Cracking the Sibley Code: Q+A with Dan Morrell

In alumni magazines, there’s no bigger award than the Sibley. And this year, I was thrilled to see HBS Alumni Bulletin take home the crown.

I’ve written for the publication several times over the years, and they run an A+ shop — high standards, great ideas, and (from my perspective at least) a smoothly running machine.

To learn more, I talked with editor Dan Morrell about some of their most interesting sections, what he reads for inspiration, and the things he thinks have separated his magazine from the pack.

Tell me about the team that develops your publication.

We’re an editorial team of 2.6, with our associate editor Julia Hanna working three days a week. We recently welcomed Wellesley vet Jen Flint to the fold; former editor April White left late last year for Smithsonian magazine. My boss, Bill Weber, oversees the process, and two other colleagues help out on production processes EmDash in Austin, Tex., led our redesign five years ago and has stayed on as our external design firm. It’s a tight crew.  [Erin adds: You can read interviews I’ve done with Julia Hanna and EmDash’s Erin Mayes.]

I’m sure people might confuse your mag with Harvard Business Review. How do you describe the difference?

I’ve run into a few cases of mistaken identity — even with interview subjects, after a few weeks of communication. But HBR is a practice-focused publication with a wider scope of potential authors and protagonists; we are more focused on stories and people — and specifically HBS alums.

Your mag is packed with service journalism. This is pretty rare in alumni magazines. Why does it work for yours?

I think it works for all alumni magazines, really. People have a desire to learn, and offering them an opportunity to learn from a fellow alumni or faculty member is a great engagement opportunity. I think we’ve done a good job of framing our service and it took some real thinking to get there, but again, I don’t think we’re unique in our ability to carry this out.

Tell me about the genesis of your really cool table of contents: 7 Things You’ll Learn in This Issue.

My favorite thing to write! Honestly, I don’t remember the history of it. It just came up as an idea during redesign brainstorming, and we thought it was a great way to propel people into the magazine. We’ve developed a little issue trailer video based on it, too, which is also fun to make. [Erin adds: CLICK ON THAT LINK. It’s snappy and fun and made me want to read the mag.]

How did you develop the 3-Minute Briefing (an awesome way to profile alums)?

This stemmed from our desire to do a quick-hit, art-heavy, as-told-to piece in the front of the book. (All credit to Bill Weber for the section name.)

One quick tangent on this: A few issues ago, we worked with EmDash to tweak Interest, a people-first section that opens the mag’s editorial content, and the success of 3-Minute Briefing guided those discussions.

Outside of awards, how do you determine whether or not a given story/issue is successful?

There are web stats, online comments, and social shares. There is the rare letter, too, or a phone call. And there’s one other indicator that’s instructive, but overlooked: PR pitches. Volume, sure. But we also recently had someone pitch us why a member of an org’s leadership team would be good for 3-Minute Briefing. It says to me that we’ve built a solid brand of sorts. (The downside, of course, is more email.)

We also hear anecdotes about our impact. Alumni-founded startups that connected to funding after being featured in the magazine; alumni who built personal and professional links based on a Bulletin article; readers and listeners who were driven to positive action by our pages or our podcast. Sometimes we have to dig for it, sometimes it comes to us. But it’s there.

Is there one area you think the magazine excels in that makes a difference in its quality (an area where you see that other mags have struggled or don’t get quite right)?

This is going to sound like some sort of corporate nonsense, but I think we’ve built a culture of excellence. (Yes, 22-year-old me is saddened by this phrase, but 22-year-old me had a ton of stupid opinions—mostly about the primacy of prog rock.)

Really, what this means is that we want to build great stuff, so we make the extra call, ask for the second sketch, re-write the lede, etc. I mean, we take lunch and all that. We’re just not comfortable with complacency.

Is there something you don’t do — like a president’s letter or something — that you consciously decided not to include because it doesn’t matter to your readers?

Event coverage. There are better mediums for such things (e-newsletters for one). Nothing like seeing a six-month-old event shot to show your readers how relevant you are.  

What do you read or study as inspiration?

I read Bloomberg Businessweek and the WSJ for general industry news. I like a lot of what Entrepreneur is doing. I get a lot of alumni magazines, of course, which inspire. I’m too close to it to be objective, but man, alumni magazines have gotten really, really good in the past decade.

For editors eager to find ways to make their own magazines better, is there a specific piece of advice you can share?

Let your staff follow their passions.

Anything else you want to add?

It’s awesome to be honored. And I’m always happy to talk shop with other editors!