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

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

But what does that mean, exactly?

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

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

It’s also more than that.

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

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

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

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

Read the responses carefully!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The 6 a.m. bake session

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

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

  1. Next came the digging

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

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

  1. The “a-ha!” moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has the response been from your audience?

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

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


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


Avoid This Mistake With The Second-Most Valuable Page Of Your Publication

Every month, I pick up a few new magazines from the newsstand to see what kind of stories they’re doing, what unique approaches they’re taking, and what I can learn from them. But when I picked up a copy of REI’s Uncommon Path magazine — a beautiful and engaging magazine in almost every respect — I was astonished to see its back cover. Take a look at the front and back:

What kind of ridiculousness is this?

Why is that back cover basically blank?!?

Outside of your front cover, the back cover is the single most valuable piece of real estate in your print publication. Don’t believe me? Check out these ad rates for People Magazine. If you want to put an ad on the back cover — that’s “Cover 4” in ad lingo — it’ll cost you more than half a million dollars.

Your back cover might not be worth a cool half mil, but you *should* be spending almost as much time on your magazine’s back cover as you do on its front. Tease a feature, show off some cool bookstore merch, highlight a beautiful seasonal campus photo. Whatever you do, don’t leave that space empty.

Breathe new life into your roundup stories.

Roundups are one of the most common feature story formats in alumni magazines.

You can see some of my early thoughts about this topic here — and even implement some of the ideas today if you’ve got one on your story list.

Understand what “success” is for your magazine.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Happier podcast with Gretchen Rubin, which she co-hosts with her sister. Sometimes the two talk about writing, and in a recent episode, Rubin shared how she talks to authors with a new books who are eager for it to succeed. As you read the quote, think about how this larger principle might apply to your print magazine.

“There are many ways for a book to succeed. It might sell a lot of copies. It might win a lot of critical praise. It might provide invaluable information to a small group of people who will benefit enormously. It could help you get a teaching job or speaking gigs. It might lead you to another project that you can’t foresee now. It might connect you to someone who will be important to your future. It might be a super fun intellectual adventure or something that’s crossed off your bucket list.

“And I remind myself and other writers that we can only do our best and then wait to see what the future holds. It doesn’t help to get overly focused on a single measurement of success because in the end we don’t have much control over what will happen. T

“There are many ways for a book to succeed. There are many ways for a college student to succeed. There are many ways for a vacation to succeed. Very often, there are many ways for a situation to be successful. And this is comforting because it’s true.”

 Here’s a link to the episode.

Navigate the perilous linguistic waters of online communication.

Your magazine has one voice and your school’s social media presence likely — hopefully! — has another. If you want to do a deep dive on how to communicate effectively on social media, Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is an A+ primer.

It’s especially helpful for people who didn’t grow up swimming in this online environment, but still want to deeply understand its nuances to do better work.

These 6 techniques will transform your profiles

Nobody knows packaging better than Coca Cola.

I was reminded of this fact when I stopped into a gas station this past summer to pick up a soda. In a single refrigerated case, there were SIX DIFFERENT kinds of regular Coke: 12- and 16-ounce cans, 12-ounce glass bottles, and 16-, 20-, and one-liter plastic bottles.

The point is not that Coke is crazy: it’s that there are lots of different ways to offer what some might say is essentially the same thing to your audience. And they’ll love you if you do it right. (I, of course, was furious that they didn’t have a 12-ounce plastic bottle for sale, because I am insufferable. But I guess packaging really does matter.)

Anyway, experience got me thinking about profiles — the heart of many alumni magazines. So often, we’re tempted to tell profiles in the same one-size-fits-all narrative format (I include myself in this group). But some stories may be better told by breaking things down, building them up, and reshaping them in interesting ways.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent hours collecting samples of magazine profiles that are told by using unique formats and frameworks. Six of them are below.

Format: The Opening Quote
Source: Runner’s World Cover Contest
The details: This format launches the story with a tiny bio and an incisive quote before digging into the narrative.
Why it works: For a package of profiles on similar kinds of people, differentiation is key. Instead of committing to an entire story, readers can scan the quotes to find the profiles that resonate with them most.
Use it here: Got a package of profiles on a half-dozen professors who just got tenure? Ten alumni who are changing the world of technology? This approach is fantastic.
Other examples: HHMI’s “Indispensibles.”

Format: The Dossier
Source: Vanity Fair’s What You Should Know About…
The details: This format mixes quotes and narrative packed into easy-to-read chunks.
Why it works: You don’t need to rely on a super-quotable source, and the format doesn’t demand a clean beginning, middle, and end. This quick read packs in lots of information.
Use it here: Need to cram (what should be) a 1,500 word story into half the space? Drop the transitions and go straight to the best details. This format is also perfect for a wide-ranging interview that would feel too scattershot if confined to a strict narrative.
Other examples: Jason Segel got the VF treatment here. Read more