The case for print magazines (with numbers)

Every conference I go to, I hear about the death of print publications at colleges.

When I first heard that schools were ditching their print publications years ago, I thought I understood why. Digital was the waaaaaaave of the fuuuuuture! Focusing on cool websites and social media posts and videos made sense. These kinds of media seemed more nimble than print.

But then, as the years went on, my own behavior belied my stated enthusiasm for this approach.

I love my own alma mater, for example, but the number of times it has occurred to me to head online to check out what’s going on there — I mean, beyond signing up for my reunion or donating to the annual fund — is just about zero. I don’t follow the institution’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts.

But I read every issue of my alma mater’s print magazine, which arrives in my mailbox reliably once a quarter.

At first glance, this probably seems strange.

Why do I spend a ton more time with my print alumni magazine than any of my school’s official online offerings? I basically spend my whole life in front of a screen, and could visit my college’s website and social feeds with just a few keystrokes.

It turns out that research has an answer for that.

Why print matters more than you think.

The reality is that print does something that digital just can’t. Not just in one way, but many.

As a result, it’s a hugely valuable asset to your school. It connects people to your institution in a way that almost nothing else can.

Here are the four reasons print matters. And why it might just be time to invest more in print, not less.

THING 1: People notice what’s in print.

For years, people have marveled how you could reach your audience of tens of thousands of people — maybe more! — “with the touch of a button.”

That’s great! You know who else can do that?


That’s why the typical office worker gets 121 emails per day. How much of that do you delete without ever looking at the subject line? How much is filtered out for you? (I recently learned, for example, that I missed out on a cool alumni event that I’ve gone to in the past because the email invitation got sent to my promotions folder, which I check…sometimes.)
But do you know how much stuff we get in the mail — like alumni magazines?  About a thousand pieces per year, according to the U.S. Postal Service. That’s a little more than three pieces of mail per delivery day.

Compare that to the 121 emails and decide what ratio you want to be part of.

Do you want to fight spam filters, promotion folders, and unsubscribe links, and then hope that your subject line is good enough for your alumni to open it, despite the firehose of other messages they get?

Or do you want to be the delightful magazine in the mail, competing only with dumb lawn care coupons, cable promotions, and bills?

These are not hard questions to answer.

THING 2: People actually read what’s in print.

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: people hate to scroll online.

If you’ve got a long story, don’t expect online readers to finish it. In fact, only about half of the readers who choose a given story online make it more than halfway through.

We’re easily bored and distracted online.

We’re a lot like Kathryn Schulz, who discusses the idea of online rabbit holes in a story for the New Yorker:

[Y]ou look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which — hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep. Thus I have gone from trying to remember the name of a Salinger short story (“Last Day of the Last Furlough”) to looking up the etymology of “furlough” (Dutch) to wondering whether it had any relationship to “furlong” (no) to jogging my memory about the exact distance represented by that unit of measure (an eighth of a mile), to watching approximately every major horse race since the development of the movie camera.

But if readers pick up a magazine — and one survey suggests that 90 percent of people read at least one a month — they’ll stick with it.

The qualitative responses from that same survey reveal why:

“You do so much on your phone all the time. When you sit down to read a magazine, you’re sitting down to just relax and read a magazine.”

Says another survey participant:

“I’ll actually read the articles in the hard copy. I’ll just skim it online.”

THING 3: People retain what they read on paper longer than what they read online.

If you’re spending a ton of time and money crafting stories for your audience, you probably want them to remember at least some of the things you’re writing.

That’s why you probably want to commit those stories to *actual paper.*

Studies by Anne Mangen, a researcher at the University of Stavenger, have found that people are more likely to remember the plot points of a story if they read it on paper compared to online. They’re also likely to have better comprehension of something they read on paper compared to what they read online.

It’s not about words. It’s something known as “textual topography.” When something’s on paper, we often remember the exact location on the page and how far into a publication we were when we read it.

Here’s how writer Ferris Jabr describes this process for books (though it also applies to magazines) in a story in Scientific American.

“Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.”

If you want people to remember what you’re telling them, give them every opportunity to do so successfully. Print makes that possible.

THING 4: People value physical objects more than digital ones.

Your school may spend eleventy jillion dollars on its website. It is probably beautiful! Maybe you have some incredible web extras for your print magazine that you hope will send your readers scurrying to your website. Maybe they’ll check it out!

But here’s the thing: all that stuff in bits and bytes and pixels? It doesn’t feel “real” in the same way that a physical object like a magazine does. And so people don’t value it as much.

For example, in a series of experiments, Boston University’s Carey Morewedge discovered that people valued physical media far more than digital media. More specifically, people were willing to pay about 50 percent more for physical movies, music, books (and by extension, your publications) than the exact same thing in a digital format.

Higher ed editors I’ve talked to see this in their own experience. Says one:

“I’ve found that some of our alumni get upset when they’re accidentally dropped from the (physical) mailing list, because they see getting the print magazine as a perk of their alumnihood.”

The reason has to do with an idea known as psychological ownership.

That online magazine you worked on for months may “belong” to your alumni. But your alumni probably want something that they can hold in their hands. They want something tangible and that feels like it’s theirs.

Sheesh. Get to the point, Erin.

The larger point is print is an amazing way to engage your alumni and other stakeholders. That remains true even if it’s harder to measure than online engagement, which can be tallied in clicks, likes, and shares.

Certainly, there are plenty of things that we can all do with print to create actual, measurable numbers.

We can develop stories that are designed to spark conversation with all alumni, not just the superstars. We can add strong calls to action to encourage feedback. And we can do the behind-the-scenes work that moves the needle.

Of course, you should still be doing plenty of work on your websites and social media accounts. But to do so at the expense of your print publications is a disservice to your readers.

That’s why I believe that for many institutions, it’s time to double down on print.

Yes, it’s expensive!

But the goal of your work isn’t just to save money.

The goal of your work is not to add the newest, latest, buzziest thing, just because it’s cool.

The goal of your work should be to make the biggest and best possible impact with the dollars you have to spend.

Great stories are essential. But the medium you choose to tell the story matters, too.

For me, that means telling stories in a medium that will be:

  • Noticed
  • Read
  • Remembered
  • Valued

Print does that. It’s designed for that.

And it just may be the next big thing.

Can a digital magazine save you money? Will your alumni love it?

Recently, Skidmore’s Mary Monigan weighed in on the pros and cons of ditching your printed alumni magazine based on her school’s experience — as well as a survey she conducted of more than 40+ institutions. If you missed it, you can read the full interview here.

Today, I’m excited to share a story from Lynette Lamb, who spent more than a decade as the editor of the quarterly alumni magazine published by Macalester College. She spoke at a CASE conference a few years ago in Minneapolis about the development of Macalester’s digital magazine and app.

Here she shares more details about the decision behind and the development of the app, what she and the institution learned during the process, and why the college ultimately ditched the custom magazine app they developed. Lamb has also edited Carleton’s Voice, Minnesota Monthly, and Utne Reader magazines, as well as taught journalism at several Twin Cities universities. She is currently a Minneapolis-based writer, editor, and editorial consultant. (Reach her here:

Lynette Lamb

Tell me about the initial interest in creating a digital magazine. In 2012–13, there were a lot of people developing iPad-specific apps for their magazines. Several influential members of the Mac community, including some members on the Board of Trustees, thought it would be cool to have an app for Macalester Today magazine. We staffers caught the fever, too, and decided the app should have extra “assets” — photos, audio, and video. Plus, we had been spending a lot of money, perhaps $8,000 or $10,000 an issue, to send our magazine to international alumni and friends. We reasoned that if we could stop sending the magazine internationally, and encourage people to download the app, we could reduce those mailing costs.

That makes sense. But the costs to develop it weren’t zero, right? We had a freelance designer who did a separate design for the app, basically from scratch. So that doubled our design cost per issue, though even after that expense we still saved a bit on postage. And it was cool. We presented it at the CASE Editors Forum a few years ago in Minneapolis, and editors were really interested.

Tell me more. It was one of those techno-dream things. In our minds, we thought: maybe this is the direction things are going. Maybe this is how people will read magazines and books from now on. We thought that eventually we might stop printing and mailing the magazine entirely.

That’s pretty bold! Online is definitely seductive, and print is expensive. We were spending about $25,000 per issue on printing at the time, plus thousands more for postage. And those costs, of course, only continue to go up.

What was the reaction among the alumni community? We hoped that the app would be cool enough that everyone would download it and show it to folks on airplanes or to their friends. But fast forward a year, and when we looked into the numbers we found that only a few hundred people were downloading the app — out of a circulation of 32,000.

That seems low. Yes. We were surprised. We had done a good job publicizing it, and the app itself was great. But it turned out that people wanted a paper magazine. We started by adding a few international alumni back to our paper mailing list — not all, but some. After about a year and a half, we stopped producing the app.

Were there other lessons in this process? I don’t think people remember to seek out their alumni materials online. You really need to get in front of them purposefully, and to have a regular connection — and, I would argue, to make that connection at least quarterly. By publishing two or three magazines a year, you will save money, but at what cost? How much are you really saving per alum? And is that savings worth diluting your alumni relationships?

Do you really need a print alumni magazine? Here’s what research says

Do you really need print magazines for your alumni?

It’s a controversial idea to ditch a magazine entirely. But there are plenty of rational reasons to consider it.

Your school’s website is as close to your alumni as the phones in their pockets. You can send email newsletters to thousands of alumni as frequently as you want.

It may not even be clear that alumni and donors even want that magazine. Does it go straight to the recycling bin? Could you save six figures — or more — just by dropping the magazine?

Reader, you will not be surprised to know that I have many opinions on this.

But the very best folks to talk about this are those who have experimented with reducing or even eliminating their magazines.

That’s why I’m super excited to share my conversation with Mary Monigan, an advancement editorial associate with Skidmore. A couple years ago, Skidmore dropped its three-times-a-year print magazine, Scope, to focus on building a stronger marketing and design team in its office.

Mary Monigan SkidmoreSkidmore’s Mary Monigan

As is true for any big change, the implementation had its share of hiccups. Monigan shared what went right, what went wrong, and what she and her team might have done differently if they could do it again.

Even better, she shared some incredible research that she conducted after Skidmore had completed its process. She set up a survey, and more than 45 colleges and universities shared insights about their own decisions to drop one or more print magazines from their lineup. She delivered a talk about her findings at the CASE II conference in February.

I’ve included highlights of our conversation below.

Read to the end to get access to Monigan’s presentation.


The bigger picture. Skidmore has always been the little engine that could. We did not have a culture of endowment or philanthropy for many years. Among the heads of advancement and communications, the sense was that instead of having a traditional communications department, which functioned more like an information office, we needed to infuse it with a full-fledged marketing division.

The idea was that for a private liberal arts school to remain competitive in this marketplace, you need a professional marketing department to keep your brand at the forefront of the national discussion. We added five positions to do that, including a new cabinet level VP, a designer and videographer, and two marketing managers.

Why the magazine was one of the first things to go. The three issues of the magazine were consuming most of the budget of the communications department — about $150,000 total. The printed magazine had been around for 50 years, but the team decided that digital is the future and dispensing with print would allow us to fully fund the new marketing wing.

(But not totally.) We did decide to print a small publication of mostly class notes to appease older alumni —those who graduated prior to 1970. They’re loyal, they’re engaged, and they’re still sending news to their class secretaries. For them, the magazine is about community.

We came up with the idea of a printed newsletter with a four-color cover, but to save money, the inside would be black and white with no pictures.

Positioning the change. We crafted a letter to alumni explaining that the decision was driven by budget constraints and the need to be a good steward of the college resources. Also, moving away from print advanced our goal of planned sustainability. Finally, we said that we needed to maintain our momentum as a college. It is a competitive marketplace. We felt that we needed to restructure the communications department and make it a communications and marketing department. Today, we produce an annual printed publication that is more of a “year in review” piece, not a magazine.

On sharing the news. I had to be the one who broke the news to a core of 70 class correspondents, many of whom had been doing it for 20 years. There is a real culture of close community with these folks.

How alumni responded. I did six to eight conference calls with different eras of class correspondents. They wanted to know things like: “Why can’t you get an alum to pay for an issue?” “Why do you have to do this?” “Is it really necessary?”

It was difficult.

People shared interesting details with me. They would tell me: “I want have something to put on my coffee table, because that means a lot to me. I read it over a month, cover to cover. ” One said, “I’m proud that I graduated from Skidmore, and when my friends come over, we talk about it.” She helped me see the value of the magazine from their perspective. I’m not sure that emotional connection was factored into the equation.

On the plus side. One thing that has been successful with our replacement monthly e-magazine, Scope Monthly, is that there’s a link that drives people to class notes every month. The class notes are refreshed three times a year, so we always let people know when there’s a fresh batch of class notes. It drives people to the site.

I can also put links in the notes. For example, if somebody is appearing in a Broadway show, or they’ve just had an opening at a gallery, I can keep a live link in there so people can see their stuff.

On the mixed feelings beyond Skidmore. The survey we did of other institutions showed that a lot of alumni at different institutions still value an alumni magazine. Some institutions surveyed their readers and found that readers wanted print magazines, so these institutions decided not to give them up. Another person said, “We went to digital for a couple of issues, and totally lost alumni input into the class notes section. We’re printing again for three issues, and we have already increased our magazine page count by eight.”

People at one institution said, “Our development officers are voicing concerns from their older prospects and parents, who are much less receptive to an online magazine. Also, the development officers use the magazine as a leave-behind on donor visits.”

No one is 100% sure how their constituencies are going to respond to a reduction in issues.

Not every institution’s alumni felt so strongly. For some institutions, especially those that went from four magazines a year to three, or from three to two, people didn’t notice as much. They said things along the lines of: “We didn’t really get complaints. People didn’t seem to notice that we no longer published a summer issue.”

The keys to a successful print magazine reduction. In general, those who were able to reduce their issue count successfully were folks who reduced their publications by one issue per year, and who also tended to have a comprehensive strategy that included their other platforms.

They beefed up their social media and overhauled their design. They added a lot more content that would be best living online and that complimented the once- or twice-a-year print publication. They upped their game on all of their platforms, and those are the folks you could tell took time to develop a strategic plan around this.

People from one institution said, “We increased the page count and quality, but now only print twice a year. Our readers still love the magazine.”

Big takeaways. You have to know your culture, and you have to be planful about it. If you are going to eliminate magazines, it’s also absolutely essential to be proactive about the process.

Survey people, but also be proactive with your staff across the institution, so that everyone has the same talking points and understands what’s happening, because many of the folks who are on the road and seeing donors were confused.

Digital > print? Like with everything else, the right combination of print and digital is the key. What balance is right for your constituency? We spent $150,000 on the three issues of the magazine. Are we spending a comparable amount on something that doesn’t deliver as much ROI in terms of engagement as the magazine did? What compares to the magazine as a primary brand identifier for almost all class years?

On what digital can’t do that magazines can. With digital, you are typically intentionally looking for specific content. With a magazine, that process is different. You get it and you look at one story, but then you might end up reading a lot of other material. It is better, I think, for certain types of stories and content.

Reversible decisions? Maybe. I think that if a pot of money were to become available, we would definitely go back to publishing two issues of a print magazine each year.


If you want to see the full results of the survey and Monigan’s analysis, check out her amazing CASE presentation here.

Telling the “non-story” and other great ideas

Head down on big projects? I know the feeling.

Still, it’s worth it to take the occasional breather to see what other folks are doing and to get new ideas. Here are some cool things worth your time this week.

•  Focused ambition. When a lot of us think about ambitious pieces in our publications, we imagine long, Kathryn Schulz–style features tackling major topics through deep reporting. But I want to show you what I think is equally impressive — and it was accomplished in a single page.

Could you do something like this in your publication?

The one-page graphic story for Forward, the publication for the Iowa State University Foundation, is a beautiful synthesis of many elements. It tells the story of a scholarship recipient, Reannon Overbey. Click here for the PDF.

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.”

Let’s also be crystal clear. These kinds of unique storytelling approaches take a ton of work: “The comic-strip-style story is among my most favorite to appear in Forward,” Jodi says. “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.”

I encourage you to come up with your own “swing for the fences” stories. They’ll often turn out better than you imagine. If they don’t? You’ll definitely learn a ton and gain experience for next time.

• Writing about generations. When I was an editor, I often got “story ideas” that sounded something like this: “Did you know that the Johnson family has had FOUR GENERATIONS of students at our college? That’s incredible! We should write a story about that.” I would politely nod, tell them I’d file that away, and promptly forget about it. Because — let’s be honest here — IT WAS NOT A STORY. It was a moderately interesting sentence, maybe.

Or was I getting it all wrong? A recent story I saw in the New York Times sports section about fathers and sons in professional baseball made me rethink my assumption. Check it out here.

See what you notice about the way the story makes comparisons and notes contrasts between the generations. Pay attention to the way the story shares details of fathers letting go and sons carving out unique identities for themselves. There’s a lot going on here, and if you have to do a similar “generations” story, there are many good ideas.

• What Capstone is up to. My team and I worked on “The Pursuit of Meaning,” a cool story for St. Ed’s, the alumni magazine for St. Edward’s University. Our team also did a project for Blue, Drake University’s alumni magazine, about reasons for optimism.

Is it time to rethink your publishing process?

Do you publish your print magazine and put its stories online after it arrives in most of your readers’ mailboxes? If so, your process looks a lot like many — perhaps most! — alumni publications. But is it possible that you’ve got the process exactly backwards?

Recently I was at a breakfast where editors were sharing the details of their publishing process, and this sequencing was up for debate.

The discussion reminded me of a CASE Editors Forum conference talk from 2015 by then-Stanford Business editorial director Mike Freedman.

Mike Freedman

Freedman, who is now the chief communications officer and director of alumni relations for Stanford’s School of Engineering, transformed the business school’s magazine process from a print-first approach to a digital-first approach.

What does that mean in practice? It means this: nearly every story that appears in the magazine — save, say, an editor’s letter and class notes — appears in multiple formats before it lands in print. Not only that, but the stories often appear online months before a reader sees them in the magazine.

Deborah Petersen, who now holds the editorial director position at Stanford’s business school, has continued to refine this process since Freedman took his new position in late 2015.

So that you can see what I mean about the digital-first approach, I’ve included an example of the way they’ve made the most of single story with a mini-calendar below:

Story calendar: Working from home research

The point? This is a lot of bang for the story buck.

Making it work

A few weeks ago, Mike and I talked about the process of moving from a print-first approach to digital-first approach. He shares why they did it, how it worked, and what questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering a switch.

I’ve also included updates from the Deborah about their 2018 processes and approaches, which look similar — but not identical! — to those that Mike put in place years ago. I think it’s particularly useful to see this evolution. Major overhauls can make a big impact from the start, but  they’re never really “done.” There are always ways to refine processes, make improvements, and integrate new ideas.

First, tell me about what your role was at the business school.

Mike: I was hired to think about the magazine and more specifically about how we could better get faculty research and ideas out into the world digitally and in print.

When you arrived, what did that process look like?

Mike: We expended most of our energy and resources into putting out a printed magazine. Then we would take that material and put it online. There was some online-only material, but we were focused on the printed magazine.

But over time, we recognized that we could reach a lot more people and have a much greater impact by putting all of our stories first digitally. Then we could take some of them and repackage them in a printed format.

Why did that strategy make sense?

Mike: You can reach so many more people digitally. One of our goals was to be able to reach more people, and in a way that they wanted to be reached. Because of demographics and technological shifts, people are less engaged with a printed magazine. We knew we had to get ahead of that curve.

We also knew that there was a vast audience of people who are interested in research and ideas — the kinds of things that we were writing about. We saw that there was no reason we shouldn’t reach them first. It allowed us to create a lot more content. We were able to pick up the pace a little bit, and then have something beautiful and special for a much smaller and select group of people: our alumni.

Talk about how you made that work.

Mike: At the beginning of the year, we’d come up with a rough list of themes that were meant to serve as metaphors. Throughout the course of the year, we worked toward building up a list of stories around those themes, and then we could pull those stories together as a collection and publish them in the printed magazine.

One example is boundaries: How could we explore that concept? Issues related to immigration typically evoke a literal boundary, so we included in the magazine faculty writing about or thinking about immigration issues. There were stories about boundaries as the limitations we set on ourselves. We looked at the boundaries between managers and their reports, and how they could be overcome. We explored boundaries as they relate to how a company can better explain its products and overcome consumer confusion or apprehension.

We worked on all these stories throughout the year, and by the time it came to doing a magazine, it we said, “Okay, we have 64 pages to fill, and we know we can fit about 20 stories in there.” We didn’t mind that the story was six months old. A year old would be fine, because all of these stories are evergreen.

Deborah: A significant number of the stories we post online never appear in the magazine because we create more content for our Insights by Stanford Business platform than would fit in three magazine issues a year. Also, we now assign some stories specifically around the theme of the magazine. In the past, we had most often pulled already-created stories from the website, and repurposed them. The stories we assign will appear online too, of course.

Were you ever worried, when you had stories showing up on the web, Facebook, Twitter, and the magazine, that it was too much?

Mike: I don’t worry about over-saturation. I was happy if a reader read the stories we were publishing. It would be terrific if they saw it once and read it so carefully that they noticed it a second time!

Fair! We should all be so lucky to have such engaged readers.

Mike: We see this all the time in the mainstream press — the New York Times, for example. On a Wednesday or Thursday the Times will start publishing some of its magazine stories online. Sometimes it jumps out at me digitally, because they can do interesting things digitally that they couldn’t do in print, and I’ll read it right there.

Other times, depending on the story, I might think to myself, “You know what? I’m going to wait and read it in print on Sunday, because I know they can do things in print that they can’t do digitally,” or because for whatever reason the story touches me in such a way that I feel like I would enjoy it more in print.

The New York Times Book Review is a good example of that. I try not to look at it digitally, because I enjoy reading it on a Sunday morning as part of my media diet and habit. I think most people are the same way. But I never think, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they published that first on the digital. Now I feel overwhelmed by the content.” I’m glad I have multiple options.

How did you create a magazine that worked in such a flexible way?

Mike: As we made this shift, we re-designed the magazine. We worked with Luke Hayman at Pentagram, and we told him and his team that we wanted to make sure we could easily take any story, regardless of length, and put it in the magazine without changing it, aside from a word here or there.

We didn’t want to have to take a thousand-word story and say, “Now we need to fit it into a 300-word spot,” because it would be too much work to be able to do that. You have to go back to the faculty, you have to rewrite it, re-copy edit it. You have to do a whole range of different things.

His team created a design that was flexible enough to allow us to do the bulk of the story exactly the same — and if we needed to make a couple of adjustments or something like that, we could do that.

It sounds like the word count might not have changed substantially, but you did make some changes, right?

Mike: We changed the art every time. We changed the headline and all the display type.

We were also cognizant in each magazine of showcasing a diverse array of faculty and alumni in terms of discipline, subject matter, and gender. We did likewise in our digital format, but as we themed stories together we wanted to be careful to have the right mix.

Deborah: We have greatly improved our photography in the magazine, and therefore, whenever possible, we take advantage of the terrific art produced for the magazine by using it for the online piece too. (Before, as Mike says, the process only went in one direction). That goes for the illustrations that are produced for the magazine, too, which additionally, are sometimes repurposed for social media. We animated the Autumn 2017 issue cover, for example.

Erin: !!!!!

Deborah: The Autumn 2017 issue also marked another departure for us. We published a 12-page staff-written narrative about an alumni who runs a social impact company in Rwanda. The story, which included professional photographs as well as staff-created infographics, was significantly longer than any of our previous pieces, and focused not only on business lessons, but on how a student’s experience at the school led directly to the work she is doing now after graduation.

What were the biggest challenges in making this shift?

Mike: We were not just redesigning a publication, but we were redesigning a way of working. That was something that we needed to think through.

We talked about changes that we needed to make organizationally. How were we going to rethink what we were doing on a day-to-day basis, knowing that we were publishing three to five stories a week? There were operational things to work through. On every level, we had to be mindful of our new approach.

It sounds like you had to be clear about your goals, too.

Mike: Right. We had to rethink our whole thought process around our criteria for storytelling.

You’ve talked about the idea of “stories that teach.”

Mike: There’s a world of stories at any institution. Being able to crystallize the kind of stories that you will tell, and the kinds of stories that are important but not necessarily part of your mission, is important. It’s difficult to do, but it’s beneficial when you can do it. It makes everyone’s lives a lot easier. The idea of “stories that teach” allowed us to do that — we defined our criteria as stories that would help you improve your personal or professional life and/or help explain how the world worked.

The important thing is that the audience appreciates that you are making decisions for their benefit.
How did you decide whether or not you were succeeding?

Mike: We were tracking the full range of metrics. For example, the number of Twitter and Facebook fans and follower grew, along with engagement. We tracked that all of that. YouTube grew tremendously; our web traffic also grew tremendously.

We were also able to get to a point where we were syndicating with other publications — like Inc. magazine — or other publications wanted to pick up our stories.

What would you tell others who might be interested in making this shift?

Mike: Digital first is not a one-size-fits all solution. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate it for everyone. The first question an organization might ask themselves is: Why are we doing it the way we’re doing it? Go through the range of different possibilities and then say, “Is that a good enough reason to continue doing it this way?” Maybe the answer is yes. Every institution is different, and there might be a good reason why the current approach is the right one.

It all comes down to being intentional about your decision-making process. One approach could be: We want to try this new way, and for the next six months we’re going to test doing everything first digitally. We have a process by which we’re going to assess at the end of the six months, according to a number of different metrics that we’ve pre-determined, whether that makes sense.

The key is bringing stakeholders together for a strategic process and thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing — and how do we improve upon that as we move forward?


As someone who spends a ton of time thinking about the best ways to tell stories, I love these ideas, including the emphasis on maximizing the stories you tell about your institution and your people. This digital-first approach seems like one great way to do exactly that.

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How to get faculty to share their best research consistently

At many schools, telling stories about the great research that faculty members are doing is essential and alumni magazines are a great place to showcase this work.

Unfortunately, getting faculty to share research papers and journal articles can feel like pulling teeth. It doesn’t have to be that way.

What it looks like when faculty are excited to share their best work with you

When Capstone started working with Midge Wilcke at the Boston University Questrom School of Business, we were surprised and delighted by the steady stream of ideas and research papers she sent our way. (You can see a few examples of them at the end of this newsletter.)

Month after month, she sent along amazing published research papers from a diverse group of faculty.

How did she get faculty to suggest their work, often before it was even published? Did she just know everyone at the school and check in with them constantly?

image of midge wilcke


Finally, we asked what her secret was. We assumed it had to be some sort of arduous, time-consuming process.

But it wasn’t.

She told me that getting faculty members to keep her office at the top of their minds when they were in the publishing process required just two things.

She started with a simple, one-minute announcement at a faculty meeting, and she supplemented it with one-page handout that faculty could keep and refer to at any time.

She also agreed to share the script and documents she used so that you can adapt them for your own institution. (Thanks, Midge!)

The great thing is that this process isn’t just about getting research stories for your publications and website. You can adapt these scripts and documents so that faculty are willing to share their best work no matter what it is, from journal articles to interesting cross-campus collaborations to research with students.

What to say at a faculty meeting

When Midge got 60 seconds to share a few thoughts at faculty meeting, she said this:

“Promoting thought leadership is an important part of what we do we do at MarCom for Questrom and for you. There are multiple channels and multiple ways to do that. If you have a paper in an academic journal we have a seasoned academic writer who will create a research brief, and you’ll have the chance to review and fact-check every piece. If your work is included in something like HBR, we write an intro and take folks there. We can showcase your work in our news feed, our home page slider, the alumni magazine and social media. We need to work with you to make that happen.”

Pretty simple! It’s also highly effective.

What made that work?

In a very brief amount of time, she communicated that:

  • Working with faculty was an important part of her office’s mission, and this work benefited not just the school, but the faculty themselves. (Show people what’s in it for them.)
  • Faculty who participated would be working with a pro who understood the importance of getting the details right. (Show that you recognize that this is their life’s work, and you’ll treat it accordingly.)
  • The faculty members would have control over the final piece to ensure accuracy, which is reassuring when faculty work on complicated and nuanced pieces. (Lots of people have had bad experiences with the media, unfortunately. A process like this shows that they can breathe easy.)

Adapt this script while keeping those principles in mind, and you’ll be all set.

Provide a simple document for an effective one-two punch

The short announcement at the faculty meeting was smart.

Even better, Midge had a one-page handout for faculty to share a few more details about office could do and how faculty could work with her.

It’s easy to understand, well organized, and gives faculty everything they need to take action.

one page handout for faculty meetings You don’t have to pull out a microscope to read it: just click here to get the PDF.

And that’s it! Use these details to create your own short announcements and documents that help encourage faculty to share their best and most interesting work.

4 ways to structure a big feature package

One of the challenges of putting together a major feature package for alumni magazines — on a new campaign, on alumni in the food industry, or on the future of higher education, for example — is finding a structure that gives all the different pieces a sense of coherence within the whole.

Certainly, putting together a feature package like this can feel exciting at first. There are so many sources and story ideas and approaches!

Of course, at some point you’ll probably see the flip side: there are SO MANY sources and story ideas and approaches.


How do you organize them? How do you create order and logic from the chaos, both for your sanity and that of your readers?

Is there a way that you can structure a package that actually gives each piece in the package more meaning than it could have on its own?

Here are four solutions — with tons of examples! — that you can use to impose structure on a feature to make it easier to develop, write, and read.

1. Organize with a journey-like chronology

Years ago, I read an enormous feature in Backpacker called “The Complete Guide to Fire.” It was dozens of how-tos, personal essays, glossaries, descriptions — you name it, it was in there. It was 15 (!!!) pages. It could have been a chaotic, unreadable disaster.

Instead, it won a National Magazine Award.

The Complete Guide to Fire

What made it work?

Part of its genius was structure, which it made clear at the top of every page. I’ve zoomed in on it for you below:

The organizing principle

As you can see, the feature is organized with the help seven categories — siting, fuel, architecture, lighting, feeding, uses, and extinguishing. Each category has a two-page spread addressing a variety of subtopics within that category.

Simple. Boring. Right?


It’s more than that.

The structure of the story is the chronology of fire itself, from beginning to end. It starts with “siting,” the very beginning of the fire-building process, goes through the various stages of a fire, and ends up at “extinguishing,” which is the end of the process.


This type of chronology gives real momentum to the story. Even with the many elements within each category, there’s a larger sense of moving from a natural start to a natural finish.

Check out the full feature here.

Here’s another example: last year, I wrote a portion of a major feature package on entrepreneurship for the beautifully redesigned Spartan magazine from Michigan State University.

To get a handle on what would turn out to be an 18-page package, editor Paula Davenport and I talked a lot about how to prevent the feature from feeling sprawling and overwhelming, even though the sheer number of MSU alumni, events, offices, and initiatives linked to entrepreneurship was enormous.

The Insider’s Guide to Entrepreneurship

We settled on a four-part structure that took the reader through four key stages of entrepreneurship: nurture an idea, launch the plan, lead the voyage, and expand the business.

Each section was four pages, covering stories linked to each stage.

The big idea is this: if you’ve got a major feature package, bring your readers on a clear journey that is linked to the topic of the feature. If it’s food, you could use the structure of a formal meal to move readers along. If it’s a campaign story for a new facility on campus, you could structure it like the building process itself.

2. Show the same idea at different scales.

In November 2016, Wired did a crazily ambitious issue on Frontiers.

Wired’s Frontiers issue

The magazine organized the issue by looking at the idea of frontiers at increasingly large scales. It started with “personal frontiers” — think brain imaging, personalized medicine, and aspirational reading lists. It ended with outer space, “the final frontier.” For that section, topics included living on Mars and sci-fi worlds.

This sense of movement, from tiny to vast, helps give a sense of structure and excitement to all of the many ways humanity seeks to go beyond its current limitations.

The whole theme issue is way too long to include here, but I’ve linked to all of the key pages that show each type of frontier, including the index of stories within them: personal, local, national, international, and outer space.

You may be able to impose the same type of structures in your own packages.

For example, if you’re doing a story on a series of rock-star students or alumni, show how they’re making a difference at a one-to-one level, the level of the university campus, the local community, the country, or the world.

Can you fit folks into different categories so that readers can get a sense of the enormous number of ways that people can make a difference, and how each “level” matters?

3. Impose alphabetical order

A few years ago, Real Simple had an “A-to-Z guide to cleaning almost anything.”

Real Simple’s A-to-Z Guide to Cleaning Almost Anything

I’ll admit that I’m not really a fan of alphabet lists (I am so tired of the amount of free press that otherwise irrelevant things like X-rays and xylophones get), but it works here.

There are a million things that need cleaning, and a million ways that they need to be cleaned. This approach was a way to organize the story that felt comprehensive.

Perhaps you could do something similar with a story on study abroad, cool places and things on campus, or “Reasons to Love [your institution].”

Of course, you can impose alphabetical order without actually using the whole alphabet. Here’s one example:

Bon Appetit’s Wellness Buzzwords

Hey, we’re all kinda lazy sometimes.

4. Impose numerical order

If you’re really stuck, here’s a simple and surefire way to organize your story: just make a numbered list.

Here are a couple examples.

Bon Appetit, a magazine that consistently brings home a metric ton of National Magazine Awards each year, organizes its front of the book section — Starters, natch — in a list. Each number covers a single topic.

For example, in a recent issue,
#1 was a selection of “wellness cocktails” available at restaurants across the country
#2 was a short essay about salsa and a recipe
#3 was a glossary of health buzzwords
#4 was a two-page guide to eating healthily on vacation

Bon Appetit’s list FOB

There is no “overarching theme,” but just numbering each part in order helps make it feel like these different things are tied together.

Similarly, Entertainment Weekly does its weekly “Must List,” which is a list of 10 things that fall under the category of “our editors like this stuff this week.”

Entertainment Weekly’s The Must List

It’s all types of pop culture — podcasts, movies, books, television shows — and there are sometimes multiple parts to a single list item.

If this section weren’t organized into a list, it would feel incredibly weird and disorganized. But somehow, creating a list of 10 items feels like it both offers an abundance of choice for any pop culture lover for the week, and it also feels complete.

So there you have it!

Those are four ways that you can use to give order and coherence to a massive feature package.

Your readers will love it, because it will help them quickly grasp the structure of the story, and pinpoint the areas that they’re most interested in reading first.

You’ll love it, because it will make it easier to choose the best stories for the package — and easily say no to ideas that don’t quite fit.

Do you want more letters to the editor?

One of the most frustrating parts of working in magazines is trying to get enough feedback to fill a letters page.

On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, getting a figurative thumbs up is no more difficult than the push of a button. And it’s so satisfying to get dozens of “likes” within minutes of posting a photo or message.

But you know as well as I do that that kind of instant feedback doesn’t happen in print. Even if people love your stories, they’ll rarely take the time to send you a message.

erin peterson alumni magazines

Are they talking about you?

While you might know in your gut whether a story succeeds, receiving letters to the editor can give weight to that intuition. A stack of letters is a mark that people are paying attention. It means that your magazine matters.

How do you achieve that? By structuring your stories and your processes in ways that make it easier for people to send you that feedback.

And it starts long before readers have the magazine in their hands.

I’ve used several key strategies to elicit more reader feedback, and I’ll share one that you can implement in your very next issue.

The Power of the Call to Action

In marketing, a call to action is basically an instruction to do something. You know what I’m talking about:

  • Call now.
  • Join this program.
  • Buy this product.

Magazines do it, too. For example, I’m sure you’ve seen the Cartoon Caption Contest on the back page of the The New Yorker. They encourage readers to enter and vote at

They get thousands of submissions every week.

You can use the same approach.

For example, when I wrote a story about campus myths for Grinnell College, we included the following call to action: “Do you have a campus legend you’d like us to dig into? Send it to [email]. We’ll answer the best questions in a future issue of the magazine.”

The result? Tons of letters!

There are entire book chapters and courses devoted to great calls to action.

But if you want to use one that works — one that drives readers to actually write to you and let you know that they’re paying attention, one that shows your bosses that their investment in your magazine is worth the money — follow these guidelines:

  • Make a single request. Notice that in the Grinnell example, we were specific. The message was not “Let us know if you liked this story, or if you remember other campus legends, or how these legends compare to the ones you learned about at grad school.” It was one simple request: tell us about the legends you want us to investigate.
  • Include a benefit. Why should people get in touch? In this case, they’ll get answers to their burning questions!

  • Drive action you can measure. Just sending people to your home page to find out more about what’s going on at the college? You’ll never know if that uptick was related to your request, or to something else entirely.

There are tons of ways to effectively use calls to action in your magazine; the important thing is to get started with the stories in your next magazine, learning and improving as you go.

The Insider’s Guide To The Sibley: Renée Olson At TCNJ

As a writer for alumni magazines, one of my favorite times of year is the announcement of the CASE Circle of Excellence Awards.

I love seeing what creative work colleges are doing, and I try to learn from some of the very best ideas and adapt those ideas for my own clients.

For alumni magazines, of course, the Sibley Award is the one worth watching.

This year, I was delighted to interview the most recent Sibley-winning editor, Renée Olson. Her work at The College of New Jersey’s alumni magazine, which you can find both here and here, is exceptional. She spearheads a magazine that’s beautiful to look at, with stories that are smart without being stuffy. It includes plenty of elements designed to appeal to people in the TCNJ community, making it a must-read for anyone with a connection to the institution.

Read on to find out more about what makes her magazine work, what she thinks more alumni magazines should be doing, and a challenge that she has for your magazine.

First, tell me a little bit about the magazine and its readership.

Although the Sibley award judges didn’t single out in their written comments the pair of staples that hold TCNJ Magazine together, our team knows that these stalwarts telegraph a lot about the attention we give to detail. Gone is the fear among our readers that unfettered pages will hit the floor, making their retrieval trigger a sciatica flare-up. That’s the level of care we put into every issue.

Our magazine goes to the usual suspects: largely alumni, plus parents, faculty, and staff. We’re a public college, founded in 1855 as a teacher’s college. The 20th century saw TCNJ grow into the public liberal arts college it is today, with more than 6,000 undergraduates and a small graduate school program.

Here’s a fake brand tagline that aptly describes TCNJ: “Private feel, public cost.” We’re on a sparkling, leafy campus about a 20-minute drive from Princeton and are known as the place to go if you are A) brainy and B) ultimately seek top employers and grad schools without going broke.

How has your own work with the magazine evolved?

I’ve had an interesting trajectory at TCNJ. I began on staff as the director of strategic communications with oversight for the magazine. At about the same time in 2016, editor Tony Marchetti and I made career switches: He snagged the top editor spot at Monmouth University’s magazine, and I moved to part-time employee status and inherited the magazine as a project. I also launched my company, Squint.

This arrangement works because AVP of Communications Dave Muha has a broad and deep understanding of how to effectively motivate his people — and then lets us skip through fields of daisies as we put together an issue. Many thanks are due to Kara Pothier, our indefatigable, on-campus assistant editor, who noses around for story ideas and connects the fabled dots. Also, Art Director/Design Goddess Kelly Andrews is both a deft designer and a patient soul.

Judges called your magazine “fun” and “approachable.” Can you talk about a part of the magazine that you think does that really well?

Despite lacking evidence, we must first consider whether the Sibley judges looked at TCNJ Magazine at the end of a long day, punch drunk after nonstop alumni magazine review — or maybe after fleeing to the closest bar. Still, I consider it a high compliment when readers say they enjoy the magazine. What else is there? If your work sparks an emotional connection, readers will pick up the next issue and the next. A magazine needs a soul. Ours happens to be a combination of warmth, smarts, and the unexpected.

I inherited a recurring department on the first spread (inside front cover and first page) that rounds up responses to a question — What professor do you remember most? What did the library mean to you? — posed to readers in the previous issue. I’m always surprised by how many people reply. It’s a fresh, immersive way to start each issue.

Is there one area you think the magazine excels in that makes a difference in its quality (an area where you see that other mags have struggled or don’t get quite right)?

I’ve seen many magazines underestimate the power of photography and illustration. Most times, the budget is too skeletal to hire quality people or the art director is content to work with his brother-in-law who’s cornered the local market on K-12 portraits. I offer a challenge. Email me one upcoming story idea, the space it will fill, and what you can spend for art. And I’ll send back suggestions on what you need to do to make the article stand out.

Is there something you don’t do — like a president’s letter or something — that you consciously decided not to include because it doesn’t matter to your readers?

We don’t cover commencement because magazines are not made for repetitive content — though we will run a blurb about the undergrad who moved to Florida to get married and finished her final semester by flying up to Jersey each week.

What do you read or study as inspiration? 

New York for how they package stories. Reader’s Digest for concise human interest pieces. The New Yorker for penetrating insight and depth. Twitter for snark.

TCNJ came away with a whole armload of awards, not just the Sibley (congrats!). For you, what is the value of such awards? Do they give you more leeway with your boss? Recognize your hard work? Something else? Why is it worth the (significant!) effort to apply for this kind of recognition?

Thank you. We only think about awards as the CASE deadline looms (and we never think about the Sibley). Yes, having people recognize quality in our work is a tremendous rush. What’s more, it gives our bosses a reason to keep us around.

I’m personally flattered by winning a Gold for Illustration simply because the first sentence of the judges’ comments reads, “The references are hilarious.” We put together a three-column chart looking for similarities between John Lennon and Ivan the Terrible after I stumbled on two unrelated undergraduate research papers. Goddess Kelly hired illustrator Eric Nyquist, whose work we spotted in The New York Times Book Review. He made it magical.

For editors eager to find ways to make their own magazines better, is there a specific piece of advice you can share?

Ask yourself every hour if you’re delighted by what you’re doing. Are you jazzed by a potential story idea? If not, maybe it was never destined to be a story. Are you excited because there’s real promise in a first draft — or you see a way to get it there? If not, pause and let your gut tell you if you should walk away. Be vigilant. If you let humdrum stuff make it into your story lineup, it’ll still be there when advance copies land in your office.

Anything else you want to add?

I know many people have micromanager bosses or are weighed down by departmental decisions made without editor input. To survive, lobby for a full redo of your magazine and carefully define the kinds of stories and content that are true to that new vision. If you rebrand to focus on what alumni achieve in their first 12.5 years after graduation, let’s say, you have a concrete reason to jettison the current page devoted to administrators and their pets.

And don’t wait for story ideas to come from supervisors. Instead, rely on your connections across campus and supply supervisors with a list of what’s under consideration and why at regular intervals (monthly, semi-monthly). Take this task off their plate and you may find you have a far greater say going forward.

Brilliant editor hacks: how to get a flood of positive feedback

One of the perks of my job as a writer for alumni magazines is the chance to see top editors at work. The very best have come up with ingenious solutions that they implement quietly — and use to get incredible results.

In this occasional series, I’ll highlight the best ideas I’ve seen from the 100+ editors I’ve worked with during the course of my career.

This comes courtesy of Rebecca Lindell, who edits the alumni magazine for the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. Over the years, Rebecca has developed an approach to working with sources that allows her to collect — and share — a great deal of positive feedback for her magazine.

I like to imagine that people do this when they read my stories.

I wrote a feature for the Weinberg alumni magazine about civil discourse called “You Can’t Say Something Nice. Now What?” As part of the process, I sent the edited draft to each of the people quoted in the story for source vetting. They all were happy to see it and each of them made modest tweaks to perfect the final piece.

As soon as the magazine was published, Rebecca sent a few courtesy print copies to each source with a personal note expressing her thanks for their time and help. But that wasn’t her only point of contact. A few days later, she followed up again, with a link to the published piece, like this:

alumni magazines editor hacks erin peterson

Steal this script.

The actual intent of the note is clear: she’s eager to have the story reach as wide an audience as possible, and this helps make it easy to spread the story.

But here’s the side benefit that *I* think is noteworthy: They all wrote back within hours to thank her and express how pleased they were with how the piece had turned out.

Here, you can see for yourself:

alumni magazines editor hacks erin peterson

Not too bad.

It’s all excellent feedback — but more important than that, the extra couple minutes she took to send the emails was all but guaranteed to pay massive dividends.

She already knew the sources liked the story, since they’d signed off on it in the first place. And she got three mini-testimonials within a matter of hours. I’m sure the sources were happy to write them!

Here’s what she told me: “It can be a bit time-consuming to follow up with sources after a story is published, but I feel it’s the least I can do after they’ve spent time speaking with us and reviewing the story. And they won’t necessarily know that the URL is there unless I tell them. But the quick contact does pay dividends in terms of good will — which they are happy to express to me in a return email. And I don’t hesitate to pass those notes along to my higher-ups, so that they can see the return on their investment! It’s good PR for the magazine all around.”

I don’t know how many sources Weinberg’s magazine has in every issue — 50? 100?

Imagine spending an hour or two every issue sending out story links to your sources. If you already have a strong source-vetting system in place, you’re all but guaranteed to hear back from some delighted sources. How great would it be to get 100 little notes attesting to your brilliance every issue? Even if only half — or a quarter! — responded, that’s still more than a dozen notes.

How useful would it be if you could bring a huge stack of enthusiastic testimonials to your boss when you’re trying to increase your magazine’s budget? Or get a raise? Or do that amazing-but-slightly-risky story you’ve been dreaming about?

Even if you just toss those messages into an “I’m awesome” folder in your inbox, it’s a good resource to have at hand after an alum gives you an earful for [insert ridiculous issue here].

In summary: don’t just hope for great feedback from your readers and sources. Whenever you can, engineer it right into your process.

If you’ve got another hack that you use and think others should know about, add it to the comments below.