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.

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:


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.


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.


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.