A history-making Sibley winner

Every year, I’m thrilled to be able to talk to the editor of CASE’s Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year, and this year is no exception.

Milton Academy’s Milton magazine, edited by Sarah Abrams, is 2022’s winner. It’s a beauty!

Every winning publication is a little different, and one particularly notable detail about Milton magazine is that it’s the first independent school to win the Sibley since the award started in 1943. (!!!) Check out the winning entry, entry materials, and judges’ comments.

First, a few details about Milton Academy and their magazine: Milton is an independent boarding and day school in Massachusetts with a total K-12 enrollment of just under 1,000 students, about two-thirds of which are at the upper school (grades 9-12).

Milton’s 80-page + cover magazine is perfect bound and published twice a year. It is sent to 13,500 alumni and families; it is also sent each spring with acceptance letters.

Sarah is a contract editor; the magazine also has a freelance designer. All of the writing, meanwhile, is done in-house (with the exception of the stories written by Sarah).

Sarah and I had a wide-ranging conversation, so instead of doing a typical Q&A, I’ll share some of the most illuminating insights from a longer discussion.

On Sarah’s background in higher ed communications.
I’ve worked as an editor of alumni magazines for many years — I started at Harvard in 1987, and I edited an alumni magazine for the School of Public Health and then for the Harvard Kennedy School. I had just retired when I was asked if I’d be interested in doing this as a freelance job. I’ve been doing this now for three years.

On the difference between higher ed and independent school magazines.
Well, parents are involved — that doesn’t usually happen at universities! So you’ve got to consider that, particularly when you’re writing about young students. You’ve got to check to make sure it’s okay to use their names, for example. There are privacy issues.

An independent school is a very small, very loyal community — there’s a sense that everyone knows one another and that your readers are definitely paying attention. Their time here was during a very formative stage in their lives. The coverage at this level feels much more personal.

On how the magazine is used as a tool beyond the alumni audience.
When admission letters go out in March, the magazine goes out with it. Is it a marketing piece specifically? Not really, but we do use it as one way to attract students. It doesn’t currently go out to parents, but I would like it to! We find that there’s tremendous loyalty among the parents and families; they’re very involved. And while there are different online newsletters and letters that go out, I think the magazine is it, in terms of printed pieces.

On the push to move from print to digital.
I know a lot of places are asking why they should be printing a magazine — why they shouldn’t just be putting it online. But at Milton they seem to value print. I haven’t had to make a case for it.

I think they get it: sending it to people’s homes and putting the magazine on the coffee table or the nightstand is very valuable.

With an exclusively online alumni magazine, the alum needs to make the effort to go online and I just don’t think that happens as often. A print magazine serves a very important purpose.

A story she is particularly proud of.
“Climate science” (part of the larger “A generation looks ahead” package).

It was ambitious. I included several alums who all worked under the larger umbrella of the environment. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, and I think this is a topic that we’ll continue to write about.

On editorial and design collaboration.
At the production stage, there’s a continuous back and forth with the designer around multiple issues—from photos, illustration, and typography choices to what goes on the cover — and you want to be working with someone you feel comfortable around — someone with whom you have a good rapport.

It’s so important to form a strong partnership with a good designer — whether the designer is in-house or a freelancer — someone whose work you respect and with whom you’re comfortable working. They play a huge part in the success of a magazine.

On what she still wishes she could improve.
The news section, which doesn’t quite have the right balance of school news to alumni news. I think readers would like to know more about what the students are up to.

Also, I want readers to be able to pick up information about the school in a variety of ways — maybe shorten some of the stories. I’d like it to have more energy.

On thinking about your audience.
When you’re putting together a magazine, you always want to keep the reader in mind.

Most people don’t have a lot of time. You want to offer them good, substantive feature-length stories, but also offer shorter pieces, strong headlines, informative subheads and pull-out quotes, and good photos with captions.

I’m always pushing to have more entries in class notes, with vibrant photos. Being aware of the reader — standing up for your readers — is really important.

On working with administrators.
We do send stories by our senior administration. They’re great at pointing out potential issues, which you need to respect. But you also want to help them see the magazine from the point of view of the reader. What will entice a reader to pick up the magazine and spend time with it? Administrators are deep into running a school and sometimes need reminding about what all of us look for when we pick up something to read.

On building trust through methodical advance work.
We always make a case for why we’ve chosen a specific theme, and the stories we want to tell. It’s not an off-handed conversation.

A lot of the trust we’ve built has come from what we’ve produced, and the fact that administrators are receiving good feedback. When they hear people like the magazine, that builds trust.

Inspiration.
I do look at other magazines. Some of the small, private colleges do beautiful work: Kenyon does a great jobDenison does too. Those magazines are both beautiful. Johns Hopkins. I’m impressed by the quality and depth of the stories they choose to cover.

Other magazines that stand out to me include Middlebury Magazine and Harvard’s School of Education alumni magazine, Ed.

They’re all inspirational and something to work toward.

On what she misses about in-person work.
It was nice to be right next door to the magazine team because there’s so much back and forth when you’re putting a magazine together.

 

Your magazine is not a kitchen sink

There’s no question that alumni magazines are facing a lot of headwinds these days.

I won’t enumerate all of the paper and staffing challenges many teams are seeing right now, since you likely know them viscerally.

Often, these challenges lead to publications with fewer pages that are published less frequently.

These trends make what I see in some of today’s magazines so surprising.

Let me back up a bit first.

I’ve often talked about the idea of every story in your publication EARNING its way into print. One of the greatest strengths of print publications is the focus they inspire. Print demands hard limits to your storytelling. You’ve got to curate and share the very best and most vibrant stories from your school.

You might think this limitation would become even more clarifying as page counts dwindle and issue frequency diminishes.

But that’s not always what I see happening. Instead, I see magazines that trot out the same boring, unread sections issue after issue.

Let me give a few examples:

Faculty promotions

Yes, these ambitious and hardworking individuals deserve their due. Celebrate with an event or a cake or a raise or a letter they can save as a keepsake. Maybe all these things, I have no idea how faculty celebrate getting tenure!

But you definitely don’t need to be carving out a column in your campus news section just to announce that a handful of professors have been bumped up a rank. As a whole, your alumni probably don’t even understand why tenure is such a huge milestone, and it’s unlikely that the names will mean much to them.

Sports results

Your readers either are sports fans of your school’s teams or they aren’t.

If they’re sports fans, the best way to keep tabs on their favorite teams is not a three-times-a-year publication that shares the results of a months-ago dual meet or regional matchup.

And if they’re not sports fans? Well, your four-sentence writeup of a middling finish to a sports season won’t change their minds. If you want to do a knockout profile of an athlete who’s tearing it up on the field, you definitely should! Paired with a unique portrait or other images, you can go beyond the scores and the standings to tell a meaningful story about a student.

But roundups of the recent(ish) results are a waste of space.

Letter from the desk of [fill in the blank]

Letters from the president or head of school are dicey at best. If that person is a gifted writer or you’ve got a brilliant strategy, you can maybe (and that’s a big maybe) make a case for including them in your magazine.

But a letter from the alum who heads up the alumni association? The chair of your board of trustees? No thank you!

Most of these folks don’t want to write these letters, absolutely nobody wants to read them, and they’re taking up valuable space in your publication.

This is page space that costs real money, and that could be used to do more interesting and strategic storytelling.

The three things I’ve listed above are just starters. I could go on: most new hires, grants, lists of alumni boards and boards of trustees. You can probably come up with a list twice as long as the one I’ve already created.

Most of these things never belonged in a print alumni magazine.

It’s true that decades ago, there were fewer ways to reach alumni with this sometimes-relevant-to-a-tiny-audience material, so these inclusions are occasionally the result of editorial inertia.

But it’s time to cut these sections.

Your magazine reaches your audience just a handful of times per year. It’s a big investment for your institution! And it should feel like a gift to your readers. Lists of alumni board members (even if the reader of your publication is an alumni board member!) do not feel like a gift to readers, I promise you.

Your magazine should be as strategic and irresistible as possible — not a kitchen sink where anything and everything shows up, needed or not.

Interview “code words” — and what they really mean

Over the course of my career, I’ve done thousands of interviews. I’ve talked to people who have never been interviewed for a story to folks who spend many of their days talking to the media.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a handful of questions and requests again and again (and again) during these interviews. If you’ve been doing interviews, you’ve probably heard them, too.

At first, I responded only to what they actually said.

But over time, I realized that there is often a request behind the question or the statement. And I needed to answer that question — the one that they didn’t even really ask — before I could get the best possible interview.

Today, I want to share three of those coded requests.

I’ll share what people are really asking about when they say these things. And I’ll also share how to respond to interviewees in ways that give them not just the answer to what they actually said out loud, but also to the hidden request.

I hope this is helpful as you do interviews for your own projects.

Code words: “Can you send me the questions in advance?”

What they’re really asking: I’m feeling a little nervous about this interview. Can you reassure me that I won’t feel blindsided or unprepared for this conversation?

The background: I know a lot of folks — especially those who come from traditional journalism backgrounds — who bristle at the idea of offering questions to sources in advance. They don’t want to get overly rehearsed, PR-engineered responses. (It’s also a pain to have to come up with questions days in advance if you haven’t completed the research for the topic.)

But alumni magazines aren’t traditional journalism. And for the most part, you want people to feel prepared and comfortable going into an interview.

How to respond: “Yes, I’m happy to send a few questions in advance to get us started. I’ll make sure you have them by [date, time]. I should also add that you’ll have a chance to review the story before it’s published.”

Why it works: First, when you agree to their request, that will set them at ease. (Notice that in my response, I didn’t say that I’d provide a full list of questions — just a starting point!)

Next, when you create a deadline for myself and the interviewee and then meet it, you build additional trust before the interview has even started. When you share the process — that they’ll have a chance to review the copy before publication — they can let their guard down and not worry that a misstatement will make it into print.

This response — and the work that goes into it — will give your interviewees the confidence they need to be open and honest with you, because you have signaled that you will not let them fail.

I’ll add one more thing here: many people come very prepared to these interviews. Often, when I ask my final question of the interview — “Is there anything you wanted to add that we didn’t discuss?” — they will often refer to their notes. Occasionally, they will provide the best story or quote of the entire interview from their prepared notes! Everyone, including the reader, can benefit from this approach.

Code words: “Make me sound smart!”

What they’re really saying: I’m a little anxious about being quoted verbatim; I’d rather see a polished quote that captures my ideas accurately, rather than an exact one that makes me sound inarticulate.

The background: In your work, you’re likely talking to lots of folks who don’t consider themselves exceptional interviewers or haven’t spoken extensively about the topic you’re interviewing them about. They may understand that interviewees aren’t typically granted access to pre-publication drafts. They want to signal that it’s important they’re a bit flexible on their quotes as long as the larger ideas they’re trying to convey are correct.

How to respond: “I’m sure you’ll be great! If it helps to understand the process, you’ll have a chance to review all of your quotes before publication, which I expect will happen [WHEN]. It’s important to us that everyone is happy with the story before it’s published.”

Why it works: I like to give everyone a little nudge of encouragement before I get down to brass tacks: we want this story to succeed, and we’ll give them a bit of control over their words.

Even if I don’t promise that they can change their quotes (sometimes this makes sense, sometimes not!), they know that we’re all aiming at the same thing: a story that everybody’s happy with. This reassurance can help them be a bit more open and vulnerable in the interview than they might be otherwise.

Code words: “I’d be happy to take a look at this after you’ve written it.”

What they’re really saying: I’m not sure I trust that this story will be accurate, but I want to be diplomatic about my request. I need to know how carefully I need to speak during this interview. (A more direct version of this concern is “Will I have a chance to see this before it’s published?”)

The background: While anyone can ask a version of this question, you’ll probably hear it most often when you’re working with people who have expertise in technical areas (hard sciences, tech, etc.).

Why? They’ve probably been burned in the past. They may have been been misquoted or misinterpreted in some way. They may be wary, but they also know that they may not have much control over the process.

How to respond: “Oh, I’m so happy you brought this up. Let me share the process with you: after we talk, I’ll write up a draft, and my editor will take a crack at it. Once my editor has taken a look, you’ll also have a chance to review it for accuracy and to make sure your quotes are conveying what you intended. Because this is an alumni publication, it’s very important to us that everyone is happy with the finished story.”

Why it works: A clear explanation of a process can assure interviewees that you know what you’re doing — and that they will get a chance to weigh in on the story at the right time. Your response can help emphasize that everyone’s on the same page.

Do these alumni magazine myths trip you up?

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

But there aren’t just three.

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

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

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

Here are three more:

Myth: You should minimize (or eliminate) class notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t have to do this!

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

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

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

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

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

Do them! And do them well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy, paste, done. Right?

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your 5-step plan for crowdsourced alumni magazine storytelling

Let’s talk about crowdsourced storytelling.

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

Know what crowdsourced storytelling is not

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

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

Understand the actual benefits of crowdsourced storytelling

The real benefits of crowdsourced storytelling are nuanced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do a pre-test

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

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

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

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

What makes these questions work?

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

Use the question to show people what you want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seed wisely

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Decide on your next steps

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

Collect and — this is important — CURATE

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

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

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

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

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

Start with the crowd, but don’t end there

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know when to fold ’em

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

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

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

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

4. Craft your story

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

Go small but beautiful

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

Go minimal

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

Use responses as a starting point for a traditional feature

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

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

Consider a themed roundup

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

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

5. Continue the conversation

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

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

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

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

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

Improve alumni magazine engagement with this mystery photo playbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, this is Erin again: I love it!

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

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

Take it away, Melissa!

What has (and hasn’t) worked for us

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

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

Why? No one is around to identify it.

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

2. Run them big

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

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

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

3. Group photos (with identifiable people) are great

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

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

4. Odd photos = good engagement

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

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

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

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

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

6. Work with an incredible art director/designer

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

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

_______________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

The idea is simple: reprints.

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

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

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

IDEA #1: Highlight a new building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IDEA #3: Go big for an event

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

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

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

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

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

My 2022 Predictions For Your Print Alumni Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The path looks like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not now, when?

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

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

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

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

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

I had to know more.

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

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

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

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

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

Because they weren’t seeing value in it?

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

At what point did that change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A literal payoff?

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

Wow! A million dollars is really incredible.

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

Oh, those honor roll issues are a bear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______

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

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

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

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

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

How to make your anniversary issue shine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Give yourself plenty of time. Really.

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

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

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

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

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

See the CASE page about their work here.

3. Get help!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s what Carleton did.

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

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

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

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

Go for it!