The “five-year value” of your print alumni magazine

One of my all-time favorite podcasts is Longform, which features in-depth interviews with narrative nonfiction writers.

Recently, the podcast featured Casey Cep, the author of the white-hot national bestseller about Harper Lee called The Furious Hours.

In the interview, Cep mentioned that when she was a college student she got a fellowship that allowed her to write for her alumni magazine (Harvard, natch).

The two continue to talk about alumni magazines for a moment, and then the host, Aaron Lammer, says something very interesting about his experience with his own alumni magazine:

Black text on a white background with a quote from Longform podcast host Aaron Lammer that says,  "I bought myself five years of my parents not thinking I was a failure because the Wesleyan alumni magazine mentioned Longform [podcast] once.

Yes, this was just a few fleeting moments in a much longer podcast about something totally different. Lammer wasn’t dead serious about the exact value of that alumni magazine story.

But do you see what’s going on there, directionally?

Being featured in a print magazine gave his work credibility to other people.

Lammer didn’t have to hope that the people he knew would check out his alma mater’s website. He didn’t have to self-promotionally send out a thing on Facebook or Instagram or email. The print magazine is is literally being sent to people’s homes.

You can probably imagine that his podcast’s appearance in the magazine was noted by fellow classmates. You might imagine his parents keeping a copy of that magazine on their coffee table, which they might point to when their friends were over.

I actually emailed Lammer about this after I heard it; he said the Wesleyan magazine is one of the few magazines he still gets in print. And if you listen to his work, you’ll realize reading magazines is a huge part of his job! Wesleyan’s magazine still stands out to him, in part, because it is in print. (You can read more about my many thoughts about this in my case for print alumni magazines — with real numbers.)

In today’s world, print feels fundamentally more valuable than online. It is a thing people can hold in their hands, a thing that says: “We invested real money to bring this story to you. It’s worth the paper, the staples, the printing, and the mailing.”


It’s why I get so furious when magazine editors talk cavalierly about ditching their print magazine’s class notes sections or putting them behind a password-protected wall on a website. I get frustrated when schools decide to cut pages or cut issues because of the cost savings, without realizing the value they’re destroying in the process.

It’s not just information that people are after. It’s the validity and credibility that print provides that makes a difference.

How many people keep a magazine around their house for months because they’re in it? How many people tear out that tiny callout you wrote about the alumni author in the class notes? How many people tuck a story about themselves from your publication into a folder that they keep for their whole lives?

For many people, their appearance in the class notes, in a tiny blurb up front, or in the authors section, may be the biggest-deal recognition they ever get for their work. And it was their alma mater that cared enough to feature them! That’s a good look for your institution.

Even tiny stories might be worth a full five years of parental pride.

Find ways to do more of that, not less.

It’s not just those starting-out stories that matter. A few years ago, I wrote a story about a billionaire (yep, billionaire with a “b”) who owns dozens and dozens of television and radio stations across the country. This guy knows media inside and out! He controls it! And when that story about him appeared in the alumni magazine, his administrative assistant emailed me about three seconds after it was published to ask if her boss could get 10 copies, pronto. (I passed the note along to the editor and suggested she charge $1 million per issue, but I think she mailed them out for free. Nobody takes my good advice.)

I don’t want to take too much credit for the fact that he later went on to give millions of dollars to the school WHICH IS NOW NAMED AFTER HIM, but you can probably imagine that the story didn’t hurt.

Your print magazine matters. Feature lots of people at all stages of their success, and in lots of ways, whether you give them 20 words or 200 words or 2,000 words.

They may never tell you that it means a lot to them. But it absolutely does.

Do you need more exclamation marks in your writing? Yes! Here’s why.

Here are a few things my team and I have found lately that we think are worth your time.

Struggling with a roundup? Roundup stories are a great way to profile a series of alumni or faculty in a similar field, but how do you make that story reader-friendly? Here are a few suggestions.

Everyone can appreciate some dumb grammar jokes, right? Here’s the rest of the list from above.

And speaking of punctuation… Many of us spent our formative years learning to excise exclamation marks from our writing. But in some cases, we might want to use more, not fewer. If you spend a lot of time emailing — connecting with sources, writers, editors and others — read the argument for adding in a few more exclamation marks into your messages.

An intriguing oral history. I like just about any story about colleges that appears in mainstream magazines, so of course I loved this oral history about Bennington’s freshman class of 1982, which included literary heavyweights Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Letham, and Donna Tartt. I especially appreciated how they integrated meaningful ideas from Donna Tartt, even though she wasn’t interviewed for the story. If you’re considering doing an oral history of some part of your institution’s past but don’t have access to an important source, this is a worthwhile template to consider.

Thanks for reading!


How many sources do you need for a feature story?

When you’re mapping out that big feature story, how many sources should you have?

Check out the video below to learn the rule of thumb that we use to help every story feel robust and well-reported.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

Ugh, how do I tell this story?

Let’s set the scene: you’re planning out the next issue of your magazine, and you have that story to do.

And you don’t want to deal with it.

That story looks different for everyone.

  • Maybe it’s an annual update of the story you did last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
  • Maybe it’s that strategic priority story that doesn’t seem to have a lot of “there” there.
  • Maybe it’s that series of VIP donor profiles your president has been nagging you to write. But you can’t imagine writing more than 10 words about any of them.
  • Maybe it’s a really cool story — a topic you’ve been dying to cover — but now that it’s official, you’re panicking that you can’t make it as good as you imagined.

I’ve been there with you: the retiring faculty feature package, the campaign story, the roundup of alumni in XYZ field.

So how do you tackle it? How do you make it something that your audience actually wants to read?

This is an issue I struggled with for years. I’d procrastinate. I’d complain about it to friends. I’d do a cursory search of the web or post a message on one of the writers’ groups I belonged to in search of a brilliant idea.

And then I mostly just did what I’d done before.

But this started to change a few years ago — and now I rarely feel stuck.

It’s not magic! I’m sharing my exact process below.

Build your “good idea database”

A few years ago, I was having lunch with an editor who always seemed to have creative story ideas and knew just how to package them. Surely, I asked him, he had some sort of go-to list or editor encyclopedia that he could consult to figure out the best way to tell any story?
He said he didn’t have any specific resource that he consulted — but if I was so curious about it, maybe I should just build my own “good idea database.”

So I did! It took some real trial and error. But I consider it one of the most powerful tools in the Capstone arsenal. My team and I add to the database every single month. Here’s just a tiny slice of that database:

A snapshot of the database Capstone uses weekly—if not daily—for client projects.

We use this database to develop and refine story ideas, to serve as a launching pad for talks we give to higher ed communicators across the country, and to write this newsletter. It’s hugely important to us.

Here’s exactly how we did it:

1. Start with as much “data” as possible. Get as many magazines as your budget will allow. I subscribe to more than 20. My current favorites are The Hollywood Reporter, Fast Company, Bon Appetit, and New York. (Not a magazine editor? Do the same for the media you work in most frequently, and adjust the instructions that follow accordingly!)

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Spend a few minutes flipping through the magazines each week, and when you find something that looks interesting — especially if it’s a story that you wouldn’t normally be interested in, but something about the approach drew you in — snap an image of it with your phone.

3. Enter the story into your database. Use a tool like Airtable to store your images.

4. Categorize wisely. Make sure you categorize it in a few different ways so you can find when you need it. I often remember things by the headline and the publication it appeared in, but I also try to note various categories I think I might use it for in the future — a roundup, a story likely to lead to reader feedback, a story that focuses on pairings.

5. Keep it simple. One of the things I tried to do initially was to include a million different categorizations – bylines, dates, notes. But over time, I found that this was more of an annoying obstacle than a useful tool. I wanted to be able to add things to my database quickly, and if I had to spend 10 minutes laboring over each entry, I simply wouldn’t do it. In the words famously attributed to Einstein, “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

6. Use it! Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But make sure you’re carving out time at each part of your story process to review what you’ve collected. Sometimes, a single entry at the right moment can help unlock a story in a useful way. It’s easy to start building these resources and then let them collect dust. Don’t let that be you.
We use our database constantly. While the published story might only look a bit like the template that launched it, you can almost always see its DNA.

For example, when Purdue Alumnus wanted to do a big feature on its “Take Giant Leaps” 150th anniversary, Capstone used this New York magazine story from our idea database to create the Giant Leaps Academy feature package.

We used this Creative People feature as the launching point for Kenyon Alumni Bulletin’s How I Got Into Politics.

Yes, it takes time to build this database, and you have to be consistent. But the long-term payoff is huge.

Do you use any tools like this? Let me know.

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.