How Does A Print Magazine “Earn Its Keep” Right Now? Here Are 3 Ideas.

There’s no question that times are tough for higher ed these days. Some colleges are closing their doors for good. Others are mapping out layoffs, furloughs, and other drastic cuts. What happens this fall? It’s anybody’s guess.

In the midst of these big changes, your magazine might be on the chopping block. At the very least, you might be going all digital for one issue — and maybe more.

Yet I’d argue that your print magazine is your flagship communications tool for alumni. It’s likely getting into more hands than your digital communications. And certainly alumni are more likely to see your magazine than go to an event (at least for the moment) or get a visit from a development officer.

Right now, there’s no question that all of us will have to thoughtfully consider whether our print publications are worth the price — and if they’re not yet, how we can develop a plan to make their cost a no-brainer.

Your institution’s calculus will look different from others, but here are three ways your magazine might consider showing its unique value:

1. Double down on class notes.

CASE surveys have routinely shown that class notes, across all institutions, are the most-read sections of any alumni magazine. (As many of you already know, they’re also fertile ground for profiles and feature story ideas.)

Yes, people can keep up with their closest pals on Facebook or other social media. But with class notes, they don’t also have to put up with crackpot political theories, pyramid scheme sales pitches, or trolls. They don’t have to worry that some new algorithm is making it harder for them to see new information from people they care about.

There’s a reason Harvard Business School’s Director of Communications, Bill Weber, who oversees a magazine with 450 pages of class notes per issue (!!!!), says that if they ditched class notes for their institution’s magazine, it “would be World War III.

In a recent informal survey for my own alma mater, a full 84 percent of respondents said they wanted to see more class notes. (11 percent said the number was fine, 5 percent said they didn’t read class notes, and 0 percent said they wanted to see fewer class notes.)

And you know how many alumni want to see class notes behind a password-protected wall? NONE. ZERO. ZIP. ZILCH. NADA.

Class notes are something that are uniquely and dramatically better in a print publication.

Your people are what make your institution. A big part of your job is to help them continue to feel like a part of that community so that they continue to benefit from it, value it, and contribute to it.

Class notes are an essential part of that equation.

2. Measure what matters. (Then improve it.)

What really matters for your magazine? Is it encouraging alumni engagement? Is it featuring a lot of talented researchers? Connecting with parents? Making the case for your value to state legislators? Supporting your philanthropic priorities?

Every school has a mix of goals for their publication, and it might even be spelled out explicitly in the mission statement.

If you had to, how would you think about measuring whether or not you were succeeding?

Would you start counting the number of individual class notes, letters to the editor, responses to prompts and nostalgia questions? Would you count the number of stories featuring donors or researchers or specific institutional priorities?

As you think about where you are right now, would those numbers be where you want them to be?

What would you do if you had to double those numbers in the next four issues? What changes would you make?

Let’s be clear: in many ways, these numbers will be imperfect proxies for the larger goals you’re aiming at. But they are a starting point. And they can be a conversation starter with higher ups if you’re committed to showing your magazine’s value.

3. Add a giving envelope.

I get a lot of alumni magazines, and I’m surprised by the number that don’tinclude a giving envelope.

Years ago, I worked at a school that was consistently among the top five in the percentage of alumni who gave. This school had an enormous endowment, but alumni happily continued to give.

Yes, there is a lot that goes into that! But I will also say that the magazine had a giving envelope that went into every issue. No one was worried that it was overkill or that they were hammering alumni with too many requests. That envelope was paired with a note that made it clear that people could submit a gift, a class note, or both. And the school got a lot of both.

If people crack the cover of your magazine, it means they’re at least a little bit interested in your institution. If you are able to tell a story that moves them, that reminds them of a person they appreciated at your school, that helps them remember why they said “yes” to your school in the first place, why wouldn’t you give them the easiest possible way to help support the place that made that possible?

I have asked dozens of clients and non-clients if they include a giving envelope, and literally no one has said “Well, we tried it and it turned out that we didn’t even cover the costs.”

Now’s the time!

The Exact 3 Messages To Share With Your Alumni Readers Right Now

What does your audience actually want to read these days? What stories can you tell that will feel like a welcome shift from the daily deluge of bad news?

These are questions a lot of schools are asking right now.

It’s not just that we don’t want stories to feel stale when they arrive on readers’ doorsteps weeks or months from now. It’s also that we want to tailor stories and messages in ways that are emotionally resonant in a moment like this.

Your magazine is your flagship publication for your alumni and donors, so it’s important to get this balance right.

We’re thinking about this a lot at Capstone, and here are some of the messages we think are essential for you to share with your readers through your stories.

Message 1: We’re doing good work.

Colleges have tried hard to be reasonable and decisive as we’ve all moved through this historic, fast-moving pandemic.

Not everything has been perfect! Lots of people are feeling frustrated, scared, and sad about all of the changes.

At the same time, every school also has plenty of incredible stories to tell from this time as well. Your magazine is a great way to highlight all the smart decisions, heartwarming connections, and courageous people that are in your community.

Your alumni don’t need to be changing the world to have great stories that people will want to read!

You can write up a tiny profile of the alum who used a home 3D printer and an open-source design to provide a half-dozen face shields to the local hospital. Or the student who took their popular campus event online. Tell the story of your on-campus heroes whose work makes the college function, even now.

Message 2: We are ready to help.

Your alumni office likely offers lots of under-the-radar services to your alumni — many of whom might benefit from a boost right about now.

Does your school offer mentoring services? Help connect people to their local chapter events? Have a free on-demand webinar on self-care and meditation?

Now might be a good time to pull together all of these disparate services into a feature package for your magazine. As a template, you might consider this list-based piece from Real Simple about the cool and unexpected services of your local library. A similar package about alumni services could be a useful read for your audience.

Most schools want their alumni to feel connected to them for a lifetime. Right now, you want to show that you stand at the ready to support your graduates however they need it. Your magazine can highlight this work beautifully.

Message 3: We still need you.

It might seem like a tone-deaf move to ask for gifts during this moment when unemployment is sky-high. But the reality is that charitable giving is very high right now.

At my own alma mater, an “SOS fund” has been wildly successful. It supports students in need right now: tech and wifi hotspots to support their online learning, storage costs for their belongings, and holistic health services.

Your school is a trustworthy organization to your readers, so if you can show how their support will make a difference right away to those in acute need, they’re likely to consider a gift.

You probably can’t tell individual students stories here, but sharing some collective numbers about the travel costs you’ve covered or the technology you’ve purchased for students might help put your support into perspective for your readers.

Even if you don’t typically make a direct request in your magazine, now might be the right time to do so.

A PSA On That COVID-19 Headline You Want To Use + Should Your Mag Go Online?

Last December, before everything got terrible, I groused privately to some friends that 2020 was going to be a year of bad headlines. I was already seeing a slew of “2020 Vision” stories, and I was pretty sure I’d see a million more.

Obviously, that seems like a petty concern right now.  (Hindsight is ALSO 2020, amiright?)

But the reality is that my team and I are still writing lots of headlines, and you probably are, too.

And I bet you don’t have to guess what headline is in heavy rotation these days.

Here, let me give you a hint:

All together now.

Why am I telling you this?

If you’re writing stories that won’t come out until May or June or beyond, please don’t headline them “Alone Together.” Your readers will have seen that line so many times by then. It will feel exhausting.

Spend 15 minutes coming up with a list of possible headlines that do NOT include “Alone Together.”

Research shows that a good headline can get 8x more readers than a bad one. If you want your audience to read the stories you’ve put so much time and effort into creating, the easiest, most powerful change you can make is to your headlines.

Roundup of COVID-19 newsletters

Want to revisit any of my coronavirus-themed newsletters? Here they are:

Week #1: Consider this template for your magazine’s COVID-19 storytelling

Week #2: More COVID-19 advice, fix the worst page of your magazine, and a work from home tip

Week #3: COVID-19 Coverage: They won’t remember late. They will remember bad.

Week #4: Avoid a tone-deaf story. Here’s one to try.

Should you ditch print for your next magazine?

A lot of schools are trying to decide whether now’s the time to go online-only with their magazine.

Maybe you’re among them!

Certainly, there are compelling reasons to consider it.

Your school will save all of the printing and mailing costs required for a print magazine, which might directly or indirectly make it easier to support your students during a challenging time.

You’ll be able to change your stories if they become outdated.

In some cases, printing might not even be an option if your printer is not deemed an essential service

They’re all legitimate reasons!

But do I think you should print the next issue of your magazine?

Not necessarily!

Only print your magazine if you want your audience to read it.

Yes, that sounds flippant.  But the reality is that even though we’re all spending a lot more time on our screens right now (thanks for that reminder, Screen Time Weekly Report), your readers are unlikely to make your school’s or magazine’s website one of their top priorities.

A print magazine is a “push” communication. It arrives in your reader’s mailbox and they have to interact with it, even if it’s just to glance at the cover before slipping it in the recycling bin.

It’s likely, of course, that they’ll spend at least a few minutes flipping through the pages, skimming class notes, and perhaps reading a story or two beyond that.

The value of being able to “push” that publication into their hands is significant!

An online magazine, by contrast, is a “pull” communication.

Your audience has to have a reason to visit your magazine’s website. They don’t just happen across your magazine website the way a print magazine all but certainly finds its way into their hands.

Sure, there are ways to get people to your site.

Maybe they’re clicking on a link from an email with an intriguing story (if that email hasn’t already landed in their promotions tab or spam folder).

Maybe they see a post from a Facebook or Instagram page (if it occurred to them to follow your institution in the first place).

Maybe they’re…coming up with the idea on their own? (Maybe.)

You probably see the problem: you need to be doing all sorts of additional work to draw readers to your stories if you go online-only.

Switching from print to online doesn’t just change the medium — it makes it much harder for you to get your stories in front of your readers. Yes, you might cut a few costs. But at what price?

If it is at all reasonable for you, stick with print. If you can’t, I would actually encourage you to skip the issue entirely and print a summer/fall edition or something similar. Go big with that edition, rather than go online for one issue.

Avoid A Tone-Deaf Story. Here’s One To Try.

Recently, a Capstone client shipped a story back with a note to change the piece’s introduction. Written in pre-coronavirus times, the opening paragraphs felt glib.

You might be experiencing something similar as you work through your editorial lineups.

This concern isn’t likely to go away in your upcoming issue or the one after that.

You’re going to have to navigate a tonal tightrope: positive without being Pollyanna-ish, forward-thinking without setting aside the real hardship that your readers and your school will likely be working through.

So how do you do that? With many of our clients, Capstone is offering up concrete story ideas that they can run now or a few months from now. No matter when they’re published, they won’t feel like a mismatch for the moment.

While every school’s needs look a little bit different, I want to share one idea that will likely work for many of you.

The format you see below is the the exact one we use when we pitch stories to clients as part of our Capstone Pitch Subscription service.

If it makes sense for your institution, tuck it away and use it for the upcoming issue or the one that follows. Even if a dozen institutions use it, the people you choose and the stories they tell will make the feature unique to your school.

If you like that story idea and would love to have a few more, I encourage you to consider our Capstone Pitch Subscription.

We offer pitches exactly like this — but customized specifically for your institution. You’ll get three robust pitches like the one above for every single issue you plan, and you only hire Capstone for the ones that you actually want to use.

Capstone has experienced writers who will report and write the stories, and we have an in-house researcher who does everything from research to source approvals to photo collection. We’ve tried to make it the most done-for-you service you can imagine.

Even if the service isn’t right for you, I hope you’ll keep reading–we have more COVID-19 coverage ideas coming your way.


COVID-19 Coverage: They Won’t Remember Late. They Will Remember Bad.

As you plan your institution’s COVID-19 coverage, here are some of the things we’re telling schools to think about for their upcoming issues.

1. You might miss your deadline. That’s okay.

This is painful for me to say, because I am an anxious deadline meet-er. But let’s just be clear about the situation we’re in: unprecedented. Unprecedented. UN.PRE.CE.DEN.TED.

That’s just the reality.

And yes: missing deadlines is disappointing. It can mess up the rest of your schedule. But I really, really believe this:

Your readers won’t remember late. They will remember bad.

There is no reader — beyond a few internal ones — carefully tracking your quarterly, bi- or tri-annual magazine publication schedule.

It’s okay to rip up your editorial roadmap and do more for your next issue. It’s okay to deliver two weeks late or four weeks late if it allows you to do a better job rethinking your magazine’s story lineup.

For example, years ago, I was part of an editorial team that delivered our “Fall” magazine on December 15.

(TECHNICALLY, we told ourselves, STILL FALL.)

It was ridiculously late! But it was a great magazine. Exactly zero readers complained about that delivery date, and I worked for a college in which every alum seemed to have an opinion about everything (and wanted to express it complainingly).

If you know that you could do better work if you just had a couple more weeks, do it. Make the case to your higher-ups. Make the case to yourself. Do the best possible work you can.

2. It’s better to over-report.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be systematic in my reporting. If I know I likely need eight interviews for a story, I’ll come up with my list of eight sources and two or three backups. I’ll start with the eight, then move to the backups only when my efforts to get the first eight are fully exhausted.

Let’s be honest: It’s political!

For alumni magazines, it’s tricky territory to ask for an interview and later rescind the offer because the source missed a deadline. I’ll do just about anything to make sure that everyone I interview gets a quote or at least a mention.

For COVID-19 reporting?

Different rules apply.

I’ve been contacting far more people than I can use for these stories. Who knows if the doctors or therapists or scientists I contact are too busy or exhausted to get back in touch? It’s certainly fine for them to respond on their own timelines or not at all.

I also know that I can’t guarantee that everyone’s going to have a good story!

I try to be as honest as I can with sources: I let them know that we’re still figuring out our plan for coverage. I tell them that I intend to use conversations we have, but if we can’t fit it all in, I’ll definitely compile the information and send it to the school’s archives or library, or consider it for a web story.

This is important material, even if it doesn’t ultimately make the print magazine.

I can’t exactly map out this story. No one can! So I try to do a lot of reporting and sift through the material to find the stories worth telling.

3. Nobody’s going to like everything.

In my first COVID-19 newsletter, I mentioned how proud I was of the work Carleton’s alumni magazine did in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

After basking in the glow of that good work, I decided to see how readers responded to what I saw as a thoughtful and human story.

They haaaaaaaated it.

The letters to the editor page confirmed it: lots were upset about the perceived political slant, about our lack of foresight, about our very existence. Many loved it, but the ones who didn’t? Well, they didn’t hold back.

There’s a lesson in there that I hope you’ll try to internalize before you experience it: no matter what you do, people are going to be angry. Almost all of us are stressed, scared, and uncertain about what’s ahead.

And some people will take that out on your publication.

That can be an upsetting experience, especially if you’ve mostly flown under the radar. If you’re used to getting a small handful of “Keep up the great work!” emails, people who are truly angry about what you’ve done — even if it’s genuinely good work — can knock you sideways.

Capstone is doing some consulting for a school that has already received an angry letter about COVID-19, and the issue covering the coronavirus hasn’t even come out yet!

Do your best work. Be okay with the occasional mad reader.

4. It’s time to build a plan — even if you never use it.

As the toll of COVID-19 grows higher, it’s likely that someone from your community will succumb to the virus.

It’s time to create your plan now to determine how you’ll handle it.

For example, after September 11, Carleton did extended obituaries on the two alumni that we learned had died in the attacks. We included quotes from fellow alumni and a handful of family members. You can see that approach here.

At the time, we debated exactly how to handle the situation before we made a decision. We had real concerns no matter what we chose! Was it disrespectful to others who had passed away to give extended coverage to alumni who had died in the attacks? Were we setting a precedent that we didn’t actually want to set?

In the end, we decided the extra coverage was merited. We were prepared if we got unpleasant feedback, although I don’t recall getting any.

COVID-19 is different, of course.

Depending on your school, you may have far more than a small handful of cases in your school’s community, and that may dictate what kind of coverage you can do.

Have a plan. Be willing to adapt as circumstances change.

More COVID-19 advice, fix the worst page of your mag, and a work-from-home tip

I’m hearing so much from everyone about the coronavirus coverage on your campus! Thank you for sharing your stories with me.

1. Feedback and questions about coronavirus magazine coverage

I want to share a few responses I got to my newsletter about coronavirus coverage. (If you missed it, it’s here.)

First, here’s a note from Kirstin Wilder at the University of Nebraska. I love how she’s thinking about the full range of people who can share unique stories in her magazine. What ideas of hers can you use for your publication?

Next, here’s a note from Beth Miller, who is at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, a school whose academic focus leads to all sorts of unique challenges. (If there is anyone who can figure it out, though, it might just be engineers!)

I know a lot of folks will be moving to online learning. It will be messy, without a doubt! But there are likely to be breakthroughs you can highlight, too.


I agree with Beth’s approach about including the line in your magazine about information being accurate at press time — for a crisis like this, you might literally have to specify the date and time.

Finally, heres’s a message  from Alicia Dirado, who notes a handful of the specific challenges that most of us are facing. My response follows.

I suspect that many of us will have to think through this concern. My best advice?

  • License or get reprint rights for any material that exists and is relevant to your institution

  • Seek out material that folks are producing for their own pages (Instagram, Twitter, or maybe even Facebook, depending on your access)

  • Pull quotes from stories where they have been quoted for other publications

Capstone is working with one client on this exact issue, and we’re currently collecting a list of promising sources that we plan to send a handful of questions/prompts. I’m sure many will be too busy to respond, and of course that’s fine! But if they can provide responses to a few prompts, we might just be able to tell a unique story.

Call it the party photos page. The chapter events spread. The alumni activities page. Whatever you call it, you know the page I’m talking about.

For many of us, this section of our magazine is an impossible must-do. How do you salvage a page when the photos you get are a series of poorly-lit grip and grins, images of people’s backs facing the camera, and pictures taken from what appears to be a phone from 2002?


The reality, of course, is that our magazines might not have an events page for the next issue (or issues). But when we do add them back in, how do we improve them?

The answer might just be this one page guide for event photo submissions. Kirstin Wilder shared it with me awhile ago, and I love it.

It’s clear, simple, and incredibly useful.

Many coordinators have been cancelling events and using this time to update their protocols and alumni toolkits, which means this could be a useful guide that they can add to their arsenal as they make improvements during this slower time for them. When I passed it on to my own alma mater’s regional coordinator, she was thrilled:

This might be just the time to help your events coordinators amp up their photo game — and improve your magazine’s party photos spread in the process.

3. Exactly one tip for working from home during COVID-19

Many of you have moved to a work-from-home situation for the foreseeable future. If you haven’t done it before, it might not be the easiest switch! (Especially if you ALSO have kids at home.)

If you’re like me, it’s been hard to concentrate. You’re checking the news constantly, and you’re not getting as much done as you like. I’ve been working from home for 15 years, but there are new variables that have thrown even my time-tested system for a loop.

One thing I have found genuinely helpful — not just now, but anytime that I’ve felt stressed and overwhelmed — is using a 15-minute sand timer to focus on ONE task. (This is the one I currently have on my desk.)

You’ve got an email to write? Story to review? An opening paragraph to craft? Flip over the timer and commit to just 15 minutes to work on it.

I love the analog-ness of the sand timer. Often I finish the task in 15 minutes! And if not, I give myself credit, even if I really do stop at 15 minutes. The vast majority of the time, just getting started is all the motivation I need to work until the task is completed. Sometimes, just getting one solid thing done in the course of the day is enough. This might help.

Try it! Let me know if it works for you.

Many of you have torn up your editorial plans in the past couple weeks.

When your editorial lineup is in flux, it can be helpful to have some already-written evergreen content to use when certain stories fall through. When this is all over and you can take a breath, consider building some unbreakable backup stories with this process.

Consider this template for your magazine’s COVID-19 storytelling

To say our lives have been upended over the past couple weeks is an understatement.

As I write this, my kids — who have at least the next 20 days without school — are acting roughly like this:

Lots of us are trying to figure out how to think about coronavirus storytelling for our magazines, and I’m definitely helping clients think through this issue!

The news is changing nearly hourly, yet many of us will need to put the finishing touches on stories that won’t land in readers’ mailboxes for weeks.

While it’s true that nobody’s completely figured this out yet, I’ll share one look to the past that may help you chart a path forward. (Read to the end! I’d love if it you’d be willing to participate in a larger effort to share smart approaches to covering the current pandemic.)

How to tell a story about a quickly evolving, world-changing event

In 2001, I was working at Carleton College, and the alumni magazine was firing on all cylinders. Our tiny publications crew was fresh off of a Sibley win.

I don’t have to tell you what happened on September 11.

Within our team, we debated whether or not to cover the event in our alumni magazine at all. Was there anything that our magazine could say that newspapers wouldn’t say sooner? That wouldn’t already be covered by well-resourced consumer magazines? That wouldn’t just seem downright exhausting by the time it landed in alumni mailboxes in October or maybe even November?

I argued that we shouldn’t cover 9/11 in the alumni magazine.

My boss insisted that we cover it.

As the boss, of course, she won that argument! I’m glad she did. And here’s the story that we created as a result.

Obviously, a story about 9/11 is different than any story you might write about COVID-19.

But there are a few parallels worth considering:

  • We were writing it before we knew how everything would turn out.

  • Even as we were writing it in a state of flux, we knew we had to have the mindset of the people who would be receiving the magazine more than a month later.

  • We wanted to write something that would hold up over time. Alumni magazines are important materials in your school’s history.

Honestly, I think we did a pretty good job.

Three things to consider including in your coronavirus coverage

Here are a handful of things I notice about that story now that I think we did correctly:

  1. We captured the moment. You’ll notice that on the bottom margins of pages 3-6, we included snippets of emails from alumni in the days following the attacks, dated to show how people were feeling at specific moments after September 11.

    Sometimes, we think we’ll remember how we felt at a specific moment in time forever! But it fades. Having these tiny, authentic snapshots makes a difference.

    QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF: How you can show the emotions of this moment authentically?

  1. We also looked beyond the current moment. We asked writers and thinkers of all sorts to weigh in with their expertise that could provide needed context. We talked to historians and political scientists, students and alumni. This was an opportunity to showcase Carleton leaders and thinkers bringing real insight into an important moment.

    But it was also more than that. A college education should help us consider many different perspectives, and it should help us think more creatively and critically. This was part of what Carleton wanted to instill in its students, and we wanted that to be present in the story as well.

    Who can you talk to who will provide deeper insight in this moment? Public health officials or doctors? A historian or an older alum who lived through the polio epidemic? An ethicist? Think about how the people you choose and the stories they tell represent the strengths of your school and the alumni it produces.

  1. We didn’t reinvent the wheel! Not long after the attacks, we discovered that a New York photographer was coming to campus as a visiting speaker. As part of his talk, he shared some of his personal photos from September 11. They were incredible and affecting, and for a modest fee, we were able to arrange to run more than four pages of them. We also scoured newspapers and blogs to find insightful articles and op-eds from alumni, faculty, and staff that we could re-run in our pages.

    You don’t have to have 100 percent original content. Find the material that will resonate with your audience and include it.

    Where can you look to find material that already exists that is worth including in your coverage? How can you excerpt or license it appropriately?


You guys, I know I don’t have all the answers! These are just a few things to be thinking about, but of course the contours of the coronavirus will lead our work to new and unexpected places.

How are you planning to cover COVID-19 in your magazine? Share your plan, and if I get enough responses, I’ll share them in a future blog post so that we can all learn from each other.

Case Study: How To Do A Story Only You Can Do

When I was just starting out in alumni magazines, one of the things that was drilled into my head was the importance of doing stories that only your institution could do.

But what does that mean, exactly?

Does it mean featuring stories that include only faculty and alumni from your institution? (Sometimes, yes.)

Does it mean telling stories that are about your institution specifically, like campus myths and pranks? (Sure.)

It’s also more than that.

There are some stories — and you know them when you see them — that are so authentic and specific to a given institution that they literally could be told by no other publication or institution.

The Baking of a Legend, a cover story for the University of Alberta’s alumni magazine, New Trail, is exactly that. The story digs into the history, science, and joy of a much-loved cinnamon bun on campus.

When I saw it, I knew I had to talk to their team.

In the interview that follows, editor-in-chief Lisa Cook shared more about how they created this story.

Read the responses carefully!

There are lots of great nuggets about planning, pursuing, and executing a story like this at the very highest levels.

As you read this interview, think about your own institution’s beloved traditions, food and drink, and events. How could you pull together a story that shares something new about them? How do you think your readers would react?

Why did you decide to make this a cover story? Did you know from the start it had the ingredients (har har) that would make it worthy of a cover? 

Honestly, we had a head start on this one because we knew from the beginning there was an appetite (!) out there for stories on the famous UAlberta cinnamon bun. A couple of years ago one grad wrote a memory about the bun for our class notes section. Readers went wild! They sent in a ton of memories and we got more than 70 requests for the recipe.

And, of course, the buns just offered such rich art potential. We generally don’t lock down the cover for each issue until we start seeing some of the actual art come in but, yeah, we felt pretty strongly that we wanted this to be our cover.

Finally, we thought it would be perfect for our winter issue. Edmonton winters are really cold, really dark and really, really long. So we always try to make sure our winter issue offers something warm and bright to help our grads make it through to the thaw.

As a Minnesotan, I appreciate that sentiment. Tell me about the art! It is both unexpected and seems perfect. How did that come together?

Thanks! That was a combination of an early morning baking session, a lot of digging plus one great “a-ha” moment on the part of our incredible art director, Marcey Andrews.

  1. The 6 a.m. bake session

Straight off, we knew we wanted a photo of the cinnamon bun. But that wasn’t so easy. The UAlberta bun has a very unique look (it’s actually a knot, not a bun) so we would never get away with, say, slapping a Cinnabon on the cover. Our readers would storm the office!

Unfortunately, they stopped serving these buns on campus in 1994 so just popping over to buy a baker’s dozen was out of the question. Luckily, one of the original bakers still works at UAlberta. When she volunteered to bake us a batch just for our cover shoot, we knew we could go forward with the idea even if it meant our art director, photographer and social media person had to be there at 6 a.m.! (This also made us heroes with our co-workers who got to eat the leftovers.)

  1. Next came the digging

Next, we had to decide how to present the bun. We played with doing a Bon Appetit-style cover but quickly realized that didn’t really represent the story and it certainly didn’t get to the nostalgia, which was at the heart of it all. So we started to go back and look through all the memories sent in by our alumni. It didn’t take long to see all the visual potential.

Marcey, our art director, doesn’t work in our office, so we will often have phone conversations, then she will go away and do some research. We’ve found the best gift you can give yourself at the cover planning stage is a good deal of lead time and the freedom to go down a lot of rabbit holes. After her research, Marcey will usually come back with a few ideas, which we will talk through and then she’ll go away and dig some more. It’s very collaborative, which always makes the end product stronger.

  1. The “a-ha!” moment

In this case, she landed pretty early on the work of Hylton Warburton. His style really matched the playful tone we wanted to take with this story. Her challenge was to illustrate the alumni memories in a way that didn’t overpower the photo of the bun. After some really deep digging, Marcey found this illustration on Warburton’s personal portfolio. Once she saw this approach, she was instantly reminded of this cover of WIRED.

This was the moment that the editorial team received an email with the subject line, “Oh, oh, oh!!” Those are the emails you live for. You know even before you open it that you’ve got a winner on your hands. We all loved her idea, which was that a student was sitting around between classes, daydreaming and doodling while thinking about the cinnamon bun.

The fun part was coming up with ideas for the doodles. Some ideas came from the story. Some from readers’ memories. We also wanted to include some UAlberta-related Easter eggs like including one of our famous campus rabbits, a well-known building and turning our motto “Quaecumque vera” into “Quaecum and get it.”

I love that it includes a recipe. Were there any other elements to the story that you had hoped to include but didn’t make it, for whatever reason? 

Honestly, we’ve always wanted to do a scratch and sniff cover but we had to put that idea away pretty quickly when we found out the cost. (It was something like $40,000! Way beyond our budget.)

We did get to make a digital extra, though: a “hands and pans” video to accompany the print story. It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a while. It also helps when your digital communications colleague is also an avid baker!

Amazing! I’m a sucker for those. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the science of smell and memory. It was both an unexpected detail and a nice way to highlight your school’s faculty. Was that always intended to be included, or fortuitous in some way? 

So glad you liked that! The New Trail mission is to “Reawaken the student within each of us.” So even though this feature appealed mainly to the “student life” side of things, we wanted to dig a little deeper and include a learning of some sort. This would also, hopefully, offer additional value to alumni who weren’t on campus when the buns were around.

Luckily, we were working with a very experienced writer and we had faith he could make this section feel like it fit naturally into the story.

What has the response been from your audience?

We’ve had a ton of feedback! We were so excited by the many grads who made the buns at home and shared photos over social media or directly with us. We plan to include many of these photos and feedback in our letters section of the next issue. A lot of grads also told us they tried to sweep the sugar crumbs off the page, because they looked so real.

We also had a couple of grads write us to say they thought the cover was too busy. It’s always good to hear from the people who didn’t like it, too. And as long as they’re still writing us, we consider it a win!


If you’ve done a story on your own institutional icons — the food, the drink, the tradition that’s unique to your school — I’d love to see it! Email it to me at and share more about how you did the story and how your readers responded to it.


Behind-The-Scenes: How To Hone A Broad Topic To Create A Killer Story

One of the challenges editors tell me that they face is turning a broad topic into a clear, focused story that their audience wants to read.

How do you go from a big idea to an angle or approach that feels compelling and fresh?

I want to show you how Capstone thinks about this process and collaborates with editors — including the exact steps that you can follow and tools that you can use when you’re developing your own story ideas. (I’ll share more about how you can work with us at the end of this post, so stay tuned! But this post is designed for DIYers as well.)

Let’s take a closer look at building a killer story angle.

Here are the three steps my team and I follow when we’re working with editors — before one of our writers sets up a single interview.

Step 1: Start with a topic and a “why”

Last year, Macalester Today editor Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz sent Capstone an email about working together:

The perfect start to a collaboration.

Let’s start with everything I love about this note.

  • DeJarlais Ortiz had a broad topic she knew she wanted to cover

  • She also had a clear tie back to campus/strategic priority for the story (the concentration on campus)

  • She knew there were lots of potential sources for the story

Not every editor is so clear about where they’re at and what they need. (And that’s fine!)

But clear, concise notes like this are a dream for folks who collaborate with you on projects, whether it’s writing, design, photography, or something else.

She unpacked her thinking a little bit more in a recent email:

When we survey our alumni, we hear consistently that they value opportunities to keep learning and connect with the intellectual life of the college. I’ve been trying to tackle issue-focused stories that draw in Mac alumni and faculty expertise, and this topic was a natural fit.

Many of our students and alumni are thinking about the sociological and ecological dimensions of food and food choices. I wanted to honor how interdisciplinary this topic is, and I wanted to break out of the traditional 2,500-word narrative and experiment with creative storytelling structures. But I wasn’t quite sure where to start or how to pull it all together.

Capstone was on board — and here’s what we did next.

Step 2: Hone in on an approach

The information above is a great starting point for the second step.

At this point, we knew we needed either a sharper angle (this can be tough if you don’t know the exact viewpoints of the alumni you’re considering) or a powerful packaging structure that can help drive the story.

This is a step that we find that many editors skip entirely, defaulting to a narrative profile with a certain word count, and hoping the writer will find a central idea that will strengthen the piece.

But getting the exact angle and approach right, including thinking about it in advance, can transform a piece from underwhelming to un-put-downable.

At Capstone, we love thinking about story packaging, so we dove into our database, which contains hundreds of examples of packaging that can propel a story (and a reader) forward. We zeroed in on approaches that made it possible for each profile to contribute an important piece of a larger story.

We identified and shared a few approaches with DeJarlais Ortiz, including the one we ultimately used.

Here’s a portion of the note we sent, which we ultimately developed into the feature story called “The New Rules of Food”:

Here is one of the stories that served as a model, the New York magazine feature “The Great Podcast Rush Has Only Just Begun.”

This database, from which we pulled a handful of stories to help illustrate our intended approach, is part of the secret sauce of Capstone’s work. Want your own? I’ve shared how to create one here.

Why is this second step so important? 

We find that there’s a huge benefit to showing people exactly what they can expect with a story. Giving collaborators something to see and react to can illuminate storytelling possibilities and potential gaps.

Even more than that, it can help everyone know what they’re aiming at. It can serve as a template as editors talk to their designers, art directors, photographers, or illustrators. It can help writers hone their interview questions and approach.

It helps ensure that everyone gets exactly what they need long before a draft is submitted.

Step 3: Build a knockout source list

At this point, we were ready to start choosing sources.

Rebecca already had a large group of alumni to choose from, which is fantastic. Here’s the process she uses — and the way she used inclusiveness as a guiding principle to support that work.

I want to create a publication that welcomes every reader. For me, that means thinking about whose voices are included (and whose are missing) and then striving to find a more equitable balance among the perspectives represented by our alumni. I audit that balance over individual articles and editions as well as over the course of a year.

This is more than a philosophy. She also shares how she puts that philosophy in action. In this case, a multi-step process, executed methodically, is what leads to success. Here’s what she says:

I’ve shifted to building out parts of my editorial plan three or four issues ahead, which creates more space to compile a broad range of sources. This research almost always includes asking for help: I’ve emailed colleagues, posted in regional alumni chapter Facebook groups, reached out to committee volunteers, and gotten great leads from LinkedIn posts that simply say we’re exploring a story on a certain topic and asking who we should be in touch with.

The story that emerges is always richer than if I had just run with the people already on our radar. I didn’t want to restrict “The New Rules of Food” to alumni working in one area of food and farming, for example, and our research produced tips about several people who were ultimately featured: an alumna farming on a quarter-acre in Idaho, a fourth-generation leader of a milling company in Ohio, a professor teaching about agriculture in D.C., and so on.

Rebecca’s approach aligns with Capstone’s: It’s wise to cast a wide net and then narrow it down.

At Capstone, we often run our own source search for clients, then run the complete list through a variety of different filters to come up with a good final mix. These filters typically include:

  • Class year. We try to include a range of different decades, and in this case, we had four different decades represented.

  • Gender, race, and ethnicity. 

  • Mix of roles. The last thing we want is a series of profiles that share an essential sameness. As DeJarlais Ortiz had requested from the outset, we chose people in a mix of positions, from farmers to journalists to researchers. This range is something we encourage all of our clients to consider.

Depending on your institution, you may need to consider sources that represent other types of diversity: majors, colleges and campuses, or geography, for example.

Sometimes getting a good mix of people proves challenging! And while I strongly believe that it’s *most* important to have this type of diversity represented across the magazine and over the course of many issues and years, rather than juggling the numbers in one specific story, we always keep our eye on this and try to make improvements if there are obvious concerns.

As DeJarlais Ortiz noted above, demanding this type of diversity of your story up front typically expands and deepens the way that you can think about your story.

Finally, we included backup sources that we could tap in case any of our initial ideas didn’t pan out.

We love to have a few extra sources handy — if someone falls through, we can quickly move to the next source on our list, preventing days of potential back-and-forth to choose a new person.

Step 4: Hit go!

In these three steps, we’ve moved from broad topic to clear focus. We’ve chosen a great mix of sources — including some backups to ensure that we always keep moving forward.

I’ll share more about assigning, assignment letters, and working with writers in future posts, but for now, here’s the final result of this collaboration.

Here’s what DeJarlais Ortiz said about it:

The final result was a well-balanced story with a creative structure that really seemed to resonate with a wide range of alumni — young alumni, a ’65 alumna, a CSA farmer. I can’t remember a story that generated verbal and written feedback from that kind of a range.

At Capstone, we were also thrilled with the way it turned out. In addition, we learned a few new things in the process that we’ve noted and will be sure to incorporate for future projects, both with Macalester and with other clients.

The great part of following a robust process like this is that you can incorporate all the lessons you learn to keep improving and build even better stories over time.

I’d love to know what you think of this process! What details surprised you — or do you hope to include in your future story development process?

How to make 2020 your big swing year

My team and I work on a lot of magazine consulting projects these days, and there are many things that we hear again and again as we work with clients.

They worry that their magazines don’t feel fresh. They feel stuck. They feel constrained by their templates, their time, their administrative mandates.

They’re tired of doing the same old, same old. And they’re concerned their readers can sense it.

Maybe you’re worried this hits a little too close to home.

First, the bad news: Your readers probably CAN sense that boredom.

Your audience might not be able to articulate it in the same way that you can, but they’ll pick up your magazine and feel like maybe they’ve seen this all before.

Now the good news: It doesn’t need to be that way!

Your publication can be something that your readers can be excited to read. And — perhaps even more important than that — something YOU can be excited to create.

How? We encourage you and your team to take some “big swings.”

What’s a big swing?

It can be a lot of things: ambitious stories, art, and approaches designed make your publication stand out. It can something that you haven’t done before. Something you’re not 100 percent sure will work.

Here are 10 “big swings” we have seen colleges, universities, and independent schools *just like yours* take with their publications.

These aren’t things that are done by consumer magazines with million-dollar budgets and a staff of dozens of people.  They’re done by teams with small staffs and — often! — modest budgets. You can do this, too.

Read through these examples. Save them.

And most important, figure out how you can take your own big swing.

1. Use your roundups to tell a bigger story.

Details: Macalester College, Macalester Today, link

Why we love this big swing: Roundup stories are an alumni magazine staple — we love them! The only problem is that too many people rely on formulas that make every profile sound the same: same length, same story beats, same tone. Once you’ve read one profile, you’ve basically ready them all!

In this story, which Capstone developed and wrote with Macalester, we focused on using an array of different types of people to walk readers through a big issue — the new ways we think about growing, processing, and eating our food today.

Each profile subject took readers further into the story with a different perspective, and the subheads for the profiles walked readers through that story, step by step.

2. Give your readers a backstage pass.

Details: Carleton College, Carleton College Voice, link

Why we love this big swing: One of the (very good) pieces of advice given to magazine editors is to “do stories that only your publication can do.”

Sometimes that type of storytelling is the result of the exact sources you have access to. Sometimes it comes from deeply understanding your audience and knowing what they want. Sometimes it’s behind-the-scenes stories like this one, which is about setting up for Carleton College’s reunion.

Like many small colleges, Carleton hosts an incredible reunion each year. Most attendees never think much about how much work goes into it. But this story shows the nuts and bolts of this process — the work that happens before the crowds arrive. You can’t help but appreciate the thought and effort that goes into the event, and it’s a story that likely evokes a sense of pride and gratitude about the institution without hitting people over the head with it.

What are the stories only your publication can tell? How can you give your readers a backstage pass?

3. Create a (safe for work) centerfold.

Details: Purdue Alumni Association, Purdue Alumnus 

Why we love this big swing: Sometimes you can do something just because it’s cool. Because it will delight readers. Because it will delight YOU.

That’s the case with the spread that opened this fun “What Does It Feel Like To…” feature we developed with Purdue.

Your school’s magazine doesn’t have to be a soulless plod through institutional talking points! Purdue routinely does ambitious, gorgeous work in its magazine, and this is just one example.

That’s a sword swallower in that image, by the way. What does it feel like toliterally nudge your heart out of the way as you put a sword all the way into your stomach? NOT GREAT. (Become a member of Purdue’s Alumni Association if you want to learn more, I’m spilling no more secrets.)

4. Try a wrap cover.

Details: Denison University, Denison Magazine, link

Why we love this big swing: We’ve talked in the past about understanding the specific constraints and opportunities of your publication.

Most consumer magazines have to have an ad on the back cover. If you’re like most higher ed magazines, you probably don’t! So you don’t need to follow the conventions of consumer magazines, which require them to have different front and back covers. You can wrap a single image around your front and back cover. The right photography or illustration can make it work as a front cover, back cover, and a single image in and of itself, like this one for Denison Magazine. Beautiful.

5. Upend your audience’s expectations.

Details: Grinnell College, Grinnell Magazine, link

Why we love this big swing: You know what people expect from their alumni magazine? Stories about success: Our alumni are saving the world! Our school has sky-high rankings! Our students all have SAT scores of ZzzzzZzz…

Ugh. Readers GET IT. They do!

And of course you should tell some stories like this in your magazine.

But maybe, every once in awhile, consider telling a story that challenges people’s understanding of what your publication will do. Tell story about failure — even if it’s just students talking about failure before ultimately succeeding.

Readers might be surprised. (A few might even be upset!) But they might also think your magazine — and your school — is a little more genuine. Real humans don’t have an unending trajectory straight up into the stratosphere, and when you acknowledge that, it makes all the good things you say about your alumni and institution feel a little more credible.

Read more on this topic here, including other alumni magazine stories on failure.

6. Show your stuff.

Details: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health, link

Why we love this big swing: So much of a school’s story is about things that aren’t tangible. The life of the mind. A scholarship, a fellowship, a professorship. When it comes to public health, the topic of Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health, that goes double.

That’s why we love Collections, a recurring feature in the magazine that shows readers the real, physical items linked to public health, including historical artifacts, models, medicines, and tools.

They’ve gathered these collections together with museum-like clarity, helping readers understand how all the pieces fit together. What actual things linked to your institution could you share? How could you illuminate their importance with short, sharp captions?

7. Use fewer words to tell big stories.

Details: The Blake School, Excellence Accelerated: The Campaign for Blake and 2018-19 Annual Report

Why we love this big swing: I know that a lot of people who are reading this have backgrounds as writers and editors. Me, too!

We love words. And sometimes, that makes us think the solution to every problem is more words. Campaign story? Maybe a 2,000 word feature story. Annual report? Maybe letters from president, board of trustees, a few volunteers, and a half-dozen donors.

Guys, sometimes the story needs fewer words! What could you do in 200 words? 20 words?

Here, Capstone worked with Blake to create a campaign wrap-up and annual report that said “thank you” more simply — and effectively — than a dozen boring letters and countless long donor profiles. What you see here is just a portion of the report, but the point stands: you can make a big impact with a relatively small word count.

8. Do a theme issue.

Details: W.P. Carey magazine, W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, link

Why we love this big swing: Theme issues are a lot of work! W.P. Carey magazine does themes for every issue — a huge commitment.

They’re tough, but force you to think more expansively about what stories you can tell, who can tell them, and how they can be told.

Theme issues will break you out of your storytelling ruts, because you must use many approaches to tell stories that fill the feature well of your magazine (or even your entire issue).

You don’t have to commit to doing a theme issue every issue. If you want to understand how to get started, you can read this Q&A with the editor of GW Magazine.

9. Ask a big question.

Details: Bradley University, Bradley, link to the answers, starting on page 31

In recent issues, Bradley has used its back page to ask questions of its readers. (Pro tip: ALWAYS use your back page wisely. It’s the second-most valuable page of your magazine!)

Here’s what editor Sandra Guthrie said: “Wowza, has it resonated. Our question on how alumni earned money as a student gave us 8 pages of content (even with editing) filled with wonderful stories/memories. We had to cut a feature to make it fit. Our next question about great concerts yielded Bradley’s best social media response to date and 9 1/2 pages of content.”

For more on getting tons of feedback from your audience, check out this interview with University of Chicago Magazine editor Laura Demanski.

10. Test a graphic story.

Details: Iowa State University Foundation, forward, link (page 18)

Why we love this big swing: We’ve shared this behind-the-scenes details of this piece before, and it’s worth sharing again.

Here’s the insider view from Forward editor Jodi O’Donnell. “Reannon is a recipient of the Elizabeth Kirke Memorial Scholarship in Graphic Design. Kirke’s parents established the scholarship after their daughter’s death during her senior year at Iowa State. The Kirkes were touched to know that their scholarship went to a student who’d experienced the untimely loss of a family member and has similarly tried to turn the loss into doing good for others.

 “The comic-strip-style story is among my most favorite to appear in Forward. It took quite a bit of work — developing and communicating the assignment to the writer, Sue Flansburg, who then interviewed Reannon; working with Reannon, a graphic design major who sketched some initial panels and then ensuring her vision was realized in the illustrations; and finding and assigning it to an illustrator (who happened to be local). We found a time for Reannon to come to our offices, where our creative services director had her do various expressions/poses (e.g. grasping her head in frustration, etc.) that he photographed, so the illustrations would look like her. She also provided photos of her dad and her dog to work with. In the end it turned out just as we all had imagined, most of all the ‘Awww’ factor. Such fun.”

The “big swing” lesson: Do your work ambitiously.

This year, find a few projects you’re excited about and take some big swings. Maybe you’ll hit a home run or a double. Maybe it’ll be a huge swing and a miss! That’s okay, too. There’s always another issue.

If you haven’t grown tired of this baseball metaphor, I’ll add one more thing: Whatever you do, stop swinging exclusively for singles. You’ll grow tired of it. Your readers will grow tired of it.

And when you and your readers are bored, the flagship publication for your alumni, for your donors, and for your parents will become a liability, not an asset.

Your school, your readers, AND YOU all deserve more.