How to make 2020 your big swing year

My team and I work on a lot of magazine consulting projects these days, and there are many things that we hear again and again as we work with clients.

They worry that their magazines don’t feel fresh. They feel stuck. They feel constrained by their templates, their time, their administrative mandates.

They’re tired of doing the same old, same old. And they’re concerned their readers can sense it.

Maybe you’re worried this hits a little too close to home.

First, the bad news: Your readers probably CAN sense that boredom.

Your audience might not be able to articulate it in the same way that you can, but they’ll pick up your magazine and feel like maybe they’ve seen this all before.

Now the good news: It doesn’t need to be that way!

Your publication can be something that your readers can be excited to read. And — perhaps even more important than that — something YOU can be excited to create.

How? We encourage you and your team to take some “big swings.”

What’s a big swing?

It can be a lot of things: ambitious stories, art, and approaches designed make your publication stand out. It can something that you haven’t done before. Something you’re not 100 percent sure will work.

Here are 10 “big swings” we have seen colleges, universities, and independent schools *just like yours* take with their publications.

These aren’t things that are done by consumer magazines with million-dollar budgets and a staff of dozens of people.  They’re done by teams with small staffs and — often! — modest budgets. You can do this, too.

Read through these examples. Save them.

And most important, figure out how you can take your own big swing.

1. Use your roundups to tell a bigger story.

Details: Macalester College, Macalester Today, link

Why we love this big swing: Roundup stories are an alumni magazine staple — we love them! The only problem is that too many people rely on formulas that make every profile sound the same: same length, same story beats, same tone. Once you’ve read one profile, you’ve basically ready them all!

In this story, which Capstone developed and wrote with Macalester, we focused on using an array of different types of people to walk readers through a big issue — the new ways we think about growing, processing, and eating our food today.

Each profile subject took readers further into the story with a different perspective, and the subheads for the profiles walked readers through that story, step by step.

2. Give your readers a backstage pass.

Details: Carleton College, Carleton College Voice, link

Why we love this big swing: One of the (very good) pieces of advice given to magazine editors is to “do stories that only your publication can do.”

Sometimes that type of storytelling is the result of the exact sources you have access to. Sometimes it comes from deeply understanding your audience and knowing what they want. Sometimes it’s behind-the-scenes stories like this one, which is about setting up for Carleton College’s reunion.

Like many small colleges, Carleton hosts an incredible reunion each year. Most attendees never think much about how much work goes into it. But this story shows the nuts and bolts of this process — the work that happens before the crowds arrive. You can’t help but appreciate the thought and effort that goes into the event, and it’s a story that likely evokes a sense of pride and gratitude about the institution without hitting people over the head with it.

What are the stories only your publication can tell? How can you give your readers a backstage pass?

3. Create a (safe for work) centerfold.

Details: Purdue Alumni Association, Purdue Alumnus 

Why we love this big swing: Sometimes you can do something just because it’s cool. Because it will delight readers. Because it will delight YOU.

That’s the case with the spread that opened this fun “What Does It Feel Like To…” feature we developed with Purdue.

Your school’s magazine doesn’t have to be a soulless plod through institutional talking points! Purdue routinely does ambitious, gorgeous work in its magazine, and this is just one example.

That’s a sword swallower in that image, by the way. What does it feel like toliterally nudge your heart out of the way as you put a sword all the way into your stomach? NOT GREAT. (Become a member of Purdue’s Alumni Association if you want to learn more, I’m spilling no more secrets.)

4. Try a wrap cover.

Details: Denison University, Denison Magazine, link

Why we love this big swing: We’ve talked in the past about understanding the specific constraints and opportunities of your publication.

Most consumer magazines have to have an ad on the back cover. If you’re like most higher ed magazines, you probably don’t! So you don’t need to follow the conventions of consumer magazines, which require them to have different front and back covers. You can wrap a single image around your front and back cover. The right photography or illustration can make it work as a front cover, back cover, and a single image in and of itself, like this one for Denison Magazine. Beautiful.

5. Upend your audience’s expectations.

Details: Grinnell College, Grinnell Magazine, link

Why we love this big swing: You know what people expect from their alumni magazine? Stories about success: Our alumni are saving the world! Our school has sky-high rankings! Our students all have SAT scores of ZzzzzZzz…

Ugh. Readers GET IT. They do!

And of course you should tell some stories like this in your magazine.

But maybe, every once in awhile, consider telling a story that challenges people’s understanding of what your publication will do. Tell story about failure — even if it’s just students talking about failure before ultimately succeeding.

Readers might be surprised. (A few might even be upset!) But they might also think your magazine — and your school — is a little more genuine. Real humans don’t have an unending trajectory straight up into the stratosphere, and when you acknowledge that, it makes all the good things you say about your alumni and institution feel a little more credible.

Read more on this topic here, including other alumni magazine stories on failure.

6. Show your stuff.

Details: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health, link

Why we love this big swing: So much of a school’s story is about things that aren’t tangible. The life of the mind. A scholarship, a fellowship, a professorship. When it comes to public health, the topic of Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health, that goes double.

That’s why we love Collections, a recurring feature in the magazine that shows readers the real, physical items linked to public health, including historical artifacts, models, medicines, and tools.

They’ve gathered these collections together with museum-like clarity, helping readers understand how all the pieces fit together. What actual things linked to your institution could you share? How could you illuminate their importance with short, sharp captions?

7. Use fewer words to tell big stories.

Details: The Blake School, Excellence Accelerated: The Campaign for Blake and 2018-19 Annual Report

Why we love this big swing: I know that a lot of people who are reading this have backgrounds as writers and editors. Me, too!

We love words. And sometimes, that makes us think the solution to every problem is more words. Campaign story? Maybe a 2,000 word feature story. Annual report? Maybe letters from president, board of trustees, a few volunteers, and a half-dozen donors.

Guys, sometimes the story needs fewer words! What could you do in 200 words? 20 words?

Here, Capstone worked with Blake to create a campaign wrap-up and annual report that said “thank you” more simply — and effectively — than a dozen boring letters and countless long donor profiles. What you see here is just a portion of the report, but the point stands: you can make a big impact with a relatively small word count.

8. Do a theme issue.

Details: W.P. Carey magazine, W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, link

Why we love this big swing: Theme issues are a lot of work! W.P. Carey magazine does themes for every issue — a huge commitment.

They’re tough, but force you to think more expansively about what stories you can tell, who can tell them, and how they can be told.

Theme issues will break you out of your storytelling ruts, because you must use many approaches to tell stories that fill the feature well of your magazine (or even your entire issue).

You don’t have to commit to doing a theme issue every issue. If you want to understand how to get started, you can read this Q&A with the editor of GW Magazine.

9. Ask a big question.

Details: Bradley University, Bradley, link to the answers, starting on page 31

In recent issues, Bradley has used its back page to ask questions of its readers. (Pro tip: ALWAYS use your back page wisely. It’s the second-most valuable page of your magazine!)

Here’s what editor Sandra Guthrie said: “Wowza, has it resonated. Our question on how alumni earned money as a student gave us 8 pages of content (even with editing) filled with wonderful stories/memories. We had to cut a feature to make it fit. Our next question about great concerts yielded Bradley’s best social media response to date and 9 1/2 pages of content.”

For more on getting tons of feedback from your audience, check out this interview with University of Chicago Magazine editor Laura Demanski.

10. Test a graphic story.

Details: Iowa State University Foundation, forward, link (page 18)

Why we love this big swing: We’ve shared this behind-the-scenes details of this piece before, and it’s worth sharing again.

Here’s the insider view from Forward editor Jodi O’Donnell. “Reannon is a recipient of the Elizabeth Kirke Memorial Scholarship in Graphic Design. Kirke’s parents established the scholarship after their daughter’s death during her senior year at Iowa State. The Kirkes were touched to know that their scholarship went to a student who’d experienced the untimely loss of a family member and has similarly tried to turn the loss into doing good for others.

 “The comic-strip-style story is among my most favorite to appear in Forward. It took quite a bit of work — developing and communicating the assignment to the writer, Sue Flansburg, who then interviewed Reannon; working with Reannon, a graphic design major who sketched some initial panels and then ensuring her vision was realized in the illustrations; and finding and assigning it to an illustrator (who happened to be local). We found a time for Reannon to come to our offices, where our creative services director had her do various expressions/poses (e.g. grasping her head in frustration, etc.) that he photographed, so the illustrations would look like her. She also provided photos of her dad and her dog to work with. In the end it turned out just as we all had imagined, most of all the ‘Awww’ factor. Such fun.”

The “big swing” lesson: Do your work ambitiously.

This year, find a few projects you’re excited about and take some big swings. Maybe you’ll hit a home run or a double. Maybe it’ll be a huge swing and a miss! That’s okay, too. There’s always another issue.

If you haven’t grown tired of this baseball metaphor, I’ll add one more thing: Whatever you do, stop swinging exclusively for singles. You’ll grow tired of it. Your readers will grow tired of it.

And when you and your readers are bored, the flagship publication for your alumni, for your donors, and for your parents will become a liability, not an asset.

Your school, your readers, AND YOU all deserve more.