For a long time, I thought magazine mission statements were a bunch of baloney.
They were just a few lofty but meaningless sentences created in conference rooms, posted on websites, and immediately forgotten.
Take, for example, the mission statement of a trade magazine I worked at not long after college. It was something along the lines of “We aim to constantly raise the bar while delivering proven results.”
But then I joined an alumni magazine where the publication’s mission actually mattered.
It had been thoughtfully crafted, it meant something, and it got referred to during the process of making the magazine.
The statement itself wasn’t magical.
I don’t remember it exactly, but it was about supporting the institution’s liberal arts aims, connecting alumni to the college, and demonstrating the college’s ongoing value to alumni.
In some ways, it was pretty straightforward.
But its implementation did feel a little magic.
For example, we had a great advisory board that met before we began working on each issue.
While our team provided a list of potential stories to the board long before the meeting, board members would occasionally ask us to include a truly wretched story. (“We should run a profile on an administrator who won an extremely niche award in their industry!”)
We’d pretend to think it over before we noted that the idea didn’t really mesh with the larger mission of the magazine.
Usually, we were able to find a better place to share the announcement.
Notice that we weren’t shooting down their idea because we thought it was dumb! We were returning to the mission of the magazine — which we’d all agreed was the correct one — and we were making sure that every story was taking us in the right direction.
Your magazine mission can help you create a better publication
Your mission statement really can matter! Here’s how:
1. Good mission statements make it easier for leaders to say YES to unorthodox (but still really great) ideas.
One of the goofiest things I ever pitched as a staff writer for an alumni magazine was a series of one-page, tongue-in-cheek interviews with the leaders of wacky student groups: a startup croquet or Quidditch team, or a fly-by-night pep band that insisted that its entire repertoire was different versions of “I’m a little teapot.”
While sometimes administrators got a little grouchy about it, it proved to be enormously popular with alums.
After all, for every Rhodes Scholar or fellowship winner, there were 100 other students who grinding away getting pretty regular grades — but maybe taking on a fun or experimental project in their spare time. In some ways, these extracurricular groups and projects were the whole point of a liberal arts college! And that was how we pitched it.
By recognizing those students, who were smart and interesting and pretty relatable, we really did help connect alumni to their alma mater.
By the end of my tenure at the magazine, these inventive but outside-the-box students (like this guy, who launched the school’s inner-tube water polo team) were landing cover stories. Alumni loved it. Judges loved it. Did I mention we won a Sibley? We won a Sibley.
2. Good mission statements make it easier for you to say NO to bad ideas.
Like the story I mentioned at the beginning, you’ll sometimes get requests to cover a story that is not relevant to your audience or your mission.
Often, you’ll want to figure out a way to make it work!
After all, the people making the request are probably nice and well intentioned (and maybe a lot more powerful than you are). And they probably think of the magazine first because it’s visible and high-status.
But saying yes to almost every request is how your publication ends up with eight pages of campus news with irrelevant stories about internal promotions and boring awards.
Those stories doesn’t serve your audience. And it probably doesn’t even serve the subjects of the story or people who requested the story it in the first place!
Your mission statement is a way to articulate what your magazine is for — and also, by default, what is not for.
3. Good mission statements make it easier to hone in on the right stories for your magazine
When I worked on staff at an alumni magazine, we were always spitballing ideas that we thought readers would find irresistible.
Sometimes we veered into NSFAM (not safe for alumni magazines) territory.
A roundup of alumni white collar criminals? The secret history of the biggest money pit of a building on campus? BOY DID WE HAVE STORIES.
But these stories, while delightful to us — and maybe in some cases interesting to our readers! — didn’t really help us achieve our mission.
By contrast, we might not have been thrilled to devote pages of the magazine to retiring faculty (for the millionth time). We might have secretly been plotting to kill the class notes, which were tedious to assemble and always included a typo that we saw only after print copies hit our desk. But the reality was that these were sections that did help us achieve our mission. And it was our job to figure out how to make those sections the best they could be.
A good mission statement kept our magazine team honest.
Even today, when I am writing up story assignments or pitches for clients, I have have a separate line item called “why” that I fill out. WHY are we doing this story? Why this topic, why this angle, why now? If I can’t make a compelling case for it at the point of the pitch or the assignment, it’s time for me to take a closer look at the value of the story.
Now what? Questions to ask yourself about a mission statement
Yes, your mission statement actually can make a difference to the magazine you put out into the world every few months! Here are three questions to ask yourself to see if you’re on right track:
- Does your magazine have a mission statement?
- Do you AND your leadership buy in to your magazine’s mission statement?
- Does your mission statement help steer your story development?
A good magazine mission can serve as a north star, guiding your work.
It can help you say YES to the right ideas and NO to the wrong ones. It can help you stay on track to make a magazine that connects with your readers and helps you accomplish the larger goals of your institution.