Do these alumni magazine myths trip you up?

A few years ago, I published a newsletter about three common alumni magazine myths that you should ignore.

But there aren’t just three.

I continue to collect them and categorize them, because I’m interested in why we end up believing certain things about our publications that aren’t true. Sometimes, our beliefs are actively harmful to the broader work we’re trying to do.

So today I want to share a few more alumni magazine myths — and how you might rethink your approach to your publication as a result.

If you haven’t read the first three myths, you can find them here.

Here are three more:

Myth: You should minimize (or eliminate) class notes

First, let me just spend a moment here empathizing with your plight. I started my alumni magazine career as a class notes editor, and I know that they are painful.

They’re time-consuming to create and a bear to design. There are a million and one things that can go wrong.

During my time as a class notes editor, I misspelled alumni names (and heard about it). I accidentally included prank entries (and heard about it). And occasionally I didn’t include a wedding photo (and BOY did I hear about it).

The thing you should notice here is not that I was a terrible class notes editor, although you can make your own judgments about that. The important thing is what I noted in those parenthetical phrases.

I heard about these things because PEOPLE WERE READING THE CLASS NOTES.

Were they reading the profiles and features I spent hours crafting?

I don’t know, I hope so. I didn’t usually hear too much about them.

But I definitely heard from alums who were apparently going through every single class notes entry with a fine-tooth comb.

Surveys consistently show that class notes are among the most-read sections of your magazine. They are something only your magazine can do. (Often, because of privacy concerns, they’re something only your print magazine can do.)

Don’t minimize them. Make the most of them.

Myth: “Ambition” = Taking on Important Stories of the Time

Man, I know I’m going to be walking into the lion’s den with this one.

But I think too often, we conflate “ambition” in our magazines with Having a Take on Today’s Serious Issues.

You don’t have to do this!

Sure, if one of your alums is Anthony Fauci, it’s definitely okay to write a huge feature on him. And if your magazine’s entire focus is public health, of course you should take a big swing on the pandemic.

But just because everyone’s talking about the economy or our dystopian technological future — well, that doesn’t mean you have to, too.

If your story about one of these topics is going to be a significantly watered down version of what readers might find in The Atlantic or Wired, it might not be a great story for your institution.

You can still be incredibly ambitious with your magazine, even on lighter topics. Here are just a few examples.

These are stories that only alumni magazines are well positioned to do.

Do them! And do them well.

Hungry to take on more serious stories? Consider stories that your institution might be uniquely positioned to take on — like the idea of testing-optional admissions, the dogfights about “wokeness” on college campuses, or the transformation of education during the pandemic.

These are huge, important issues, and they’re topics for which your magazine potentially has a front-row seat — deep expertise within your institution to address.

Myth: You can easily transform great print magazine stories into great stories for other media

For a while, I was obsessed with the idea of making modular, multipurpose stories.

Tell an amazing story in your print magazine, chop it up, then repurpose it for social media or your magazine website.

Or take that crazy popular social media post and turn it into a magazine story.

Copy, paste, done. Right?

Wrong.

I tried so many different experiments. My go-to storytelling technique is pretty modular and packaged, so I figured there was definitely a code I could crack.

But after spending years on this work, I don’t think there is a secret hack!

You can definitely create a great print story and an amazing social media post and a fun web story and an incredible podcast on the same topic. But they’re all going to require different things: a distinct tone. A unique approach that fits both the medium and the audience.

The problem of trying to create something that is easily translatable from one medium to another is that you’re going to create something that is mediocre in every medium. Not terrible! But I truly hope that you’re aiming higher than “not terrible.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t scavenge your other work for parts. You’re probably not going to have to start from scratch.

But when you’re thinking about your print magazine, think about your print magazine.

Your print magazine is how the vast majority of your alumni audience will get information about your school and its community. It’s worth spending the time to get it right.

Your magazine is not the place to see how many ways you can easily repurpose other content for this medium. (If you want to know the why behind print mags for your audiences, grab my report, The Case for Print. I know that several institutions have used the research in it to get more resources for their own print publications.)

Your print alumni magazine has a uniquely valuable audience and a distinctive, powerful impact. When you create multitasking stories, you dilute their impact in every medium.

Your 5-step plan for crowdsourced alumni magazine storytelling

Let’s talk about crowdsourced storytelling.

The premise is simple: you throw a question or a prompt to your readers. You wait for some incredible responses to roll in, throw them all together, and voila, an instant, free story.

Right?

If you’ve ever done a crowdsourced story, you know the promise that I’ve described above is…not reality.

I’ve helped create a lot of crowdsourced feature stories over the years, and I’ve learned both from the successes and the failures of these projects. And now I want to give you my playbook if you’re ready to try one.

Step 1: Understand the big picture benefits and drawbacks of crowdsourced storytelling

Before you get started with a crowdsourced story idea, it’s important to get crystal clear on what they can do, what they can’t do, and when it makes sense to do them.

Know what crowdsourced storytelling is not

Done well, crowdsourced storytelling is rarely easy or fast — even if you craft a question quickly and end up with lots of responses from your audience!

In fact, in some cases, storytelling that relies on crowdsourced responses can be more time-consuming than a regular, reported story. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! It just means you should go in knowing what to expect.

Understand the actual benefits of crowdsourced storytelling

The real benefits of crowdsourced storytelling are nuanced.

If done well, you will hear from alumni and other members of your community who you might not otherwise have considered contacting. It can bring unexpected and delightful stories to the surface.

A good question or prompt can also offer a reason for people in your alumni or advancement offices to reach out to folks in your community that you’d like to contact.

As an example, I’ve been working on a story for a client called “Reasons to Love Grinnell.” As part of the project, we included a prompt on the back page of one issue of the magazine. We also put the request out on social media.

At one point in the process, I learned that someone in the development office used the prompt as a way to connect to an alum. The alum shared her story about the reason she loved the institution. It was a great way for that development officer to connect with the alum in a meaningful way and build on that relationship.

Step 2: Build a question that’s designed to get many strong responses

If you’re going to devote space in your print magazine to a prompt — or if you’re going to try to nab people’s attention as they scroll through their social media feeds — you want to make sure you’ve got the best possible question!

Developing a question that leads to a large number of interesting responses isn’t easy.

Here are a few ways to develop a question designed to succeed.

Do a pre-test

How do you know if you’ve got a good question? One way is to test it before you send it out into the world.

To start, create a question and then answer it yourself. Ask your colleagues to share their answers, too.

Can you think of a variety of different ways you might answer the question, or are there just one or two obvious good answers? Is it a question that seems good, but somehow only generates generic responses?

Here are a few questions that I’ve seen schools use to generate lots of feedback:

What makes these questions work?

They often evoke memories, strong feelings, or interesting stories. They’re also the kinds of stories that can be unique to your publication. No one else is going to ask your readers about their campus jobs or first concerts! These are meaningful questions for your readers that they may not have thought about before.

Use the question to show people what you want

In some cases, it’s fairly easy to craft a question that people will respond to with a huge variety of stories. For example, I’ve done a story for many clients about whether or not alumni changed their names when they got married (here’s one in Macalester’s magazine).

This is a topic that many people start thinking about more seriously during college, and because so much has changed over time, the generational perspectives are fascinating! In general, getting responses to this question isn’t exactly like pulling teeth, so a simple, “Did you change your name when you got married? What led you to your decision?” is sufficient.

But for other kinds of questions, it can be helpful to provide guidance about answers within the question itself. Here’s one example of a question that generated lots of feedback:

“Sometimes a place deserves a love letter as much as a person, and we want your help writing one. What are your reasons to love Grinnell? Share the very tiny (a specific snack from the JRC?) to the very large (a Grinnell pal gave me a kidney!) things that make Grinnell amazing for you.”

We worried that a more general question would generate more general responses (I loved my professors and friends), and we wanted to make sure that respondents got specific.

They did! They shared what made them proud of the school’s history, specific walking paths on campus, exact residence hall lounges they loved, and moments that epitomized the best of their college experience.

A good question often offers a handful of examples so people can see the range that is possible — and come up with answers that are uniquely their own.

Seed wisely

Social media is a tricky animal. On the one hand, a good question can generate dozens — sometimes hundreds — of responses.

Still, someone’s gotta be the first person to respond. When you post on Facebook or Instagram, a question with zero comments can lead otherwise eager respondents to hold back.

When I’ve done stories for my own alma mater, I’ve tried to start the comments section with a relevant story or comment. When I’ve worked with clients, I sometimes asked them to do the same, or to recruit an alum who’s happy to weigh in early.

This approach can make sure you’re giving your prompt the best possible chance to succeed.

Step 3: Decide on your next steps

Hopefully, after you’ve thrown your question to your audience, responses have rolled in. Maybe the question has been as successful as you’ve hoped, maybe you’d like a few more responses, maybe it’s nothing but tumbleweeds. Now what?

Collect and — this is important — CURATE

To craft a truly meaningful story from a prompt, it’s necessary for you to be both a collector of responses and a curator of them.

When people make time to read a magazine, they want to feel like they’re getting the best of the best — not a firehose of both the good and bad responses that they could easily get in any social media comments section.

Cut the mediocre responses, edit the rambling ones, and reach out to folks whose responses need a bit more context or detail.

I know that for many of us, it’s fairly rare to hear from lots of people, so it can feel painful to leave anything at all on the cutting room floor.

While you should definitely thank people for responding, you don’t have to give every respondent space in your print magazine.

Start with the crowd, but don’t end there

As an editor, you should view the responses that you get from a request as a starting point, not an ending one.

Analyze the best responses, then think about what you’re missing: are you hearing from folks from a variety of class years? Does it truly represent the demographics of your alumni or institution?

If not, who can you reach out to in order to get a more representative response? What kinds of answers would be helpful to fill out your list, and who could you contact to get them?

For example, in this story for Macalester Today, “The Professor Who Changed My Life,” social media requests generated strong responses from alumni who shared stories about the professors who had made a lasting impact on them.

But what we needed to create a story for the magazine was additional insight from professors. We used the alumni responses as a starting point to decide which professors to contact for the story.

If you want to create a story from your prompts that truly feels like it earns the right to be in your print magazine, be as thoughtful about your sourcing as you are from a more traditional story.

Know when to fold ’em

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t collect enough responses to move forward. This is true even if you’ve asked a great question, even if you’ve tested it, and even if the exact same prompt worked for another school just like yours.

I recently worked with a client where I confidently suggested a crowdsourced story that I’d seen work at at least four other institutions. And with her institution, it flopped!

Maybe her school was just a little different. Maybe the story idea no longer felt relevant. Who knows?

Whatever the case, we got nothing but crickets when we sent the request. It happens! It was disappointing, but we both agreed it wasn’t working and we moved on. We’ll try again with another prompt in the future.

4. Craft your story

By now, you have a sense of the range and number of responses, and you can build from there. Here are some ways to think about it.

Go small but beautiful

For years, TCNJ Magazine ran a two-page spread of crowdsourced stories in each issue. It required just a few responses to work perfectly.

Go minimal

With a sharp intro, subheads, and thoughtful design, you can pull together a few pages of responses for a simple, easy-to-read feature, like this best advice piece for Grinnell Magazine.

Use responses as a starting point for a traditional feature

This Smith Alumnae Quarterly story about last names, for example, started with crowdsourcing and ran as a narrative feature.

The editor got so many responses to the prompt that we also pulled together a sidebar to showcase the wide range of unique stories from alums.

Consider a themed roundup

In this piece I did for Grinnell on career changes, “The Great Awakening,” we crowdsourced the best stories and then conducted follow-up interviews with a handful of respondents.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that this was a crowdsourced story — but we couldn’t have found our sources any other way.

5. Continue the conversation

Once you’ve posted your request, collected responses, written and designed a story, and sent it out to the world, you may feel done with that project.

Yet for many alumni, the story they read in your magazine may be the first time they’ve seen anything about the topic! Your story will likely prompt many ideas, memories, and stories from your readers. Create a call to action so they can share those stories with you.

You can see that we did just that at the end of “The Great Awakening.”

If you hear from your readers, you can simply collect the responses and thank those who wrote in, or you can run some in the letters to the editor section.

The point of this last step is not necessarily to create additional stories for your magazine, but to give your readers an outlet to share their experiences and feel heard. This is one of the incredibly valuable (but often overlooked) roles of an alumni magazine.

Improve alumni magazine engagement with this mystery photo playbook

A few months ago, I was flipping through a stack of alumni magazines and I came across an arresting two-page photo spread in Holy Cross Magazine.

The mystery photo had a caption that asked alumni to help identify the people in the image and share any additional relevant details. (Side note: Am I getting your magazine? If not, put me on your mailing list!)

I checked in with editor Melissa Shaw, and here’s what she said about the spread, which is a regular department in the magazine:

Mystery Photo was added to Holy Cross Magazine in its latest redesign (7 years ago) by our Art Director and Designer Stephen Albano.

He notes he picked up the idea from another alumni publication (he can’t remember which).

He found a stack of photos in College Archives for which the archivists had no info or IDs, and went from there. That makes the quarterly feature fun for alumni (especially if they solve it – or are in the photo) and it helps College Archives ID these pictures for posterity.

In the following issue, we run a Solved Photo brief where we share what info people sent in. It’s a great way to get more alumni names in every issue and especially engage whatever class year(s) are pictured.

We get a few dozen emails per issue, which doesn’t sound like a lot given our 45,000 circulation, but it’s a popular feature with readers. They definitely stop, look and read each issue. It’s one way to get uniquely Holy Cross content in the magazine that readers would not find in any other publication.

It’s also an easy lift with great ROI: All you need for the Mystery Photo is a cutline soliciting responses, and the Solved Photo followup in the next issue is a couple hundred words, mostly quoting people who wrote in with the answer or their memories.

Okay, this is Erin again: I love it!

If you like think you might want to incorporate something like this in your magazine, read on.

Melissa shares a ton of extremely practical, tactical tips that you can use to add this department to the magazine immediately — and make sure that you hit the ground running.

Take it away, Melissa!

What has (and hasn’t) worked for us

Here are a few useful ways to think about this department.

1. Don’t use photos that have outlived everyone.

Why? No one is around to identify it.

This is the only photo in my tenure to not receive even a single email, which makes me think we picked too old a photo. It’s cool — and we still have no idea what this is all about — but useless if no one can identify it.

2. Run them big

We run the photo across a spread to open up the Alumni News section. The bigger the photo, the easier to ID, especially if there are many people in the photo, like below.

I was surprised this photo did as well as it did with responses, as we were pretty sure it was not taken on campus (it wasn’t). And even with poor lighting, we got IDs of not only the place (a long-defunct Jesuit seminary about 200 miles away), but also of many students in the pews.

We double checked the location guesses with the national Jesuit archives, who confirmed the location. And, the Jesuit archives had only one other picture of this small chapel — now they have two.

3. Group photos (with identifiable people) are great

You’ll get more replies, and the more people, the more likely you will ID everyone.

Emailers (several in the photo) ID’d everyone in this shot and shared the fun story behind it.

4. Odd photos = good engagement

We had no idea what was going on here. Why was a city bus on campus? Why were all these nattily attired men on top of the bus? The men knew: It was dorm room picture day for the yearbook and emailers told us that year each floor tried to outdo the other with odd locations.

Many on the roof wrote in and they were able to ID every person (and share their regret that they made the dangerous climb up).

5. Use more than one photo per issue, in another location

While Mystery Photo traditionally opens up Alumni News, we’ve used them in the table of contents when we were short on pictures or Stephen felt he wanted to get another one in.

This photo got excellent engagement in this spot and shook up the traditional design of our table of contents.

6. Work with an incredible art director/designer

I’m lucky in that Stephen knows our audience so well, he chooses fantastic photos for this staple because he understands the readership and the College intimately.

That also translates into the work he does throughout each issue. It’s his authentic understanding of Holy Cross and its alumni — and his skills — that translate into the magazine being popular and well-received with the readership.

_______________________________

Okay, it’s Erin again: Thank you, Melissa!

If you’re looking for a way to get a bump in engagement, consider this approach. It’s fun, it’s repeatable, and it’s something that will keep your readers checking in issue after issue.

Extend the reach of your print alumni magazine stories with this technique

Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from editors about how to bring the stories from their print magazines to a wider audience. From social media posts to dedicated magazine websites to email blasts, there are lots of ways to think about bringing a print story to new eyes.

Today I want to talk about an approach that I don’t hear about as much.

Yet in the right circumstances, it can be an incredibly powerful tool to create an even bigger impact with your print magazine story.

The idea is simple: reprints.

One of the reasons I love reprints is that you can put them in the hands of the exact audience that is primed to appreciate it.

Even better, almost all the work your designer did to make it look perfect on the page — from the photo size to the sidebar placement to the font for the opening spread — is retained. Often, these reprints can be used multiple times over the course of years. This evergreen potential offers all sorts of possibilities.

Let’s go through a few examples — and how you might consider something similar.

IDEA #1: Highlight a new building

Smith College’s new Neilson Library was a big deal when it opened — and Smith Alumnae Quarterly’s Christina Barber-Just devoted more than 20 pages of her magazine (though not the cover) to the facility and its offerings in a recent issue.

Director of constituent communications Lars Asbornsen saw a way to take those 20 pages even further.

“He pulled it right out of the magazine and reprinted it on heavy cardstock as a standalone publication,” Christina says. “Copies were given to members of the Smith board of trustees when they were on campus recently, and library staff made fantails of it in three locations so people can see it and pick it up. I loved seeing a big editorial project repurposed in this way.”

Amazing! This is a great way to highlight a story, bring it to an audience who cares deeply about it, and extend the life of the story beyond the current issue.

IDEA #2: Offer a “starter kit” to new alumni

Some time ago, Capstone developed an “Alumni Starter Kit” for the Naval Academy’s alumni magazine, Shipmate.

The story was designed to re-introduce some of the many opportunities its alumni association and foundation offered.

While the story was useful to the broad alumni community more generally, it’s also specifically useful each spring for an entirely new group of people: graduates. To extend the life of the story, the Naval Academy’s Jimmy DeButts says that “PDF copies of the story were printed and distributed to members and families of the Class of 2021. The story showcased the variety of ways the Alumni Association is prepared to assist alumni.”

Again, this is a story that is perfect for an issue of any of your magazines, but actually becomes more valuable over time as you bring it to new grads. It’s likely to be relevant for years — and can be used as a template when the time comes to do an update.

IDEA #3: Go big for an event

Recently, Grinnell College, a Capstone client, ran a two-page essay written by a current student who met and did a research project on Edith Renfrow Smith, the first Black woman to graduate from the institution.

As part of the project, the writer was able to persuade the college to name a gallery in the student center after the 107-year-old alum (!!!).

Later, for an event celebrating the naming, she and her research advisor worked with the communications office to create a poster-size reproduction of the essay that was displayed in the space.

Notice that absolutely none of these things would have been “better” by sending people to a website or encouraging people to watch a video.

It’s truly meaningful to put something real, thoughtful, and beautiful in people’s hands. Your magazine does that a few times a year — and you can extend that reach through reprints.

My 2022 Predictions For Your Print Alumni Magazine

Each December, I share my predictions for print alumni magazines in the coming year.

To say these past couple years have been more unpredictable than most is an understatement!

Still, over the past 12 months, I’ve spent countless hours studying your magazines. I’ve talked to dozens of you about what you’re thinking about and worried about. And I’ve worked with many of you on projects that will come out between now and 2023 (!!!).

Based on my analysis, here are my predictions for what’s next:

Prediction #1: Magazines will feature lighter and more joyful stories

In a survey I did of alumni magazine editors back in July 2020, just 6 percent of respondents thought they’d be doing any Covid coverage at all in 2021.

It’s been a slog! No matter what comes next, I think almost all of us are ready to tell some different, lighter stories.

Not “lemonade out of lemons” stories. Not “resilience in the face of adversity” stories.

Nope. We’re ready to tell stories of unalloyed joy and positivity.

The great thing is that alumni magazines are perfectly tailored for this type of storytelling.

Readers open up your magazine not because they expect grim reporting about the world’s imminent implosion or teeth-grinding shenanigans by politicians or celebrities.

They read it because they want to learn about good things in the world. They want to know about research that could make our lives easier or better, about alumni who are doing truly delightful and meaningful things, and about classmates they adored but haven’t thought about in years.

Your magazine can be a source of joy for your readers. 2022 is the year that we’re all going to be doing more to lean into that.

Prediction #2: There will be more new and revived print magazine launches

In late 2020, I surveyed editors whose publications had gone digital during the acute phase of Covid. (You can read the report that I developed based on that survey here.)

More than 75 percent of respondents expected to do more digital issues — and perhaps go digital only for all future issues.

That digital shift, for the most part, hasn’t gone well.

The path looks like this:

First, alumni readers get mad that their print magazine is gone.

Then, your institution slowly falls off their radar. The goodwill you’ve spent years building through those quarterly or tri-annual print magazines begins to disintegrate.

To alumni, it begins to feel like you’re taking them for granted.

And now you’ve got to start almost from scratch.

Don’t believe me? You can see a case study of this cycle here.

Many people are reaching that final stage now — and recognizing that the six-figure investments they’ve been making in their magazines are indeed well worth it in terms of the goodwill they engender, the philanthropic pipelines they create, and the opportunities for engagement that they open up.

I believe we’ll see quite a few more print magazines being developed (or re-developed, reimagined, or refreshed) in the next 12 months as more schools realize that their forays into digital-only magazines have cost them far more than than the money they may have saved on printing and mailing.

Prediction #3: Editors will lean more intentionally into print magazine’s strengths

For almost as long as schools have had websites, editors and communications teams have dreamed of finding a magical way to make their print and online communications interchangeable.

They want to take the print feature they developed and easily turn it into a web feature, or to turn that campus news story that appeared online into a story for their print publication.

But despite their similarities, print and online storytelling are different beasts.

Here’s just one tiny example: to get traction, that online story is going to have to have a workhorse headline that focuses on keywords and SEO optimization. That makes sense, because that’s what web readers are looking for!

A print headline, though, can be witty and joyful. It can incorporate photography and design in ways that online headlines simply can’t.

Here’s another: beautiful campus photos can be arresting across a two-page spread in a print magazine. Good luck capturing that sense of immersiveness when the photo is a three-inch square on your reader’s smartphone.

Print readers want something different from the material they’re skimming, scanning, and scrolling through online for hours each day.

Print opens up storytelling possibilities that are all but impossible online.

Good luck creating a complex flowchart, network, or matrix for that web story you’re working on. There’s no way your readers will be able to fully absorb or appreciate it on their smartphone. In print, though, across a spread? These storytelling tools are magical.

After many of us have experienced the limitations of online publications and storytelling due to Covid restrictions and cuts, we’re going to experiment with storytelling that’s possible only in print.

Prediction #4: Editors will aim to do more coffee table–storytelling

In previous years, I’ve predicted that campus news sections will get trimmed or disappear entirely. In general, there are better ways to tell stories about successful sports seasons, recent hires, or new publications by faculty members.

Now, instead of just predicting what magazines won’t be, I want to take a step further to predict what they will be.

And what I see is a fuller embrace of coffee-table storytelling: storytelling that is robust enough — and beautiful enough — to earn a place on the coffee table.

That might mean packaging stories in unique ways, rather than just traditional narrative storytelling. It might mean investing in stronger photography or experimenting with illustration. It might mean taking a “big swing” on one of those must-do stories like an anniversary, a major profile on a star alum or faculty member.

It might mean experimenting in other ways to inspire more reader engagement or to pursue — finally — that idea you’ve had in the back of your mind for years.

If not now, when?

Guys, this is it: your year to be bold. This is the year to find ways to make your print magazine — your flagship communications tool for alumni — live up to its enormous potential.

Here’s why one school is launching a print alumni magazine now

Over the past couple years, print magazines have gone through the wringer. Many schools have trimmed pages from their publications, decreased their frequency, or put them on hiatus. (You can see the report I published on this trend here.)

But that wasn’t the case for Barry University, a private Catholic institution in Miami.

Recently, they decided to add a twice-annual print magazine to their alumni and donor communications strategy.

I had to know more.

I called up Bernadine Douglas, vice president for institutional advancement at Barry, to ask her more about the decision.

Here’s what she told me about that process. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You came to Barry from Berea College in Kentucky in 2019. Where was Barry at when you arrived?

They had been without a vice president of advancement for at least three years, and they had [eliminated] the magazine even before that.

They had been peeling away different marketing activities as cost-cutting measures to focus primarily on programs and services that had a direct impact on students and staff. They did away with the university magazine. They didn’t go digital — they just did away with it.

Because they weren’t seeing value in it?

They decided they didn’t need the expense of it. At the time, it was seen as just another marketing activity.

At what point did that change?

In 2019, a new president came in with a clear charge from the board to build back up advancement — it had been a mistake to divest from it.

That’s when you were hired to help the school achieve that larger goal. So then what happened?

[The institution] was in the enviable position of having significant savings, and so we talked about what’s going to give us not the quickest return, but the best return? [Among other things], we decided pretty quickly and pretty overwhelmingly to invest in a university magazine.

Are we going against the grain [by adding a print magazine]? I don’t think so. We were going against the grain in the years before that [by not having a magazine], and it wasn’t working. We realized we had some catching up to do.

I understand that you have a lot of different things to do as you build an advancement program. But it sounds like you felt you had lost ground with your alumni and donors without the magazine?

Right! It’s not just like we can go and get MacKenzie Scott [to support us.] [Advancement] is a long game, and if you’re not committed to making the investment and staying in an uncomfortable place, it won’t work. Good presidents, good institutions — they understand that, and they’re willing to allow us to develop and grow. It might be minimal at the start, but it will pay off in the future.

A literal payoff?

Yes. At Berea, under the leadership of Kim Brown, we were attributing about a million dollars in gifts to the magazine every three to five years or so. It was a significant direct mail piece. We had a remittance envelope in it, we had ads about giving in there, and we even thought about making soft asks in the stories that we tell. I feel very, very strongly that you’ve got to show ROI, you’ve got to show how engagement leads to more gifts.

Wow! A million dollars is really incredible.

Berea is an extraordinary place with a huge culture of giving, and not just from alumni, but from friends. It’s not unfamiliar to them to see those solicitations, those envelopes in the magazine. It’s about giving that culture time to take shape, being consistent, and not backing away from that. We also had one issue that was essentially an honor roll, which was completely focused on philanthropy.

Oh, those honor roll issues are a bear.

People really want to see their names on that list! Honestly, the things that worked 50 years ago, whether we want to think about that or not, are still effective. Even for the most dated of us, even for the most digital of us. We are all motivated by [recognition]. It’s why Peloton gives us badges. Badges and honor rolls work! Can we modernize it? Sure. But the rules are the rules for a reason.

Was it hard to make a case for adding a print magazine?

It was easier than I thought. I had a supportive president. The cabinet — they were nodding their heads and saying ‘Yes, we do need this kind of outreach. Not having it has really hurt us.’

We need to repair relationships [after failing to have significant outreach to alumni and donors for years]. The magazine, for us, is a step toward repairing those relationships with our alumni and our friends.

Can you say a little bit more about the magazine as a way to repair relationships?

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but I think when damage has been done in a relationship, whether that’s institutionally or on an individual level, there first has to be an acknowledgement of the other person’s feelings. Does that mean we’re going to have an editorial in the magazine that says ‘We’re sorry?’ No. But what I hope alumni feel when this magazine lands in their hands is, ‘They’re really trying. Let’s see what my alma mater is doing.’ And maybe they’ll start to get excited.

I love it. You’ve got a really big job ahead of you! But it sounds like the print magazine is something you’re happy to invest in to help you achieve your long-term goals.

This is a slow, steady climb: repairing relationships, building engagement, building pipelines. If we’re just looking for quick hits, we’re going to fail.

My job is to build an enterprise that is going to last. And I really see the magazine as a way of doing that. My cabinet sees it as a way of doing that. And my president sees this as a way of doing that.

_______

Guys, I love these insights about the larger role your print magazine can — and in many cases, must — play for your institution.

It can build relationships and it can repair them. It can support your institution’s larger philanthropic efforts over time, and it can provide tiny psychological boosts to those in your community who have stepped up in support each year.

Your print magazine can serve many purposes, and you can adjust the storytelling you do to help achieve those goals.

The most important takeaway, in my opinion, is the idea that done right, a print magazine is a great investment over time. You’ve got to make a long-term commitment to it.

Your relationship with your alumni should last a lifetime. And a print magazine is one smart way to maintain and strengthen that relationship.

How to make your anniversary issue shine

Today, I’m excited to share some really cool anniversary issues — including some of the behind-the-scenes stories about their development and what makes them tick.

I hope you can adapt some of these ideas for your own anniversary projects, whatever the size.

1. Find a flexible, meaningful concept to organize your storytelling.

Last year, I did some consulting with Stevens Institute of Technology as they plotted out their 150th anniversary issue.

As you can imagine, there’s quite a lot of storytelling you could do for a school with this much history!

But to make an issue that felt cohesive and meaningful, we needed a theme.

The right theme can imbue an anniversary publication with a larger sense of purpose. Counterintuitively, a theme can also help you generate more story ideas — and more creative ones.

After working with the team at Stevens and digging deep into the material they had already gathered, we came up with a simple theme: frontiers. But behind that simple theme were layers and layers of possibility.

Frontiers can be literal places (like a campus) or more figurative (like the limits of imagination).

We pulled at those threads to come up with five types of frontiers that increase in size and scope. And within each of those five different frontiers, we came up with unique approaches and storytelling devices.

You can see what I mean by looking at the table of contents above.

Think of the theme as a cool nesting doll of meaning and storytelling. Each story works on its own, but the stories also can be contained within larger sub- themes and themes.

Everything works together to support the larger idea of the issue and also celebrates the 150 years of the school itself.

2. Give yourself plenty of time. Really.

Dartmouth created a knockout issue for its 250th anniversary in 2019 — an effort that earned a CASE award. It was all possible because they were thinking ahead.

Here’s what the team said about that process as part of their submission package for a CASE award (the bold face is mine):

For this special issue to celebrate Dartmouth’s 250th anniversary, we tore up our regular format and reinvented our magazine with a new architecture, template and design. Our small staff spent several years planning the issue.

So what did that extra time allow them to do? Here’s how they put it:

We gathered a faculty panel and had fun as they came up with the college’s most influential alumni, which anchored the issue. We asked a Pulitzer-winning reporter to examine Dartmouth’s next 50 years. We dug deep into the archives here at Dartmouth; little is digitized, so we played Woodward and Bernstein culling through boxes and boxes of old letters to the college and found some gems. We unearthed offbeat tidbits of history and presented them with our entertaining sensibility and in a special fold out section. We commissioned posters. And so much more.

See the CASE page about their work here.

3. Get help!

I absolutely loved the way New Trail handled the 100th anniversary of its alumni magazine with an ambitious feature package that was carried across two issues.

Its “100 things we learned reading 100 years of New Trail” is a list structure, and it is executed with perfection.

It contains a good mix of strategic stories (research, alumni connections) and fun stories. Within the list format, it uses an incredibly creative approach to packaging and visual design. Q&A? Yep. Matching game? Yep. By the numbers section? Definitely. (Grab issues 1 and 2 here.)

I wasn’t the only one who adored it! So did CASE judges, who gave the first of the two issues a gold award for its cover — but couldn’t resist raving about the storytelling as well. Here’s an excerpt from the judge’s report (see the full report here):

The amount of research and thought that went into the project is impressive, and the result is really fun, nostalgic, and playful in the best way.

Editor-in-chief Lisa Cook told me that in addition to planning for the issue well in advance, they also got some help. Here’s what she says:

We were able to hire an intern to go through the entirety of the New Trail archives and create a spreadsheet of standout stories. Our intern was amazing! She noted recurring themes, cool stories and milestones, plus uncovered those stories that were just …. um, unique.

For instance, there was the essayist from the 1950s who imagined our campus in 2025 as being overrun with giant rabbits. (I mean, the way things are going, who knows!?) This spreadsheet was a godsend.

Guys, it is really hard to do a big anniversary package without some help! An intern, a handful of great freelancers, a consultant who can help you think big — the approach will look different for every school.

Anniversary issues are big swings. Give yourself every advantage you can so you can knock it out of the park.

4. Take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think really outside the box.

Centennials only come around once every hundred years, so if you don’t try something interesting now, WHEN WILL YOU? Your sesquicentennial?

Yeah, that’s what Carleton did.

For their 150th anniversary issue, they tried all sorts of ambitious storytelling: a “board game,” fiction (!), poetry (!!!).

While they did have a loose structure — features, brief histories, and a handful of top 10 lists — they basically just used the issue as a way to take a bunch of big swings!

I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to see what each spread would hold.

You’re going to have one chance to do a milestone anniversary like a centennial or sesquicentennial.

Go for it!

10 things I believe about your print alumni magazine

When I was a junior, I applied for an internship at my college’s alumni magazine.

I was one of exactly two candidates — and I didn’t get the job.

Four years later, I was on the Sibley-winning team for an alumni magazine.

It was a pretty good trajectory.

For years, I told myself my alma mater had made a grave error in not hiring me when I applied, since I was an obviously brilliant thinker in the field of print alumni magazines.

But that wasn’t the reality. I was a pretty crummy candidate!

To be fair, I did get the internship the following year, when I was the only candidate who applied. I am proud to say that I was better than nothing.

But I digress.

The difference between my 20-year-old self and my 24-year-old self was that I had started systematically studying alumni magazines — and print magazines more generally — to figure out what made them tick.

I learned from lots of editors and writers and designers. I reverse-engineered the most successful stories and magazines. And with the support of my bosses at both Grinnell and Carleton, I tested many different ideas in the pages of those magazines.

I got better!

It’s been more than 20 years since I got my first gig in the field, and I’ve never stopped studying alumni magazines.

I’ve developed a lot of ideas about what alumni magazines can and should do.

This is what I believe about alumni magazines.

1. You should aim to have an amazing magazine.

All in, your school invests — easily — six figures into your publication each year, and likely many multiples of that.

Use every tool available to you to make it worth that investment.

2. Printed, mailed publications reach alumni more effectively than anything online.

Most of your alumni probably have fond feelings about your institution.

But in their day-to-day lives, they don’t think about your school that much.

The vast majority of them don’t visit your website (let alone a specialized magazine site), see most of your social media posts, or open that email that got filtered to their updates tab.

Most of them will see the magazine you mailed. You determine when your readers get it, what it looks like, and what content is in it.

For most of your alumni, your print magazine will be the main — if not only — way they hear about your school.

Optimize your magazine first when you’re thinking about communicating widely with your alumni. Then worry about all the other ways they can engage with your magazine’s content on social media, websites, and email.

3. There’s always another way to think about a story.

One of the big challenges of a magazine is keeping those annual stories — retiring faculty or graduating seniors or homecoming— fresh. How do you tell those annual alumni award winner profiles in a way that allows you not to get bored?

The good news is that print magazine storytelling can so much bigger than straight narrative formats and traditional photos.

Take advantage of all the opportunities that are available with a print magazine format to think bigger and to think differently.

What if you told that 200 word profile in 20 words? What if one year you told it in 2,000? What if you illustrated those headshots, packaged everything up into a list, or tried a quiz format?

Try something new in this issue for those “must-do” stories that make you bored. Doesn’t work perfectly? That’s okay! You can take another stab at it next year.

4. You should take at least one “big swing” in every issue.

A good magazine has plenty of structure: a certain set of departments, a handful of features, class notes, perhaps a few ads.

This approach makes sense.

You want the reader to understand what they’re getting, not feel confused with every turn of the page.

But within that structure, you should find ways to take some big swings.

Maybe it’s an ambitious “24 hours at the university” photo essay. Maybe it’s a giant story package on a big anniversary that you aim to make — *gasp* — fun. Maybe it’s hiring that writer or illustrator you’ve admired from afar to take on a story you think they could bring something really special to.

While it’s true that not everything will work out flawlessly, a lot will end up working out better than you think!

You can take the lessons from those big swings and apply them to future projects. You’ll have those amazing pages in your portfolio — and in your institution’s printed history — forever.

5. You should learn from the best — and put your own spin on it.

One of the strangest conversations I ever had with an alumni magazine editor was well over a decade ago. I pitched her a story and showed her clips from other alumni magazines that had published my work.

As I sat across from her in her office, she paged through the magazines I’d brought, and then sniffed, “How could I hire you when you work for our competitors?”

I was confused: colleges and universities don’t compete with each other for their alumni.

And that’s great! It means that you can study alumni magazines from across the country and adapt them for your own institution. You can study consumer magazines you love and imagine how their work might apply to your magazine.

Of course, you should find your own twist! Your institution really isn’t like everyone else’s, and neither are your alumni. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from others. You don’t have to start from scratch. Study the very best stuff out there.

Then make it your own.

6. You should sweat the details…

Recently, I was working with a client and saw spreads from their magazine in design. The designer had used a photo that I found powerfully captivating.

I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t look away, but then the designer described what made it work — a combination of the rule of thirds and light and leading lines.

At the time, I wasn’t able to articulate what made the feature spread and its photo so magnetic. I only knew that it was irresistible.

It reminded me that it’s important to use every tool in our proverbial toolbox to make a magazine great.

For example, I know how powerful a good headline can be in getting someone to stick with a story. I know how changing up story structures can surprise and delight readers. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you do, too.

These details affect readers’ enjoyment of the magazine, too, even if your audience can’t always say exactly why.

All of these tiny things take time to get right, and the payoff isn’t always clear.

But your readers will feel them. They’re the things that will vault your magazine into a category from “worth skimming while hovering over the recycling bin” to “worth taking to the couch and reading for the next hour.”

Sweat the details to make a magazine you are truly proud to send to your readers.

7. …but not the awards.

Look, I know I started this whole thing off by bragging about the Sibley I got a million years ago.

It’s a great shorthand to suggest “Hey, I know what I’m doing over here!”

But remember that judges for most awards are experienced in print magazines, and maybe even alumni magazines, but not your unique institution.

There are lots of stories that your readers might love because they’re steeped in your institution’s lore and values. Those stories might be things that judges simply might not “get,” because they’re not alumni!

The reality is that the most important constituents for your magazine (not the only ones, but the most important ones) do not care if you won the Fanciest Magazine in the Land award. They only care if the magazine is something they love.

Yes, awards can signal to your bosses that you’re doing good work. They’re fun to win, and I would never discourage someone from entering a magazine or a project that they’re proud to have worked really hard on.

But if you don’t win, that doesn’t mean you’re not putting out an amazing publication. The accolades that matter most are the ones you get from your readers.

Awards are great, but they’re also less important than you might think.

8. You should talk to your readers — lots of them! — all the time.

I’ve already said you should focus on doing great work for your readers. So it makes sense that you would spend time actually interacting with them and learning from them.

There are many ways to do this: through formal surveys, through prompts, through letters to the editor, through conversations prompted by a class notes entry.

Be curious about your readers and their desires for your magazine!

As the editor, you’re always in control. And sometimes, the proverbial customer isn’t always right.

But many of your readers will have incredibly valuable insights about what works in your magazine, what doesn’t work, and what could make it even better.

Listen to them. Have conversations with them. Save the praise you get from them to remind yourself of the value of your work. Be willing to consider the criticism you get from them. And respect the time they took to share their thoughts with you. They’re the reason you’re doing this work.

9. You should find ways to measure your magazine’s impact.

Let me first acknowledge the obvious: measuring the impact of a print magazine is really hard and imperfect.

But you should do your best to try.

You can use CASE’s alumni magazine readership survey tool. You can measure engagement through letters to the editor, class notes submissions, and nostalgia prompts. You can track giving through reply envelopes. You can conduct focus groups.

None of these, on their own, can tell the complete picture. And the reality is that you probably can’t do everything on this list with all of your other responsibilities — especially not for every issue.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start with one or two things on that list, and aim to make improvements over time.

Those numbers can help you see where you might need to make changes. They can help you build a case for more resources for your magazine. And they can help you show the value of the magazine you’ve worked so hard to create.

10. Your magazine should have a great personality.

Your magazine goes into the homes of your alumni, and it should be a like an incredible and charming guest. It shouldn’t be the equivalent of the person at the party who drones on endlessly about how great they are.

Because unlike a braggy partygoer, your magazine can get tossed into the recycling bin the second it becomes boring and self-important.

Remember that you can occasionally tell stories that go beyond the next new building, the big donor, and the prestigious award. You can also tell stories that are human and relatable to the many thousands of regular, non-superhero alums in your ranks.

Earn your way to the coffee table by making your magazine a joy to read, no matter what the story topic.

Do you have a million-dollar magazine?

Over the years, I’ve talked a lot about how to craft stories that are valuable for your institution.

I’ve shared details on writing stories for your publication on strategic plans, on campaigns, and on new leadership. I’ve talked about some of the ways to make those big-deal profiles — even the ones that you’re dreading — compelling.

These stories are critical to tell well in your print alumni magazine.

Your magazine, after all, is the communications vehicle that the widest swath of your alumni actually pays attention to.

They’re ideas that are important because they can help pave the way for greater prestige for your school, garner warm feelings from your school’s VIPs, and (perhaps!) lead to some significant gifts.

For your institution, those are the stories that many of your bosses and administrators will say make your publication a “million-dollar magazine.”

Do them well, and your administration will often maintain (or even expand) your budget without a second thought, because they see how your storytelling and design contribute to the institution’s larger goals.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about what makes your publication a “million-dollar magazine” to your readers. What makes your audience love and value your magazine? What can you do in your magazine that makes them feel truly grateful to receive it — and would make them actually miss it if it were gone?

Often, but not always, those things look a little different.

The “vegetables and dessert” magazine philosophy

Years ago, I was talking to the late, great Shawn Presley, then the editor of Kenyon’s alumni magazine. We were chatting about creating a good mix of stories in an alumni magazine, and he said something that really stuck with me.

He said, “You can give alumni their vegetables, but you also have to give them some dessert.”

What he meant by that was this: Yes, your institution is going to want to use the magazine to share its big stories about strategy, campaigns, and successes. Those are the vegetables.

They’re important, but you’ve really got to be creative to find ways to make these stories palatable to the average reader.

But you can’t just give people vegetables!

You should also devote a good portion of the magazine to things that are truly delightful to your readers. If you don’t, you’re never going to get people to look at the stories they “should” read (or that your administration wants them to read).

They’re going to chuck those publications in the recycling bin before they ever crack the cover.

That doesn’t serve your readers, and it doesn’t serve your institutions.

You’ve got to include things that might feel a little less obviously strategic and brand-aligned and promotional. These stories might be a little bit lighter, a little bit funnier, a little less ‘institutional’ than many of your stories. They’re the dessert.

And your readers will gobble up every word. When you’ve got lots of pages in every magazine that are irresistible to your readers, they will keep coming back, issue after issue.

Vegetables, dessert.

Yes, give your readers what they need. But also give them what they want.

What do your readers actually want?

So what constitutes “dessert” for your readers? You might already know. But let’s go over some of the main sections and story types that your alumni are most likely to gravitate to and enjoy.

1. Start with the obvious: class notes

Your class notes are the the much-loved-by-alumni, much-loathed-by-your-comms-team section.

CASE surveys routinely show that class notes are the first thing that readers flip to when they get their magazine.

And many of the best magazines already recognize this.

HBS Magazine, for example, goes all-in on its class notes. Bill Weber, the school’s director of alumni communications, says that if they ever tried to cut class notes from their publication, ‘it’d be World War III.

Another magazine with a killer class notes section is Smith College — check out the 32 pages in this recent issue of Smith Alumnae Quarterly. (Whew.)

But you don’t have to have 30+ pages of class notes to make them a must-read.

Take, for example, the two-page spread that Nebraska Quarterly devotes to its class notes, or the three pages in Exchange magazine (head to pages 20-21 in the online version, 18-19 for print) for The Tippie College of Business’s Department of Finance.

Through beautiful design and clever packaging, these class notes sections make every line worth reading, regardless of the reader’s graduation year.

Now, look, I used to be a class notes editor. I know the unique pain of class notes. But remember: this magazine is for your readers, not you. And your readers love ’em.

They’ll pore through the section that includes their class years and overlapping years. They’ll squint to see the grainy images of their pals in wedding photos or alumni gatherings. And hopefully, you’ll get a few good story ideas out of that section, too.

And the people featured in the class notes? Well, for them, that’ll probably make their day.

Yes, your readers can promote themselves on LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram.

But if you’re an alum and you’re featured by your alma mater in a real print publication? That’s different and better. Tangible. Forever.

It’s a reminder to your alumni that even after they graduate, their institution cares about their success and progress.

So keep your class notes section! Find ways to jam in as many as you can into the pages allotted. Promote them, ask for more, encourage folks to share their funny, quirky, human stories.

And remember that as a whole, those class notes can say great things about your institution, too. Yes, it says all the obvious things. Those promotions mean your alumni are smart and those published books are milestones of success.

Taken together, class notes also say something more about your alumni — they can show that they’re engaged and they’re thoughtful and they’re beautifully human. They show the many things your alumni value.

2. Ask nostalgia questions

Call them icebreaker questions, call them prompts, call them whatever you want: when you ask your alumni to reminisce about their college experiences, you’ll open the floodgates.

Ask your alumni about their campus jobs, their favorite concert, or the professors who changed everything for them. Ask about great advice they got as a student or their favorite place on campus.

Why do these questions work? Just test them on yourself and see.

Can you answer all of these questions above? Did thinking about them make you smile as you recalled memorable moments from years ago?

The answer is probably yes. And the same is likely to be true of your alumni.

These prompts will remind them of the joys of your school in the best possible way.

Many will spend real time composing responses, which will be its own separate joy. And the folks whose responses get published? Well, that’ll be a different kind of day-making moment.

To see an example of exactly how this works, head to #9 on this list, which shows how Bradley University made these nostalgia prompts a cornerstone of their publication.

The small vignettes you get from people on their own may be witty or poignant or thought-provoking.

In aggregate, they also illuminate your school and its values. A story like this might not seem to be “valuable” to your institution in the same way that a campaign launch story is valuable, but the right questions and the stories that they inspire can showing a different side of what your institution is and aspires to be.

3. Add joyful, quirky stories that only you can do

One of the worst ideas I ever got in my head about alumni magazines was that they “had to compete” with every other magazine out there.

Worse, they had to compete with everything on the planet that might compete for a reader’s attention. The New York Times. Netflix. Candy Crush.

But your school’s three-person communications team cannot compete with the 4,700 employees at the New York Times.

Still, you can tell stories that your alumni and community (and only your community) will want to read. That’s the real job of your publication. Not “competing” with the latest season of Ted Lasso.

There are lots of stories that your alumni want to read that only your publication can do. For example, you might tell stories about your school’s common campus myths or outrageous campus pranks. You might write about your school’s haunted past or its biggest fans.

These are stories that your alumni actually want to read.

And your readers won’t find those stories anywhere else. It’s a unique vantage point that gives you an edge with your community.

4. Zero in on the little guy

One of the things I love about alumni magazines is that generally, they’re not covering people who already get tons of media attention — politicians and celebrities and professional athletes.

Instead, as part of your magazine, you might get to cover a first-time author or a researcher on a niche topic or a student who took on a cool leadership role.

This may be the first time that these folks have gotten attention for projects that they may have been working on for their whole lives. It may be the only time they get noticed.

I promise you that they’ll remember that, and they’ll value it.

Here’s one example of exactly this idea, from Longform podcast host Aaron Lammer, who talks about the five-year value of appearing in his alumni magazine before he’d truly established himself.

The people whose stories you choose to tell here matter, too, because they say a lot about what and who your school values.

That doesn’t mean you have to overthink every single story! Sometimes a story about a Quidditch team captain is just a story about a Quidditch team captain. But add them all up and these profiles tell a certain kind of story about your school, too.

5. Don’t stop there

The things I mentioned above are just a start. There are a thousand little things that you can do that make your magazine valuable to your readers. Beautiful campus photos. Stories of beloved professors and staffers. Deep dives on legendary sports teams. You know your institution well, so you can probably list off plenty of different ideas here.

The point is that you need to be thinking about both your institution and your readers on every page. If you’ve got an institutional story, what can you do to make it a joy to read? If you’ve got a fun story for your readers, how can you position it in ways that makes it say something meaningful about your school?

I believe your magazine should be a million dollar magazine to your institution and it should be a million-dollar magazine to your readers. You can do both. You should do both. What actions do you need to take today to make your magazine better?

‘I wouldn’t want more pages’: The 28-page Sibley winner

Without exception, the winners of CASE’s Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year are gorgeous and well written.

But this year’s winner was something I’ve never seen before: short!

In a tight 28 pages, SF State Magazine is as ambitious as any magazine out there, and it accomplishes as much as many publications twice that length.

 

 

To find out more about how editor Steve Hockensmith earned the field’s highest honor this year, I asked him to share what makes his magazine tick.

Want to read more from Sibley-winning editors? Scroll down to the end to get links to interviews with past Sibley winners and a Sibley judge.

Now, on to the interview!

First, tell me a little bit about your school and your magazine.

San Francisco State University is part of the California State University (CSU), the largest four-year public university system in the country. In the last academic year, San Francisco State enrolled a little more than 27,000 students, more than half of whom will be the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

What does your magazine team look like — how many people are on your staff, and what kind of outside help do you get?

We have a small planning committee drawn from various departments within the University Advancement division, then most of the content is created by staff members.

We use a freelance designer as well as freelance photographers and illustrators, but at this point all the writing is done in-house with one exception: Our “My SF State Story” page is a personal reflection written by a University graduate.

I oversee the copy, and our creative director, Barbara Stein, manages all the visual elements and develops the overall look of every issue. We also have a photo editor, Paul Asper. (Paul is a talented photographer himself, which comes in really handy.)

All of us have many other duties — marketing materials, newsletters, the University website — so there is no full-time magazine staff.

I loved “The New Now,” a collaboration with one of the university’s journalism classes. I have seen similar pieces, including one in New York magazine, but yours was more creative and ambitious. Can you tell me how this project came to your attention and how you were able to make the most of it?

We really lucked into that. A version of it had been posted online as part of a project for a photojournalism class, and Paul, our photo editor, saw it.

We were wowed by the pictures and personal reflections, but I was a little reluctant to adapt it for the magazine at first. We had a theme for the issue — “the future” — and I was envisioning it as bright, colorful and upbeat to contrast with the dark, frightening time we were going through. (This was in early fall 2020, as the pandemic raged and the election loomed.)

What the students had created felt a bit downbeat, since it focused on the struggles they were facing as they adjusted to life in lockdown. I got over my reluctance to include it, though. The issue was supposed to promote optimism, but that didn’t mean we should ignore the harsh reality for our students at the time.

What story are you most proud of having done over this past year? Why?

“The New Now”! Which is kind of funny to admit, because we didn’t create it. The students (and their brilliant teacher, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Kim Komenich) did all the hard work. We were just curators. But I guess I can be proud that we recognized the opportunity and made the most of it.

We’ve wanted to include more material from and about current students, but it’s been hard to manage, especially during the pandemic. The life-in-lockdown photo essay was pure gold that just fell into our laps.

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

I’d say collaboration is the key. We’ve been pulling in more ideas and content from our communications colleagues across the University — folks who work for SF State’s various colleges — and that’s broadened our coverage, created goodwill and made it easier to keep the wheels turning during a difficult time.

Your magazine is just 28 pages. Is there a specific reason for this? (You do seem to be able to support great writing and art, so it seems like it is not primarily financial?) What are the benefits of those types of constraints?

The length is something I inherited, so I don’t know the original rationale for it. But I’m quite happy with the length and wouldn’t want more pages. It gives us room for our departments and three features, which is all we need to get across that the University and its graduates are doing cool things.

It also keeps the magazine manageable and economical for a small department with a small budget. Adding pages would give us a bit more breathing room, sure. But I don’t think it would make the magazine more impactful. Perhaps the opposite.

Your class notes are really nice, with short profiles, pull quotes, and a curated Gator bookshelf. What are some of the ways you try to make that section engaging for all readers — so they don’t just go directly to their class and skip the rest?

When I took over the magazine, the Class Notes section was four pages, and maybe half the items were submitted. The rest I came up with by following alumni in the news.

Over the last couple years, though, we’ve been getting more and more submissions, so we’ve expanded to six pages, and I don’t supplement much at all. I guess I could try to credit the section’s readability to my amazing editing, but it’s really all about our alumni. They’re just an interesting, eclectic, accomplished bunch of people!

One of the things the judges praised about your entry was its strong sense of place. Is that something you’re fairly conscious of?

Absolutely. SF State has a really unique vibe — kind of scrappy and can-do in an idealistic sort of way — and we’re always looking for stories that reflect that.

It can be tough to capture that energy on the printed page, so it was lovely to hear that it came through for the judges.

What do you pay attention to for inspiration? (Could be magazines, but doesn’t have to be limited to that.)

Barbara, our creative director, keeps an eye on a zillion magazines and websites and often brings in design ideas and feature concepts based on things she’s seen elsewhere.

I don’t do as great a job of that, to be honest. But I do pay attention to the conversations and trends on social media and try to stay in touch with the general zeitgeist. I don’t always succeed, but fortunately we’ve got some younger, hipper staff members who aren’t shy about educating me!

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

Having a theme for each issue is really helpful, even if it’s not one you tout on the cover or overtly acknowledge in some other way. It gives you a focus that forces you to think strategically about every bit of content you or may not include.

You don’t have to be inflexibly strict about it. We’re not. But having an overarching concept you’re trying to stick can lead to a more memorable magazine.