Before & After: A magazine cover makeover

What do you do if you have a mediocre cover?

Check out this 82-second video to see the before and after images of the most recent Medicine at Michigan cover — including the exact process editor Katie Vloet took to transform the cover from so-so to spectacular.

Send me an email to let me know what you think!

Are You Maximizing The “Prestige of Print”?

A few months ago, I was chatting with a young alum about a story I had been asked to write about her. She asked where the piece was going to appear, and I explained that it would be both online and in the print magazine.

She got very excited. “Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be real, too!” she said, asking me to mail her a copy once it was published.

More valuable than you think.

On the face of it, it was a strange comment. Yet I knew immediately what she meant. You probably do, too.

Seeing a story in a print magazine — a beautiful physical object — felt more “real” than the exact same story online. Even if that online story had the potential to reach a larger group of people. Even if it could be shared with her friends and family with the click of a link.

I’ve always thought that print offers something that digital can’t, but I’m not sure I fully grasped the contrast until I read that the New York brand published a new story online every six minutes. (Note that grim dek that accompanies it: “…and ‘the editing process is zero, pretty much.’ “)

In the time it took the outlet to publish a single print publication, more than 3,000 stories were published online.

The print publication, by contrast, includes an average of just 30 stories in each issue. In other words, just 1 percent of its stories made it to print.

The prestige of print

You might not have the same ratio of print stories to online stories at your institution, but it’s probably directionally similar. Maybe your institution has 10 or 20 or 50 times as many stories online as in print.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that we unconsciously value the stories in print publications more than online ones.

If you’re going to take the trouble to print a tiny percent of the stories your institution produces, people will value that content differently. They will see those stories as more prestigious than the significantly greater amount of content that people can find on your website.

The internet feels infinite. Anyone can post almost anything at any time.

But you can’t put everything in a print magazine. You have to make judgments. You have to decide what is worth creating, editing, designing, printing, and mailing.

Not everything is going to make the cut.

Think about the content you’re putting in your magazine right now. Are you using that space wisely? How could you make it even better?

A headline trend worth copying

A good headline can mean the difference between a story’s success and failure.

So how do you write one that works?

Here’s a recent trend I’ve noticed — and loved — in headlines.

This 90-second video shares plenty of examples that you can use as templates for your own work — and it’s ideal for that profile headline you can’t quite crack.

(Want to know how to write a scroll-worthy profile? Check out this video.)

Like these? Loathe them? Take the survey here to help shape the next topics Capstone covers!



The Behind-The-Scenes Work of an Irresistible Cover

Before I share some of the most useful things our team has dug up for you, here’s some of our recent client work.

  • We might all love a good legal drama — but how much of any given movie or television show is actually credible? We asked alumni from Fordham University School of Law to weigh in on some of our culture’s most beloved legal dramas and share the legal fictions and emotional truths that drive these shoes.

And as always, I take on a few individual projects each quarter.

Contact me anytime if you want to find out more about working with me or the Capstone team.

Now, on to a few cool things we’ve uncovered for you and your teams.

Create a better cover. A compelling cover can move a magazine from the “recycle” pile to the “read” pile. So how do you make the most of that precious real estate? The Behind the Cover series, short videos from the New York Times Magazine, gives some incredible insight into how their team moves from initial concepts to finished cover.

Use the SU technique. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro shared some of the ways he was able to tell stories unlike any other. There are all sorts of lessons from his work, but I liked the simplicity of one of his interview techniques.

Here’s what he says: “In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer,” he says. “When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SU’s.”

Start on the right foot. You spend weeks or even months creating your stories. Don’t let simple mistakes prevent your audience from reading the work you and your team have worked hard to craft. Here, I share how to get your alumni to crack the cover of your magazine. Then find out how to write a headline that keeps your audience hooked.

Want To Hear More From Your Audience? Here’s How.

If you’ve ever struggled to fill your letters page, you’re not alone.

Over the past few months, I’ve talked to dozens of editors who tell me that their letters page could use a boost. Some say they’d be thrilled to get a handful of letters each issue. Others admit they’d be delighted to get even one.

There’s no question that it can be dispiriting to spend months on a magazine and hear crickets once it’s published.

It also means you might be missing out on larger opportunities. Good letters pages can lead to cool new story sources and ideas. They can measure the pulse of your alumni community. They can help you show your magazine’s value to your institution.

So how do you make the letters page of your magazine more robust and meaningful?

Today I’m excited to share some insider secrets from the University of Chicago Magazine. (By the way, this post is focused on letters pages, but you can use many of the principles and action steps here to boost feedback in other places: class notes, social media, web comments. Think expansively!)

The University of Chicago Magazine has a killer letters section. Not only is it common for the publication to get 10 or more letters for each quarterly issue, but they’re also typically meaty letters about specific stories in the magazine and about university priorities. (You won’t find any meaningless “Keep up the great work!” notes in the bunch.)

University of Chicago’s Laura Demanski

What are they doing right? To find out, I went straight to the source: editor Laura Demanski.

Demanski, who’s quick to credit the foundational work of longtime editor Mary Ruth Yoe, admits that building an enviable letters section isn’t easy. “I have a fair amount of stress about inadvertently killing our letter section,” she jokes. “I’ve always been super attentive to it and worried when we don’t get a lot of letters.”

In a longer conversation, she shared how she and her team work on this section, as well as all the tiny, under-the-radar efforts that are required to make a letters section great. I extracted some of my favorite principles and action steps from the conversation and shared them below.

I feel confident that you’ll come away with at least one idea to strengthen your letters page for your very next issue.

Principle #1: Strong letters pages are a reflection of the investment a school has already made into its alumni community.

“I often think of our alumni news and our letters as a package. We have class correspondents for the college news, and we give them quite a lot of space compared to many of our peers. There are distinct voices in there, both from the correspondents themselves and the alumni who are quoted. I think it contributes to this larger sense that we want to hear from you.”

  • Erin adds: This is incredible. I have a whole other post about class notes coming later this year, but think about how easy it would be for an alum to write a letter to the editor when they already see plenty of familiar voices in their magazine. It actually feels like a magazine that belongs, in part, to them.

Principle #2: People want to talk to humans, not institutions.

“We want to create the sense that there are people here. It’s not just ‘the institution’ or ‘the magazine.’ ”

  • Erin adds: Having a unique, authentic voice is important, and even small details make a difference. For example, I can’t stand it when I look to contact an editor and the email address is something like This makes me feel like I’m sending my message straight to a cloud-based trash can.

Principle #3: A good letters page requires as much work as a story of a similar length.

“We take our time editing the letters page. We edit for clarity and concision. Then we fact-check all the letters. We also have fun with our headlines.”

  • Erin adds: They do! In a recent issue, an alum grumbled about the fact that the institution informally referred to itself as UChicago. The headline? Ew, Chicago.

Principle #4: The letters page can be an ongoing conversation. (Within reason.)

“We get many letters in response to other letters. Sometimes the dialogue goes on for awhile, and the initial occasion for the letter-writing starts to get so far away that we will cut it off at some point, but we like to see readers in conversation with each other. In the issue that’s coming out soon we have the third round of a debate about how the Supreme Court should work.”

  • Erin adds: Even with a quarterly publishing schedule, it’s not easy to keep momentum going for a conversation. It’s even tougher if you’re publishing three or fewer times per year. When schools cut the number of issues they publish, the letters page is likely to suffer.

How to make your letters section better

Now that you know some of the overarching principles that are required to make a letters section as good as it can be, what can you do to get that process started? Here are a few ideas:

Action Step #1: Ask for what you want

“I’ll explicitly encourage letters or feedback in my editor’s notes. It’s an important page because it’s in a more personal voice, and that sometimes puts me in one-on-one correspondence with readers. Sometimes we get letters as a result.”

  • Erin adds: Banish “We welcome your feedback!” from your pages in favor of a clear, specific request.

Action Step #2: Encourage commenters to expand their ideas

“If there’s a perceptive tweet or an online conversation that wasn’t originally meant as a letter to the editor, we might ask the reader to think about making it into one. We’re pretty proactive about that if we see the signs of something promising.”

  • Erin adds: The two tips above share a common theme: Sometimes letters to the editor don’t start as a letter to the editor! You can help an alum transform the kernel of an idea into a meaningful letter.

Action Step #3: Expand your definition of letter-worthy topics

“Our guidelines invite letters about the contents of the Magazine or about the life of the University. We happily publish letters that don’t have to do with [a story] we published but with general University news.”

Action Step #4: Mine your past

“In every issue we publish a letter from the archives under the headline ‘Blast from the Past.’ Obviously, it helps to have decades worth of back issues. We find some fun things there, and we think this contributes to the sense that writing to the Magazine is an ongoing tradition that readers can take part in.”

Action Step #5: Reach out to your writers

“After a story comes out, I sometimes talk to the writer about any response they’ve gotten directly. In our Fall 2018 issue we published a story about cancer and immunotherapy by a writer who lives in the neighborhood and knows many alumni, and who shared some of the sidewalk conversations she had about it. Even if that doesn’t result in a letter, it’s a useful way to get feedback.”

  • Erin adds: Your sources may also hear feedback worth following up on. Read here to find out how one editor systematically connects with quoted sources from every issue.


For me, the big takeaway here is that building a great letters page requires consistent, intentional work over many years. But the payoff is a magazine that alumni feel connected to and value.

Have your own tips about getting more letters to the editor? Let me know!

An Irresistible Format for Long Profiles

Every once in awhile, you need to do a long profile — a new president, famous alums at the zenith of their careers, a big donor (gulp).

If you’ve got a profile that’s 2,000 words long or longer, how do you keep people engaged?

Watch the video to learn a simple approach that you can steal from David Marchese, one of our country’s very best profile writers.

Love the video? Hate it? Let me know.

The Right Words To Make Good Stories Better, Plus Better Back Pages

1. Steal these ideas.

If you’re looking for inspiration in writing, photography, design, and storytelling structures, check out the finalists for the the American Society of Magazine Editors annual awards here.

Every year, I pick a few new magazines that have been nominated for general excellence and subscribe to them. Even if they cover topics I’m not usually interested in, they’re always worth the investment.

2. The exact words that will help you take stories from good to great.

How do you give feedback to make creative work better? Chuck the compliment sandwich. Here’s how we think about it at Capstone. We also love the ideas in this HBR story on the topic (do a search for the useful sidebar “The Right Way to Help Colleagues Excel.”)

3. Alumni weekend bingo.

Oh, man is this good. This back-page piece for the University of Chicago Magazine is clever and perfect. I love that it’s in the magazine, which will make even those not making the trek back to campus think fondly of their alma mater.

4. How to tell a story through time.

Over the years, I’ve heard from plenty of people who want to tell the story of a single student through time — from arriving as a first-year student to the moment of commencement. They’d like to tell the story over the course of several issues of the magazine, maybe one story a year, maybe one story a quarter.

But let’s be honest: this is a big gamble. Even the most well-vetted student is human. What happens when that student develops a substance abuse problem, drops out for a semester to take care of an ailing parent, or gets derailed with anxiety or depression? They — and you — probably don’t want that story broadcast to tens of thousands of people.

I recently heard one possible solution: storytelling through groups. In this 6-part series from Death, Sex, and Money called Hot Dates: Romance Right Now, a handful of single folks share a summer’s worth of dating in real time. The eight men and women carry the story over the course of a few months. It’s great because you hear a wide range of stories, get to know the general contours of dating today, and see relationships develop, evolve, and deepen (or end). But not every person is featured in every episode, taking the pressure off if they had an experience they’re not ready to share with the world.

Listen to the series and think about how you could adapt this approach in your own work.

Use This Coverline Approach To Grab Your Readers’ Attention

I love studying consumer magazines to understand how to translate their best techniques to the world of education publications.

One big difference I’ve seen between consumer publications and alumni magazines is their approach to coverlines. Check out the short video below to see what they (probably) do better than your magazine right now, and how you can steal their exact technique for your next magazine.

Want more of these? Send me an email at and tell me what you’d like to see!

The Surprising Hidden Value Of Your Print Magazine (And How To Leverage It)

A few months ago, I did an interview with Skidmore’s Mary Monigan, who shared what happened when her institution (mostly) ditched its print alumni magazine.

In the interview, she said something that stuck with me, even though (at the time) I didn’t fully understand why.

She told me that when she spoke with alumni about eliminating the magazine, the alumni would specifically tell her “I want to have something to put on my coffee table…when my friends come over, we talk about it.”

What was going on there? Was ‘having something on the coffee table’ really so important? Couldn’t alumni simply read the magazine online?

But a few months later, I read a story that helped illuminate what was really going on when Monigan’s alumni told her they wanted a physical copy of the magazine.

Your magazine is more than a magazine

In the amazing book Revenge of the Analog, author David Sax talks to Tom Standage, an editor at The Economist. The Economist has nearly one million print subscribers and a jaw-dropping $152 annual price tag.

Yes, the highbrow magazine consistently provides readers outstanding reporting and insight in its pages.

But the magazine’s print popularity — particularly among the millennial subset, which makes up a huge proportion of its subscriber base — is also about something more subtle.

“We assume younger people want [the print] The Economist as a social signifier,” says The Economist‘s deputy editor. “You can’t show others you’re reading it with the digital edition. You can’t leave your iPad lying around to show how smart you are.”

In different ways, we’re all showoffs.

In other words, these print magazine subscribers wanted to put something on their coffee table that said something about who they were — or at least, who they wanted other people to think they were.

Still skeptical?

Check out a similar phenomenon with the New Yorker here.

And now let’s bring this back to your alumni magazine.

Your alumni magazine sends a social signal

As humans, we’re constantly sending subtle social signals about who we are.

The Instagram image of finishing a half marathon we’ve trained for is designed to signal something to others. (I’m fit and disciplined!) That Facebook friend count signals something to others. (I’m popular!)

And your print alumni magazine that folks set out on their coffee table before friends or neighbors come over helps your alums send a social signal about their intelligence and skills. Depending on your institution, your magazine might also send signals about their religious or political leanings, too.

Social signaling offers a different way to think about the value of your institution’s magazine. Your magazine isn’t just something that your school uses to share information with far-flung alumni. It’s also a physical object that helps alumni signal something to others in their lives.

This isn’t likely the primary reason alumni keep your magazine around. But it is a real one and a significant one.

How to make the most of your magazine as a social signal

So how do you create a magazine that alumni want to use as a way to signal their intelligence, their thoughtfulness, and their views on the world that align with your school’s? Read on for just a couple ideas.

1. Make. That. Cover. Beautiful. I’ve talked about how the cover is the billboard for your magazine. Get that right, and you’ll capture their attention at least from the mailbox to the recycling bin. A couple good cover lines, and you might just persuade a skeptic to keep it around. A beautiful magazine on an alum’s table can help showcase their excellent taste.

2. Don’t be afraid to put your school’s name on the cover! I’ve worked at more than one school that has made the decision to minimize — or even eliminate! — the school’s name from the cover of the magazine. They’ve come up with some other name that they believe represents the brand of the institution — like Discoveries or Pursuit or Bold Ventures. (Apologies if this is the name of your magazine! I made all of these up.)

But to my mind, there’s no good reason to make your magazine’s title too subtle. If your alums are proud to have attended and graduated from your institution, they’ll be happy to have a magazine with your alma mater’s name on the cover.


Before I wrap this up, there’s a remarkable coda to Skidmore’s story, which I learned only recently.

After deciding to radically reduce the number and content of its alumni magazines, Skidmore later reversed course.

The school has since decided to ramp back up to two magazines per year. Every six months, Skidmore’s alumni have a great magazine in their hands — and something beautiful to put on their coffee table to show the world who they are and what’s important to them.

Monigan calls it “a huge win for alumni.”

I do, too.

The 1-Minute Hack to Better Stories

One of the things I hear most frequently from readers is they want more hacks–more small things that they can implement immediately to improve their content, their magazine, and their design today.

So today, I’m thrilled to share with you a small experiment I’m trying: a series of short videos (60-90 seconds) that share a single improvement that you can make to your content to improve it.

The first one is a non-intuitive editing hack I learned from an editor years ago.

You can use it to make at least one — and probably more than one! — of your stories better in about 10 seconds.

Have an idea for a video you’d like to see? Shoot me an email at