‘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.

The lessons of a print alumni magazine hiatus — with numbers

In the spring of 2020, many print alumni mags came to a screeching halt.

Colleges cut and combined issues. Some moved their publications exclusively to digital platforms.

What was the impact?

Recently, I talked to Lindsay Sherman, senior editor and writer at McDaniel College, a small private liberal arts college in Westminster, Md.

She and her team didn’t just speculate about the impact — they measured it.

This is an incredibly insightful, detailed look at the ripple effects of putting a print magazine on hiatus and moving to a completely digital format.

No matter what the status is for your own magazine, McDaniel’s experience is worth reading. I’ve shared my own thoughts at the end.

The context

The Hill is a 60-page publication (including cover) that’s typically published three times a year and goes to about 30,000 alumni, parents, faculty and staff, and donors.

More than half of the book is devoted to the class notes, which are produced in collaboration with volunteer class reporters. Lindsay describes the class notes section as “an institution in itself.”

 

The Covid Pivot

When Covid hit, McDaniel eliminated its print issues for 2020 and went digital-only with its magazine. They digitally published a spring issue and a combined summer/autumn issue. They cut the budget for their freelance designer and brought the design in-house.

To promote the spring issue, they used a physical postcard, as well as email, web, and social media outreach. They did the same for summer/autumn, but ditched the print postcard.

The numbers

Lindsay shared key numbers for the first 28 days of each issue:

A. Visits

  • Spring: 2,232 (social media, email, + postcard promotion)
  • Summer/autumn: 1,351 (social media and email promotion only)

Difference: Visits down 39.5 percent

B. Time spent per visit

  • Spring: 10:41
  • Summer/autumn: 10:24

Difference: Down 2.6 percent

Lindsay adds: “My contact at Nxtbook says their average for all clients is only about 7 minutes.”

C. Page views

  • Spring: 59,354 views (nearly nearly 49k of that was in the first seven days)
  • Summer/autumn: 35,163 views (nearly 31k of that was in the first seven days)

Difference: Page views down 40.8%

D. Email launch day visits

  • Spring issue: 1,129
  • Summer/autumn issue: 741

Difference: Visits down 34.4 percent

E. Difference in sources of traffic

  • Direct traffic down 52.5% between spring and summer/autumn
  • Search engine visits down 69.4% between spring and summer/autumn

F. Email analytics (sent to about 18k recipients)

  • Spring issue open rate was 22.51%; click rate was 6.46%
  • Summer/autumn issue open rate was 19.13%; click rate was 4.91%

Difference: Open rate down 15 percent; click rate down 24 percent

What happened next — and key lessons

The magazine returned to print in spring 2021, but McDaniel cut about 11,000 addresses from its rolls — primarily graduate-level alumni who have not maintained a giving or volunteer relationship with the institution during the past three years.

Going forward, says Lindsay, “the print quantity and mailing list will continue to be a point of discussion.”

Here are a few of the takeaways Lindsay shared from her experience:

1. Digital wasn’t a big win.

“We got many, many upset emails from alumni about not printing the spring issue. (It’s worth noting that we did receive a couple from younger alumni saying they preferred the digital version and do not need to receive print anymore.) I only got two notes about the summer/autumn issue.

We also usually have a contest of some sort — a quiz, trivia question, nostalgia prompt, etc. — and typically receive upwards of 20 submissions. The spring issue garnered about 10, but the summer/autumn only led to two.”

2. Budget and alumni emotion, rather than exact numbers, led the decision to bring back print.

“The analytics from our web platform did not actually play a role in the decision to return to print.

Instead, it was a better-than-projected budget situation when the college’s budget was finalized by the board, as well as the passionate response from alumni to the print magazine being taken away. My VP did ask to see the letters we received.”

3. Digital brings its own headaches (and opportunities).

“Creating a digital publication is a whole different beast.

Pieces that we may design for print just don’t translate to digital sometimes, or may lose their impact when they’re made accessible. And vice versa! Some of the bonus content we were able to embed in or link to on our digital edition is not going to work in a print magazine because it requires extra steps of our reader, like going to a computer or mobile device and typing in a URL or searching for a video.

Ultimately, I see our digital platform as a supplement to our print publication, rather than a replacement.”

4. There’s just something about print.

“I’m thrilled that we are back to print and know that our alumni are, too. However, I am sad that what I consider to be some of the best writing of my career in those last two issues has gone so under the radar because nothing was printed.

I have learned that print is really where my passion is. While I am thrilled that our online-only platform was ready to roll for us in the interim, I really missed a lot of things about the print publication:

  • The deadlines are much harder to push back, as much as that is sometimes a headache;
  • The thrill of the advance shipment and knowing that my ‘baby’ has been delivered;
  • The feel and smell of that book that I labored over;
  • The longevity of a relationship with a reader when it’s in print;
  • The tangible connection to a place you love.

My own alma mater continued to print, and I got so excited when that ‘happy mail’ appeared in my mailbox.”

Erin’s additions

I agree with everything that Lindsay said.

Lindsay’s experience over the past year also aligns with what I’ve long suspected: digital publications for alumni publications may lead to an initial pop of interest from readers, but it can be a struggle to maintain that momentum.

For years, I’ve been quietly monitoring alumni magazine websites, and I see the pattern frequently: a big launch and big ambitions — followed by a slide into digital dust.

Far more schools have experimented with digital over the past year, and I suspect many that moved exclusively to digital for a few issues will end up returning to print when they measure the results.

But this past year has been anything but a wash. It’s led many schools to zero in on the real purpose of their alumni magazine — and think deeply about whether their publication is achieving it. It has led people to re-evaluate the best audience for their magazine, the frequency of its publication, and the best mix of stories, class notes, advertising, and other content.

This is great, and I love to see it! The right mix will be a little different for every school, but this analysis is essential, and for many, long overdue.

Is it time to ditch your alumni magazine website?

In a recent newsletter, I linked to a summary from the CASE Alumni Magazine Reader Survey, which shared lots of data from the 192 institutions that had used the tool.

Among the numbers that caught my attention: 87 percent of alumni magazines have an online version of the magazine as well as a print magazine. (No word on those who had only an online magazine.)

To be honest: I think that number is way, way too high.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.

Yes, it’s true that many of you guys have beautiful magazine websites.

Yes, it’s true that you probably have a modest percentage of alumni who insist that they will read your alumni magazine online (and only online).

And yes, there’s a sustainability argument to be made about having your magazine online. (Though the difference, according to one study, isn’t quite as big as you might imagine.)

But is that enough to merit the time, brainpower, and expense you’re devoting to it?

Maybe, maybe not.

Are alumni magazine websites really all they’re cracked up to be?

I’ve been asking alumni magazine editors for years to tell me how their magazine websites are performing, and their answers are typically something like this.

Most of the time, editors tell me that they don’t really keep track of the numbers, so they don’t know.

Sometimes they’ll acknowledge that they’re not getting a ton of traffic. And over the years, I’ve talked to people who have moved their magazines online (in an app and more generally), only to have the projects go bust in a pretty big way.

And almost always, when I go to the comments section of a story on an alumni magazine website, here’s what I see:

Tumbleweeds.

I hate to say it, but for many schools, their alumni magazine website is a ghost town. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s suggested that their magazine’s website is absolutely crushing it.

But that’s okay! You’ve already got the most powerful tool in your arsenal for reaching alumni: a print alumni magazine.

Why your print alumni magazines are uniquely valuable (even if you can’t measure engagement in clicks)

I’ve written a lot about research that illustrates why print magazines are so valuable as a communications tool compared to their online counterparts. (tldr: Among other things, people are more likely to remember what they read in a physical publication, and they’re likely to value a print magazine more highly than a digital one.)

But beyond the value of the print magazine as an object itself, it’s important to understand the value of the way your print magazine is distributed — and what that means about who’s reading it, compared to who might be reading it online.

As much as your alumni may love your school (And I’m sure they do!) they probably aren’t seeking out official communications from your institution in the same way that they would if they were, say, prospective students.

They may still really appreciate their degree, the friendships they made at your school, and your ongoing work to maintain a connection with them.

But it’s unlikely that they’re going to decide, unprompted, to visit your website.

Sure, you can send out an email that funnels your alumni to your latest issue. But these email blasts can dwindle in effectiveness over time through things like list decay.

And let’s be honest: all of our email inboxes are crammed full. (I am the biggest possible champion of my own alma mater, for example, but discovered at one point that the emails they sent were being filed under my promotions tab — I’d been missing all sorts of cool stuff that my school had been sending for years!)

A print magazine — known as a “push communication” — literally lands in the mailboxes of your alumni. They don’t have to click anything. They don’t have to type in a website. They don’t have to track down a handle.

It goes directly into their hands.

And it’s in exactly the format you want! You tell the stories. You get to determine exactly what those stories look like on the page. And you pretty much guarantee that your alumni will at least give it a few seconds of their time — even if it’s just on the 15-second walk from the mailbox to the recycling bin.

But let’s be honest: if your alumni paid thousands of dollars to be at your school for two years or for years or (gulp) six years, they’re probably willing to give the things you send them a second look.

This push communication, with so many details that you control, is the power of a print alumni magazine. An online publication just can’t compete with that.

Still, you might reasonably ask: why not both? It couldn’t hurt, right?

Actually, yes it could. Here are just a couple of examples of what I mean.

How alumni magazine websites might negatively affect your print magazine storytelling

If a magazine website isn’t always the most effective way for you to get your stories into your readers’ brains, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless, right?

Of course not!

But the reality is that having a website actually does often factor into the kinds of storytelling you do — and not necessarily in a good way.

For example, I’ll sometimes propose unique packaging ideas for a beautifully designed print magazine, because I want the school to make the most of its print publication.

But more than once, I’ve had clients balk, because they couldn’t envision how a story with unique packaging might appear on the publication’s website. It just wouldn’t translate, they tell me.

They might be right! It might not look good on the website.

But cutting off print magazine opportunities at the knees because it won’t look good for a tiny number of hypothetical readers on the website? That’s doing a huge disservice to your print magazine readers.

On the flip side, I’ve seen some incredible print magazine stories get lackluster web treatment, making fantastic stories all but unreadable.

That’s not much help, either.

But that’s not the only problem (or even the biggest one, honestly).

The trouble with online alumni magazines: feeding the beast

People expect websites to get updated with new stuff all the time.

In other words, that quarterly content dump ain’t gonna cut it.

For many, the solution to this problem — initially, at least — is to try to do more to attract eyeballs to the magazine website: more stories, more updates, more design firepower, more promotion.

GOTTA GET THOSE CLICKS.

As you map it all out, it can feel pretty exciting.

But the execution is an entirely different story.

Why your alumni magazine website ‘fixes’ might be making the situation worse.

The enthusiasm for producing vastly more content for a site rarely lasts.

Sometimes it’s because new priorities pop up, or your staff — already stretched thin — can’t handle the relentless requirement to generate new stories.

Sometimes the stories — no matter how good! — just don’t attract the attention you might have hoped for.

I’ve been a part of that problem, unfortunately. Years ago, I worked with a magazine that was launching a great new magazine website, and they wanted frequent updates to keep readers engaged.

I worked with their team to craft an ambitious plan with regularly updated and evergreen content. We put together many months’ worth of stories with my best possible ideas.

And the actual engagement?

My team and I threw absolutely everything I could think of into this work — our best ideas, our cleverest headlines, our smartest packaging. And it wasn’t nearly enough.

I was so disappointed.

But I was also determined to learn.

I kept my eyes open for what other schools were doing on their alumni magazine websites. What was working? Surely, someone had cracked the code.

There were some things that piqued my interest. Not long after I wrapped up the online magazine campaign I just mentioned, I heard about a buzzy launch for an online-only publication at a well resourced university. It was among the most beautiful I’d seen. The storytelling, art, and design was top-notch. If any school’s publication was designed to thrive online, this one might be it.

The results?

It published three issues — but interest apparently fizzled, because it’s been gathering digital dust for two years.

That result is less surprising than it might seem. Here’s what I mean.

The enthusiasm gap for an online alumni magazine

It’s really hard to put together something as ambitious as a magazine online — especially when the feedback and the readership numbers don’t seem to mirror the effort you’ve put into it.

I heard versions of this concern again and again when I surveyed 900+ of you for a report I published last year, “6 Insights on the Covid-19 Shift from Print to Digital Magazines.”

Many of you went digital for part or all of 2020 — and for most of the people who responded, it was a difficult and disappointing switch, even though there were really good reasons to go online-only.

Here are just a couple of comments from respondents:

“Our magazine staff probably felt more let down than any reader, you tend to feel ‘all that work for only online,’ and maybe we shouldn’t feel that way.”

“It was a great disappointment to put the summer issue, which was completely devoted to the university’s COVID response, online only.”

This type of emotional disconnection from an online publication might not be the most important factor to consider when you’re looking at the value of an online magazine, but it’s not nothing, either!

That lack of enthusiasm tends to translate into less ambitious stories and less creative energy for the publication itself. That benefits no one.

A print magazine, for many editors, feels real and important — it is the thing they are most proud to work on. I know many editors who ascended the career ladders at their institution but still kept a significant portion of their print magazine role because they felt such a strong connection to it.

So many editors have told me that they love their print magazine and wish they could devote more time to it.

Although I’m sure there are editors out there who love their online publications as much as their print ones, I haven’t actually met one who’s said so.

So what’s the answer?

Let’s summarize. So far, I’ve talked about why online alumni magazines are typically less effective than print alumni publications, why they’re so difficult to do well, and why many of us don’t even enjoy developing them.

Now what?

I’m going to suggest something counterintuitive.

DO LESS.

What if you decided — instead of piling more onto your to-do list to improve your alumni magazine website — you pulled back on it?

What if you put that time back into your print magazine?

What if you focused on making your print magazine — the thing that a larger percentage of your readers are actually likely to see — as good as it could possibly be?

You could focus on storytelling, on art and design, on unique ways to engage your readers.

Sure, you might keep something online — a page with downloadable PDFs of your publication for folks who want it, for example.

That will keep the beautiful design in the form that it’s intended to be, and it’s wise to have those archives available.

Pouring more of your energy into print wouldn’t preclude you from sharing one or more of your stories online, but that approach might not require the same type of commitment in time and resources. It might free you up to think more ambitiously about what is possible in print.

And in the end, your alumni — your readers — might be the ones who benefit most.

Are you making this common mistake with your storytelling?

If you’ve read my work for awhile, you know that I love story packaging: quizzes and Q&As, infographics and annotations, timelines and lists.

But do you know what storytelling format to use when?

Sure, you know that your 100th anniversary package should probably include a timeline. But should that profile be a Q&A, an as-told-to, or a straight narrative? Does it really matter?

It actually does matter!

Each story format conveys information in slightly different ways. The story formats will lead your reader to make certain assumptions and to feel certain ways.

The more you understand how each story format works, the more you can maximize its potential. You can avoid using a format that fights against the larger emotion or tone you’re trying to convey.

I realize this all sounds pretty vague. So let’s dig in with a few concrete examples, starting with two approaches that — on the surface — appear strikingly similar: the Q&A and the as-told-to story.

Both approaches are typically used to share the perspective or story of a single individual. (Though a Q&A technically has two voices in it.) Both give significant weight to the source’s own words, rather than the writer’s. But the similarities end there.

What are some of the key differences and how does that mean you should deploy them most effectively?

The emotional wallop of as-told-to storytelling

The as-told-to storytelling approach is an excellent way to tell stories that are personal and emotional. As-told-to stories put people in the shoes of others at key moments of their lives as they narrate what they saw, heard, experienced, and felt.

For example, here’s a story I did with a few other folks called “What does it feel like to…” for Purdue Alumnus. (Yes, that is a super cool centerfold design, and the brains behind that is the A+ team at ESC.)

Alumni told us what it felt like to swallow fire, win a Pulitzer, and work in Antarctica.

And let’s be honest, you don’t want my words telling you what those things are like. You want theirs! An as-told-to format works perfectly in this case.

More recently, I did “In Medias Res,” a story for Kenyon Magazine with editor Elizabeth Weinstein and the knockout design of EmDash.

For this story, we stepped into the shoes of hospital chaplains, journalists, and educators (among others) as the world was shutting down from Covid.

Yes, all of us all had Covid stories! But these men and women shared what it felt like to be them at precarious moments, when they had to make incredibly difficult decisions at a moment of extreme uncertainty. An as-told-to format allows a reader to experience the person’s emotional journey just as they did.

These stories often require some serious editing to get them just right, and it’s essential to get buy-in from the sources once you’ve written it.

The payoff? A riveting read.

What they really think: transparency through Q&As

A Q&A is an excellent approach to help someone important share their viewpoints in a way that feels, to a reader, more transparent and genuine.

That sense of authenticity is why new college presidents are often introduced with a Q&A: Here’s an example with the University of Cincinnati’s new president, here’s another with the new president of the University of Georgia, and here’s a third with Harvard’s prez.

Q&As allow an interviewer to address dicey or controversial topics and to give the subject of the interview a chance to tackle the topic head on.

In cases like these, the interviewer is a stand-in for the reader: you want to be the one asking the questions — both common and difficult — that everybody has for this person.

Q&A’s are also a good way to cover a huge range of topics in a way that doesn’t make a reader feel whiplash.

For example, this “getting to know you” Q&A with an incoming dean for the University of Chicago Magazine covers classroom experiences, good advice for students, and her desire to have Mindy Kaling write her life story. (Who wouldn’t want that, tbh?)

Every question is a chance to go in a new direction.

The big idea

These are just a few examples, but the larger point is this: the way you tell a story matters. The right packaging can emphasize the feelings you want your readers to have — while the wrong packaging can fight what you’re trying to do.

There’s not an exact science to this! Start noticing how different types of story formats make you feel when you read them — and how you might be able to use that knowledge as you work on future projects.

If you want a list of some of the approaches that my team and I routinely rely on as we develop projects, check out this storytelling toolkit we developed and use.

What one alumni magazine editor learned when she hired a sensitivity reader

Is it time for your publication to hire a sensitivity reader?

MAYBE! Today, I want to share what this experience looked like for Shay Moser, managing editor of W. P. Carey magazine,

In this interview, she shares what prompted her decision, how she integrated the work into her process, pricing and timing details, and the larger lessons she learned.

Okay, let’s do this!

First, what prompted the decision to hire a sensitivity reader for your magazine?

With the BLM movement last summer and more, we wondered where we could improve the magazine design and copy. A colleague suggested looking at Editors of Color. I found a woman who has experience as a freelance editorial consultant, providing strategic copy development and editorial insight for major educational institutions.

I reached out to her, did the lengthy paperwork to bring her on as a vendor, and hired her to review every biannual issue of the magazine from now on.

What were you expecting or hoping to find out?

I was worried about what we’d learn from her. Were we being authentic in the copy? Did we share problematic language? Did we show internalized bias as it applies to race, culture, gender, physical, and mental ability?

We weren’t doing poorly in these areas, but we could improve (as everyone can) once you learn what’s better. It was enlightening!

Can you give some examples?

We learned why we should avoid “disadvantaged teen.” She wrote, “The best practice for inclusive language is to use people-first language and language that is empowering.” So, we changed it to “high school students facing multiple barriers.” Also:

  • Use “woman” instead “female” (e.g., woman dean, women leaders, women professors).
  • Avoid the term “minority,” as it reinforces ideas of inferiority and marginalization of a group of people. Use “people of color” or “Black.”
  • Avoid unnecessarily gendered terms like:
    • Change “fellow man” to “fellow people.”
    • Change “freshman” to “first-year student.”
    • Change “chairman” to “chairperson.”

Were there other ways she helped you identify areas for change?

Design-wise, she pointed out where our graphic figures are stereotypically men or women vs. speaking to the inclusion of non-binary individuals.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts: can you share a few details about costs and timing?

Our sensitivity reader charged $60 an hour for our 44-page magazine and said she’d have it done in seven business days from receipt of content. She got it to us in exactly seven business days (I sent it to her on Feb. 20 and she returned it with her comments on March 1). I’ve seen a range of $30 to $60 per hour. Here’s what the Editorial Freelancers Association recommends. Also, here’s another resource about diversity style guides for journalists from The Open Notebook.

At what point during the publication process was she seeing copy/design?

As part of the sensitivity reading, I sent her the designed PDF of our magazine so she could review the copy for authenticity, problematic language/framing, and internalized bias as it applies to race, culture, gender, etc. She looked at body copy, titles, headings, captions, and imagery. For images and illustrations, she asked, “Who is pictured and why? Is there context provided? Are there other images to balance out the narrative? She also reviewed media such as videos, charts, and interactive tools related to the magazine. I sent it to her at the same time that I sent it to leadership for review and before it went out to our external proofreader (March 1), so it worked out, thankfully.

Was there anything you thought a sensitivity reader might do that she didn’t do or that you learned that you shouldn’t expect from a sensitivity reader?

No, but in the agreement she sent me, “Sensitivity reading is not a guarantee that others will not have issues with the published work. Everyone has biases, including me. Hiring me as a sensitivity reader does not absolve your work from possible criticism, nor do I speak for every person who falls within your scope of work. Hiring me is not an endorsement of any project. You will receive a detailed critique of the content detailing what is working and any problems noted.”

Anything else you want to share?

Another company I learned about is Black Editors & Proofreaders Freelance Editorial Professionals. I wouldn’t doubt there are more businesses like this out there. There are also other articles around this, but this topic came up in the CASE College and University Editors CUE Digest and I recommended Editors of Color to someone.

Feature well chaos? Try this.

I love talking to editors about their story development processes for their magazines. I’m particularly interested in the ways they work on their feature wells.

After all, a print magazine is a school’s flagship communications tool for alumni. It’s often one of the most time-consuming and expensive communications tools, too. In a magazine, the feature well is where schools have the chance to showcase their very best stories, design, and art.

It makes perfect sense for us to have a thoughtful, methodical process to choose the handful of feature stories our readers will see in each issue.

Instead, I often hear about a process that looks a little more like this:

For many of us, it’s a process that is (at best) reactionary.

No judgment! We’re all stretched thin, and even those of us who like to plan out stories well in advance sometimes find that a piece will fall through for reasons beyond our control. Over the past year, we’ve all had to tear up our story lineups.

That said, it helps if we can at least START with a structured approach that gives us the very best chance to provide a solid mix of interesting and relevant stories for our audience.

Here’s how I like to think about it.

Build your feature well story structure.

Most magazines have space for a small handful of feature stories — let’s say between 2 and 5.

One of the ways that you can make sure that your feature well provides a wide range of meaningful stories is simply to provide some “buckets” that your stories will generally fall into for each issue.

For example, at one school I worked at, we had a simple structure:

  • A general higher ed topic story (“Are the liberal arts too liberal?” “Is college still worth it?”)
  • A campus/college specific story (The history of a specific campus event, a campaign story)
  • An alumni story (A longer profile or roundup story)
  • A larger trend story that uses faculty and alumni for experts (What does patriotism mean right now? How podcasting is changing everything.)

Every story had to fit within one of these four categories — and that meant if it didn’t fit, we had to find another place for it or we had to rethink the story so we could make it fit.

These categories actually sometimes helped us think more flexibly about a story we assumed could only be done one way.

For example, an alum who won a big-deal award linked to climate change might be a good topic for an alumni profile. But what if we also knew that a mathematics professor had been doing some number crunching on the long-term impact of temperature increases and a biologist was studying how certain animals were responding to extreme weather events?

Maybe we could do a little more digging and write an expansive feature on the approaches that people in the school’s community were using to address the issue.

You get the picture.

Having a structure to guide us made it easier to collect, organize, and develop story ideas. We might not know what to do with the alum who shared that he’d gotten into a startup accelerator, but if the story was good enough, we might make him the anchor profile in a roundup of entrepreneurs.

If we weren’t sure where to even start with the feature well, we had some guiding principles to begin our process.

Knowing that we needed to do a story about a higher ed topic in every issue made it easy for us to start collecting evergreen topics in a list. We could easily refer to it when we began the work on each issue.

Even more than that, after we got buy-in from the advisory board for the four types of stories we’d feature in feature well in each issue, we avoided a lot of fights.

We didn’t have to argue every time they suggested that we use the entire feature well to run stories on a campaign, a new strategic initiative, and a recently-hired dean. Instead, we could just point to our previously agreed-upon feature well priorities.

It also meant that when we got a request from an alum to devote 15 pages of the magazine to his poetry, we could easily explain why it wouldn’t be making the cut for our next issue. (Sorry not sorry.)

Think expansively about feature well categories

The example I gave is just one approach — there are countless others!

A smaller feature well might have categories like:

  • On-campus
  • Off-campus

Or

  • 9-5 (Work/research related stories)
  • 5-9 (Fun, off-the-clock stories)

You could organize your stories around specific formats, rather than specific types of topics:

  • Narrative feature
  • Longform Q&A
  • Packaged service piece

There are tons of different ways to think about this, and I’m barely scratching the surface.

The most important thing is to be intentional, not reactionary. A simple structure for your feature well can help make sure you’re telling a wide range of different stories to your alums — by design.

Do you follow the Rodham Rule for higher ed writing?

Last summer, I gobbled up Rodham, the alternate-universe story of Hillary Clinton written by one of my literary favorites, Curtis Sittenfeld.

A line that stood out to me was when the fictional version of Hillary sends her brother a sports-related text:

“This season does seem promising, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up.”

It’s as anodyne a statement as one could possibly imagine.

Still, she follows up that text with an observation about what she’d just written:

“Then, because I’d learned from giving speeches that ending with the negative half of a mixed sentiment made the whole thing seem pessimistic, I deleted what I’d written and typed instead, ‘I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but this season does seem promising.’ ”

The lines reveal the character’s cold discipline in even trivial matters, but when I read it, I also saw something else.

Bundled into that short statement are three important truths that apply not just to speechwriting and sports prognosticating, but also to writing for higher education generally and alumni magazines specifically.

Let’s unpack them here.

1. Even if you’re a champion for something, it’s okay to have “mixed sentiments.”

In this example, the “mixed sentiment” the Sittenfeld character conjures up is pretty mild — she doesn’t want to get too invested in potential success of her favorite team.

As an alumni magazine editor and an advocate (I assume!) for your own institution, you may have your own thoughts about sharing stories with mixed sentiments.

Do you acknowledge a difficult period in a successful alum’s life? Or do you position the alum’s journey as a highlights reel of one accomplishment after another?

The alumni magazine may seem like the place to showcase just the hits. (And sometimes, administrators encourage exactly this.)

But in a word? Yawn.

Life doesn’t work that way, and readers can sense that sort of disingenuous storytelling from a mile away.

That “good news only” approach also turned out to be all but impossible in 2020, when it seemed like there was nothing BUT bad news — and a lot of that bad news was quite specific to higher education.

Those who tried to sugar-coat this past awful year were, at best, tone-deaf.

There’s good and bad in the world. There can be good and bad in your magazine. It’s important to acknowledge both.

2. You can leaven the weight of challenging topics with the idea that good things may be on the horizon.

Let’s move back to that Hillary statement: She’s trying not to get her hopes up!

But the season does seem promising.

She could have just said that she’s trying not to get her hopes up about the season. The end. But instead, she expressed hope.

The same can be true of even the most difficult stories we tell — of the pandemic, of racial inequities, of economic devastation, or of political polarization.

Yes, people at your institution are focused on these problems — and many others — that seem intractable and dispiriting. They know the nuances and challenges of these topics, and they may see a steeper hill to climb than the rest of us, who are less steeped in details of these specific areas.

In many ways, this deep knowledge is a great thing. It helps no one to be blindly optimistic about an issue when it’s not deserved.

That said, it’s rare that an issue is completely black and white. That’s a reason that one of my “3 perfect interview questions” is “What are you optimistic about?” (Read more about that and find out the other two questions here.)

One of the things I love about higher ed generally — and one of the things that drew me to alumni magazines specifically — is that education is inherently optimistic, future-focused, and problem-solving. So is much of its storytelling.

People get a college degree because they want to create a better future for themselves and for the world. People work at colleges because they want to pursue knowledge and focus on solutions, no matter how tangled a problem is.

Our storytelling should reflect that larger, optimistic truth about education without sidestepping the messiness that it contains.

3. Sequencing matters.

As the fictional Hillary notes, ending with the negative half of a mixed sentiment tinged the entire comment with its pessimism.

The reverse is true as well, as her edits make clear: a sentence (or a story!) that ends on a positive note colors the entire thing with a larger optimism.

The same should be true with our stories. I believe it’s our job to showcase the potential for progress, even in the face of difficult obstacles.

And we do that successfully when we end on a hopeful note.

 

The essential question to ask before making big magazine changes

First, let’s state the obvious: most schools made dramatic changes during the early weeks of the pandemic that weren’t based on in-depth analysis.

This isn’t a criticism! The changes were an immediate response to an unprecedented crisis.

Communications teams slashed costs, cut the number of issues in their magazine or trimmed pages. Some went entirely digital for the foreseeable future.

We aren’t out of the woods yet. But it’s time to start thinking strategically about how to move forward with your print magazine as the impact of the pandemic fades.

What will the days ahead look like for your publication?

As you map out the plan for your publication, there is one essential question that should guide those discussions. Here it is:

What are the things that my print magazine can do that nothing else can?

This question will illuminate the unique value of your print magazine — and can help you decide the value of investing more (or less!) in it.

So how do you answer that question? Certainly, on the surface, it may seem like your magazine offers very little that can’t be covered, in some way, by the other ways you communicate with your audience.

But let’s dig a little deeper.

Here are just a few of the things that I see as truly distinctive to print alumni magazines — features that simply can’t replicated through other methods:

1. Class notes

Yes, I know that some folks have experimented with putting class notes online, with or without a password-protected wall.

That’s just not the same.

Class notes aren’t just the most reliably popular section of your print magazine (just check CASE’s survey data). They’re also something that most folks don’t realize they’re eager to see until the magazine is actually in their hands.

Few people are going to seek out class notes on your website. Just searching for them is going to be a bear for folks who might visit your site once a year, if you’re lucky.

Class notes shrink your big institution to a more personal level to your alumni. Your alums might not know anyone you’re featuring in the major stories, but they might just know a handful of folks featured in the class notes. They might be the ones looking to see if their own promotion, wedding, new baby, or publication is included

2. Universally understood technology.

A magazine is one of those rare technologies that everyone — the 16-year-old prospective student, the recent grad, the 40-something prospective parent, the 94-year-old alum — knows how to use. They know where to start and they know how to find what they need. It never glitches. That’s not true of most of your other types of communication.

Here’s what one editor said after making the switch from a print magazine to a digital one in 2020.

“After our digital issue launched, I spent a full week acting as IT support for a handful of older alums who really just wanted me to print out the pages/columns they wanted to read and send them to them via USPS.”

3. Beautifully designed, non-linear storytelling

We’ve all been conditioned to scroll endlessly on our phones. But not every story is best told in straight narrative format! (And let’s be honest, that “must-do” story on the strategic plan or the new campaign might not hold most people’s interest if it demands a 2,000-word scroll.)

Consider this package on field research, which would be all but unreadable in straight narrative format, or this highly packaged story linked to strategic initiatives, like this one for St. Edward’s University.

Careful print design gives readers plenty of entry points. It doesn’t demand that readers start in one place and finish in another. Beautiful design can help tell stories that don’t have a specific beginning, middle, and end, but that have pieces that still fit together to tell a larger story

4. Scrapbook-able mementos 

Yes, I’m referring to those wedding photos, baby snapshots, and friend-packed images that you put into your class notes. Many of those folks featured will clip those out and slip them into memory books that they save for a lifetime.

But it’s not just class notes that make the cut! The 100-word profiles of students and young alumni and the beautifully photographed or illustrated stories of award-winning alumni are all things that your readers enjoy getting and will tuck away as important souvenirs of an accomplishment. I call this the “five-year value” of your magazine.

5. Social signaling

You don’t have to have a name-brand university for your alumni to feel proud to be associated with it. While we may not currently be visiting peoples’ homes or taking flights on which we can bring a stack of magazines, this reality won’t be forever. And in these cases — and many others — people often use things like alumni magazines to signal something about their status

Read more about this phenomenon in “The Surprising Hidden Value of Your Alumni Magazine.”

The important point is this: folks can’t do this kind of social signaling with apps, with direct mail, or with events. That print publication is essential.
 

6. A sense of scale among topics

Guys, I’ve spent countless hours scrolling through alumni magazine websites. And even though there may be a handful of stories called out as features with a hero images or other forms of hierarchy, I always struggle with understanding the scale of the story before I click on it.

Did I just spend a click on what is essentially a 50-word caption? Am I going to get mired in a 5,000-word behemoth when all I wanted was to grab a quick fact? 

I never have that problem while flipping through a magazine! If I’ve got 30 seconds before my next call or want to sink in to a 20-minute read, I know where to look for each. I’ll know if that new building on campus is a big deal based on the amount of space it takes in the magazine.

7. A sense of continuity.

Plenty of tech has come and gone over the years. 

But a magazine delivered to alumni doors a handful of times each year? That’s a touchstone that has lasted for decades. This continuity matters. It’s not just valuable for the history of your institution, but for your alumni as well, who may not be following your institution to every new technology.
 
Guys, this is just scratching the surface. There are so many different roles your alumni magazine can play in the lives of your readers and for your institution.

To be clear, you may decide that those things aren’t important, and that’s fine!

Print magazines are costly. If you don’t have the time or bandwidth to do them well, or if you don’t try to measure the real impact they have, they may end up feeling like an expensive waste of money. You don’t want to put something out into the world that represents your institution poorly. 

But if you do think your magazine is important, it may be worth investing in it even more deeply. You may want to make sure that it truly is an outstanding representation of your school, a connection point among the many people in your community, and a showcase of your very best work.

So as you and your team map out your plan for the year (or years) ahead, I encourage you to ask yourself: What are the things that your magazine can do that nothing else can?

4 predictions for alumni magazines in 2021

I made my first set of annual predictions last year. Were they good? Were they terrible? I mean, the assumptions didn’t include a pandemic, that’s for sure.

Will 2021 bring the same kind of chaos? There’s still plenty of uncertainty, but based on what I’m hearing from clients and newsletter subscribers, here are some of the things I see coming in the new year.

1. There will be a print/digital magazine bifurcation.

I have heard about a small handful of magazines shuttering or going on indefinite hiatus. But for the most part, schools are sticking with some form of alumni publication for now, in either print or online form.

My suspicion is that the vast majority of financially stable institutions will keep their print publications, and the institutions that are getting hit hardest will see those publications move online as a cost-cutting measure.

Those who make the shift to primarily digital will have an entirely new set of challenges! And I do think that those who stay the course with print (even if they make some changes or reduce frequency) will have an advantage over their digital magazine peers.

Some of that benefit is the result of differences between “push” communications that arrive at your doorstep rain or shine vs. “pull” communications that demand that you click a link, visit a website, or download an app.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of benefits to digital publications. But those who move from print to digital-only will have to be thoughtful about how they’ll replace some of the advantages that come naturally through print publications.

2. A publication’s ROI will see increased scrutiny.

At many schools, editors have not had to think strategically about a magazine’s return on investment. They’re focused on pulling together great, compelling stories on a wide range of topics, issue after issue.

But as alumni and communications offices make difficult decisions about what communications will and won’t get funded, alumni magazines will have to earn their keep.

ROI is an admittedly tough thing to measure in something like a print publication.

CASE surveys are commonly used as a way to measure engagement, and there are other types of surveys that can provide insight on readers feel about or value a publication. Other numbers — contributions to letters to the editor, class notes, and nostalgia prompts — can also provide a sense of how alumni feel about the publications they receive.

There’s lots more to say about this! But if you’re not already considering tracking the ways your magazine is making an impact, it’s time to start. Alumni magazines will be under the microscope.

3. VIPs will be more visible in many magazines.

With larger on- and off-campus gatherings scuttled for months to come, it will be harder for schools to use many of their traditional methods to recognize successful alumni, donors, faculty, and volunteers.

One option that may still be available to schools? A profile or feature in the alumni magazine. I’ve already worked with multiple clients to come up with creative ways to package stories that recognize groups of alumni award winners, campaign donors, and community supporters.

Alumni magazine editors will want to have their own sense of what they will and won’t do to support these efforts — including some creative ways to package stories that might otherwise just be boring lists of bios.

4. Editors will make a shift to more evergreen storytelling.

We’ve all been battered in 2020, and many of us have had to work overtime after story lineups we carefully planned got decimated by a pandemic, social unrest, and an economic downturn.

Yes, there may be more to come. But when the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, editors may try to take on stories that feel more timeless. The fact that many magazines have reduced their publication frequency will accelerate this trend.

For years, trend stories have allowed alumni magazines to include stories that feel a little newsier. But we’ve all spent tons of time making last-minute changes to…just about everything, so editors may just decide to play it a little safer for a few issues.

Instead of focusing on being as timely as possible, editors will seek out ways to tell evergreen stories that matter: history pieces, nostalgia-based packages, and stories that make sense in any issue.

These stories have the secondary benefit of being able to live online successfully almost indefinitely, offering the sort of “long tail” life that former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson predicted well over a decade ago.

The “no room for error” checklist for your magazine stories

Over the past few months, I’ve been talking to editors who are feeling squeezed like never before — trimmed staff, smaller budgets, more responsibilities.

And the last thing that they can afford is a magazine story that goes off the rails for one reason or another.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen: Stories that seemed great on paper — and then disintegrated once the reporting started. Stories that made it through two edits before a high-level administrator scuttled the piece. Stories that were literally in design when a last-minute political issue decimated the project. And that was all pre-COVID! Right now, every story in every issue can seem in flux.

So how do you build guard rails into your story process at every step to make sure that the great idea you started with gets carried all the way to print? How do you pinpoint the stories that are destined to fail — so that you don’t spend time working on something that doesn’t stand a chance to make it all the way to your magazine?

4 essential questions to ask before starting a story

Today I’m excited to share details from the exact checklist my team and I use to ensure that a good story doesn’t get torpedoed before it makes it to print. These are questions to ask before doing a single on-the-record interview. And while there are always one-in-million circumstances you can’t predict, this checklist gives any story the best possible chance to succeed.

Who needs to weigh in on this story before we get started?

Is this a story that needs admissions, development, or administrative buy-in that goes above and beyond traditional approval channels? Are there other projects or stories that are happening elsewhere that might support the work we’re doing here — or worse, could directly contradict it?

Recently, I was working with a client on a project that would include a handful of interviews with 2020 graduates. During our conversation, the client mentioned that interviews on a related topic with new graduates had been conducted for another project, and that maybe we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. That connection was useful, and prevented lots of future headaches.

 What potential political obstacles should we be aware of before we do interviews?

Are there simmering tensions between certain departments? Concerns about providing equal time to more and less media-friendly faculty, divisions, or colleges? Is there a chance that the story could turn out to have a tone that is too negative or controversial? When these issues come up early in the process, it’s easier to find ways to reshape the story or pivot effectively.

For example, Capstone once had a client that let us know that the mathematics department was peeved about its limited coverage in the alumni magazine. The reality was that it could be much harder to tell a fun, visual story about the work that was happening in the department! But knowing that in advance, we came up with some creative solutions to make sure those faculty could get featured in a roundup — and they would have a nice piece to give prospective students and families who showed interest.

What does our sourcing look like?

Do a quick review of your sources and make sure you have the balance you need across class years, men and women, departments and colleges, race and ethnicity, and other important characteristics.

It’s easier to start with the right list of people than try to wedge people into the list at the end.

Also consider if you’re including a source too often! I’ve worked with clients who have go-to sources who are friendly, on time for every interview, and are extremely quotable. They’re amazing! But that might also mean you’re shortchanging other folks — who may have a few more questions for you, who maybe aren’t quite as polished — who could still provide valuable insight for a story.

If you find yourself quoting the same handful of people over and over, try to stretch yourself and find a few new sources.

What do we do if sources drop out or are not available?

For every story we do, we try to have backup options that we can pursue if we find out that one of our original sources isn’t available.

If we’re working on a feature story that we think should have about eight sources, we come up with two or three extras. If one drops off, we can seamlessly move to the next without running a new potential source through the gantlet.

The big question to ask yourself before every story is this: What could go wrong? And what is the work that I can do now to try to prevent that problem from happening?