While July is typically a slow month for trade magazines grinding out the summer, Hanley Wood’s Builder dedicates that month to doing a feature of social significance for its industry. Its July 2006 article, “Into the Limelight,” focused on the powder-keg issue of illegal immigrant laborers in the home building category.
The idea was first raised at an editorial retreat in 2005. Yet with such a touchy subject, the Builder staff found few willing interviewees. “We hit a complete stonewall,” says editor Denise Dersin. “Nobody wanted to talk about it at all. There was talk of rounding up illegal immigrants, and putting people in jail that employed them. We kept plugging away with little success.”
The Builder staff decided to change tactics by approaching the story as an anonymous survey. Within days the survey received 795 responses, including 50 percent admitting illegal immigrants were working their job sites. Most amazing to Dersin was the volume of answers to open-ended questions in the survey—480 pages worth.
Getting Sources to Talk
The staff started to backtrack sources with the e-mail addresses of survey respondents. “We said, ‘we know you don’t want to be quoted but would you be interested in talking about it? I feel like there are people who agree with you, would you be willing to say something for our readers,’” says Dersin. “That allowed us to define the universe of what we were going to talk about in this story.”
Sources began talking and the staff split the story into four sections, including an introduction focused on where the industry stood in terms of legislation. Dersin assigned the design editor a picture essay to run as a corollary to the story. “We hired a local photographer just starting out who wanted a photo journalism piece in his portfolio,” she says. “He gave us a lot of time for not that much money, relatively.”
One of the sections included a service piece on ways of working with people who can’t read English, or their own language. “That went last in story because that was piece I wanted readers to take away with them,” says Dersin.
Judges Comments: “Multi-dimensional coverage for an issue that profoundly affects the readership. This story package is wall-to-wall tight, from heds to caps to the copy and photos. A double-shot-morning-coffee reader wakeup. They could have gone down many easier paths in dealing with this topic, but they didn’t, and it paid off.”