How to improve your publications: A Sibley judge tells all

I’m going to keep this intro short: what follows is a huge interview with Jeff Lott, the former editor of Swarthmore’s alumni magazine, and one of this year’s Sibley judges. (You can read judges’ reports here.)

During our 45-minute discussion, we talked about:

  • * What makes Sibley winners different from their competitors;
  • * One thing he wishes alumni magazines didn’t do;
  • * Work you can do today to start making your publications the best they can be.

Make sure to read to the end! There’s tons of great, actionable advice.

How many magazines are you actually reading and judging for the Sibley?

We see the gold medal winners from the various circulation categories and the special interest category. This year, that meant five magazines.

I see. You’re choosing from the very best.

Right. We can really go below the surface in the magazines and evaluate the writing and the editing of the magazines. The magazines arrived in my home a week before the meeting in Washington, so I put them out next to my chair where I read, and I would read one for an hour and then another for an hour. I spent probably six hours in advance of the meeting reading those magazines.

When you’re not reading alumni magazines, what magazines do you read regularly?

The New Yorker. The Atlantic. I read Sky and Telescope because I’m an amateur astronomer. I read Cooking Light because I like to cook. I read the two alumni magazines that I get, one from Middlebury College and the other one from Rhode Island School of Design.

One of the things that was in the report was the idea that alumni magazines, at least at the very highest levels, have gotten better over time. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

I think that close communications, and the ability to stay in constant touch with other professionals who are doing this kind of work, has led to an overall elevation of these magazines.

What am I observing? Greater attention to design, illustration and photography, and more emulation of standard magazine architecture—front of book features, back of the book, things like that.

A lot of magazines 20 years ago were put together like a salad. A good magazine, to me, is a three-course meal. You have the great front of book, something really good in the features, and then something, in many cases class notes and alumni stuff, in the back. One of the things I think RISD does so well is their class notes. It’s like the visual class notes.

Can you describe them to me?

They’re very colorful. The writing is terse. So-and-so had an exhibition at such-and-such a gallery in such-and-such a place. There is a color photograph of something of the work. It’s a lot about the art. [Erin’s note: Go to pages 66-67 in the spring/summer issue to see it.] It is very much art forward. It’s wonderful to browse because everybody loves to look at good art. You don’t necessarily know any of these people, but it’s cool and it represents the school really well.

I like that idea. Can elaborate on other things that you saw that worked because they were good and because they completely fit the institution?

The University of Richmond was a surprise entry to us. It’s not one that’s been on the table ever before. It’s just so fresh and new, and it gives a view of the university that is warm and friendly and positive and strongly academic as well.

Through its writing or through its illustrations? Do you remember what struck you?

Everything. There was great art and well edited, lively writing. It represented a school that is alive and well and moving forward. If you just saw it on the table at the doctor’s office, you might pick it up and be engaged by it just by opening a few pages and seeing what’s going on there.

Is that expected? I imagine their magazine appealed perfectly to their alumni base and to their readers, but it sounds like for the Sibley, it has to go beyond that. Is that what you’re saying?

I think the magazines that have won the Sibley are showing leadership in the profession and in the category of magazines that we’re talking about. I think that category used to be sort of a backwater of publishing. Whereas in the last 15 or 20 years with the advent of CUE and the Editors Forum and all the opportunities for professional growth that have been provided, alumni magazines can attract first-rate illustrators, first-rate writers. There is a story by Jim Collins [page 30] in the Richmond magazine, and Jim Collins is one of the leading magazine writers in the country. He’s a former editor of the Dartmouth magazine, but he’s made much more of a career for himself as a writer. To just reach out to somebody like Jim Collins—granted, it’s an excerpt from something else that he’d written before—it says, okay, we can have great writing in this magazine. That kind of leadership is what the Sibley is about.

Are there things that you still wish alumni magazines did better? Even if, as a whole, they’re light years beyond what they used to be?

One thing I noticed was jumps. There are magazines that have all these stories that jump, sometimes just two paragraphs, into the back of the book. So you get to the bottom of the fourth page, and it would say “Continued on page 74.”

Wow, 74! That’s a robust alumni magazine. But you’re saying it’s annoying to jump?

Right. Why couldn’t they edit the story so that it would fit in the four pages? And really, there’s no excuse for it, to run 100 words over in a 2,500 word piece. There’s obviously something in there that could be cut. My motto is that there is no piece of writing that can’t be shortened.

I like that motto, even if I’m usually paid by the word. Let’s talk about ambition. Why is it important for alumni magazines to be ambitious?

It’s important for all alumni magazines to aspire to be read. People have very limited time. When a new magazine arrives in my mailbox—except for the ones I subscribe to, which I pay attention to because I’m paying for them—usually it’s magazine I don’t pay for. In order to sit next to The Atlantic or even a trade magazine like Sky and Telescope, which has a very narrow focus of interest, it has to be good. There’s no point in publishing one of these magazines unless people are going to be engaged with them and read them.

In what ways have you noticed that magazines are trying to be very ambitious or paying attention to detail in a way that seemed really important?

The best magazines are just totally integrated from top to bottom. There’s no detail left un-managed. That has to do a lot with kind of a thoughtful combination of design and editorial. Those relationships between the elements of a magazine have to be balanced, just like an eight-cylinder car engine. All the cylinders have to be firing at the right time in order for the thing to run smoothly.

That’s true of magazines too. In the best magazines, all those elements are working.It’s design, it’s architecture, which means, to me, the way the magazine is structured. No bad photographs. No crappy pictures, right? There’s not that one that some alum sent in because you didn’t hire a professional photographer in San Francisco to take a good portrait, so you get this found object that really sucks. Sometimes that has to do with resources, but other times it just has to do with editorial enterprise.

Are there other ways to know if a magazine is good, beyond awards?

In in our bathroom in our publications office, I used to tuck six or eight magazines near the toilet paper racks. I was constantly rotating those magazines consciously as an editor because I knew the staff was using the bathroom. I could put what I thought were good examples of magazines in there for everybody to read, for me to read. It’s kind of a dirty story. But there was another level, too: if it made it to my briefcase, it was really good and I really wanted to take it home and read it.

Briefcase-worthy. Interesting. I thought you were going to say you were testing which ones actually got read. Like you were going to look at the magazines two weeks later and see which ones were the most dog-eared, or whatever.

No. I don’t know whether anybody really read them or not. But isn’t that the best thing about a magazine? Unlike a blog it’s really easy to take a magazine to the bathroom?

It’s a benefit, for sure. If if I still worked at a college, I might do exactly what you did with your magazines as an experiment, to see which ones got read, then reverse-engineer why that was.

Another thing I would do occasionally with the whole publication staff including the photographer and the designer and the administrative assistant, is go out to lunch and then go in those days to Borders right next to the restaurant. I would give each person $15 of college money to buy magazines.

Then a day or two later we would have a stand-up meeting in the office where people would explain why they chose those magazines. You could really think about how magazines have to attract readers.

That’s a great point. Get as many opinions as you can. It sounds like it doesn’t just need to be the designer and the editor. You can bring more people in it and they will offer very different and valuable perspectives.

Some of the magazines people chose were special interest magazines. One of our administrative assistants really loved needlework, so she would always get the fancy needlework magazine, for example.

And that’s good to know, too: A good magazine is a precious object.

Right. Everyone has a different reason for picking up a magazine.

We had a staff photographer and he would choose things that were really intensely visual and show us the things that he really liked about them. Our designer would look for magazines that he thought were well designed and then talk to us about why he thought that was true and what we could do to improve our work by emulating these magazines.

I like the idea that great magazines don’t happen in a vacuum. You need to get those outside references. Is there an assignment that you would give editors who want to improve? A thing that they can do today that can help take their magazine to the next level?

The caveat here is resources—some publications’ staffs are underfunded or understaffed or both, right? But I would say to look at other magazines—and not just other alumni magazines or other university magazines. See what you do best and just try to do those things more. Let them pull up the things that you don’t do so well.

Play to your strengths.

Right. One of the strengths that Johns Hopkins has, and has had for a long time, is that they don’t mind running long stories, a kind of long-form thing. We’re seeing a little more of that in other magazines as well. The University of Chicago, which won the Sibley a few years ago, had great long form stories. You can read these 5,000 word pieces because they’re really well written and very well edited with great reporting. I’ll read a 5,000 word piece in The New Yorker if it’s of that quality and the same goes for a good alumni magazine story.

At the same time, that seems a little bit dangerous to advise all editors to tackle huge stories like that. It requires a very specific kind excellence at so many levels, from the reporting, to the writing, to the editing. It’s so hard to do an exceptional 5,000 word story. As a reader, you have to feel you’re in great hands to commit yourself to it. But it does seem like there are lots of ways to pursue excellence. It’s not just New Yorker-style stories or beautiful design and photography.

A lot of people think “Oh, I just need a redesign,” but a redesign really needs to be a thorough rethinking of the goals and purposes of the magazine and how the editorial and design can work together to meet them.

In really practical terms, the other problem is that a lot of magazine editors are doing three other things as well. They can’t put the time into a magazine and really edit it the way these top magazines do. Great magazines are typically put together by people who are not also writing development copy or doing the admissions brochures as well. We had a big staff so we did all of that stuff but we had two or three people where 70 percent or more of their time was dedicated on the magazine.

The thing that seems important here is that you’re saying there’s no magic bullet to creating a great magazine. It demands time, it demands money, it demands a thoughtful, strategic approach.

I think that’s a very good statement. A redesign needs to be more than a new layout. It needs to be a re-examination of what you’re doing editorially. You may have had a certain department in your magazine that you’ve had in the magazine for many years, like a Q&A or a little one page research thing or something like that, and you have to look at all those things and not just do them over again with new typography. It’s really a matter of thinking through the whole package. Sibley magazines are firing on all cylinders.