story,” he said. It was a “runners talking to runners thing as opposed to runners talking to media.”

Getting the magazine ready for publication

The publishing schedule for the issue was demanding, especially considering the size of the staff that worked on the issue. Willey said the entire team worked on the issue and brought in additional staffers to produce the iPad edition.

The staff also had to handle new challenges in production. Christine Fennessy was promoted to a features editor position around the time production started on the July issue; “4.15.13” was the first story she edited in this new role. The online team also contributed to additional reporting for the website.

Moreover, the stories developed as the issue progressed. For example, the idea to cover the repainting of the finish line, which resulted in the online piece “Fresh Finish,” came on the same day the repainting occurred. The medium for publication also changed along the way. Runner’s Magazine began enhancing its iPad edition with multimedia content for this issue, rather than doing it later in the year, as originally planned.

Not much has slowed down since production started, even though the team wrapped up the issue before Memorial Day weekend.

“The issue is just now getting out there in the world. … Now there’s a whole other news cycle,” Willey said. “It will create a second life for us.” That’s meant that the marathon bombing has been omnipresent in the newsroom.

“We feel like we’ve been living this since April 15th,” Willey said. “It’s been hard to go back to our normal day jobs… after the intensity of the Boston stuff we’ve been working on.”

Learning from the latest issue

Moving forward, the Runner’s World team plans to use some of the strategies they used in the July issue in future issues.

Willey said that the magazine would use photos differently now than they had in the past, because of the “4.15.13” piece. Most of the timeline in the piece is the written word, and descriptions of what happened at a particular moment from an eyewitness. However, the entry for 2:49:43 — the moment the first bomb exploded — is a simple series of photographs on two stark black pages.

“It’s just a brilliant use of print, in a way we have never used before,” Willey said. “We’ll definitely think about using our pages for images in a different way to leverage what print does best and help images tell the story alone.”

Ultimately, the production for the July issue brought the Runner’s World team closer together.

“To stay immersed in it and go even deeper into it was really hard… It was the most intense issue we’ve ever done,” said Willey. “The way that this staff responded and the job they did, I’m just so impressed with them, and so proud of them.”

Correction: This story originally misinterpreted the magazine’s plans for its mobile app. It has been updated to reflect the correct information.