Avoid This Mistake With The Second-Most Valuable Page Of Your Publication

Don’t waste highly valuable print real estate.

Every month, I pick up a few new magazines from the newsstand to see what kind of stories they’re doing, what unique approaches they’re taking, and what I can learn from them. But when I picked up a copy of REI’s Uncommon Path magazine — a beautiful and engaging magazine in almost every respect — I was astonished to see its back cover. Take a look at the front and back:

What kind of ridiculousness is this?

Why is that back cover basically blank?!?

Outside of your front cover, the back cover is the single most valuable piece of real estate in your print publication. Don’t believe me? Check out these ad rates for People Magazine. If you want to put an ad on the back cover — that’s “Cover 4” in ad lingo — it’ll cost you more than half a million dollars.

Your back cover might not be worth a cool half mil, but you *should* be spending almost as much time on your magazine’s back cover as you do on its front. Tease a feature, show off some cool bookstore merch, highlight a beautiful seasonal campus photo. Whatever you do, don’t leave that space empty.

Breathe new life into your roundup stories.

Roundups are one of the most common feature story formats in alumni magazines.

You can see some of my early thoughts about this topic here — and even implement some of the ideas today if you’ve got one on your story list.

Understand what “success” is for your magazine.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Happier podcast with Gretchen Rubin, which she co-hosts with her sister. Sometimes the two talk about writing, and in a recent episode, Rubin shared how she talks to authors with a new books who are eager for it to succeed. As you read the quote, think about how this larger principle might apply to your print magazine.

“There are many ways for a book to succeed. It might sell a lot of copies. It might win a lot of critical praise. It might provide invaluable information to a small group of people who will benefit enormously. It could help you get a teaching job or speaking gigs. It might lead you to another project that you can’t foresee now. It might connect you to someone who will be important to your future. It might be a super fun intellectual adventure or something that’s crossed off your bucket list.

“And I remind myself and other writers that we can only do our best and then wait to see what the future holds. It doesn’t help to get overly focused on a single measurement of success because in the end we don’t have much control over what will happen. T

“There are many ways for a book to succeed. There are many ways for a college student to succeed. There are many ways for a vacation to succeed. Very often, there are many ways for a situation to be successful. And this is comforting because it’s true.”

 Here’s a link to the episode.

Navigate the perilous linguistic waters of online communication.

Your magazine has one voice and your school’s social media presence likely — hopefully! — has another. If you want to do a deep dive on how to communicate effectively on social media, Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is an A+ primer.

It’s especially helpful for people who didn’t grow up swimming in this online environment, but still want to deeply understand its nuances to do better work.

How Can You Make Your “Difficult Profiles” Amazing?

Today I’m excited to explore one piece of “common knowledge” about profile writing that is 100 percent wrong for higher ed communicators.

I’ll start the story in one of my favorite places: writers and editors conferences.

When I was younger, my favorite part of these conferences were the keynote talks.

Amazing writers — Susan Orlean, Jacqui Banaszynski, Malcolm Gladwell — would stand in front of packed rooms to share the incredible stories of the people they’d met and written about, from professional athletes to explorers to world-renowned artists. (For starters). Their profiles had won every possible award.

They’d talk about the weeks they’d spent with a subject, in person, to grab that one precious detail that could make the lead irresistible. They’d talk about working with an editor on dozens of drafts to hone the structure. They’d talk about the careful work that the fact-checker did, correcting the tiniest details to ensure that the finished piece was completely bulletproof.

Listening to them talk felt magical and enchanting. I would float out of that keynote talk overjoyed with possibility.

girl mouthing "boom" and signaling with her hands the there mind is exploding with surprise

And then I would look at my own real-life to-do list.

  • I had a 45-minute call scheduled for the following Thursday with a donor who was a sales manager at a medical device company, and who I’d be writing a short profile about for the annual report.

  • I had to write interview questions for a faculty member whose work was so opaque that I barely even understood her bio.

  • I had to address two pages of “suggestions” that the president had added to his one-page Q&A.


Maybe you’ve been there and know what I’m talking about.

Keynote advice probably doesn’t apply to your profiles.

The reality is that the inspirational stories and tactics we hear from top-tier journalists and writers don’t usually apply to our profiles in higher ed communications.

We don’t have weeks to spend with a subject or the budget to fly out to see them. We can’t go through a half-dozen drafts. We don’t have dedicated fact-checkers.

I love the work that I get to do for schools, but in all of those keynotes, I never heard much advice that felt like it applied to me.

So I spent years cobbling together my own list of successful approaches and tactics for the profiles I was responsible for on a day-to-day basis.

The reality is that some of the best things I’ve learned over the years are the exact opposite of advice offered by the gurus giving the keynotes. (I’ll share one example below.)

Slowly, I figured out how to tell some of the most difficult profiles.

I’m not talking about the ones that are so electric that they basically write themselves.

I’m talking about those “must-do” stories about the incoming president, the boring donor, the brilliant-but-not-super-articulate student.

I learned how to write difficult profiles that earned praise like this:

And this:

Here’s one example of advice you shouldn’t follow.

For years, I hung onto advice I got from top journalists about keeping my questions close to the vest.

Here is advice from a journalism website that encourages exactly that approach:

If you’re a certain kind of journalist — interviewing media-weary celebrities or CEOs with something to hide, for example — this advice makes perfect sense!

But I encourage you to put yourself in the mindset of the typical person you’re interviewing. They probably haven’t done a ton of interviews. They’re probably not working for hours with publicists to craft quotes and position themselves.

They’re regular people who are scared that they’re going to say something dumb and end up looking silly in front of their classmates and friends and colleagues. They’re worried that in the moment of the interview, they’ll forget something important that would have made the story better.

They probably just want to prepare so they can do a really good job for you.

Let them!

Yes, they might start off stilted, but it’s almost always easy to nudge people beyond their talking points, especially when they understand that you’re both aiming at the same thing.

Giving sources the opportunity to prepare by sharing my questions in advance has never made a single one of my interviews worse — and it has made a whole lot of them way better. It requires me to do smart preparation well in advance. And at the end of many of these interviews, many sources will ask if I want their notes, or if they can say one more thing that they wanted to mention.


You’ll do lots of difficult profiles over the course of your career. When anyone offers you the chance to make one of those profiles easier, LET THEM.

Over the years, I’ve learned – the hard way! — many different tools and tips to make difficult profiles easier. These are just a few of them. Do you have your own tips you’ve learned along the way? Let me know.

Research That Shows Exactly How To Improve Your Difficult Profiles

Recently, I’ve been reading a *lot* of profiles about incoming college presidents, chancellors, and heads of schools.

I have plenty of opinions on these profiles, but they could generally be summed up this way.

gif of sloth yawning

These new leaders are clear-eyed about the challenges their schools face! They’re ready to listen to their constituents! They’re excited to help build a brighter futuuuuuuuuuuure!!!!!

In short, these profiles are…fine.

We all have to do them!

But if you’re ready to make that profile better — if you’re ready to make any profile better, I encourage you to think about adding one detail that can change everything.

Your profiles need to go beyond the talking points.

First, let’s just acknowledge that when you’re doing certain types of profiles — the big-deal donor, the new dean, the head of the board of trustees — you’re probably going to have to cover some topics that won’t exactly set fire to the page. Strategic priorities. Core values. Ideals.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to cover only those issues.

As an editor, as a writer, as a communicator, you must be an advocate for your reader.

Your reader might care about all of those priorities and values and ideals! (I mean, who knows?) You should of course include those pieces. But your reader could also read a white paper if that’s all they wanted to know.

Your job — as an advocate for your reader — is to help make the people you’re covering human.

And that means going beyond the numbers and strategic initiatives your profile subject is probably going to want to talk about.

Magnetize readers by illuminating human details.

I’ll give you one example of an alumni magazine presidential profile that didn’t want to make me die.

It was a 2018 profile George Washington University’s new president, Tom LeBlanc. In the lead, LeBlanc shares a story — to an audience of hundreds — about the first time he tried to log in to the university’s system:


The very first thing we learn about this guy is not that he’s smarter than us, more powerful than us, or that he’s got some super genius vision that’s going to change the world forever.

The very first thing that we learn is that he’s pretty much like the rest of us.

He’s human.

I am ready to read about this guy because even though he is smarter than me, more powerful than me, and has a super genius vision that’s going to change the world forever, he is also like me.

Research shows the benefits of sharing subjects’ human quirks.

I’m not sure that President LeBlanc enjoyed being referred to as “the hapless new guy.”

But psychological research suggests that the anecdote that kicked off the feature probably didn’t make readers think less of him.

In fact, research shared in the book Persuasion by psychologist Robert Cialdini suggests the opposite. “Mention[ing] a small shortcoming…can assure [people of a subject’s] sincerity,” he writes.

Showing someone’s human side — even if it doesn’t seem entirely flattering — makes people more likable. More important, it makes them more credible about the things that matter.

The unique power of human details in alumni magazines.

An alumni magazine is designed to share (mostly) good news and inspiring profiles. Often, we go too far in that direction, creating profiles that portray people in our communities as flawlessly smart and successful and generous.

That’s why it’s even more important to find these small details that can showcase your subject’s human qualities.

It’s okay to share that they have so many books in their office that they’re toppling off the desk. It’s okay to share their propensity to tear up every time they hear “Let it Go” from the Frozen soundtrack. It’s okay to share that they don’t always get their login password right. These are the kinds of details that you can divulge even (especially!) about the most successful members of your community.

What do you think? What profile subjects are on your list right now that could be improved with small details that highlight their humanness? Send me an email to share your thoughts.

Will Your Readers Love Your Story? Find Out With A “Performance Pretest.”

When I was an editor at an alumni magazine, one of the most frustrating experiences I dealt with was never knowing whether or not the brilliant story idea I had was going to resonate with readers.

Would a story generate lots of congratulations, letters, and other feedback? Or would it barely create a ripple?

a gif of someone pouring a mailbag of letters onto a tableThe reader mailbag.

You’ve probably been here before.

A clever story idea isn’t enough.

Sometimes, you have a relatively simple idea that gets an incredible response.

Here’s one example: Campus myths. A feature story on all those too-good-to-be-true stories that have circulated for decades is almost always a guaranteed winner. People really want to know if that famous alum actually walked the horse up to the top floor of the residence hall, if a dorm was really designed to be riot-proof, and if those steam tunnels actually have a more sinister purpose.

Other times, you can spend hours crafting a story idea and packaging, only to see it completely flop.

Years ago, I did a story in which I tried to re-create a single class session from popular professors at a college. It was a hugely time consuming process *and* it nobody cared.


While it’s true that there’s no 100 percent surefire way to predict a hit or a flop, there is a method that can help. And I’m excited to share it below.

A simple test can illuminate promising ideas.

Before committing serious time and resources to a story for your print publication, you can do a simple test to find out how people are most likely to react — and even gather information to make a potential story even better.

I call it the “performance pretest.” It’s a strategic question posted on Facebook or other social platform that’s specifically designed to help you gauge what your audience wants. I’ve shared a couple of approaches below — plus the exact template I’ve used successfully to get the most helpful responses from alumni.

1. Ask a specific question on social media

Ask a related question on Facebook — or whatever social platform tends to get the most engagement from your users.

For example:

  • Considering a story on campus concerts? Ask your audience which ones they remember as students and why they resonated.

  • Working on a project about retiring professors? Ask your audience to share their stories about the folks on your list.

  • Thinking about an ongoing series about campus buildings? Set up a poll to see which one you should use to launch the series.

  • Want to do a piece on some of the school’s most iconic objects? Ask your audience to weigh in.

Their responses — or lack thereof — can help guide your work moving forward. They can also be a smart way to bring potential sources to the surface.

When I considered pitching a story on my own alma mater’s best pranks, I posted a question on Facebook and got dozens of responses. It was clear that this topic would be a winner. (More on that below.)

I noted which comments got the most likes to help me decide which pranks I would definitely need to include. A few folks even shared their own pranks that they were still proud to have executed successfully — or suggested folks they knew would have some good information.

I’ve also created posts that sank like a stone. I heard crickets when I asked for campus traditions worth writing about. That’s useful, too! Better to know it before I took up pages of valuable magazine real estate.

2. Go on a fishing expedition.

Sometimes, you don’t have a specific topic in mind and simply throwing out a general request can work, too.

I recently saw someone post a note about starting up a podcast linked to their alma mater. They wanted to know if alumni had any suggested topics. Ideas came rolling in — favorite college haunts that no longer existed, campus traditions, the history of beloved programs, campus pets.

Some were amazing ideas, some were interesting but impractical, some were off the wall. But the responses (and the responses to the responses!) were illuminating.

Follow this template for your performance pretest.

If you’re going to do a performance pretest, take an extra few minutes to do it right. Here’s one pretest I did, with a few notes on the structure I chose:

a screenshot of a facebook post soliciting ideas on a certain topic

1. Give it a headline.

Posts like these tend to be a bit longer than most, so a descriptive headline can help. That way, people don’t skip a post they might otherwise like to comment on.

2. Use specific examples to show what you’re seeking.

Sometimes readers will just need a little bit of a jump start to put themselves in the right mental space to help you out. If you’re interested in learning more about campus concerts, suggest one example from a decade ago, two decades ago, and three decades ago. This approach will help people from a range of eras jog their memories so they can contribute.

3. Be clear about ways people can respond to your request.

Sometimes, people want to respond publicly! But every time I’ve offered the chance to contact me privately, people have done it.

4. Be ready with a starter comment.

In this case, enthusiastic responses rolled in right away, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes people want to contribute, but they don’t want to be the one who launches the conversation. If people don’t weigh in right away, grab a colleague or a friendly alum and ask them to weigh in on the post — you can even pre-write a response yourself! Get the ball rolling and people will be more likely to respond when they know they won’t be alone.

Share your own performance pretest stories.

What kind of performance pretests have you done to see if a story is worth pursuing? What have you learned? Let me know!

P.S. I love seeing your magazines, and I often share some of the best stories in this newsletter. Put Capstone on your mailing list so I can share your best work.

Capstone Communications
4733 Zenith Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55410

These tools will make your life better

Today, I want to focus on the tools I use to help track everything from emails to story ideas to my to-do list. If you’ve been struggling with any of these challenges, these are my best recommendations.

Track daily to-dos and deeeeep thoughts with these notebooks and pens.


Screenshot of a tweet by PJ Vogt saying "Bought a new notebook, this'll probably fix everything."


I’m picky about my notebooks and pens. I’m a lefty, which means I have to have smear-proof pens and I have to be super careful about notebooks with coils on the side. As a print lover, I also appreciate nice paper and beautiful design. Below are some of my favorites:

  • I like these Kikkerland retro pens — they’re cool looking and they’re ballpoint. I lose a million pens a year and they’re not too expensive to replace.
  • For my daily to-dos and random scrawlings during interviews (as always, I trust the $1/minute service from Rev for my transcriptions), the Cambridge Limited Action Planners are A+. The layout is perfect for daily lists, there’s a spot for notes and dates, they’re perforated, and the covers are sturdy and water repellent.
  • For things I want to have handy long-term, the Stalogy Editor’s Series 365 Days Notebook is excellent. I take lots of notes on the work I’m doing so I can refer to it later. The paper is thin but high quality, the small gray grid is a good guide without being distracting, and the notebook lays flat and can take a beating.

Get your most important online metrics delivered daily.

I get an email from Sunrise KPI each morning that shares a few key details for me, including visitors to the Capstone Communications website and new subscribers to my email list. You can also create integrations to get likes or followers from your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, or even metrics you track manually through Google Sheets. This isn’t a super fancy tool, but it’s a nice way to keep track of a bunch of different numbers without doing a deep dive into every account.

Never lose track of an email again.

I looooooove Boomerang for Gmail. You can use it to schedule emails and get reminders on emails that haven’t gotten responses (hello, busy faculty members). There are also other features I don’t take advantage of, but you might find useful, including Inbox Pause and follow-up reminders. Plus, I love that it shows you at the end of every year how effective the reminders you sent were at getting a response.

Improve Magazine Metrics, Master Email Blasts, And More

The school year is just starting to ramp up for many of us, and the slower pace of summer is all but done. I know you’re busy! So let’s get straight to it.

school bus speeding down race track throwing sparks

Here’s what my team and I have been up to:

Want to find out how my team and I work with clients? Email me anytime.

Now, on to a few more useful things for you.

How do you measure your magazine’s engagement? One of the challenges of print magazines is measuring engagement. How do you really know whether people are reading your stories and appreciating what your magazine brings to their lives? One way: tons of emails and letters to the editor after an issue comes out. Find out the exact techniques one editor uses to all but guarantee significant feedback after every issue. Want to know more about print magazine metrics? Email me and let me know what you’d like to learn more about.

Humanize your class notes. In previous newsletter, Harvard’s Bill Weber talked about the Business School’s novel-length class notes section. Even if you can’t devote 450 pages to your class notes (!!), you can make that section a must-read. Check out the “Club Notes” section of Runner’s World magazine. The tagline says it all — and might be a motto you could adapt: “Catching up on the mostly relatable triumphs of Runner’s World+ members.” I love it.

Is it time to make your magazine email blast better? Your magazine may be your flagship publication for your alumni and friends, but you probably also have other media working in tandem to support your print publication. For example, you might send out email blasts to promote content in your magazine. Want to do that better? A great resource is Not a Newsletter, which was developed by former New Yorker director of newsletters Dan Oshinsky. It is a firehose of information, but worth digging through to find the gems.

Humans, Not Heroes

The other day, I was listening to an interview podcast on a run, and the guest said something that literally stopped me in my tracks. She was talking about her background, and she paused over her college education. Here’s what she said:

“I think I got a pretty nice education at [my university]. It wasn’t as good a school then as it is now, and I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into it now! I can see how competitive it is.”

The person who said this — the person who is not quite sure she would have the chops to get into her alma mater — was ELIZABETH GILBERT. You probably know her as the person who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, or maybe you know the movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts, or maybe you know her as one of Oprah’s BFFs.

I laughed when I heard it. It wasn’t because I thought that Elizabeth Gilbert was correct in her assessment. (I MEAN, COME ON.) I laughed because I’d heard a version of that comment from a million other alumni who had attended a million other schools. It was always some version of “I don’t know if I’d even get into [my alma mater] these days if I had to apply now.”

It’s easy to see why. In their alumni magazines, they’ve seen the announcements of their institution’s rise in the U.S. News rankings. They’ve seen the awards that the students are getting, the grants that faculty are landing, and the incredible work that everyone connected to the institution is doing.

If our jobs are to showcase our schools in the best possible light, it turns out that we might be doing those jobs a little TOO well.

Of course we want our alumni to feel proud of the work our schools our doing!

But we also want them to feel something else when they read about fellow alumni, current students, and even faculty. We want them to think to themselves: “These are my people.”

So how do we do that? To my mind, that doesn’t mean we scrap all the news about the incredible work our school’s people are doing. It just means that we should add in a few elements of humanity and humor into the mix.

gif of incredibles characters huggingMake your alumni superheroes lovable.

Here are three ways I think about doing that:

  • Ask the people you’re profiling about the elements that humanize them. Yes, that CEO/nonprofit leader/successful research scientist may have rocketed to the top of their field in relatively short order. But one thing you can do in your interviewing (and even give them a heads up in advance, so they can think about it), is to ask them a version of this question: “What was a significant failure you faced, and how did you overcome it?” The question still allows them to be the hero of the story! But it also requires them to share something that has humbled them.

  • Include a section devoted to non-braggy feedback. One of my favorite sections in my own alma mater’s alumni magazine is “Prompted” in which the editor asks a questions designed to get responses from…well, just about anyone.

    One example: “Write a memoir in six words, no more, no less.” Responses were funny, thoughtful, and humble. (Sample: “Resolved to make mistakes. Mostly successful.”) I could definitely see myself among this lovable pack of nerds and weirdos. Add a little section to your class notes if you can’t devote a whole page to something like this.

  • Restructure your feature concepts. Some of my favorite stories to report and read are ones that are more human by design. For example, years ago, I did a story for Macalester called “The Thing that Changed My Mind.” The very premise demands that people start at a point in which they were wrong!” Plus, the trajectory of the story is really what an education is all about: expanding our mind to open ourselves up to new ideas, empathize with other points of view, and seeing new ways of understanding the world we live in.

If you’ve got a little more leeway with your publication, you might even consider a story explicitly about failure! (This is hard! But it can be done.)

Your publications for your alumni should showcase the very best of your school. But they should also make your alumni feel that your school is a place they can still recognize, even as it improves and evolves.

Reach out to tell me how you’ve tried to humanize your own publications — or the struggles you face while trying to do this.

“I Wanted A Magazine That Would Make People Say, ‘I Don’t Want To Throw It Away.’”

One of my favorite things to do every year is talk to the winner of the Sibley Magazine of the Year.

This year, I was thrilled to talk to Maria Henson, who is editor of the knockout Wake Forest Magazine, a three-times a year publication for alumni.

Henson, a 1982 Wake Forest alum, has been at the magazine since 2010. And while the Sibley is a big deal for any alumni magazine editor, Henson had already earned some prettttttttty serious hardware before nabbing this year’s prize. In 1992, before she’d joined Wake Forest’s team, she won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials about battered women that she wrote for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. (You can watch a Moth-style talk that she did at Harvard about those editorials here.) Thirteen years later, she listed a second Pulitzer on her resume for her work editing a series of editorials in The Sacramento Bee by Tom Philp about the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

And even her return to Wake Forest is a tale in itself — she routed herself through Botswana (!!!!) before returning to Winston-Salem for her current job. You can read more about that here.

In the interview that follows, Henson shares some great advice, magazines you should consider picking up for inspiration, and the goals worth aspiring to for your own magazine.

Once you’re finished, check out the links at the end for other Sibley-related interviews.

Tell me about your team.
We have a team of four people.

I’m the associate vice president and editor at large. I edit the magazine and I teach one journalism class a year. My managing editor is Carol Hanner, who came out of newspapers. Kerry King, who’s worked here 30 years, is also a graduate. Michael Breedlove joined us last fall as class notes editor and deputy editor. He helps oversee our budget and handles our freelancers’ contracts and invoices.

Outside of our office, we have a freelance designer, Julie Helsabeck, who’s fantastic. She’s worked with us since late 2010, including on the redesign. The University’s talented creative director Hayes Henderson also collaborates with us.

When you arrived, you had lots of newspaper experience but no specific alumni magazine experience. How did you make that transition?
I did what a reporter does when I got here: I reported on the magazine. I went back for 10 years and looked at magazines really closely. I started to interview people.

[Denison University and Dog Ear Consultants’] Maureen Harmon was so helpful. I asked editors how they did it, how they thought about changing up their magazines.

I was looking at examples I liked, but I also went out to bookstores to look at general interest magazines. That’s where the learning came from for me. I didn’t walk in with any preconceived notion, other than that I loved stories, and it felt like we had a wonderful vehicle in front of us to tell really inspiring stories.

Can you give an example?
I love to walk through bookstores to see if anything sparks an idea. And one book I loved was The History of New York in 101 Objects. I thought, “We could do that for Wake Forest. What objects would we pick? That’ll be great fun.” (Here’s that story.) And I find things on Twitter that spark ideas, like “Letters of Note.”

What magazines inspire you?
Garden & Gun had a lot to do with my thinking when we were doing the redesign, starting in 2011. (Check out issue archives here.) I like Fast Companyand Orion. I also look through Wired, Esquire, and National Geographic.

I’m always looking at how they’re putting their stories together. How are they visually thinking about chunks of information? Before our budget year ended in June this year, I went over to Barnes & Noble, and bought a handful of magazines for all of us to look through.

Our table outside my office is filled with magazines from other colleges and universities.

What advice would you give to other editors who want to create award-worthy magazines?
Be in tune with your designer. The art piece is so critical, because people are looking for an excuse not to read your piece. Don’t make it hard on them to read it!

Another thing: pay for the photography, pay for the illustration. You will be rewarded for it, and people will keep the magazine around.

Do you give specific direction to photographers and other artists?
One thing I often say is “Look for small details.” It’s not just a headshot. What are those small details that could be spot images throughout the story? I give them final stories or at least rough drafts to help them shape their vision.

But mostly I say to people, “I trust you to get what you think is the right story, with the right visual. I want some options. I want to make sure I have some horizontal and vertical.” And that’s about it.

What do you think a good magazine should do? What has yours done that you’re proud of?
When I came here, I had spent 27 years in newspapers, but I had always looked forward to seeing my alumni magazine and seeing what people were doing at my university.

But in my newspaper job, my phone was ringing off the hook. I had newspapers stacked on my desk, books I wanted to read, magazines for my job, editorial board policy papers from politicians. It was too easy just to skim and throw the magazine away.

What I wanted was a magazine that would make people say, “I don’t want to throw it away. There’s another piece in there that I want to read.”
Want to read more about Sibley winners and judges? Check out interviews from previous winners and a judge.

2018 winner Dan Morrell for HBS Alumni Bulletin
2017 winner Renée Olsen for TCNJ Magazine
2016 winner Heidi Singer for UofTMed.
2015 winner Dale Keiger for Johns Hopkins Magazine
Sibley judge Jeff Lott

Better Transcriptions, Grumpy Alumni, And Video Quick Hits

We’ve had a busy summer here at Capstone HQ, but we took some time to put together an update with what we’ve been up to. Enjoy!

First, here are a few stories the Capstone team has worked on:

I also take on a few projects each quarter. Here’s a sample:

  • Do you want to hear my opinion on politics? OF COURSE YOU DON’T. You want to hear the opinions of Harvard Law professors who weigh in on the history of presidential power grabs.

  • It’s a business truism that you never want to be the smartest person in the room. When you’re interviewing a bunch of Phi Beta Kappa members for a story about the prestigious, brainy organization, you can pretty much guarantee that you’re the dummy in the equation. I was! It was delightful. My story for Albion here.

  • Many women (and a lot of men) have had to think about whether to change their names at marriage. Does it matter what we call ourselves? This story for Smith Alumnae Quarterly will make you appreciate the complexity of this process — and why, as a culture, we seem to care so much.

Now, on to a few other things we think you’ll love:

  • Check out our video series. Over the past few months, we’ve put together a bunch of short videos to improve your communications. We’ve shared ideas on headlines, covers, sources, and interviews. Missed any? Visit our YouTube channel here.

  • Does your magazine make your alumni feel bad? Find out why your magazine may be alienating your alumni — and the simple tweaks you can make to draw them back in.

  • Could this Twitter account be the inspiration for your next story? Not long ago, I started following an irreverent Twitter account, @justsaysinmice. Its aim was simple: post all those breathless media stories about scientific research touting “new treatment” or “miracle food” with the caveat that few noted within the stories: the research had been conducted only in mice.

    In other words: all those tantalizing headlines weren’t a reflection of what was actually going on — not by a long shot.

    The account itself is making a big impact, but it also made me think of the work our schools do to promote faculty research. Could you do a story that explains the actual process of research? How does a smart idea go from lab bench to bedside? Why does it take so long? A story I did for Purdue awhile ago, Eureka!, gets at this topic.

Should you pony up for buck-a-minute transcription? I’ve made no secret of my love for Rev, a knockout transcription service service that does lightning-fast transcription for $1/minute. (Capstone is categorized as a “highly active user” of Rev’s service.)

Still, I often hear from folks who want to know how I feel about AI transcription for about 10¢/minute. Here is how I feel: THUMBS DOWN.

Recently, Rev’s AI division proved me right. In what seems to me an inappropriately braggy blog post, they shared that their AI transcription service got 14 out of every 100 words WRONG.

bar graph showing accuracy of different AI transcription services
AI transcription is terrible. The end.

Yeah, Rev AI was modestly better than the other terrible options, BUT THEY’RE ALL CRUMMY. Invest in good transcription! You’ll save yourself a *ton* of time that will allow you to do more important things than…well, transcription.

As always, we love to hear what you think about these ideas. Hit reply and let us know what you agree with and what you disagree with!

Harvard makes the case for a class notes section as long as “The Grapes of Wrath”

As a former class notes editor, I couldn’t possibly be more excited to share this interview and some incredible resources with you.

Here’s the scoop: Many years ago, I served as the class notes editor for an alumni magazine.

It was grueling, thankless work. I carefully transcribed cursive notes from alumni who were 3,000 years old. My eyes crossed while I captioned wedding photos with dozens of alumni faces. And the only time I heard a word was when alumni called to tell me I’d misspelled the name of their baby.

Trust me: I understand, at a cellular level, why editors want to put their class notes online to free up print real estate. I understand why they want to cut those sections in half or ditch them entirely.

But that might just be the wrong move.

It’s not just that alumni routinely rank it as the number one thing they turn to when they get their magazines. It’s that it’s one of the best ways to truly engage a huge number of your alumni — which is probably a big reason for your magazine’s existence in the first place.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

You can take the word of Bill Weber, the Director of Alumni Communications for Harvard Business School.

headshot of Harvard's Bill WeberBill Weber

HBS Alumni Bulletin, the quarterly alumni magazine for the school, enlists the help of nearly 1,000 (!) volunteers to produce their Class Notes, which stretches to 450 (!!!) pages for each quarterly issue. (Alumni are split into 3 different categories, and get the 150 most relevant pages for them, but still.)

In a year, that’s 1,800 pages — TWO copies of Infinite Jest stacked on top of each other.

We had a wide-ranging conversation about class notes, and below, you’ll find an edited version of our discussion.

Weber shared:

  • What it takes to do this kind of work for the magazine
  • Why Harvard values it so much
  • Specific benefits he sees for the institution as a result

He also shares an incredibly valuable PDF of prompts and ideas that I think you’ll love — no matter what your class notes are like.

So…without further ado:

You have, by far, the most robust class notes section of any school I’ve seen. Why does Harvard value this section so much?

Class Notes is the single most-popular piece of communication that comes from the school on a regular basis. We have done reader surveys for years. Consistently, 98 percent of the respondents say, “Well, the first thing I do is I turn to my page in the Class Notes in the Bulletin. Then if I have time, I’ll look at the front part.”

image of most recent cover of HBS Alumni Bulletin magazine

The most recent issue of HBS’s magazine

Is its popularity what makes it valuable? Is there an explicit return on investment?

People want to know what other people are up to. So you have to feed that interest one way or another. The whole point of feeding that is to remind people of their connection to the school and to strengthen the bonds among them as a group. Then, when other communications come from the school or it’s time to do an annual gift or we’re in a fundraising campaign, those alumni are positively inclined towards the school and supporting it. That’s what it’s all about.

I just don’t think, in the near-term future, we would consider getting rid of Class Notes. I think it would be World War III, frankly.

Let’s break down that ONE THOUSAND VOLUNTEERS number.

We have two kinds of class secretaries. For older classes, there is one secretary per class. (Our oldest class with an active secretary is 1950.) But the way the student body is structured, each class is divided into 10 sections of 90 or so people. At some point, we opened it up so there would be a class-wide secretary for each class and there would be a section secretary for each 90-person cohort. So there’s 11 secretaries for any one class, after some point.

They report to us through an online tool. It’s a content submission form, basically, where they can upload their columns and upload photographs. That’s the system that we use to edit all the notes. It has various editing tools built into it — like automatically shortening vice president to VP, or bold-facing names — to help.

How do you manage that many people?

We have a variety of guides and documents. We have a style guide that is sent to each of the secretaries. Then we remind them on a regular basis of certain things. For instance, there’s a length limit (1,800 words) and a photos limit (two, except for reunion classes) — which they push back on all the time, naturally!

The goal is to have them use the online submission tool, but we have certain older, longstanding secretaries who just can’t cope with the online form. So for those, they’ll have someone like their granddaughter email us the column.

There’s one elderly alum who cuts and pastes the letters and emails he gets from classmates into a document. It’s almost like a ransom note. Then he mails it in, so we receive it in its pasted, taped-together form. Then there’s another one who hand writes his 1,800 words. We serve them as best as we possibly can.

The majority play by the rules and use the online tool.

It sounds like you have guidelines, but you also let everyone use their own voice, within reason.

Right. We want to preserve the voice and the tone of however somebody writes. We know that particular kinds of people like to volunteer for this role. They’re networkers and social connectors. Their personality shines through in the way they communicate with people. So to keep it genuine, we want to keep their voice.

When we are doing the editing of the notes, the majority of the work involved in the editing is more like copy editing: making sure that punctuation is correct and that our automated abbreviation system didn’t turn something into gobbledygook. We’re looking for misspellings and that occasional “gone too far” political comment or swipe at a classmate.

The personality is part of what makes it appealing for the readers, because they remember Fred or Susan as speaking that way, and so it comes across. Having people who will put that bit of extra effort into reporting on their classes and things like that makes it hugely different.

There’s no institutional messaging or anything else like that in the Class Notes. It’s just building the bond among people who went to school together and having that then reflect on their personal relationships to each other or their personal loyalty to the school. (Want to see some of the tips and prompts class secretaries get? Get the 2-page PDF here.)

Folks get the most 150 relevant pages of notes for each quarterly issue. That’s still a lot of pages! How do you think about costs?

Yes, it’s a huge operation, and it’s expensive as all get-out. But it’s all worth it.

Every once in a while, we revisit the length limit for columns. I’ve been here 10 years. Just prior to when I came, they made a decision to get more strict about the length, because the notes were growing quite a bit. We’ve maintained that relative strictness, but we haven’t reduced it.

Then there’s the paper stock. It’s very thin but not terribly transparent, like newsprint. We choose that because it’s so much thinner than the paper in the front of the magazine and therefore weighs much less. From time to time, we have to make changes in that paper. It’s definitely worth it, in terms of keeping the cost of the notes down.

Everyone that we have a mailing address for is sent a copy of the magazine, all 84,000, regardless of where they live, including the two alums in Uzbekistan.

Let’s go through some of the other arguments against class notes sections. First, everybody’s already on social media, right?

That’s a challenge that we have in classes from the last five or six years in particular. They’re posting a picture of their breakfast on Instagram. Everyone in their group knows the minute they have a baby. So there we fight a little bit of an uphill battle of, “Why should I submit a report about my latest vacation when I posted 400 Instagram photographs of our trip to Nepal?”

But even for those classes, there are secretaries. They work to gather news as best they can. Not every class or section is perfect, but most of them do it. My feeling is that as those alumni age, as they get to their fifth or their tenth reunion, the classic nature of Class Notes will make much more sense. At some point, they’re going to lay off of Instagram.

Or get off certain platforms altogether. As people change social platforms, they might not bring all of their university classmates with them.

Platforms are changing. We’re present in all of that stuff, and we celebrate success and all the rest with classmates on those social platforms.

We monitor things. We keep a record of how many pages of notes were done by each class and section in each issue. We do it just to watch the up and down cycles. That’s where we noticed it was like five, six years out or so, is where the Class Notes are the thinnest. Then once you get past 10, it’s pretty consistent. Nearly every class and every section has a secretary, and they’re producing notes at least two or three times per year in the production cycle.

Another gripe: class notes aren’t particularly timely, at least compared to what most of us are used to.

Class Notes, in the form that we do it, runs completely counter to all other publishing trends because it’s on paper and it takes a long time to get the word out. The news, what’s going into Class Notes, is four to six months old by the time somebody receives it. But it has a sort of timeless quality that doesn’t bother the majority of the alumni.

That said, we post Class Notes online as soon as they’re ready in our production cycle. That’s usually three to as much as five weeks ahead of when the magazine arrives at people’s doors. We promote it in our e-newsletter and mobile app as soon as it’s available online. And people do read the notes online — especially international alumni, for whom it takes even longer to receive their magazine.

Are there other things that you think make the print version valuable?

The classic argument about why a print publication has benefits over a digital one is the browsing factor. We do run photographs. There are a couple photographs for everybody’s column. If you flip through the pages, you’re going to find interesting pictures that might pull you in. There’s the person riding the elephant or parasailing somewhere or on top of Mount Everest that gets your attention. It gets you to read the caption and maybe read a little bit of the item. That’s great if that happens, because those are reflections on the interesting lives that our alumni have.

Do you get story ideas from this section?

Class Notes are a gold mine for story ideas. Those ideas are both business-related (people starting new companies or second careers, writing books, supporting nonprofit work around the world, etc.) and personal experiences and adventures. One of my favorites from mining Class Notes was an alum who holds the Guinness World Record for having climbed the Seven Peaks AND sailed all Seven Seas. And he sailed some of them with his wife and their severely disabled daughter. Now he uses the experience as a motivational speaker on leadership and mission focus. (You can read the story here.)


What do you think? How is your own class notes section working — or not working? Shoot me an email and let me know!