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?

‘Every page should make an attempt to draw attention.’

I was delighted to talk to this year’s Sibley-winning editor: Joe Wakelee-Lynch. Joe is editor of LMU Magazine from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The magazine is gorgeous and ambitious and singular. (You can read the report from judges here.)

Joe has been with the university since 2006, and the story topics and approaches reflect that deep institutional knowledge: they feel like they could only be done by LMU’s magazine.

 Amazing.

 

Before we dive into the interview, here are a few more basics: the magazine comes out twice a year (read more about how COVID-19 has affected that schedule below) and goes to about 80,000 alumni, faculty, staff, parents, and friends of the Jesuit Catholic institution.

Finally: Want to read other interviews I’ve done with Sibley-winning editors and judges? You can get links to all of them at the end of this newsletter.

What a beautiful magazine. Ambitious topics, writing, and art. Has your institution always invested in the publication?

We had a pretty good magazine for a long time, but we had wanted to make it better for years.

In 2010, the university was heading into a 100-year celebration of its history and the final stretch of a capital campaign. At the same time, the university wasn’t happy with alumni participation.

We had an advisory committee that met after every magazine was produced to critique the issue. Whenever they criticized what wasn’t working, we were happy. We knew that that would filter out to other people who needed to know that. Other people also thought this magazine could be improved. So that criticism was really welcome to me, because I knew it could help us make the case.

Eventually, we went to leadership and said that we’ve been asking to do a redesign of a magazine for two or three years. If you let us do it now, we can boost alumni pride, engagement, and enthusiasm by giving people something they’re really going to enjoy. It’ll be qualitatively different. And we can use the newly designed magazine to help celebrate one of the biggest events in the university’s history.

That combination of circumstances helped us, and leadership went for it.

For us, it was like having our hands untied. We were pretty sure we would be able to deliver something that would stop readers in their tracks when they got the first issue.

That’s what happened.

 

Your choice of stories seem to be both extremely specific to your university while also being widely accessible to readers beyond it. For example, “Dramatis Personae” compares current-day politicians to Shakespeare characters — a story that was published about the time that LMU hosted the DNC Presidential Debate. Another was “Who Are We” about how people think about the identity of Los Angeles. Can you talk about threading that needle?

We do think about our magazine as one that anybody should be able to pick up and enjoy.

The magazine speaks to alumni, faculty, and staff, but it also ends up being a publication that gets handed to people as a way to introduce the university to them.

Prospective students and their parents are receiving a message that an LMU education will put students in the same classroom with faculty members who are on top of the most pressing issues that we all care about. To be a Jesuit university in Los Angeles puts LMU in a very unique and wonderful place. Our magazine should communicate that.

We try to address timely issues that connect to LMU’s mission statement and that our sponsoring religious orders, especially the Jesuits, are on record in addressing.


Let’s talk about what your magazine doesn’t have: a president’s column.

Polls of university magazine readership always say that the president’s letter is one of the least-read pages of the magazine. Readers will tell you they don’t want to read it, and they will proceed to not read it.

Why give people a page that they don’t want to read?

It’s like putting a stamp on the page that says, “You can skip this.” And you should never, if you can help it, have a page in your magazine that’s telling people that they can skip it.

Every page should make an attempt to draw attention.

How has COVID-19 affected your publication? 

We were midway through an issue that would have come out in the springtime when the COVID crisis hit. We had half a magazine ready and we didn’t publish it.

The next magazine that would normally come out would have been in the fall of this year. We are not printing that issue either. Our goal is to come back into print in the springtime, and be back with two issues a year.

Anecdotally, people seem to understand the need for drastic measures, but it is disappointing, especially after winning a big award.

But in the meantime, we’ve launched online a special series of election coverage. We’ll produce at least two things a week — stories, podcasts, interviews — until a week or so after the election on November 3.

[Erin says: here’s a link to that coverage.]

 

What do you and your team read for inspiration?

Editorially, the magazines that I’m looking at include The New Yorker and California Sunday Magazine. There’s a great magazine called Boom California. There’s a tiny, quirky magazine that I absolutely love called Desert Oraclewhich is about the Mojave. It’s all about place and location, but it’s a wonderful little magazine and it fits in your pocket. I’m trying to start reading Cha, which is a literary journal based in Hong Kong.

Our art director and photographer pay attention to California Sunday Magazine, The New York Times MagazineWired, and an amazing soccer journal called Eight by Eight, which is just an absolute feast.


What advice do you have for other editors ready to raise the bar for their own publications?

First: Don’t be like everybody else. Your university’s magazine, which is a major communications vehicle — likely the largest percentage of your following— should give readers a sense that your institution isn’t like everybody else’s university.

The other thing? Money matters. If you don’t have money for freelance writers, start a plan to get money for freelance writers. I think that goes for photography, too. If you can get some money, use it to get talented photographers in your area. Bring them into your magazine. Because that’s one way you distinguish yourself from others. You raise the quality of the magazine and you increase the pride among alumni and readers.

 

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Why I love source approvals (and a template to do them flawlessly)

Recently, I was talking with a client about a major feature project that used a lot of institutional VIPs as sources, and I brought up my source approval process.

“Wait,” she said. “You do an approval process for every source? On every story?”

 

via GIPHY

 

Yep.

Want to skip straight to the exact source-approval template I use, complete with notes on the wordings I use? Head over here.

Otherwise, read on to find out why I think it’s an essential part of every story process.

My team and I do lots of work on annual reports, campaign- and donor-related projects and (of course!) alumni magazines. For every project, I work with the editor to build in time for source approvals.

Here’s why I do it — and why you should, too.

  • You can showcase the high standards you have for your story and publication. Source approval processes take time (and sometimes some savvy negotiation skills). But they also show that you care about the story and the publication.
  • You can connect with your alumni and VIP sources in a meaningful way. Sources carve out time to talk with us, provide headshots or links to research studies, and suggest other great people to talk to. When we offer a chance for them to review the text about them, it’s a way to show them that we’re taking their words and ideas seriously.
  • You can make sure you get the story right. First, let’s be clear: we all make mistakes! Maybe we mishear a sentence or misunderstand some context. If you’re working on a print publication, once a story is out in the world, it’s out in the world. A misspelling? A misquote? In that print publication, there’s no fixing it, only running a correction in a future publication. Source approval is one way to get closer to perfect.

These things can all be true, but people always ask: ERIN, WHAT IF THEY WANT TO CHANGE THEIR QUOTES TO RUN-ON SENTENCES OF 3,000 WORDS???????

Guys, I get that this can happen.

But also: you’re the editor. In my own source approval work, I never promise to make changes, but I always offer the opportunity for review. The vast majority of the time, the corrections are modest and useful.

That other 1 percent of the time — which definitely can be a nightmare! — should not negate the 99 percent of good, valuable input that sources can provide.

So that’s why, from my perspective, story approvals are so important.

Over the years, some folks have asked if they could have the “magic words” that I use to get these source approvals. I’m happy to share them!

Here’s a template you can start using today.

 

‘I Wanted A Magazine That Would Make People Say, “I Don’t Want To Throw It Away.” ‘

One of my favorite things to do every year is talk to the winner of the Sibley Magazine of the Year.

This year, I was thrilled to talk to Maria Henson, who is editor of the knockout Wake Forest Magazine, a three-times a year publication for alumni.

Henson, a 1982 Wake Forest alum, has been at the magazine since 2010. And while the Sibley is a big deal for any alumni magazine editor, Henson had already earned some prettttttttty serious hardware before nabbing this year’s prize. In 1992, before she’d joined Wake Forest’s team, she won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials about battered women that she wrote for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. (You can watch a Moth-style talk that she did at Harvard about those editorials here.) Thirteen years later, she listed a second Pulitzer on her resume for her work editing a series of editorials in The Sacramento Bee by Tom Philp about the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

And even her return to Wake Forest is a tale in itself — she routed herself through Botswana (!!!!) before returning to Winston-Salem for her current job. You can read more about that here.

In the interview that follows, Henson shares some great advice, magazines you should consider picking up for inspiration, and the goals worth aspiring to for your own magazine.

Once you’re finished, check out the links at the end for other Sibley-related interviews.

Tell me about your team.
We have a team of four people.

I’m the associate vice president and editor at large. I edit the magazine and I teach one journalism class a year. My managing editor is Carol Hanner, who came out of newspapers. Kerry King, who’s worked here 30 years, is also a graduate. Michael Breedlove joined us last fall as class notes editor and deputy editor. He helps oversee our budget and handles our freelancers’ contracts and invoices.

Outside of our office, we have a freelance designer, Julie Helsabeck, who’s fantastic. She’s worked with us since late 2010, including on the redesign. The University’s talented creative director Hayes Henderson also collaborates with us.

When you arrived, you had lots of newspaper experience but no specific alumni magazine experience. How did you make that transition?
I did what a reporter does when I got here: I reported on the magazine. I went back for 10 years and looked at magazines really closely. I started to interview people.

[Denison University and Dog Ear Consultants’] Maureen Harmon was so helpful. I asked editors how they did it, how they thought about changing up their magazines.

I was looking at examples I liked, but I also went out to bookstores to look at general interest magazines. That’s where the learning came from for me. I didn’t walk in with any preconceived notion, other than that I loved stories, and it felt like we had a wonderful vehicle in front of us to tell really inspiring stories.

Can you give an example?
I love to walk through bookstores to see if anything sparks an idea. And one book I loved was The History of New York in 101 Objects. I thought, “We could do that for Wake Forest. What objects would we pick? That’ll be great fun.” (Here’s that story.) And I find things on Twitter that spark ideas, like “Letters of Note.”

What magazines inspire you?
Garden & Gun had a lot to do with my thinking when we were doing the redesign, starting in 2011. (Check out issue archives here.) I like Fast Company and Orion. I also look through WiredEsquire, and National Geographic.

I’m always looking at how they’re putting their stories together. How are they visually thinking about chunks of information? Before our budget year ended in June this year, I went over to Barnes & Noble, and bought a handful of magazines for all of us to look through.

Our table outside my office is filled with magazines from other colleges and universities.

What advice would you give to other editors who want to create award-worthy magazines?
Be in tune with your designer. The art piece is so critical, because people are looking for an excuse not to read your piece. Don’t make it hard on them to read it!

Another thing: pay for the photography, pay for the illustration. You will be rewarded for it, and people will keep the magazine around.

Do you give specific direction to photographers and other artists?
One thing I often say is “Look for small details.” It’s not just a headshot. What are those small details that could be spot images throughout the story? I give them final stories or at least rough drafts to help them shape their vision.

But mostly I say to people, “I trust you to get what you think is the right story, with the right visual. I want some options. I want to make sure I have some horizontal and vertical.” And that’s about it.

What do you think a good magazine should do? What has yours done that you’re proud of?
When I came here, I had spent 27 years in newspapers, but I had always looked forward to seeing my alumni magazine and seeing what people were doing at my university.

But in my newspaper job, my phone was ringing off the hook. I had newspapers stacked on my desk, books I wanted to read, magazines for my job, editorial board policy papers from politicians. It was too easy just to skim and throw the magazine away.

What I wanted was a magazine that would make people say, “I don’t want to throw it away. There’s another piece in there that I want to read.”
__________
Want to read more about Sibley winners and judges? Check out interviews from previous winners and a judge.

2018 winner Dan Morrell for HBS Alumni Bulletin
2017 winner Renée Olsen for TCNJ Magazine
2016 winner Heidi Singer for UofTMed.
2015 winner Dale Keiger for Johns Hopkins Magazine
Sibley judge Jeff Lott

Interview Fundamentals: 3 Perfect Questions

Years ago, when I first started interviewing folks for alumni magazines, I could not have been more terrible at asking questions. Once, while interviewing a recent grad whose short stories had been widely praised, I asked the following “question.”

“I read that your work has been compared to Italo Calvino’s. That must be pretty cool.”

Her response? “Uhhhh, yes. That was nice.”

GREAT JOB, PETERSON. Prepare for that quote to go viral.

Good interviews lead to great stories.

A good interview can help elicit incredible anecdotes, unique insights, and unexpected details. Bad questions often lead sources to share vague, unhelpful quotes and empty platitudes.

It’s true that there is no one-size-fits all list of interview questions that you can have for every source. But over the years, I’ve found that there are a few questions and approaches that have led to better interviews, better quotes, and better stories.

Here are three of my go-to questions.

1: How did you end up at [school]?

What makes this a great question? 

I’m not going to pretend that you don’t already ask this question of most of your alumni sources — you probably do! It’s not rocket science.

But I often make this the first question I ask after confirming the spelling of their name and title. You can, too.

I like this question because it eases people into the interview. It’s something people don’t have to “prepare” to answer. Many people have a surprising story behind their decision to attend a school, or will offer up information that is helpful later — perhaps they are the first person in their family to attend college, or they picked the school because of its chemistry program, but ended up majoring in English.

It’s also a good question because it immediately helps you understand how they’ll likely be answering the next questions.

Are they giving a curt reply, meaning you’ll probably need to ask lots of follow-up questions during your interview? Are they giving a 15-minute monologue, meaning you’ll probably have to pick just a few important questions to focus on?

Getting clues from the outset on a question like this can help you make some on-the-fly decisions that help you get great responses later on.

 

2. Can you paint me a picture of…

What makes this a great question?

Sometimes, people I’m interviewing speak to me as though I am an expert in their field.

For example, a scientist might tell me that they’re synthesizing molecules in their lab. Unfortunately, that means almost nothing to me.

When sources tell me about what they’re doing in a way that feels abstract, I dig in by using a variation of “Can you paint me a picture of…”

Can they paint me a picture of their lab? Paint me a picture of the process? Paint me a picture of the moment that they understand that they’ve found something meaningful?

I’ll even come up with some examples, both so they understand the level of detail that I’m looking for and so they understand my level of ignorance and tailor their responses appropriately: “Can you paint me a picture of what you mean when you say ‘synthesize a molecule?’ Are you looking through a microscope? Are you putting something in a petri dish?”

The details that come from that questions are almost always illuminating and worthwhile.

Yes, it sometimes makes me look really dumb. But I’d much rather look dumb in an interview than end up putting something in print that is vague, boring, or incorrect.

Versions of this question are very common in radio and podcast interviews — do a search for “paint a picture” and you’ll find it in all sorts of Q&A radio interviews and podcasts. Here’s one, for example, in an episode of Without Fail with Alex Blumberg and another in a modified Q&A on Reply All.

Start listening and you’ll hear it everywhere, I promise.

3. What are you optimistic about?

What makes this a great question?

Over the coming months, a lot of us will be talking to our alumni and administrators about tough issues, including COVID-19, economic challenges, and social unrest.

In my own reporting, I hear quite a bit of pessimism. But if there’s one thing I know about alumni magazines, it’s that it’s rare for stories to end on a note of cynicism or hopelessness. The whole point of education is to help people improve their lives and the world!

Asking people what makes them feel optimistic about the topic they’re being interviewed about can help change the frame.

One infectious disease researcher I spoke with shared with me his many concerns about the federal response to the pandemic, nursing home outbreaks, and testing gaps. I asked him if there was anything we could feel optimistic about during this moment.

He had to really think about it. But he came up with a response I ultimately used as the story’s kicker: “The whole world is focused on this problem,” he told me.

It’s true! And honestly, it made me feel better.