When I was a junior, I applied for an internship at my college’s alumni magazine.
I was one of exactly two candidates — and I didn’t get the job.
Four years later, I was on the Sibley-winning team for an alumni magazine.
It was a pretty good trajectory.
For years, I told myself my alma mater had made a grave error in not hiring me when I applied, since I was an obviously brilliant thinker in the field of print alumni magazines.
But that wasn’t the reality. I was a pretty crummy candidate!
To be fair, I did get the internship the following year, when I was the only candidate who applied. I am proud to say that I was better than nothing.
But I digress.
The difference between my 20-year-old self and my 24-year-old self was that I had started systematically studying alumni magazines — and print magazines more generally — to figure out what made them tick.
I learned from lots of editors and writers and designers. I reverse-engineered the most successful stories and magazines. And with the support of my bosses at both Grinnell and Carleton, I tested many different ideas in the pages of those magazines.
I got better!
It’s been more than 20 years since I got my first gig in the field, and I’ve never stopped studying alumni magazines.
I’ve developed a lot of ideas about what alumni magazines can and should do.
This is what I believe about alumni magazines.
1. You should aim to have an amazing magazine.
All in, your school invests — easily — six figures into your publication each year, and likely many multiples of that.
Use every tool available to you to make it worth that investment.
2. Printed, mailed publications reach alumni more effectively than anything online.
Most of your alumni probably have fond feelings about your institution.
But in their day-to-day lives, they don’t think about your school that much.
The vast majority of them don’t visit your website (let alone a specialized magazine site), see most of your social media posts, or open that email that got filtered to their updates tab.
Most of them will see the magazine you mailed. You determine when your readers get it, what it looks like, and what content is in it.
For most of your alumni, your print magazine will be the main — if not only — way they hear about your school.
Optimize your magazine first when you’re thinking about communicating widely with your alumni. Then worry about all the other ways they can engage with your magazine’s content on social media, websites, and email.
3. There’s always another way to think about a story.
One of the big challenges of a magazine is keeping those annual stories — retiring faculty or graduating seniors or homecoming— fresh. How do you tell those annual alumni award winner profiles in a way that allows you not to get bored?
The good news is that print magazine storytelling can so much bigger than straight narrative formats and traditional photos.
Take advantage of all the opportunities that are available with a print magazine format to think bigger and to think differently.
What if you told that 200 word profile in 20 words? What if one year you told it in 2,000? What if you illustrated those headshots, packaged everything up into a list, or tried a quiz format?
Try something new in this issue for those “must-do” stories that make you bored. Doesn’t work perfectly? That’s okay! You can take another stab at it next year.
4. You should take at least one “big swing” in every issue.
A good magazine has plenty of structure: a certain set of departments, a handful of features, class notes, perhaps a few ads.
This approach makes sense.
You want the reader to understand what they’re getting, not feel confused with every turn of the page.
But within that structure, you should find ways to take some big swings.
Maybe it’s an ambitious “24 hours at the university” photo essay. Maybe it’s a giant story package on a big anniversary that you aim to make — *gasp* — fun. Maybe it’s hiring that writer or illustrator you’ve admired from afar to take on a story you think they could bring something really special to.
While it’s true that not everything will work out flawlessly, a lot will end up working out better than you think!
You can take the lessons from those big swings and apply them to future projects. You’ll have those amazing pages in your portfolio — and in your institution’s printed history — forever.
5. You should learn from the best — and put your own spin on it.
One of the strangest conversations I ever had with an alumni magazine editor was well over a decade ago. I pitched her a story and showed her clips from other alumni magazines that had published my work.
As I sat across from her in her office, she paged through the magazines I’d brought, and then sniffed, “How could I hire you when you work for our competitors?”
I was confused: colleges and universities don’t compete with each other for their alumni.
And that’s great! It means that you can study alumni magazines from across the country and adapt them for your own institution. You can study consumer magazines you love and imagine how their work might apply to your magazine.
Of course, you should find your own twist! Your institution really isn’t like everyone else’s, and neither are your alumni. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from others. You don’t have to start from scratch. Study the very best stuff out there.
Then make it your own.
6. You should sweat the details…
Recently, I was working with a client and saw spreads from their magazine in design. The designer had used a photo that I found powerfully captivating.
I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t look away, but then the designer described what made it work — a combination of the rule of thirds and light and leading lines.
At the time, I wasn’t able to articulate what made the feature spread and its photo so magnetic. I only knew that it was irresistible.
It reminded me that it’s important to use every tool in our proverbial toolbox to make a magazine great.
For example, I know how powerful a good headline can be in getting someone to stick with a story. I know how changing up story structures can surprise and delight readers. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you do, too.
These details affect readers’ enjoyment of the magazine, too, even if your audience can’t always say exactly why.
All of these tiny things take time to get right, and the payoff isn’t always clear.
But your readers will feel them. They’re the things that will vault your magazine into a category from “worth skimming while hovering over the recycling bin” to “worth taking to the couch and reading for the next hour.”
Sweat the details to make a magazine you are truly proud to send to your readers.
7. …but not the awards.
Look, I know I started this whole thing off by bragging about the Sibley I got a million years ago.
It’s a great shorthand to suggest “Hey, I know what I’m doing over here!”
But remember that judges for most awards are experienced in print magazines, and maybe even alumni magazines, but not your unique institution.
There are lots of stories that your readers might love because they’re steeped in your institution’s lore and values. Those stories might be things that judges simply might not “get,” because they’re not alumni!
The reality is that the most important constituents for your magazine (not the only ones, but the most important ones) do not care if you won the Fanciest Magazine in the Land award. They only care if the magazine is something they love.
Yes, awards can signal to your bosses that you’re doing good work. They’re fun to win, and I would never discourage someone from entering a magazine or a project that they’re proud to have worked really hard on.
But if you don’t win, that doesn’t mean you’re not putting out an amazing publication. The accolades that matter most are the ones you get from your readers.
Awards are great, but they’re also less important than you might think.
8. You should talk to your readers — lots of them! — all the time.
I’ve already said you should focus on doing great work for your readers. So it makes sense that you would spend time actually interacting with them and learning from them.
There are many ways to do this: through formal surveys, through prompts, through letters to the editor, through conversations prompted by a class notes entry.
Be curious about your readers and their desires for your magazine!
As the editor, you’re always in control. And sometimes, the proverbial customer isn’t always right.
But many of your readers will have incredibly valuable insights about what works in your magazine, what doesn’t work, and what could make it even better.
Listen to them. Have conversations with them. Save the praise you get from them to remind yourself of the value of your work. Be willing to consider the criticism you get from them. And respect the time they took to share their thoughts with you. They’re the reason you’re doing this work.
9. You should find ways to measure your magazine’s impact.
Let me first acknowledge the obvious: measuring the impact of a print magazine is really hard and imperfect.
But you should do your best to try.
You can use CASE’s alumni magazine readership survey tool. You can measure engagement through letters to the editor, class notes submissions, and nostalgia prompts. You can track giving through reply envelopes. You can conduct focus groups.
None of these, on their own, can tell the complete picture. And the reality is that you probably can’t do everything on this list with all of your other responsibilities — especially not for every issue.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start with one or two things on that list, and aim to make improvements over time.
Those numbers can help you see where you might need to make changes. They can help you build a case for more resources for your magazine. And they can help you show the value of the magazine you’ve worked so hard to create.
10. Your magazine should have a great personality.
Your magazine goes into the homes of your alumni, and it should be a like an incredible and charming guest. It shouldn’t be the equivalent of the person at the party who drones on endlessly about how great they are.
Because unlike a braggy partygoer, your magazine can get tossed into the recycling bin the second it becomes boring and self-important.
Remember that you can occasionally tell stories that go beyond the next new building, the big donor, and the prestigious award. You can also tell stories that are human and relatable to the many thousands of regular, non-superhero alums in your ranks.
Earn your way to the coffee table by making your magazine a joy to read, no matter what the story topic.