Practical ideas from this year’s Sibley winner

As a writer for alumni magazines, each year I’m excited to learn what alumni magazine has earned the Sibley award—and what helped the winning magazine earn top honors.

This year, the award went UofTMed, edited by Heidi Singer. It’s an outlier in two ways: it’s a special constituency magazine (alumni of a medical school) and a Canadian school. You can read current and past issues here and check out the the judges’ report here.)

I love the way the way that the magazine approaches its stories, and the design and photography is top-notch. Shortly after she and her team found out they’d won the Sibley, Singer agreed to do an interview with me for the newsletter.

As you’ll see in Singer’s responses to my questions below, there’s a reason that you’ll want to dog-ear practically every page of the magazine (and it has nothing to do with donor profiles). There are some amazing insights here, and I encourage you to spend some time thinking about how you might incorporate pieces of her approach into your own publications.

Read on to learn more about what Singer think gives her publication an edge over other alumni magazines, her best advice for editors who want to make dramatic improvements to their magazines, and what she was delighted to cut from her magazine’s pages.

You typically do themed issues: the future, food, mysteries. Why?

The themes help us to focus on one big, important question in medicine, which we can then address from different angles.

With a theme, also, people know exactly what they’re getting when they see the magazine in their mailbox. That’s important because graduates of medical schools usually have a number of degrees, and they’re getting a magazine from all of these programs and schools. We have to stand out and convey our value at a glance.

Can you tell me about the process of developing stories that are both interesting for your audience and make the most of your institution’s expertise?

The vast majority of people we feature are faculty members, students and alumni. But at times someone is essential to the story who’s not affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine. They bring a perspective we think our readers will appreciate, so we don’t hesitate to include them.

Our philosophy is that it’s most important to be interesting, engaging, relevant and informative to our community of alumni. That’s the way to ensure the magazine is read, foster pride in the faculty, and still impress supporters with the knowledge and leadership of our faculty.

Using the magazine purely as a promotional tool doesn’t work very well, because you can’t force people to read it.

What feature are you most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of our freedom to find the best, most interesting stories and tell them – just like a regular magazine. We’re very lucky to have that mandate, and it comes directly from our Advancement staff, who help pay for the magazine.

When I first started editing UofTMed, I met with them, and they said ‘Just engage. Just get people reading, and caring what goes on here.’

It would have been so easy for them to insist we fill the magazine with donor profiles. But they recognize there are other ways to show our appreciation for supporters, and that an alumni magazine could be the one flagship publication that inspires all alumni, and engages with readers about the big questions in medicine.

Is there a recurring department you really love?

I love the way our Snapshots page has morphed from the usual eyesore—squinchy, boring cell phone shots of parties our readers weren’t invited to—into a thoughtful photo essay, curated by a different expert each time.

For our Food issue, we followed a man living with food insecurity and severe health problems.

For our Mystery issue, we photographed curious medical instruments from the past, and invited readers to help us figure out what they were used for.

What is something you think that your team or your magazine does really well that gives you an edge?

We build in design from the very beginning, and we invest our very limited budget on the best photography and illustration we can afford. This means our art director and designer, Raj Grainger, is involved in developing the theme and the story lineup. I’m probably more involved than your typical editor in the design.

I used to run a design office, so I’m a huge fan of great design and am very ambitious for ours to be fresh and edgy. At the same time, Raj is much more of a word person than most designers. He has come up with the title for our last few theme issues, for example. So design and content are more closely aligned in our magazine than in other publications I’ve worked on.

We also use in-house writers for the most part. It’s definitely a budget issue, but we’re lucky that we have people who can do magazine writing. I think in-house writers generally do the best job because they’re more invested in the magazine. They know how important it is to us and how seriously we take it. They’ll interview more people, and do more rewriting. They also have the advantage of knowing how the magazine is shaping up, and along the way there are many opportunities to discuss their story and design ideas with Raj and me.

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?

The party pics I mentioned above. The metrics, plus our focus groups, showed most people didn’t care about them.

Our alumni have said they want to read about issues in medicine that matter to them, and when it comes to news about the faculty, they want to know about real challenges we face.

So instead of PR pieces like ribbon cuttings, in the Food issue, we talked about how medical education has failed to do enough to train doctors on combatting obesity.  We also discussed what we’re doing to change that. But we don’t shy away from self-criticism.

What magazines or publications do you pay attention to for inspiration?

Wired!  Their design is so creative, it’s like a different magazine every time.

I’ve been following Wired since I lived in San Francisco in the mid-90s, and I find it ironic, in a very good way, that a magazine about the digital world has always been such a testament to the value of print.

What is one piece of advice you’d love to give other editors who want to kick their own magazines up a notch?

Be an advocate for your reader. Put yourself in their shoes, and ask what a very busy professional would want to read or look at.

For example, is that head shot of that faculty member interesting, or is there some other, more meaningful way you can illustrate the story? Don’t do what everyone else is doing — buck the trend.