Your magazine shouldn’t make alumni feel bad

Can we talk about Facebook frenemies for a second?

Let me tell you about mine.

My Facebook frenemy is an old high school friend, and her is life is AMAZING. Her husband is a big-deal doctor. They live on the shores of a beautiful lake in a home that has been featured in local design magazines. She has four perfect kids. And based on the occasional swimsuit shots she posts from her exotic beach vacations, you know what else she has? Abs. ABS! Sheesh.

Oh, and let me show an image of the kind of cakes she makes. For fun. (I am not joking about this.)

erin peterson alumni magazines unicorn cake

I probably should be happy to be friends with someone who is so accomplished! But she makes me feel terrible about myself.

This is not surprising. This is science.

According to one report, “[s]crolling through happy status updates, exciting vacation photos, and beautiful family moments led participants to compare their lives [unfavorably] with those of their Facebook friends.

Ugh. Thanks, Facebook.

This blog post is not about my Facebook hangups

You know what else makes a lot of people feel terrible about themselves?

Alumni magazines.

Alumni magazines often fill their pages with countless profiles of what I like to call “superhero alumni.” These amazing men and women have breakthrough discoveries, build world-changing companies, and improve the lives of vulnerable people around the planet.

They’re stories that are designed to make us feel proud of our alma maters.

Too often, they just make us feel bad about ourselves.

It’s the Facebook principle in action.

You don’t have to take my word for it. One blogger called the misery she felt every time she got her school’s publication Alumni Magazine Syndrome.

I’m sure I don’t have to say it, but I will: Your alumni magazine should not make people feel terrible about themselves.

There’s no one who knows that better than I do. I work on these stories day in and day out. I’m constantly fighting my own worst impulses to turn the people I’m profiling into superheroes. The alumni I write about are amazing, it’s true. But they’re also human.

Why too many superhero alumni stories can do real damage to your institution

The problem with these superhero alumni stories is not that they’re actually kind of boring. It’s not that they’re “not real.” (Though both of these things are often true.)

It’s that if you run too many of them, you run the risk of alienating the very alumni you want to reach. The ones who might volunteer at an alumni event, or serve as a mentor, or give a whole bunch of money to support a new program.

You run the risk of spending tens — even hundreds — of thousands of dollars to put together a publication that alumni send to the recycling bin before they even crack the cover.

This shouldn’t happen! You work hard on your magazine. And your alumni deserve better.

On telling more human stories

I have another friend who is nothing like my perfect high school pal.

When I saw her at a party a last year, we found ourselves talking about the bathtime routines of our children. I told her that I dreaded the routine with my twin five-year-olds — 45 minutes of fighting when I was at my most exhausted, just to get them clean! She smiled sympathetically, then glanced over at her 10-year-old son. “I don’t think he’s let water touch his hair in two weeks,” she told me.

Earlier this year, with her fingers laced around a cup of coffee, she confided to me that she wasn’t so sure about the decision she’d made to pursue a Ph.D. She’d been a rock star in her program, but now that she was wrapping up her dissertation, she realized that great positions in her field were mostly outside of the Twin Cities, where she lives. She didn’t know if her family could survive being uprooted.

The thing I love about this friend is not that she’s not amazing — she is! She’s getting a Ph.D. and she has a super smart and kind son. But she is also funny and vulnerable and deeply honest. She acknowledges that there are trade-offs that come with her very real accomplishments.

And these things — humor, honesty, and vulnerability — are often missing in alumni magazine stories.

Start with a story structure designed for humanity and honesty

It’s not always easy to tell human stories in an alumni magazine.

But one way to start is by structuring stories around inflection points — the hard moments when we have to make decisions, address consequences, or accept something difficult about ourselves.

Here’s what I mean: Some time ago, I did a story for Macalester called The Thing That Changed My Mind. I asked several alumni, faculty, and administrators about a time they went into a situation believing one thing and left believing another.

They shared remarkably frank stories about the changes in their views on challenging topics — religion and race, for example. They shared difficult stories about the realizations they had about their own limitations.

We all have these moments, but they’re really tough to admit to. They force us to acknowledge that we were wrong about something.

Yet people felt safe telling these stories because they knew that it was the *point* of the story. They knew that others would be sharing their own moments of change and growth, even if it didn’t paint their previous selves in an entirely flattering light.

These stories are human. They’re real. And that’s important.

Here’s another example called Moments of Transformation. Members of the Case Western Reserve University community shared the experiences in their own lives that changed them forever.

In each of these stories, the point is not that the people being interviewed are wildly successful. (Though they sometimes are.) It’s that they’re reflecting on the things that have made them who they are, both for good and for bad.

These aren’t stories about superheroes. They’re stories about humans.

Why it’s worth finding ways to tell these stories

I’m still working on finding ways to tell alumni magazine stories with more honesty and heart. But I’m deeply committed to this work, because the benefits are enormous.

Stories like these make your readers trust the magazine.

Stories like these make your readers trust your institution.

But most important, stories like these are what a college experience — the very reason your alumni are getting your magazine — is all about.

College is a place where we learn the skills that will benefit us in our careers, of course. But college is also about helping us develop as human beings. It’s where we took risks. It’s where we failed and succeeded. It’s where we learned difficult truths about the world and ourselves.

College is a place where we learned, in many ways, how to be human.

Not all of us can relate to stories of enormously successful alums making millions and changing the world. But we can all relate to the real stories of fumbling through our lives, trying our best, and learning from our mistakes.

Those are the stories that will keep your alumni reading.

How to write a story that saves your sanity

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked to several editors of alumni magazines who have had to pull stories from their publications at the very last minute.

Maybe a key source got cold feet, or a profile subject landed in some hot water. Maybe a brand new VP torpedoed a story for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Whatever the case, it’s a panic-inducing moment. What will you do to fill those two, four, or even eight empty pages?

Sure, you can fill those pages up with some seasonal campus photos. You might even just decide to pull a folio entirely.

alumni magazines erin peterson fall campus

The fall campus shot: pretty, but should this really be your backup?

But there’s a better option.

Building an unbreakable backup

You can’t be prepared for every reason — legitimate or ridiculous — that a story might fall through. But you can be prepared with a solution.

The fix is something I like to call the “Swiss Army Knife story.”

It’s a versatile story that you always have in your back pocket in case of emergency. A two-page profile went south? No problem. A six-page feature got the axe? That Swiss Army knife story means that you’ve got every potential emergency covered.

Here’s how.

The Swiss Army knife story is a 2,000- to 3,000-word story that’s designed to fit in any hole that you might suddenly find in your magazine.

It’s one that that you can use once, twice, or even three times, in the same way you might deploy a knife, scissors, and that little toothpick in your Swiss Army knife.

It sounds like magic. In a way, it is.

But to my mind, it’s the most important magazine story you can have in your arsenal. Below, I’ll dig into the details, link to some great examples, and show you how you can build your own Swiss Army Knife story.

What are the key components of this type of story?

A Swiss Army knife story needs to be designed to work in many different and unexpected scenarios. You aren’t going to know exactly what you need until you’re actually in the emergency, so you want it to be as versatile as possible.

Here are three primary characteristics this story should have.

1. It should be modular.

These stories aren’t single narrative monoliths of 3,000 words. Instead, they should be a group of shorter pieces that can be snapped together like Legos to fit any space that’s available. For example, here’s a story I did for Macalester called “How to be a Better Scot”. 

The story happened to feature eight people in the Mac community, but it easily could have featured 5 or 12. It could have been trimmed to fill two pages. It could have expanded to fill eight pages if we’d decided to add a couple more alumni.

There was no “ideal” number of modules; that was dictated, in part, by the space that was available.

2. It should be evergreen.

If you’re an editor at an alumni magazine, you know that we don’t live in a hot take world. (Oh, you want to read more on hot takes? Okay, here you go.)

Let’s be honest: that’s probably a good thing.

Evergreen stories are those that are always going to be relevant to readers, in the same way that evergreen trees keep their green leaves or needles all year. You might not use the story in the next three months; it might be a year or more before you have to put it into action.

You need a story that won’t be old news when you dust it off.

This isn’t an easy trick to pull off, but there are a many good choices. Some of them may be linked to your institution’s history.

For example, one surefire hit? Quizzes about alumni history and other university trivia. Other options include campus myths and Things We Love About [Alma Mater U].

3. It should have multi-use options.

As a kid, I often heard that if you cut an earthworm in half, the earthworm wouldn’t die, but would instead become two new worms. It was endlessly regenerating! Amazing.

Guys, this is not true.

However, what IS true is that you can create a single magazine story that lives many different and complete lives, if it’s structured right.

For example, last year I wrote a massive feature called Master Minds for The Ohio State University. In it, I asked 12 faculty members from different colleges to tackle a big idea in their field.

It was all set to run, and then the awful Ohio State shooting happened.

Covering that heartbreaking story in the magazine was essential, so the editor tore apart the issue. Suddenly, there weren’t 10 or 12 pages available for this feature. There were six.

But one tiny piece of good news from all that bad news? The Master Minds story was structured in a way that made it easy to use as a series. My editor didn’t have to scrap the thousands of words I’d written (and that she’d paid for). Instead, she sliced up the piece and ran it as a three-part series. (You can see part 1 here and part 2 here. Part three is forthcoming.)

The great thing about the properly-structured Swiss Army Knife story is that you can run it at many different lengths. If you’ve got leftover pieces because you didn’t need the full 3,000 words the first time around, you can run the leftover copy as its own standalone piece in a future issue. It might be a four-page story or a half-page piece at the front of the book.

Sure, you may have to write a new intro or tack on a paragraph of explanation the second time you run a portion of the story, but you’ll almost never have to toss pages and pages of copy.

alumni magazines erin peterson parts of pig

Modular, evergreen stories are like pigs: you can find a way to use every part.

That’s it! Find a story that fits all three characteristics, and you’re almost guaranteed to have a winner: a story that you can keep on hand for anything unexpected that comes your way and threatens to derail your magazine.

Why it’s never too soon get started on your Swiss Army Knife story.

Your next alumni magazine emergency could be right around the corner — or it might be never!

But having the peace of mind that you’re prepared for whatever internal politics or external circumstances might throw your way is a huge relief.

And if you don’t have an emergency?

You can still run that story *whenever you want.*

You can stash it away for the time you want to take a few days off without checking your email every five minutes.

You can just decide to run it because you like it.

The great thing about a Swiss Army Knife story is that you’ll know that the all the work you do upfront is designed to prevent heartache down the road.

How to get the budget you deserve for your alumni magazine

If there is one complaint I hear more than any other from the editors of alumni magazines I work with, it’s that they don’t have the budget to do what they really want to do — work with lots of great writers, hire great photographers, use great designers. No matter how big the school or how great the magazine, it seems like budgets are always flat or getting trimmed. It happens even to the best. Recently, I was talking to an editor at a Sibley-winning magazine whose publication hadn’t seen a budget increase in 10 YEARS. Yikes.

But some editors are cracking the code to getting budgets that can support great work. One of them is Jodi O’Donnell. She’s the director of editorial services at Iowa State University Foundation and editor of Forward, which is published three times a year. (Here’s one feature I wrote for the magazine. And here’s a cover story.)

Iowa State University Forward Magazine Cover alumni magazines erin peterson

Jodi’s superpower is persuasion. She somehow makes it easy for me to say yes to a full acre’s worth of revision requests. And as you’ll see in the interview, she’s also persuaded her bosses to regularly increase her magazine’s budget.

Jodi O'Donnell, Director of Editorial Services at Iowa State University Foundation alumni magazines erin peterson

EP: First, tell me about your publication’s freelance budget.

JO: We have a freelance writing budget of $6,000 per issue. Most of the magazine’s content is written by freelancers: main feature, two secondary features, an endpaper, and some of the briefs.

EP: Unlike some editors, you don’t have a single “standard rate.” Why?

JO: Our rate depends on the complexity of the story. A one-source story where there’s already a lot of good background to draw from is assigned at a lower rate than a more complex story with several sources and a lot of research to do. I always pay a minimum of $1/word, even for writers I haven’t worked with before or are less experienced.

EP: Talk about what you expect from writers who receive the highest rates, and what you expect for those on the lower end of the scale. For example, is the difference the kind of topics? Number of sources? Level of research? Ease of editing? Something else?

JO: It’s a bit of all of the above. I do expect a writer I’m paying at the top of our range ($1.50/word) to be able to turn in a story that not only hits all of these points but also has a certain voice or style. On the lower end of the scale – I am happy with a story that is cleanly and straightforwardly written. From there I can zhush up the lede as needed.

EP: You’ve talked about the idea of “going to bat” for your publication to make it the best it can be. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

JO: I think one of the best things you can do for your magazine is understand the pressures on your boss, and empower her to go to bat for your publication. For example, if her immediate supervisor is metrics- or ROI-driven, then arm your boss with relevant data, both specific to your magazine and within higher ed. I also try to be as optimistic, cheerful and helpful as I can be – you want your boss to feel good about going to bat for your pub.

EP: You’ve been successful at getting a larger budget for your magazine. How have you successfully done so? What have you found to be persuasive for your administrators when you’ve made the case for a larger budget?

JO: I’m firmly in the “don’t ask, don’t get” camp, and so I almost always make the case during the budgeting process for a larger freelance budget for both writing and photography, even if there’s a slim chance it’ll pan out. Providing metrics as a rationale for increasing the budget is one tactic. A measure we use here is: Did the level of giving for the magazine’s audience rise from one year to the next? If you can pull that data, then it can be almost as powerful as a readership survey.

EP: When you’ve talked with other editors who haven’t had success getting the budgets they need to do great work, are there any common mistakes you feel like they might be making or advice you’d give them?

JO: My best advice is to go at it a couple of different ways and try for incremental gains: piecing together a larger freelance writing or photography budget by redirecting a bit of money from one category to another that doesn’t increase the bottom line.

Another way is to keep an eye on unassigned funds in the budget that are held in reserve or for special projects – you might earmark them for a complex story you’ve wanted to hire a star writer for. You’ll know 1-2 months out whether where the balance stands so you can plan accordingly.

I also find beginning writers – fresh graduates, etc. – who are hungry, and assign them short, one-sources stories or briefs at a low word rate, so I can hoard my budget for the experienced freelancer I want for a more complex story.

EP: Anything you want to say here that you think people should know?

JO: I can’t think of anything, except never give up! And celebrate even the smallest gain.

 

So there you have it! Thanks to Jodi for sharing some incredibly valuable tips for increasing your chances of getting your budget increased.

Things Your Designer Wishes You Knew: Q&A With EmDash

As a writer for alumni magazines, I like to think that words matter.

But when I pick up a gorgeous magazine, I am sometimes convinced that design matters more.

For example, I wrote a feature story for Denison’s alumni magazine in 2014 that I was pretty excited about. But when I got an actual copy of the magazine, my jaw dropped. Here was the opening spread for the feature I wrote called “Takin’ it Slow.”

EmDash Lorenzo Petrantoni Erin Peterson alumni magazines

Amazing work by EmDash and Lorenzo Petrantoni

I mean: Holy cow.

I liked the intro I wrote, but you could’ve put lorem ipsum on every line and those two pages still would have been breathtaking. I asked Denison’s editor, Mo Harmon, about it. She passed me on to her designer, Erin Mayes, who’s part of the two-person EmDash team. EmDash designed the whole feature package and they hired the illustrator who turned that intro into art.

I’ve been wanting to talk to Erin about design ever since.

Today I’m excited to (*finally*) do just that. Erin agreed to answer my questions while her business partner, Kate Collins, was off delivering a baby. (!!!!!)

Okay, let’s start with the basics. Who are you guys, anyway?

We’re both Texans who left but found ourselves drawn back, just like in a country song. We met while working together at the Pentagram office in Austin. Erin decided to break out on her own and start EmDash in 2006, focusing almost exclusively on publication design. She teamed with Kate in 2008, and EmDash has been a partnership ever since. We still specialize in design for editorial print media, including several alumni magazines. Current clients include Harvard Business School, Denison University, Caltech Alumni Association, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kappa Kappa Gamma, University of Texas—Texas-Exes, and UT Press.

Can you give me a few links to specific projects you’re really proud of?

We’re pretty proud of all our work — I mean, within the limits of our low self-esteem, of course. The Texas Observer is an old favorite just because we were able to make such a dramatic difference. And this recent Paula Bronstein book we designed…is actually really hard to look through. But it’s important work and it was an honor to design it.

This is also one of our favorite illustrations of recent memory. It was a difficult to figure out just the right tone for this anniversary, but I think Gerard DuBois really nailed it. And on the lighter side, this illustration by Gary Taxali (scroll down a bit to find it) is an achievement! Any time we can get away with some toilet humor is an accomplishment.

Most editors come from a writing background, not a design one. What are some of the common mistakes you see when you’re working with people who don’t have a design sensibility or fully understand what you do?

Well, we’ve been really lucky to work with editors that understand that there’s a difference between a visual language and a verbal language — and that good stories have to be told well in both languages.

So it really becomes a team effort. We’re not doing “our thing over here” and you’re doing “your thing over there.”

The editors we work with acknowledge and respect the fact that we each have our areas of expertise — and working together always produces better work. We’ve found that it’s best to keep the big-picture idea in mind when talking about how to approach a story. That way nobody gets lost in the weeds when discussing ideas.

Editors are often literal people — they can fall into this trap of wanting to see the visual part of the story narrating the exact words of the story. Or they want to say everything with the photos or illustrations and leave no mystery to the story. The visual stuff works on a very quick emotional level, and the message has to be super super clear. Then the narrative has to be compelling enough to hook the reader into the rest of the story.

There has to be give and take in that working relationship so you can create interesting work….or else readers will see quickly that a story is trying too hard or to do too much and just move on or recycle the whole magazine!

What do you find to be universally true among clients who consistently help you produce your very best work?

Honestly? Those are the clients who want to push themselves and their magazine to do a little better each time. The best are the editors who want to see something new and something different and are willing to put in the work to do something surprising. The editors who aren’t afraid to take risks and to fail sometimes are the ones who do the great work. And they’re the ones who push us to do our best work.

What do you wish editors would do more of?

I wish they would look at more magazines. I know we’re all super busy, and I have trouble making time to read magazines, too. But the only way to get really good at your craft is to consume it constantly — look, practice, take risks, steal ideas, have some fun.

There’s no reason alumni magazines shouldn’t hold themselves to a similar standard that all the great magazines do. All this consuming will help create better stories! It takes you out of the world of marketing materials and reminds you how to tell a good story — which is something consumer magazines do really well.

What magazines/other things do you study for inspiration?

The ones Kate and I both love to consume are Esquire, New York, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. We’re always aware of what the New Yorker is doing, what Wired and Texas Monthly are doing. I read every issue of National Geographic.

Kate definitely looks at more general interest magazines than I do. But I love going to a big magazine rack and just flipping through magazines I’ve never heard of just to see what’s out there. I love this new messy design trend that’s happening now — Lucky Peach, Crumbs, the Smudge. I’m usually excited by anything that is going against the grain a little.

We also love to go out and see art and photography in museums and galleries. We need to make more time to do that, frankly, and we’re lucky that we have so many great collections here in Austin.

What is a question editors should be asking any designer they are considering hiring, but might not think to ask?

There’s a big difference between editorial design and a designer doing page layout. I’m not totally sure most editors understand that. I’m not sure *I* really understood that until my late 20s. But when you’re looking at work in a designer’s portfolio, ask the designer to tell you what the idea is behind the layout — why they made the choices they did to communicate the story.

If you can get the designer talking about the work, and any good editorial designer will be able to talk about it, you’ll get a better sense of how that mind works and whether or not you guys will make a good team. Communicating about design is so essential to that art/edit relationship. Without it, everything will feel like a struggle. If you make a good team, then it’ll be fun and your work will be great!

Anything else you want to add here?

The other thing that really helps with the edit/design relationship is making the time to get out of the office and talk over beer (which was already the subject of a recent blog post). We wholeheartedly agree with that. In fact, Kate had done a presentation at CASE a while back showing how much drinking led to some fun low-budget ideas for images. It also helps getting multiple brains on a tough story.

You never know where a good idea will come from, or from what nutty conversation it’ll be born out of. Actually, just making the time to get out and be exposed to different ideas helps. Go to the book store, a gallery, a lecture.

****

Okay, Erin P. is back! If you want more interviews with experts in the field, email me and let me know who’d you’d like to see. I’ve got one more lined up that I think you’ll love, and I’d be happy to add more to the list. You can also read other interviews I’ve done with CASE Sibley award winners (Dale Keiger, Heidi Singer), CASE Grand Gold winner Madeline Drexler and CASE Sibley judge Jeff Lott.

Painless ways to reinvent your roundup stories

Whether you write for alumni magazines or not, it’s safe to say we’ve probably all written our share of ridiculous stories.

For example, I spent my first year after college writing for a trade magazine called Athletic Business. I wrote 2,000-word stories on low-maintenance playing surfaces for hotel basketball courts and in-depth features on field house netting.

 

erin peterson alumni magazines

Not everyone has the chance to write 2,000 words about this basketball court. I did. :(

 

By the time I landed at an alumni magazine, I figured I’d gotten all the crazy stories out of my system.

But with alumni magazines, I was introduced to an entirely new genre of stories that I found completely perplexing: roundup features.

As you know, these are a series of short profiles of people who all share some important characteristic. They all have a certain kind of job, or the same employer, or some specific kind of achievement. If you’ve been working as an alumni magazine editor for awhile, you’ve almost certainly assigned or written a few of these stories.

But they are their own animals, and seemingly unique to alumni magazines. After all, the New Yorker doesn’t run features called “Here are 10 podcasters!” and Sports Illustrated doesn’t do cover stories on “7 people who competed in extreme endurance events!”

What, exactly, are roundups supposed to tell readers—beyond the fact that schools, not surprisingly, produce some alumni who share similar interests?

Rethinking the roundup

I’ve been giving the roundup feature a hard time, but maybe I shouldn’t be.

After all, despite my insistence that they’re unique to alumni magazines, many other magazines definitely do roundup stories. The difference? They often add superlatives to give the stories more heft. For example:

30 most influential teens
100 most powerful people in Hollywood

Like school rankings, these lists aren’t necessarily based on obvious, measurable criteria. In this case, they’re basically just roundup stories on a larger scale.

Of course, you’re probably never going to get away with ranking your alums, which is perhaps why non-ranked roundups gained currency in alumni magazines. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck telling the same old “Here are five alumni in [slightly unlikely career]!!!”

Three ways to create reader-friendly roundups

Here are three ways to rethink traditional roundups to make them, in my opinion, one million times more delightful for your alumni.

1. Create an “insider’s guide.”

Question: Would your reader like to read six profiles of people in the restaurant industry for your food issue? Maybe, maybe not.

Better question: Would your reader like to read an insider’s guide in which six people from the restaurant industry talked about how they assemble those Instagram-worthy plates, share the secret perks high-rolling diners receive, and tell you the five things you should never say to a bartender? YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES.

Why?

Everybody wants a backstage pass—to get a glimpse of the hidden worlds that most others don’t have access to. Insider’s guides do just that, and your alumni sources serve as the experts who give your readers the exclusive peek into their lives and work.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean you need to jettison all the other details you might include in a traditional roundup. You can still include information about the alum’s background and the influence that your school had on their career trajectory. But zero in on some of the details about the work that intersect with the everyday interests of your readers while offering a little bit of VIP information.

Here are two example of roundups as Insider’s Guides:

An Insider’s Guide to Getting In (admissions at Purdue)
An Insider’s Guide to Paris’s Alternative Beauty Scene (T magazine)

2. Reposition a roundup as a service story.

Roundup-stories-as-service-pieces is another reader-friendly way to package a story. While an insider’s guide can have “news you can use” elements, it’s not required.

Service features, by contrast, are focused exclusively on the tips, tricks and advice that alumni can use in their own lives once they finish the story.

For example, maybe you’re writing a piece about five professional artists. They can offer ideas about how people can incorporate creativity into their own lives, two ways to take less-terrible photos on a smartphone, and what people should be thinking about when they buy their first piece of “real” art.

After all, your readers are college graduates, which means that they’re curious and eager to learn. Let your alumni magazine be part of that process.

Here are two examples of roundups that are actually service stories:

Use Your Head (brain research at Kent State)
The Best Advice I Ever Got (leadership and business advice, HBR)

3. Vary the length and format

One of the most common (and in my in my mind, misguided) approaches that editors take to roundups is the “Give me five profiles of 400-500 words each” feature story.

While it’s a good way to ensure that no alum feels slighted, it might be a mistake for the story you’re trying to tell. What if one alum’s story is best told in 800 words, while another is better told in 150? Do you really need to have five profiles told in a straight narrative style?

Nope.

You can absolutely have a 2,500-word story featuring five people. But maybe that means one person gets 1,000 words, another gets a one-question Q&A, a third gets two separate service-y pieces, and so on.

In other words, don’t give yourself unnecessary restrictions.

You don’t even have to provide as much variation as I’ve suggested above.

For example, Fast Company profiles the 100 most creative people in business in one of its summer issues each year. Most of the profiles are about the same length, but the writers find subtly different ways to package each story so it doesn’t feel like you’re reading an endless series of monotonous profiles, all with the exact same rhythm. Some are Q&As, some are as-told-tos, some are lists.

TAKE ACTION: Before you click away from this piece, think of an upcoming roundup story on your list and write down three different ways you could repackage it to make it more interesting to your readers. Could you talk to a slightly different group of sources to make it more service-y or create an insider’s guide? Can you imagine different story elements that you could use beyond traditional narrative storytelling that would make it more engaging?

Roundups offer enormous opportunities to tell creative stories your alumni will love. Take full advantage of them.

Elements of storytelling: Better timelines

I’m going to try something new today.

First, a little backstory. A few months ago, as part of my work at the CASE Editors Forum, I got to do magazine critiques.

Devil Wears Prada Two-time Academy Award¨ winner Meryl Streep stars as Miranda Priestly, the editor of Runway magazine. PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

Like me, she definitely has opinions on magazines.

One thing that struck me, even with all the ambitious and interesting storytelling and design I saw, was the reliance on straight narrative as a storytelling technique. This was true even in the front of the book and packaged features.

I get it.

It’s something we’re all pretty good at doing. We’re all busy. Spending time coming up with a unique concept—an infographic, a chart, a map—is time-consuming not just for you and your writers, but also your designers.

Yet magazines—really, all print publications—offer so many amazing opportunities for unique storytelling. Q&As. Timelines. Annotations. Flowcharts.

For years, I struggled with this problem, trying to dream up great sidebars or charts or matrices that I could add to my feature packages to make them more interesting.

But the best ideas always came to me after I saw the story in print, in the way that most of us think of the perfect retort to a bully’s mean comment a moment too late.

Eventually, I realized I could build my own “reference book” of the best magazine story elements with examples from the hundreds of magazines I read every year.

So I did.

Every time I saw cool story packaging in a magazine, I tore it out, categorized it, and catalogued it. (You guys, in case you are wondering, I am really fun at parties.)

I have an index of every type of story packaging element I can think of, plus a three-ring binder *packed* with examples of these elements. I refer to them often when I’m pitching editors, developing feature ideas, and writing stories, so I always have tons of ideas right when I need them.

Certainly, this is something you can do on your own, but I realized that there’s no reason to keep the work that I’ve already done entirely to myself. I want to begin to share this playbook I’ve developed over the course of more than a decade.

Let’s start with one of my favorite story packaging elements: timelines.

orange and blue timeline with arrowsWhat happened when?

Most of us think of timelines as something we can use for highlighting important events during a president’s tenure or the school’s history.

But there are a million different ways to think about using timelines. They’re not just valuable for events in the past, but also for a more general passing of time and even future events.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Finally, here’s a link to some more general timeline design themes.

I hope you’ll keep these at hand when you’re planning your story packages. And when you’re working with both your in-house and freelance writers, ask them to think in advance about the different ways that they can package their pieces in ways that tell your school’s stories in the most compelling ways.

Practical ideas from this year’s Sibley winner

As a writer for alumni magazines, each year I’m excited to learn what alumni magazine has earned the Sibley award—and what helped the winning magazine earn top honors.

This year, the award went UofTMed, edited by Heidi Singer. It’s an outlier in two ways: it’s a special constituency magazine (alumni of a medical school) and a Canadian school. You can read current and past issues here and check out the the judges’ report here.)

I love the way the way that the magazine approaches its stories, and the design and photography is top-notch. Shortly after she and her team found out they’d won the Sibley, Singer agreed to do an interview with me for the newsletter.

As you’ll see in Singer’s responses to my questions below, there’s a reason that you’ll want to dog-ear practically every page of the magazine (and it has nothing to do with donor profiles). There are some amazing insights here, and I encourage you to spend some time thinking about how you might incorporate pieces of her approach into your own publications.

Read on to learn more about what Singer think gives her publication an edge over other alumni magazines, her best advice for editors who want to make dramatic improvements to their magazines, and what she was delighted to cut from her magazine’s pages.

You typically do themed issues: the future, food, mysteries. Why?

The themes help us to focus on one big, important question in medicine, which we can then address from different angles.

With a theme, also, people know exactly what they’re getting when they see the magazine in their mailbox. That’s important because graduates of medical schools usually have a number of degrees, and they’re getting a magazine from all of these programs and schools. We have to stand out and convey our value at a glance.

Can you tell me about the process of developing stories that are both interesting for your audience and make the most of your institution’s expertise?

The vast majority of people we feature are faculty members, students and alumni. But at times someone is essential to the story who’s not affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine. They bring a perspective we think our readers will appreciate, so we don’t hesitate to include them.

Our philosophy is that it’s most important to be interesting, engaging, relevant and informative to our community of alumni. That’s the way to ensure the magazine is read, foster pride in the faculty, and still impress supporters with the knowledge and leadership of our faculty.

Using the magazine purely as a promotional tool doesn’t work very well, because you can’t force people to read it.

What feature are you most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of our freedom to find the best, most interesting stories and tell them – just like a regular magazine. We’re very lucky to have that mandate, and it comes directly from our Advancement staff, who help pay for the magazine.

When I first started editing UofTMed, I met with them, and they said ‘Just engage. Just get people reading, and caring what goes on here.’

It would have been so easy for them to insist we fill the magazine with donor profiles. But they recognize there are other ways to show our appreciation for supporters, and that an alumni magazine could be the one flagship publication that inspires all alumni, and engages with readers about the big questions in medicine.

Is there a recurring department you really love?

I love the way our Snapshots page has morphed from the usual eyesore—squinchy, boring cell phone shots of parties our readers weren’t invited to—into a thoughtful photo essay, curated by a different expert each time.

For our Food issue, we followed a man living with food insecurity and severe health problems.

For our Mystery issue, we photographed curious medical instruments from the past, and invited readers to help us figure out what they were used for.

What is something you think that your team or your magazine does really well that gives you an edge?

We build in design from the very beginning, and we invest our very limited budget on the best photography and illustration we can afford. This means our art director and designer, Raj Grainger, is involved in developing the theme and the story lineup. I’m probably more involved than your typical editor in the design.

I used to run a design office, so I’m a huge fan of great design and am very ambitious for ours to be fresh and edgy. At the same time, Raj is much more of a word person than most designers. He has come up with the title for our last few theme issues, for example. So design and content are more closely aligned in our magazine than in other publications I’ve worked on.

We also use in-house writers for the most part. It’s definitely a budget issue, but we’re lucky that we have people who can do magazine writing. I think in-house writers generally do the best job because they’re more invested in the magazine. They know how important it is to us and how seriously we take it. They’ll interview more people, and do more rewriting. They also have the advantage of knowing how the magazine is shaping up, and along the way there are many opportunities to discuss their story and design ideas with Raj and me.

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?

The party pics I mentioned above. The metrics, plus our focus groups, showed most people didn’t care about them.

Our alumni have said they want to read about issues in medicine that matter to them, and when it comes to news about the faculty, they want to know about real challenges we face.

So instead of PR pieces like ribbon cuttings, in the Food issue, we talked about how medical education has failed to do enough to train doctors on combatting obesity.  We also discussed what we’re doing to change that. But we don’t shy away from self-criticism.

What magazines or publications do you pay attention to for inspiration?

Wired!  Their design is so creative, it’s like a different magazine every time.

I’ve been following Wired since I lived in San Francisco in the mid-90s, and I find it ironic, in a very good way, that a magazine about the digital world has always been such a testament to the value of print.

What is one piece of advice you’d love to give other editors who want to kick their own magazines up a notch?

Be an advocate for your reader. Put yourself in their shoes, and ask what a very busy professional would want to read or look at.

For example, is that head shot of that faculty member interesting, or is there some other, more meaningful way you can illustrate the story? Don’t do what everyone else is doing — buck the trend.

Two things you should never say to your writers (and one that you totally should)

As a writer for alumni magazines, I know as well as any other writer, that writers are notoriously thin-skinned about revisions.

It’s why you’ll find the internet littered with grouchy blog posts from best-selling authors with titles like “Revisions Are Hell” and one million variations of this theme.

Writers, especially those who have never been in an editor’s shoes, often think about the editing and revision process in especially stark terms:

Every writer’s weird nightmare.

But for as much as writers gripe about revision requests, I am probably even more sympathetic to the struggles that editors have when they develop their revision requests. I’ve been in your shoes, and there’s a pretty good reason I’m not now.

You guys are the ones who have to figure out how to get your writers to rework story structures that look like they were developed by Jackson Pollock. You have to find ways to encourage writers to rework alumni profiles that are somehow less engaging than a TI-82 manual.

This is deceptively difficult work. This is I-feel-like-I-need-a-Ph.D.-in-human-psychology-and-persuasion work.

In fact, when I was an editor, I was often so scared to ask writers for revisions that I’d just rewrite portions of their stories myself, in my voice.

If you are wondering why I didn’t last all that long as an editor, that’s one answer.

How to think about revisions

Let’s dispense with the notion that all writers would simply like their editors to lavish praise on the very first draft they submit, and that they would prefer to have their editors run their stories without a single word changed.

Oh, okay, some would.

But most good writers crave great editing. And there are editors who inspire writers not just to do great work, but to make even the most difficult revisions in service of the larger story.

In fact, there is a whole book about the way that creative pairs can work together to do this important but difficult process well. Powers of Two, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, talks about how famous writers and editors, actors and directors, and dancers and choreographers find ways to bring the best out in one another.

And he says this thing that I find incredibly useful in thinking about my own work with editors:

It’s natural to ask how conflict can be avoided. But the better question is: ‘How can it be maximized in the context of a productive, ongoing relationship?’ 

The lesson I try to draw from this quotation is not about conflict, but about the idea that stories don’t get better unless both the writer and editor are committed to that idea. That can be hard work, and it requires both diplomacy and tough love.

There are a lot of places where writers and editors can work together to make an okay story great, but the revision process is one of the most obvious places to start.

I don’t want to pretend that I know all the ways writers and editors should work together on revisions. But I will suggest two techniques that you can start using today that will improve the way your writers think about the revisions they get from you.

What your writers definitely do not want to hear

Here is a strategy that lots of editors like to use when they make their revision requests: the compliment sandwich.

They say something nice, then they get to the heart of what they want with their revision requests, and then they wrap it all up with some platitudes about how great it is to work together.

What idiot named this technique the “compliment sandwich?”

First, can we talk about how ridiculous it is to call this structure a “compliment sandwich?”

COME ON. We name sandwiches not by the bread on the outside, but by the stuff we put in the middle.

Let’s call this what this really is: a criticism sandwich.

Even more important than the dumb name: according to organizational psychologists, this strategy doesn’t even work! Your writers are going to distrust the praise you give because of the very structure of the feedback itself.

And you may be using this ineffective strategy almost subconsciously. Ask yourself if you have ever started an email to—or a conversation with—your writer about a revision request in one of these two ways:

1.“There’s a lot of great stuff in here!”
2.“This is a good start!”

Noooooooooooooooooooooooo. Please no.

Why are these two sentences so horrible?

Because writers know exactly what those two sentences mean.

They mean: “Brutal revisions ahead.” They mean: “This story is so bad that I could not come up with one actual good thing to say about it here.”

So drop the fake, non-specific praise. You can thank the writer for the story and direct them to your comments and requests in the draft.

What your writer does want to hear

I am no stranger to major revision requests.

I know exactly what it’s like to get revision requests that are so extensive that the comments and track changes in the margins extend off the pages of the draft in both directions.

But I can be motivated to tackle everything an editor requests with just one simple thing.

A sincere and concrete compliment.

Just one!

Let me give you an example: one of my editors, Jodi O’Donnell at Iowa State University Foundation’s forward magazine, has high standards for her magazine. I work hard on the stories she assigns, and she still finds at least a dozen different ways to make them better.

Last fall, I worked on a story for her that had tons of revision requests. I had to go back to several sources to clarify and strengthen details in the story.

But as I was going through her edit requests, I noticed she had done something amazing. She had noted a couple places where I had done a few things exceptionally well: a smooth transition. An elegant description of complicated concept. She highlighted them and said something simple, along the lines of “this is a perfect description.” It wasn’t elaborate, but it was specific and genuine.

When I looked at what she’d highlighted, I realized that those were the exact areas I had remembered laboring over as I wrote my draft.

My delight about those compliments wasn’t about the praise, exactly. It was was about what that praise signified. If she recognized the pieces of the story that I knew were good, then I could trust the larger requests that she was making where she saw the story falling short.

The fact that she appreciated those tiny details made me feel confident that we were both trying to push the story in the same direction.

Her edits allowed me to trust her advice.

And the story turned out great.

Editors and writers: allies, not enemies

There’s no question that some writers and editors see the revision process as a primarily antagonistic one.

But of course it doesn’t have to be that way.

When you can show a writer, through thoughtful edits and concrete praise, that you recognize both the failures and the successes (however modest) of a story, you’ll help build trust with your writers. When they see that you’re not blowing smoke with some lame faint praise, and you’re also not letting them off the hook for the sloppy areas of a piece, good writers will rise to the challenge.

In fact, these are often the stories that writers remember. They are the stories where writers will say “I worked so hard on the story. And I am so proud of the way it turned out.”

And you might just be the one saying those sentences, too.

The impossible alumni magazine story—should you run it?

As a culture, we hate failure.

We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We search for the window that opens when a door closes. Recently, I even heard someone describe “fail” as an acronym: First Attempt In Learning.

And in a lot of ways, it’s great! Who wants to wake up every morning believing that setbacks from yesterday will influence them today?

But I wonder if alumni magazines have taken that impulse—to focus on success to the exclusion of failure—too far.

A couple years ago, for example, I came across an essay in which the author described the deflating moment that happened every few months when she received her alumni magazine and realized her life might never merit a profile—let alone a more modest class note. Alumni magazine syndrome, she called it.

This year, a different writer posted another brutal takedown of alumni magazines and their focus on super-successful grads. The author reserved a special level loathing for writers like me who wrote for her school’s publications without actually attending the institution. (I was kind of excited to be noticed, TBH, but that’s for another day.)

Anyway, I digress.

It’s no secret that few alumni magazines want to talk about failure. Dale Keiger acknowledged as much in his recent UMagazineology post that highlights HBS Alumni Bulletin’s cleverly named story about failure, ‘The F Word.’ (“Not your usual umag fare,” he notes.)

But should we be talking more about failure? Columbia College recently tackled the issue—sort of—in a brilliant, funny essay.

Recently, I talked with Julia Hanna, a senior content producer at Harvard and editor of the previously mentioned story on failure in the HBS Alumni Bulletin. She shared what fueled the story, how they did it, and how people have responded.

How did you come up with the failure idea? Did you get any pushback from anyone on this idea, or did you have to persuade anyone that it was important to cover?

To be honest, I don’t remember when the idea first came up…it’s a story that I’ve been interested in doing for a long time (years!).

I remember bringing a cover story from Wellesley (“When Life Doesn’t Measure Up,” Winter 2011) to an editorial meeting as an example of how failure had been treated in an alumnae magazine. [Erin’s note: it’s an amazing cover story. Take the time to read it.] I don’t remember getting direct pushback on the idea, but somehow the stars didn’t align for the feature until this year. It could be that the growing climate of acceptance around failure, particularly in the area of entrepreneurship, made it a more natural sell.

When we talked about doing the feature, we already knew about get-togethers like FailCon, where founders of startups gather to learn from one another’s mistakes. You know it’s okay to talk about failure when there are entire conferences devoted to the topic! There were also a couple of professors who were teaching cases that focus on failure, which also gave it an academic seal of approval.

How did you decide on the format you did (people telling stories in their own voices and drawing their own lessons)? Did you consider something else before you settled on that?

I don’t remember considering another format, although I knew that I would write an introduction to the article that referenced the faculty-written cases. The fact that one of the case protagonists (an alumna) would be visiting campus when the case was taught also provided another way into the article, particularly because she had always been the prototypical HBS alum in everything she did—super smart, driven, accomplished, and successful. She was personal and candid with her interview responses, which gave me some great quotes.

How did you get people to participate? If there was something that didn’t make the final story, what was it about the story that didn’t quite work?

We put out a call through our formidable army of class notes secretaries. At HBS, every class is divided into 10 or so sections of about 90 people each. It’s not unusual to have a class notes secretary for every section, with separate class notes for each. We didn’t send the call out to all alumni, just graduates of our Executive Education and MBA degree holders in a certain timespan.

Twenty-five or 30 responses came in—12 made it into the magazine, and 7 more were included in the online magazine, with three additional stories included as short audio files. I did go back to a handful of people via email to get them to fill in some details or provide a stronger sense of what it was they learned from the experience. And of course there was a fair amount of editing of too-long or repetitive submissions. The two or three that we passed on were off-kilter responses that didn’t really address the question we posed: What mistakes have shaped your career? How have your failures led to your success—professional, personal, or otherwise?

Did the story turn out as you hoped? Is there anything, in retrospect, that you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, it did—I was happy with the variety of responses. Some of the contributors are well-known (like Alan Horn, chairman of Disney) but the majority are not. There are plenty of nitty-gritty business failures, of course, but also personal failures, regrets over a road not taken, academic failure, and youthful errors of judgment. In that sense, I think the piece offers something for everyone. And a few of the stories are really funny—we have some good storytellers out there!

Failure is a tough topic to cover in an alumni magazine. So why do it? What was the thing that made you realize this was as important as any other topic you might cover in an issue?

I think many of us read as a way to figure out life. When someone else opens a small window into a time when things didn’t go well, we don’t feel so alone for having been there ourselves. We want to know what did they do wrong, what do I recognize in their experience that relates to my life, and how can I learn from what they went through?

It seems like an important topic to cover for those reasons, but particularly in an alumni magazine where our default mode is often to celebrate an individual at the height of his/her professional achievement. Not everyone can be a smashing success. And often failure is more interesting.

How to improve your publications: A Sibley judge tells all

I’m going to keep this intro short: what follows is a huge interview with Jeff Lott, the former editor of Swarthmore’s alumni magazine, and one of this year’s Sibley judges. (You can read judges’ reports here.)

During our 45-minute discussion, we talked about:

  • * What makes Sibley winners different from their competitors;
  • * One thing he wishes alumni magazines didn’t do;
  • * Work you can do today to start making your publications the best they can be.

Make sure to read to the end! There’s tons of great, actionable advice.

How many magazines are you actually reading and judging for the Sibley?

We see the gold medal winners from the various circulation categories and the special interest category. This year, that meant five magazines.

I see. You’re choosing from the very best.

Right. We can really go below the surface in the magazines and evaluate the writing and the editing of the magazines. The magazines arrived in my home a week before the meeting in Washington, so I put them out next to my chair where I read, and I would read one for an hour and then another for an hour. I spent probably six hours in advance of the meeting reading those magazines.

When you’re not reading alumni magazines, what magazines do you read regularly?

The New Yorker. The Atlantic. I read Sky and Telescope because I’m an amateur astronomer. I read Cooking Light because I like to cook. I read the two alumni magazines that I get, one from Middlebury College and the other one from Rhode Island School of Design.

One of the things that was in the report was the idea that alumni magazines, at least at the very highest levels, have gotten better over time. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

I think that close communications, and the ability to stay in constant touch with other professionals who are doing this kind of work, has led to an overall elevation of these magazines.

What am I observing? Greater attention to design, illustration and photography, and more emulation of standard magazine architecture—front of book features, back of the book, things like that.

A lot of magazines 20 years ago were put together like a salad. A good magazine, to me, is a three-course meal. You have the great front of book, something really good in the features, and then something, in many cases class notes and alumni stuff, in the back. One of the things I think RISD does so well is their class notes. It’s like the visual class notes.

Can you describe them to me?

They’re very colorful. The writing is terse. So-and-so had an exhibition at such-and-such a gallery in such-and-such a place. There is a color photograph of something of the work. It’s a lot about the art. [Erin’s note: Go to pages 66-67 in the spring/summer issue to see it.] It is very much art forward. It’s wonderful to browse because everybody loves to look at good art. You don’t necessarily know any of these people, but it’s cool and it represents the school really well.

I like that idea. Can elaborate on other things that you saw that worked because they were good and because they completely fit the institution?

The University of Richmond was a surprise entry to us. It’s not one that’s been on the table ever before. It’s just so fresh and new, and it gives a view of the university that is warm and friendly and positive and strongly academic as well.

Through its writing or through its illustrations? Do you remember what struck you?

Everything. There was great art and well edited, lively writing. It represented a school that is alive and well and moving forward. If you just saw it on the table at the doctor’s office, you might pick it up and be engaged by it just by opening a few pages and seeing what’s going on there.

Is that expected? I imagine their magazine appealed perfectly to their alumni base and to their readers, but it sounds like for the Sibley, it has to go beyond that. Is that what you’re saying?

I think the magazines that have won the Sibley are showing leadership in the profession and in the category of magazines that we’re talking about. I think that category used to be sort of a backwater of publishing. Whereas in the last 15 or 20 years with the advent of CUE and the Editors Forum and all the opportunities for professional growth that have been provided, alumni magazines can attract first-rate illustrators, first-rate writers. There is a story by Jim Collins [page 30] in the Richmond magazine, and Jim Collins is one of the leading magazine writers in the country. He’s a former editor of the Dartmouth magazine, but he’s made much more of a career for himself as a writer. To just reach out to somebody like Jim Collins—granted, it’s an excerpt from something else that he’d written before—it says, okay, we can have great writing in this magazine. That kind of leadership is what the Sibley is about.

Are there things that you still wish alumni magazines did better? Even if, as a whole, they’re light years beyond what they used to be?

One thing I noticed was jumps. There are magazines that have all these stories that jump, sometimes just two paragraphs, into the back of the book. So you get to the bottom of the fourth page, and it would say “Continued on page 74.”

Wow, 74! That’s a robust alumni magazine. But you’re saying it’s annoying to jump?

Right. Why couldn’t they edit the story so that it would fit in the four pages? And really, there’s no excuse for it, to run 100 words over in a 2,500 word piece. There’s obviously something in there that could be cut. My motto is that there is no piece of writing that can’t be shortened.

I like that motto, even if I’m usually paid by the word. Let’s talk about ambition. Why is it important for alumni magazines to be ambitious?

It’s important for all alumni magazines to aspire to be read. People have very limited time. When a new magazine arrives in my mailbox—except for the ones I subscribe to, which I pay attention to because I’m paying for them—usually it’s magazine I don’t pay for. In order to sit next to The Atlantic or even a trade magazine like Sky and Telescope, which has a very narrow focus of interest, it has to be good. There’s no point in publishing one of these magazines unless people are going to be engaged with them and read them.

In what ways have you noticed that magazines are trying to be very ambitious or paying attention to detail in a way that seemed really important?

The best magazines are just totally integrated from top to bottom. There’s no detail left un-managed. That has to do a lot with kind of a thoughtful combination of design and editorial. Those relationships between the elements of a magazine have to be balanced, just like an eight-cylinder car engine. All the cylinders have to be firing at the right time in order for the thing to run smoothly.

That’s true of magazines too. In the best magazines, all those elements are working.It’s design, it’s architecture, which means, to me, the way the magazine is structured. No bad photographs. No crappy pictures, right? There’s not that one that some alum sent in because you didn’t hire a professional photographer in San Francisco to take a good portrait, so you get this found object that really sucks. Sometimes that has to do with resources, but other times it just has to do with editorial enterprise.

Are there other ways to know if a magazine is good, beyond awards?

In in our bathroom in our publications office, I used to tuck six or eight magazines near the toilet paper racks. I was constantly rotating those magazines consciously as an editor because I knew the staff was using the bathroom. I could put what I thought were good examples of magazines in there for everybody to read, for me to read. It’s kind of a dirty story. But there was another level, too: if it made it to my briefcase, it was really good and I really wanted to take it home and read it.

Briefcase-worthy. Interesting. I thought you were going to say you were testing which ones actually got read. Like you were going to look at the magazines two weeks later and see which ones were the most dog-eared, or whatever.

No. I don’t know whether anybody really read them or not. But isn’t that the best thing about a magazine? Unlike a blog it’s really easy to take a magazine to the bathroom?

It’s a benefit, for sure. If if I still worked at a college, I might do exactly what you did with your magazines as an experiment, to see which ones got read, then reverse-engineer why that was.

Another thing I would do occasionally with the whole publication staff including the photographer and the designer and the administrative assistant, is go out to lunch and then go in those days to Borders right next to the restaurant. I would give each person $15 of college money to buy magazines.

Then a day or two later we would have a stand-up meeting in the office where people would explain why they chose those magazines. You could really think about how magazines have to attract readers.

That’s a great point. Get as many opinions as you can. It sounds like it doesn’t just need to be the designer and the editor. You can bring more people in it and they will offer very different and valuable perspectives.

Some of the magazines people chose were special interest magazines. One of our administrative assistants really loved needlework, so she would always get the fancy needlework magazine, for example.

And that’s good to know, too: A good magazine is a precious object.

Right. Everyone has a different reason for picking up a magazine.

We had a staff photographer and he would choose things that were really intensely visual and show us the things that he really liked about them. Our designer would look for magazines that he thought were well designed and then talk to us about why he thought that was true and what we could do to improve our work by emulating these magazines.

I like the idea that great magazines don’t happen in a vacuum. You need to get those outside references. Is there an assignment that you would give editors who want to improve? A thing that they can do today that can help take their magazine to the next level?

The caveat here is resources—some publications’ staffs are underfunded or understaffed or both, right? But I would say to look at other magazines—and not just other alumni magazines or other university magazines. See what you do best and just try to do those things more. Let them pull up the things that you don’t do so well.

Play to your strengths.

Right. One of the strengths that Johns Hopkins has, and has had for a long time, is that they don’t mind running long stories, a kind of long-form thing. We’re seeing a little more of that in other magazines as well. The University of Chicago, which won the Sibley a few years ago, had great long form stories. You can read these 5,000 word pieces because they’re really well written and very well edited with great reporting. I’ll read a 5,000 word piece in The New Yorker if it’s of that quality and the same goes for a good alumni magazine story.

At the same time, that seems a little bit dangerous to advise all editors to tackle huge stories like that. It requires a very specific kind excellence at so many levels, from the reporting, to the writing, to the editing. It’s so hard to do an exceptional 5,000 word story. As a reader, you have to feel you’re in great hands to commit yourself to it. But it does seem like there are lots of ways to pursue excellence. It’s not just New Yorker-style stories or beautiful design and photography.

A lot of people think “Oh, I just need a redesign,” but a redesign really needs to be a thorough rethinking of the goals and purposes of the magazine and how the editorial and design can work together to meet them.

In really practical terms, the other problem is that a lot of magazine editors are doing three other things as well. They can’t put the time into a magazine and really edit it the way these top magazines do. Great magazines are typically put together by people who are not also writing development copy or doing the admissions brochures as well. We had a big staff so we did all of that stuff but we had two or three people where 70 percent or more of their time was dedicated on the magazine.

The thing that seems important here is that you’re saying there’s no magic bullet to creating a great magazine. It demands time, it demands money, it demands a thoughtful, strategic approach.

I think that’s a very good statement. A redesign needs to be more than a new layout. It needs to be a re-examination of what you’re doing editorially. You may have had a certain department in your magazine that you’ve had in the magazine for many years, like a Q&A or a little one page research thing or something like that, and you have to look at all those things and not just do them over again with new typography. It’s really a matter of thinking through the whole package. Sibley magazines are firing on all cylinders.