Case Study: How To Do A Story Only You Can Do

When I was just starting out in alumni magazines, one of the things that was drilled into my head was the importance of doing stories that only your institution could do.

But what does that mean, exactly?

Does it mean featuring stories that include only faculty and alumni from your institution? (Sometimes, yes.)

Does it mean telling stories that are about your institution specifically, like campus myths and pranks? (Sure.)

It’s also more than that.

There are some stories — and you know them when you see them — that are so authentic and specific to a given institution that they literally could be told by no other publication or institution.

The Baking of a Legend, a cover story for the University of Alberta’s alumni magazine, New Trail, is exactly that. The story digs into the history, science, and joy of a much-loved cinnamon bun on campus.

When I saw it, I knew I had to talk to their team.

In the interview that follows, editor-in-chief Lisa Cook shared more about how they created this story.

Read the responses carefully!

There are lots of great nuggets about planning, pursuing, and executing a story like this at the very highest levels.

As you read this interview, think about your own institution’s beloved traditions, food and drink, and events. How could you pull together a story that shares something new about them? How do you think your readers would react?

Why did you decide to make this a cover story? Did you know from the start it had the ingredients (har har) that would make it worthy of a cover? 

Honestly, we had a head start on this one because we knew from the beginning there was an appetite (!) out there for stories on the famous UAlberta cinnamon bun. A couple of years ago one grad wrote a memory about the bun for our class notes section. Readers went wild! They sent in a ton of memories and we got more than 70 requests for the recipe.

And, of course, the buns just offered such rich art potential. We generally don’t lock down the cover for each issue until we start seeing some of the actual art come in but, yeah, we felt pretty strongly that we wanted this to be our cover.

Finally, we thought it would be perfect for our winter issue. Edmonton winters are really cold, really dark and really, really long. So we always try to make sure our winter issue offers something warm and bright to help our grads make it through to the thaw.

As a Minnesotan, I appreciate that sentiment. Tell me about the art! It is both unexpected and seems perfect. How did that come together?

Thanks! That was a combination of an early morning baking session, a lot of digging plus one great “a-ha” moment on the part of our incredible art director, Marcey Andrews.

  1. The 6 a.m. bake session

Straight off, we knew we wanted a photo of the cinnamon bun. But that wasn’t so easy. The UAlberta bun has a very unique look (it’s actually a knot, not a bun) so we would never get away with, say, slapping a Cinnabon on the cover. Our readers would storm the office!

Unfortunately, they stopped serving these buns on campus in 1994 so just popping over to buy a baker’s dozen was out of the question. Luckily, one of the original bakers still works at UAlberta. When she volunteered to bake us a batch just for our cover shoot, we knew we could go forward with the idea even if it meant our art director, photographer and social media person had to be there at 6 a.m.! (This also made us heroes with our co-workers who got to eat the leftovers.)

  1. Next came the digging

Next, we had to decide how to present the bun. We played with doing a Bon Appetit-style cover but quickly realized that didn’t really represent the story and it certainly didn’t get to the nostalgia, which was at the heart of it all. So we started to go back and look through all the memories sent in by our alumni. It didn’t take long to see all the visual potential.

Marcey, our art director, doesn’t work in our office, so we will often have phone conversations, then she will go away and do some research. We’ve found the best gift you can give yourself at the cover planning stage is a good deal of lead time and the freedom to go down a lot of rabbit holes. After her research, Marcey will usually come back with a few ideas, which we will talk through and then she’ll go away and dig some more. It’s very collaborative, which always makes the end product stronger.

  1. The “a-ha!” moment

In this case, she landed pretty early on the work of Hylton Warburton. His style really matched the playful tone we wanted to take with this story. Her challenge was to illustrate the alumni memories in a way that didn’t overpower the photo of the bun. After some really deep digging, Marcey found this illustration on Warburton’s personal portfolio. Once she saw this approach, she was instantly reminded of this cover of WIRED.

This was the moment that the editorial team received an email with the subject line, “Oh, oh, oh!!” Those are the emails you live for. You know even before you open it that you’ve got a winner on your hands. We all loved her idea, which was that a student was sitting around between classes, daydreaming and doodling while thinking about the cinnamon bun.

The fun part was coming up with ideas for the doodles. Some ideas came from the story. Some from readers’ memories. We also wanted to include some UAlberta-related Easter eggs like including one of our famous campus rabbits, a well-known building and turning our motto “Quaecumque vera” into “Quaecum and get it.”

I love that it includes a recipe. Were there any other elements to the story that you had hoped to include but didn’t make it, for whatever reason? 

Honestly, we’ve always wanted to do a scratch and sniff cover but we had to put that idea away pretty quickly when we found out the cost. (It was something like $40,000! Way beyond our budget.)

We did get to make a digital extra, though: a “hands and pans” video to accompany the print story. It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a while. It also helps when your digital communications colleague is also an avid baker!

Amazing! I’m a sucker for those. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the science of smell and memory. It was both an unexpected detail and a nice way to highlight your school’s faculty. Was that always intended to be included, or fortuitous in some way? 

So glad you liked that! The New Trail mission is to “Reawaken the student within each of us.” So even though this feature appealed mainly to the “student life” side of things, we wanted to dig a little deeper and include a learning of some sort. This would also, hopefully, offer additional value to alumni who weren’t on campus when the buns were around.

Luckily, we were working with a very experienced writer and we had faith he could make this section feel like it fit naturally into the story.

What has the response been from your audience?

We’ve had a ton of feedback! We were so excited by the many grads who made the buns at home and shared photos over social media or directly with us. We plan to include many of these photos and feedback in our letters section of the next issue. A lot of grads also told us they tried to sweep the sugar crumbs off the page, because they looked so real.

We also had a couple of grads write us to say they thought the cover was too busy. It’s always good to hear from the people who didn’t like it, too. And as long as they’re still writing us, we consider it a win!


If you’ve done a story on your own institutional icons — the food, the drink, the tradition that’s unique to your school — I’d love to see it! Email it to me at and share more about how you did the story and how your readers responded to it.


Behind-The-Scenes: How To Hone A Broad Topic To Create A Killer Story

One of the challenges editors tell me that they face is turning a broad topic into a clear, focused story that their audience wants to read.

How do you go from a big idea to an angle or approach that feels compelling and fresh?

I want to show you how Capstone thinks about this process and collaborates with editors — including the exact steps that you can follow and tools that you can use when you’re developing your own story ideas. (I’ll share more about how you can work with us at the end of this post, so stay tuned! But this post is designed for DIYers as well.)

Let’s take a closer look at building a killer story angle.

Here are the three steps my team and I follow when we’re working with editors — before one of our writers sets up a single interview.

Step 1: Start with a topic and a “why”

Last year, Macalester Today editor Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz sent Capstone an email about working together:

The perfect start to a collaboration.

Let’s start with everything I love about this note.

  • DeJarlais Ortiz had a broad topic she knew she wanted to cover

  • She also had a clear tie back to campus/strategic priority for the story (the concentration on campus)

  • She knew there were lots of potential sources for the story

Not every editor is so clear about where they’re at and what they need. (And that’s fine!)

But clear, concise notes like this are a dream for folks who collaborate with you on projects, whether it’s writing, design, photography, or something else.

She unpacked her thinking a little bit more in a recent email:

When we survey our alumni, we hear consistently that they value opportunities to keep learning and connect with the intellectual life of the college. I’ve been trying to tackle issue-focused stories that draw in Mac alumni and faculty expertise, and this topic was a natural fit.

Many of our students and alumni are thinking about the sociological and ecological dimensions of food and food choices. I wanted to honor how interdisciplinary this topic is, and I wanted to break out of the traditional 2,500-word narrative and experiment with creative storytelling structures. But I wasn’t quite sure where to start or how to pull it all together.

Capstone was on board — and here’s what we did next.

Step 2: Hone in on an approach

The information above is a great starting point for the second step.

At this point, we knew we needed either a sharper angle (this can be tough if you don’t know the exact viewpoints of the alumni you’re considering) or a powerful packaging structure that can help drive the story.

This is a step that we find that many editors skip entirely, defaulting to a narrative profile with a certain word count, and hoping the writer will find a central idea that will strengthen the piece.

But getting the exact angle and approach right, including thinking about it in advance, can transform a piece from underwhelming to un-put-downable.

At Capstone, we love thinking about story packaging, so we dove into our database, which contains hundreds of examples of packaging that can propel a story (and a reader) forward. We zeroed in on approaches that made it possible for each profile to contribute an important piece of a larger story.

We identified and shared a few approaches with DeJarlais Ortiz, including the one we ultimately used.

Here’s a portion of the note we sent, which we ultimately developed into the feature story called “The New Rules of Food”:

Here is one of the stories that served as a model, the New York magazine feature “The Great Podcast Rush Has Only Just Begun.”

This database, from which we pulled a handful of stories to help illustrate our intended approach, is part of the secret sauce of Capstone’s work. Want your own? I’ve shared how to create one here.

Why is this second step so important? 

We find that there’s a huge benefit to showing people exactly what they can expect with a story. Giving collaborators something to see and react to can illuminate storytelling possibilities and potential gaps.

Even more than that, it can help everyone know what they’re aiming at. It can serve as a template as editors talk to their designers, art directors, photographers, or illustrators. It can help writers hone their interview questions and approach.

It helps ensure that everyone gets exactly what they need long before a draft is submitted.

Step 3: Build a knockout source list

At this point, we were ready to start choosing sources.

Rebecca already had a large group of alumni to choose from, which is fantastic. Here’s the process she uses — and the way she used inclusiveness as a guiding principle to support that work.

I want to create a publication that welcomes every reader. For me, that means thinking about whose voices are included (and whose are missing) and then striving to find a more equitable balance among the perspectives represented by our alumni. I audit that balance over individual articles and editions as well as over the course of a year.

This is more than a philosophy. She also shares how she puts that philosophy in action. In this case, a multi-step process, executed methodically, is what leads to success. Here’s what she says:

I’ve shifted to building out parts of my editorial plan three or four issues ahead, which creates more space to compile a broad range of sources. This research almost always includes asking for help: I’ve emailed colleagues, posted in regional alumni chapter Facebook groups, reached out to committee volunteers, and gotten great leads from LinkedIn posts that simply say we’re exploring a story on a certain topic and asking who we should be in touch with.

The story that emerges is always richer than if I had just run with the people already on our radar. I didn’t want to restrict “The New Rules of Food” to alumni working in one area of food and farming, for example, and our research produced tips about several people who were ultimately featured: an alumna farming on a quarter-acre in Idaho, a fourth-generation leader of a milling company in Ohio, a professor teaching about agriculture in D.C., and so on.

Rebecca’s approach aligns with Capstone’s: It’s wise to cast a wide net and then narrow it down.

At Capstone, we often run our own source search for clients, then run the complete list through a variety of different filters to come up with a good final mix. These filters typically include:

  • Class year. We try to include a range of different decades, and in this case, we had four different decades represented.

  • Gender, race, and ethnicity. 

  • Mix of roles. The last thing we want is a series of profiles that share an essential sameness. As DeJarlais Ortiz had requested from the outset, we chose people in a mix of positions, from farmers to journalists to researchers. This range is something we encourage all of our clients to consider.

Depending on your institution, you may need to consider sources that represent other types of diversity: majors, colleges and campuses, or geography, for example.

Sometimes getting a good mix of people proves challenging! And while I strongly believe that it’s *most* important to have this type of diversity represented across the magazine and over the course of many issues and years, rather than juggling the numbers in one specific story, we always keep our eye on this and try to make improvements if there are obvious concerns.

As DeJarlais Ortiz noted above, demanding this type of diversity of your story up front typically expands and deepens the way that you can think about your story.

Finally, we included backup sources that we could tap in case any of our initial ideas didn’t pan out.

We love to have a few extra sources handy — if someone falls through, we can quickly move to the next source on our list, preventing days of potential back-and-forth to choose a new person.

Step 4: Hit go!

In these three steps, we’ve moved from broad topic to clear focus. We’ve chosen a great mix of sources — including some backups to ensure that we always keep moving forward.

I’ll share more about assigning, assignment letters, and working with writers in future posts, but for now, here’s the final result of this collaboration.

Here’s what DeJarlais Ortiz said about it:

The final result was a well-balanced story with a creative structure that really seemed to resonate with a wide range of alumni — young alumni, a ’65 alumna, a CSA farmer. I can’t remember a story that generated verbal and written feedback from that kind of a range.

At Capstone, we were also thrilled with the way it turned out. In addition, we learned a few new things in the process that we’ve noted and will be sure to incorporate for future projects, both with Macalester and with other clients.

The great part of following a robust process like this is that you can incorporate all the lessons you learn to keep improving and build even better stories over time.

I’d love to know what you think of this process! What details surprised you — or do you hope to include in your future story development process?

5 Pros Share Secrets To Finding Great Photographers Anywhere

Maybe you need a photographer for the story of an amazing alum who lives halfway across the country — or halfway around the world. Maybe you’re just looking to shake things up and get a different perspective on your own campus.

How do you find a photographer who’s going to get your school and your publication’s goals? If you haven’t yet built up a network of go-to photographers, what’s your next best bet?

Below, a few experienced pros — who’ve all won awards for the work they’ve done for higher ed clients — share their best advice, big mistakes, and go-to sites.

“It pays to do your research on the front end.”

Kat Braz, The ESC Plan
Find her at:

Do you have go-to communities, sites, or other resources to find great photographers in non-local locations?

If I’m starting from scratch, I’ll browse Wonderful Machine or ASMP’s Find a Photographer or PhotoServe. I will sometimes reach out to editors of nearby schools to see who they would recommend.

Are there key questions that you ask photographers to know if they’ll be a good fit?

I think the biggest challenge is adjusting your budget for the region. Based in the Midwest, I can get some high quality work for a lot less money than what I have to pay when hiring someone in California or Washington, D.C. And you can save some money by allowing them to shoot with natural light, but in those instances you have to ensure that the environment will support natural light and that the photographer is comfortable shooting in those conditions. In those cases, event photographers are sometimes a better bet than portrait photographers who may be too reliant on extensive lighting set ups, which come with equipment costs and assistants and can start to add up.

What’s one mistake that you made in the process of hiring and working with a photographer in a distant location?

The biggest mistake is when you feel trapped into using someone recommended by the subject. I learned long ago that if your subject’s daughter-in-law is a photographer, you should run far far away! To some extent, it is nice to have a subject working with a photog they already know, helps to ease their nerves. But I’ve rarely had good luck with the quality of the photo. But my worst experience was working with an onsite photographer for a resort in Las Vegas. We were doing a story on the head chef at the resort, who was one of our alumnae. And the first round of photos we got had her holding a pan at the stove, and there was nothing in it. NOTHING. There was nothing nearby on the counter looking like she was about to cook. It was just an empty, soulless kitchen. We asked them to reshoot it and described the types of cooking shots we were looking for (sending examples, too) and got back almost the exact same picture, but this time the burner was on, and there was a single egg frying in the pan. I mean this glitzy resort has oodles of fancy photographs showing its amenities (including food) all over its website. Why was this so hard? In the end, we just got creative with the design and added a bunch of photos of food over her and around her (it sounds worse than it turned out, I promise).

Another mistake I’ve made when working with someone new is not working out a kill fee in advance. If they deliver something that is totally unusable, unless you’ve previously discussed it, you can still be on the hook for payment in full because they have already done the work. Depending on the scope and cost of the shoot, it might not be necessary. Generally I want to budget about 50% for a kill fee. So if it’s only a $500 shoot, then it’s not worth the trouble, but if I’m investing $2,500 … then it’s definitely something to think about.

How much time are you willing to spend to find the right photographer? How is that time typically allocated?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a need to return to the same places too often, but if I hit one someone I like, I want to use them again and again because I know they can deliver. So it pays to devote time to do your research on the front end because ideally this is only the first time you’ll be engaging that photog. But honestly I don’t spend a ton of time on it. Maybe four or so hours searching, looking at portfolios, reaching out to colleagues, etc. More time would be spent communicating with the photog to devise the art direction.

“Call the photo editor of a good publication in the location you need.”

Erin Mayes, EmDash
Find her at:

Have you hired photographers from any notable or far-flung locations? 

We’ve hired and photographed just about everywhere from Sri Lanka, to Boko Haram territory in Nigeria, to Tokyo, to a local pigsty with a free-roaming 800 lb. pig.

Do you have go-to communities, sites, or other resources to find great photographers in non-local locations?

We tend to check out Wonderful Machine quite a bit. It’s a good site organized by location. That site is super helpful when our photographer network is missing a location. There’s also a great site with an international base of photographers called Women Photograph that has photographers arranged by continent. The photographers associated with it tend toward photojournalism, but they are all extremely good shooters. There are Pulitzer Prize winners among the list, so it’s a good place to find good quality. A Photo Editor is also a great place to check out work. And speaking of women who photograph, photographer Amy V. Cooper keeps a list of links for photographers here as well as a list of her favorite photographers (which are all worth checking out). We also will ask any photo editor we’ve ever worked with when we get stuck. And I’ve had people call me out of the blue for Austin recommendations, so just calling the photo editor of a good publication in the location you need is another good resource.

Are there key questions that you ask photographers to know if they’ll be a good fit?

I usually let the work speak for itself. In my mind, photos typically fall into one of two camps: A photo that will need a lot of control and direction to be made, or one where the photographer can manage chaos and find the photo within that. Often I’ll hire a new photographer for something small, just to see how that person works and a sense of their personality. Then I know going forward on other assignments what that photographer needs and what kinds of stories or people that person will be a good match for.

Sometimes, like if we hire out of the country, we don’t have much of a choice. So I just pick the one with the work that matches the story most closely. Then I have a quick conversation about what I’m looking for, which typically, is for the photographer to make a photo that they love. If they make work that they would like to see on their website, then I’m probably golden. That tends to work, and hasn’t backfired much.

What’s one mistake that you made in the process of hiring and working with a photographer in a distant location?

I can’t think if a particular story (I normally forget my mistakes and move blissfully forward), but it’s probably a mistake to rush into a photo assignment with not enough information about your expectations. You can also overdo it with too much information, where the assignment just gets confusing. But I think as long as everything is written down, and it’s clear what you need (and what usage rights you expect), then you’ve taken care of what you can control.

I love looking at photographer’s work, so I will just spend as much time as I need. I look until I’m convinced that I have a solid match for the project and a good backup. Sometimes that means 10 minutes, and sometimes I can take a few days. Mostly that timing depends on the magazine production schedule.

“Working with photographers is not a science.”

Kelly McMurray, 2communiqué
Find her at:

Do you have go-to communities, sites, or other resources to find great photographers in non-local locations?

We look to our network first. Through years of working with different colleges/universities and attending the Editor’s Forum, I have developed a great network of art directors and editors to reach out to. If I have a shoot in a city that one of them works in, I’ll ask them for references. Sometimes their school’s university photographer is a great fit. We also have had great success working with photographers we found on Wonderful Machine.

Are there key questions that you ask photographers to know if they’ll be a good fit?

We review their online portfolio and curate a sample of photos that are appropriate for the shoot we are assigning. We then describe the school/project and make sure that they approach aligns with the visual direction of the story.

What’s one mistake that you made in the process of hiring and working with a photographer in a distant location?

Working with photographers is not a science. You are dealing with people. Sometimes the subject can be difficult or the weather doesn’t cooperate. Unlike a story that can be edited we typically have to work with what we get (we have had to reshoot a few times over the years). But the one mistake that we have come across recently is that the subject doesn’t really want his/her photo taken so they give the photographer very little time and are not showing their best self. We now ask our clients/editors to make sure they when they are interviewing the person that they know that they will need to make time for a portrait shoot.

How much time are you willing to spend to find the right photographer? How is that time typically allocated?

We will spend up to a few hours looking for the right photographer and reaching them out for the assignment. When we are assigning multiple photographers for one story (which we did recently for Williams—four photographers, four locations, one visual direction) it took a few hours to assign and direct. And with a shoot like that we also share the first person’s work with the rest for visual consistency. For a campus shoot it takes the same amount of time to find and select the right photographers and then a day or two onsite art directing. An additional time component is then editing the shoot. For a Day-in-the-Life shoot we just assigned, we now have close to 2,000 images to review and edit down to about 24 that will go in the magazine.

“I love it when the art director asks, ‘Was that photo taken on our campus? Where is that?’ ”

Tom Roster, Twin Cities photographer
Find him at:

How do you advertise/how do you help people from other locations find you?

Most of my clients come from word of mouth.

What’s one thing you wish more of your clients would do before they hire you, especially if they’re hiring from another city? 

Add a day or two of just roaming on the campus. I seem to produce the best photographs that way. I love it when the art director asks, “Was that photo taken on our campus? Where is that?”

“Education clients are wonderful.”

Sara Rubinstein, Twin Cities photographer
Find her at:

How do you advertise/how do you help people from other locations find you?

I use online advertising with sites such as Wonderful Machine and Workbook, and I can also be found via Google. I send promotional books and postcards to potential clients I am interested in working with throughout the country. I find word-of-mouth to be the best way to advertise. Sometimes people find me on Instagram as well.

What’s one thing you wish more of your clients would do before they hire you, especially if they’re hiring from another city? 

It’s helpful when people let me know what their budget is when they have an assignment, but in general I find that education clients are wonderful and easy to work with.


As always, thanks for reading! Email me if there are topics you’d love to see covered in the future.

“I Wanted A Magazine That Would Make People Say, ‘I Don’t Want To Throw It Away.’”

One of my favorite things to do every year is talk to the winner of the Sibley Magazine of the Year.

This year, I was thrilled to talk to Maria Henson, who is editor of the knockout Wake Forest Magazine, a three-times a year publication for alumni.

Henson, a 1982 Wake Forest alum, has been at the magazine since 2010. And while the Sibley is a big deal for any alumni magazine editor, Henson had already earned some prettttttttty serious hardware before nabbing this year’s prize. In 1992, before she’d joined Wake Forest’s team, she won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials about battered women that she wrote for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. (You can watch a Moth-style talk that she did at Harvard about those editorials here.) Thirteen years later, she listed a second Pulitzer on her resume for her work editing a series of editorials in The Sacramento Bee by Tom Philp about the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

And even her return to Wake Forest is a tale in itself — she routed herself through Botswana (!!!!) before returning to Winston-Salem for her current job. You can read more about that here.

In the interview that follows, Henson shares some great advice, magazines you should consider picking up for inspiration, and the goals worth aspiring to for your own magazine.

Once you’re finished, check out the links at the end for other Sibley-related interviews.

Tell me about your team.
We have a team of four people.

I’m the associate vice president and editor at large. I edit the magazine and I teach one journalism class a year. My managing editor is Carol Hanner, who came out of newspapers. Kerry King, who’s worked here 30 years, is also a graduate. Michael Breedlove joined us last fall as class notes editor and deputy editor. He helps oversee our budget and handles our freelancers’ contracts and invoices.

Outside of our office, we have a freelance designer, Julie Helsabeck, who’s fantastic. She’s worked with us since late 2010, including on the redesign. The University’s talented creative director Hayes Henderson also collaborates with us.

When you arrived, you had lots of newspaper experience but no specific alumni magazine experience. How did you make that transition?
I did what a reporter does when I got here: I reported on the magazine. I went back for 10 years and looked at magazines really closely. I started to interview people.

[Denison University and Dog Ear Consultants’] Maureen Harmon was so helpful. I asked editors how they did it, how they thought about changing up their magazines.

I was looking at examples I liked, but I also went out to bookstores to look at general interest magazines. That’s where the learning came from for me. I didn’t walk in with any preconceived notion, other than that I loved stories, and it felt like we had a wonderful vehicle in front of us to tell really inspiring stories.

Can you give an example?
I love to walk through bookstores to see if anything sparks an idea. And one book I loved was The History of New York in 101 Objects. I thought, “We could do that for Wake Forest. What objects would we pick? That’ll be great fun.” (Here’s that story.) And I find things on Twitter that spark ideas, like “Letters of Note.”

What magazines inspire you?
Garden & Gun had a lot to do with my thinking when we were doing the redesign, starting in 2011. (Check out issue archives here.) I like Fast Companyand Orion. I also look through Wired, Esquire, and National Geographic.

I’m always looking at how they’re putting their stories together. How are they visually thinking about chunks of information? Before our budget year ended in June this year, I went over to Barnes & Noble, and bought a handful of magazines for all of us to look through.

Our table outside my office is filled with magazines from other colleges and universities.

What advice would you give to other editors who want to create award-worthy magazines?
Be in tune with your designer. The art piece is so critical, because people are looking for an excuse not to read your piece. Don’t make it hard on them to read it!

Another thing: pay for the photography, pay for the illustration. You will be rewarded for it, and people will keep the magazine around.

Do you give specific direction to photographers and other artists?
One thing I often say is “Look for small details.” It’s not just a headshot. What are those small details that could be spot images throughout the story? I give them final stories or at least rough drafts to help them shape their vision.

But mostly I say to people, “I trust you to get what you think is the right story, with the right visual. I want some options. I want to make sure I have some horizontal and vertical.” And that’s about it.

What do you think a good magazine should do? What has yours done that you’re proud of?
When I came here, I had spent 27 years in newspapers, but I had always looked forward to seeing my alumni magazine and seeing what people were doing at my university.

But in my newspaper job, my phone was ringing off the hook. I had newspapers stacked on my desk, books I wanted to read, magazines for my job, editorial board policy papers from politicians. It was too easy just to skim and throw the magazine away.

What I wanted was a magazine that would make people say, “I don’t want to throw it away. There’s another piece in there that I want to read.”
Want to read more about Sibley winners and judges? Check out interviews from previous winners and a judge.

2018 winner Dan Morrell for HBS Alumni Bulletin
2017 winner Renée Olsen for TCNJ Magazine
2016 winner Heidi Singer for UofTMed.
2015 winner Dale Keiger for Johns Hopkins Magazine
Sibley judge Jeff Lott

Harvard makes the case for a class notes section as long as “The Grapes of Wrath”

As a former class notes editor, I couldn’t possibly be more excited to share this interview and some incredible resources with you.

Here’s the scoop: Many years ago, I served as the class notes editor for an alumni magazine.

It was grueling, thankless work. I carefully transcribed cursive notes from alumni who were 3,000 years old. My eyes crossed while I captioned wedding photos with dozens of alumni faces. And the only time I heard a word was when alumni called to tell me I’d misspelled the name of their baby.

Trust me: I understand, at a cellular level, why editors want to put their class notes online to free up print real estate. I understand why they want to cut those sections in half or ditch them entirely.

But that might just be the wrong move.

It’s not just that alumni routinely rank it as the number one thing they turn to when they get their magazines. It’s that it’s one of the best ways to truly engage a huge number of your alumni — which is probably a big reason for your magazine’s existence in the first place.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

You can take the word of Bill Weber, the Director of Alumni Communications for Harvard Business School.

headshot of Harvard's Bill WeberBill Weber

HBS Alumni Bulletin, the quarterly alumni magazine for the school, enlists the help of nearly 1,000 (!) volunteers to produce their Class Notes, which stretches to 450 (!!!) pages for each quarterly issue. (Alumni are split into 3 different categories, and get the 150 most relevant pages for them, but still.)

In a year, that’s 1,800 pages — TWO copies of Infinite Jest stacked on top of each other.

We had a wide-ranging conversation about class notes, and below, you’ll find an edited version of our discussion.

Weber shared:

  • What it takes to do this kind of work for the magazine
  • Why Harvard values it so much
  • Specific benefits he sees for the institution as a result

He also shares an incredibly valuable PDF of prompts and ideas that I think you’ll love — no matter what your class notes are like.

So…without further ado:

You have, by far, the most robust class notes section of any school I’ve seen. Why does Harvard value this section so much?

Class Notes is the single most-popular piece of communication that comes from the school on a regular basis. We have done reader surveys for years. Consistently, 98 percent of the respondents say, “Well, the first thing I do is I turn to my page in the Class Notes in the Bulletin. Then if I have time, I’ll look at the front part.”

image of most recent cover of HBS Alumni Bulletin magazine

The most recent issue of HBS’s magazine

Is its popularity what makes it valuable? Is there an explicit return on investment?

People want to know what other people are up to. So you have to feed that interest one way or another. The whole point of feeding that is to remind people of their connection to the school and to strengthen the bonds among them as a group. Then, when other communications come from the school or it’s time to do an annual gift or we’re in a fundraising campaign, those alumni are positively inclined towards the school and supporting it. That’s what it’s all about.

I just don’t think, in the near-term future, we would consider getting rid of Class Notes. I think it would be World War III, frankly.

Let’s break down that ONE THOUSAND VOLUNTEERS number.

We have two kinds of class secretaries. For older classes, there is one secretary per class. (Our oldest class with an active secretary is 1950.) But the way the student body is structured, each class is divided into 10 sections of 90 or so people. At some point, we opened it up so there would be a class-wide secretary for each class and there would be a section secretary for each 90-person cohort. So there’s 11 secretaries for any one class, after some point.

They report to us through an online tool. It’s a content submission form, basically, where they can upload their columns and upload photographs. That’s the system that we use to edit all the notes. It has various editing tools built into it — like automatically shortening vice president to VP, or bold-facing names — to help.

How do you manage that many people?

We have a variety of guides and documents. We have a style guide that is sent to each of the secretaries. Then we remind them on a regular basis of certain things. For instance, there’s a length limit (1,800 words) and a photos limit (two, except for reunion classes) — which they push back on all the time, naturally!

The goal is to have them use the online submission tool, but we have certain older, longstanding secretaries who just can’t cope with the online form. So for those, they’ll have someone like their granddaughter email us the column.

There’s one elderly alum who cuts and pastes the letters and emails he gets from classmates into a document. It’s almost like a ransom note. Then he mails it in, so we receive it in its pasted, taped-together form. Then there’s another one who hand writes his 1,800 words. We serve them as best as we possibly can.

The majority play by the rules and use the online tool.

It sounds like you have guidelines, but you also let everyone use their own voice, within reason.

Right. We want to preserve the voice and the tone of however somebody writes. We know that particular kinds of people like to volunteer for this role. They’re networkers and social connectors. Their personality shines through in the way they communicate with people. So to keep it genuine, we want to keep their voice.

When we are doing the editing of the notes, the majority of the work involved in the editing is more like copy editing: making sure that punctuation is correct and that our automated abbreviation system didn’t turn something into gobbledygook. We’re looking for misspellings and that occasional “gone too far” political comment or swipe at a classmate.

The personality is part of what makes it appealing for the readers, because they remember Fred or Susan as speaking that way, and so it comes across. Having people who will put that bit of extra effort into reporting on their classes and things like that makes it hugely different.

There’s no institutional messaging or anything else like that in the Class Notes. It’s just building the bond among people who went to school together and having that then reflect on their personal relationships to each other or their personal loyalty to the school. (Want to see some of the tips and prompts class secretaries get? Get the 2-page PDF here.)

Folks get the most 150 relevant pages of notes for each quarterly issue. That’s still a lot of pages! How do you think about costs?

Yes, it’s a huge operation, and it’s expensive as all get-out. But it’s all worth it.

Every once in a while, we revisit the length limit for columns. I’ve been here 10 years. Just prior to when I came, they made a decision to get more strict about the length, because the notes were growing quite a bit. We’ve maintained that relative strictness, but we haven’t reduced it.

Then there’s the paper stock. It’s very thin but not terribly transparent, like newsprint. We choose that because it’s so much thinner than the paper in the front of the magazine and therefore weighs much less. From time to time, we have to make changes in that paper. It’s definitely worth it, in terms of keeping the cost of the notes down.

Everyone that we have a mailing address for is sent a copy of the magazine, all 84,000, regardless of where they live, including the two alums in Uzbekistan.

Let’s go through some of the other arguments against class notes sections. First, everybody’s already on social media, right?

That’s a challenge that we have in classes from the last five or six years in particular. They’re posting a picture of their breakfast on Instagram. Everyone in their group knows the minute they have a baby. So there we fight a little bit of an uphill battle of, “Why should I submit a report about my latest vacation when I posted 400 Instagram photographs of our trip to Nepal?”

But even for those classes, there are secretaries. They work to gather news as best they can. Not every class or section is perfect, but most of them do it. My feeling is that as those alumni age, as they get to their fifth or their tenth reunion, the classic nature of Class Notes will make much more sense. At some point, they’re going to lay off of Instagram.

Or get off certain platforms altogether. As people change social platforms, they might not bring all of their university classmates with them.

Platforms are changing. We’re present in all of that stuff, and we celebrate success and all the rest with classmates on those social platforms.

We monitor things. We keep a record of how many pages of notes were done by each class and section in each issue. We do it just to watch the up and down cycles. That’s where we noticed it was like five, six years out or so, is where the Class Notes are the thinnest. Then once you get past 10, it’s pretty consistent. Nearly every class and every section has a secretary, and they’re producing notes at least two or three times per year in the production cycle.

Another gripe: class notes aren’t particularly timely, at least compared to what most of us are used to.

Class Notes, in the form that we do it, runs completely counter to all other publishing trends because it’s on paper and it takes a long time to get the word out. The news, what’s going into Class Notes, is four to six months old by the time somebody receives it. But it has a sort of timeless quality that doesn’t bother the majority of the alumni.

That said, we post Class Notes online as soon as they’re ready in our production cycle. That’s usually three to as much as five weeks ahead of when the magazine arrives at people’s doors. We promote it in our e-newsletter and mobile app as soon as it’s available online. And people do read the notes online — especially international alumni, for whom it takes even longer to receive their magazine.

Are there other things that you think make the print version valuable?

The classic argument about why a print publication has benefits over a digital one is the browsing factor. We do run photographs. There are a couple photographs for everybody’s column. If you flip through the pages, you’re going to find interesting pictures that might pull you in. There’s the person riding the elephant or parasailing somewhere or on top of Mount Everest that gets your attention. It gets you to read the caption and maybe read a little bit of the item. That’s great if that happens, because those are reflections on the interesting lives that our alumni have.

Do you get story ideas from this section?

Class Notes are a gold mine for story ideas. Those ideas are both business-related (people starting new companies or second careers, writing books, supporting nonprofit work around the world, etc.) and personal experiences and adventures. One of my favorites from mining Class Notes was an alum who holds the Guinness World Record for having climbed the Seven Peaks AND sailed all Seven Seas. And he sailed some of them with his wife and their severely disabled daughter. Now he uses the experience as a motivational speaker on leadership and mission focus. (You can read the story here.)


What do you think? How is your own class notes section working — or not working? Shoot me an email and let me know!

Want To Hear More From Your Audience? Here’s How.

If you’ve ever struggled to fill your letters page, you’re not alone.

Over the past few months, I’ve talked to dozens of editors who tell me that their letters page could use a boost. Some say they’d be thrilled to get a handful of letters each issue. Others admit they’d be delighted to get even one.

There’s no question that it can be dispiriting to spend months on a magazine and hear crickets once it’s published.

It also means you might be missing out on larger opportunities. Good letters pages can lead to cool new story sources and ideas. They can measure the pulse of your alumni community. They can help you show your magazine’s value to your institution.

So how do you make the letters page of your magazine more robust and meaningful?

Today I’m excited to share some insider secrets from the University of Chicago Magazine. (By the way, this post is focused on letters pages, but you can use many of the principles and action steps here to boost feedback in other places: class notes, social media, web comments. Think expansively!)

The University of Chicago Magazine has a killer letters section. Not only is it common for the publication to get 10 or more letters for each quarterly issue, but they’re also typically meaty letters about specific stories in the magazine and about university priorities. (You won’t find any meaningless “Keep up the great work!” notes in the bunch.)

University of Chicago’s Laura Demanski

What are they doing right? To find out, I went straight to the source: editor Laura Demanski.

Demanski, who’s quick to credit the foundational work of longtime editor Mary Ruth Yoe, admits that building an enviable letters section isn’t easy. “I have a fair amount of stress about inadvertently killing our letter section,” she jokes. “I’ve always been super attentive to it and worried when we don’t get a lot of letters.”

In a longer conversation, she shared how she and her team work on this section, as well as all the tiny, under-the-radar efforts that are required to make a letters section great. I extracted some of my favorite principles and action steps from the conversation and shared them below.

I feel confident that you’ll come away with at least one idea to strengthen your letters page for your very next issue.

Principle #1: Strong letters pages are a reflection of the investment a school has already made into its alumni community.

“I often think of our alumni news and our letters as a package. We have class correspondents for the college news, and we give them quite a lot of space compared to many of our peers. There are distinct voices in there, both from the correspondents themselves and the alumni who are quoted. I think it contributes to this larger sense that we want to hear from you.”

  • Erin adds: This is incredible. I have a whole other post about class notes coming later this year, but think about how easy it would be for an alum to write a letter to the editor when they already see plenty of familiar voices in their magazine. It actually feels like a magazine that belongs, in part, to them.

Principle #2: People want to talk to humans, not institutions.

“We want to create the sense that there are people here. It’s not just ‘the institution’ or ‘the magazine.’ ”

  • Erin adds: Having a unique, authentic voice is important, and even small details make a difference. For example, I can’t stand it when I look to contact an editor and the email address is something like This makes me feel like I’m sending my message straight to a cloud-based trash can.

Principle #3: A good letters page requires as much work as a story of a similar length.

“We take our time editing the letters page. We edit for clarity and concision. Then we fact-check all the letters. We also have fun with our headlines.”

  • Erin adds: They do! In a recent issue, an alum grumbled about the fact that the institution informally referred to itself as UChicago. The headline? Ew, Chicago.

Principle #4: The letters page can be an ongoing conversation. (Within reason.)

“We get many letters in response to other letters. Sometimes the dialogue goes on for awhile, and the initial occasion for the letter-writing starts to get so far away that we will cut it off at some point, but we like to see readers in conversation with each other. In the issue that’s coming out soon we have the third round of a debate about how the Supreme Court should work.”

  • Erin adds: Even with a quarterly publishing schedule, it’s not easy to keep momentum going for a conversation. It’s even tougher if you’re publishing three or fewer times per year. When schools cut the number of issues they publish, the letters page is likely to suffer.

How to make your letters section better

Now that you know some of the overarching principles that are required to make a letters section as good as it can be, what can you do to get that process started? Here are a few ideas:

Action Step #1: Ask for what you want

“I’ll explicitly encourage letters or feedback in my editor’s notes. It’s an important page because it’s in a more personal voice, and that sometimes puts me in one-on-one correspondence with readers. Sometimes we get letters as a result.”

  • Erin adds: Banish “We welcome your feedback!” from your pages in favor of a clear, specific request.

Action Step #2: Encourage commenters to expand their ideas

“If there’s a perceptive tweet or an online conversation that wasn’t originally meant as a letter to the editor, we might ask the reader to think about making it into one. We’re pretty proactive about that if we see the signs of something promising.”

  • Erin adds: The two tips above share a common theme: Sometimes letters to the editor don’t start as a letter to the editor! You can help an alum transform the kernel of an idea into a meaningful letter.

Action Step #3: Expand your definition of letter-worthy topics

“Our guidelines invite letters about the contents of the Magazine or about the life of the University. We happily publish letters that don’t have to do with [a story] we published but with general University news.”

Action Step #4: Mine your past

“In every issue we publish a letter from the archives under the headline ‘Blast from the Past.’ Obviously, it helps to have decades worth of back issues. We find some fun things there, and we think this contributes to the sense that writing to the Magazine is an ongoing tradition that readers can take part in.”

Action Step #5: Reach out to your writers

“After a story comes out, I sometimes talk to the writer about any response they’ve gotten directly. In our Fall 2018 issue we published a story about cancer and immunotherapy by a writer who lives in the neighborhood and knows many alumni, and who shared some of the sidewalk conversations she had about it. Even if that doesn’t result in a letter, it’s a useful way to get feedback.”

  • Erin adds: Your sources may also hear feedback worth following up on. Read here to find out how one editor systematically connects with quoted sources from every issue.


For me, the big takeaway here is that building a great letters page requires consistent, intentional work over many years. But the payoff is a magazine that alumni feel connected to and value.

Have your own tips about getting more letters to the editor? Let me know!

An insider’s guide to creating a killer theme issue

Today, I’m excited to share an interview I did with the editor of George Washington University’s alumni magazine, Danny Freedman. He talked about what went into the planning for GW Magazine, how he and his team approach their stories differently than those at other alumni and university magazines, and what advice he has for others plotting out their own theme issues.

If you’re interested in reading more about theme issues, you can read the interview I did with the former and current editors of Stanford Business Magazine, Michael Freedman and Deborah Petersen.

Tell me about the genesis of the issue.

We’d taken on our first theme issue last summer; it revolved around adventure and it was just a lot of fun to put together.

That one took shape as four features: We had a round-up with 10 or so vignettes, from the doctor who founded a clinic at Mt. Everest’s Base Camp to the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a submarine to a dentist-turned-part-time-racer who helped establish the Corvette as a muscle car. We talked with an acrobat and we talked with a space shuttle commander.

We also had a feature on the visual effects supervisor for that summer’s blockbuster, Wonder Woman. We did a feature on a paleontologist in South Africa who was working on one of the largest dinosaurs of the early Jurassic period (now called the “Highland Giant,” but its first nickname, decades ago, was the “Holy S*** Dinosaur”). And we commissioned a first-person feature from a 2013 alumna who’d been working as a foreign correspondent, covering conflict in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

That issue was a lot of fun — it was different, and the confines of a theme gave us a new challenge to puzzle our way through. It was well received, and so we started thinking about other themes.

We knew we didn’t want to do topics like “food” or “water,” which so many have done so ably. We were kicking around ideas, and Matt Stoss, our associate editor, suggested “power.” The more we thought about it, the deeper it resonated. There was nowhere that a “power” issue couldn’t go.

The one thing we knew for sure at the outset was: We didn’t want this in any way to resemble a typical D.C. “powerful people” list, either in form or function. We wanted stories that went beneath the surface to something genuine — what it really feels like to encounter power, to wield it, to have it wielded against you.

We started a list of types of power that seemed ripe for exploration — electrical, political, familial, muscular, etc. — and we got busy searching.

How much more effort did it take to do a theme issue compared to a regular issue?

For us, these took quite a bit of doing, maybe in part because we were new to it.

It’s tough to quantify how much more effort. Here’s one measure, though: I’d say for the two theme issues we’ve done, we began working — brainstorming, searching, winnowing the list — a full year out, where ordinarily we might just be planning six months or fewer in advance.

Finding good stories that fit inside a single topic and offer an array of angles required extra time. For the “power issue,” we ended up with 10 features across 50 pages of the magazine.

Did you consider other themes before choosing this one?

A bunch. And it became clear pretty quickly which ones had the right constellation of potential breadth, tone and intrigue.

“Power” is something everyone can relate to, and we were sure there were good stories within our alumni body.

We had set aside ideas like “wood” and “meat” that we hadn’t seen done before; they might be really rich subjects for another alumni body, but ultimately for us seemed to increase the odds we’d come up short.

Tell me more about why you decided to create subcategories of power (natural power, manmade power, and the power of identity) in the table of contents. Did it limit you? Did it open up different types of possibilities?

Actually we came up with this later in the process. With 10 features, we realized the magazine would feel unruly, and some of the smaller stories would get buried.

We hoped the categories would give it structure, and they allowed us to create three visual pauses (and mini-TOCs) (page 26, page 46, page 64) to break up the content.

What were you proudest of pulling off in the issue — was there anything that worked even better than you imagined it would? Anything that didn’t quite meet your expectations?

I’m really proud of the cumulative slate of stories we told here: they’re fresh perspectives, they’re weighty — these are all pretty high-profile people sharing very intense, personal things.

I’m proud of the designers for building an aesthetic throughline that could tie together so many stories and so many pages. That’s tough.

Lastly — and I offer this under my own free will, honest — this is all possible because we have bosses who trust us and give us the latitude to pull off things like this. And I’m proud that, over the years, we’ve won that trust.

Were there things you really wanted to do in this issue but couldn’t, for whatever reason?

Not much. There were of course a few stories we didn’t get to tell, just due to time, but we’ll get to those eventually. And it might’ve been nice if we could have arranged for the front-of-book to be part of the theme, too — just “power” stories, cover to cover. Maybe next time.

One of the things I love about GW’s work is that you seem to really care about getting the details right. Are there specific things that you did that you’re really proud of — but that also might be easy to overlook?

Wow, thanks. I’m glad that comes through.

One thing that comes to mind is the use of outside sources. For us, it’s one of the easiest things we can do as an alumni magazine to show readers that we’re serious.

It doesn’t always pan out: In our profile of an alumna who was struck by lightning, part of the story revolves around a private audience she had with the Dalai Lama during her recovery. The writer, Matt Stoss, reached out to the Dalai Lama’s press people to see if he might want to talk for the story. We never heard back, but it was worth a try. [Erin adds: !!!!!!!!]

Matt did get other sources, including the alumna’s 14- and 10-year-old kids, who added this wonderful comic relief to the storytelling (they told Matt that electronics and WiFi seem to go on the fritz when their mom’s around), but also a new perspective — we hear from the kids how their mom broached with them that incident and what she passed along to them about lightning.

Similarly, in the story about the Vietnam veteran who is the second-longest-held American POW  in U.S. history, our colleague Rachel Muir sought and received reflections from the now late-U.S. Sen John McCain, who spent five and a half years jailed in the “Hanoi Hilton” with our alumnus. That added a new dimension to the portrait she was sketching.

Did you do any promotion or story sharing in other channels, like social media, web, etc? What did that look like?

We promoted the stories on our Twitter feed (@TheGWMagazine), and got some good boosts from interviewees sharing the stories themselves on social media.

Plus, for each issue we send a table-of-contents like email to all alumni, students, faculty and staff. But we didn’t have a chance to do as much promotion as we would’ve liked. It’s an area we’re working on.

We’re a full-time staff of two, so we really need a strategy in place in order for that promotional legwork to not get lost in the shuffle.

It seems like the issue was well received, based on the letters in the subsequent issue. Were there any other metrics or anecdotes that indicated that the issue made an impact?

The letters are probably the most meaningful indicator. Any time people are moved to take a moment out of what they’re doing to send us a note — a nice note, at that — really makes me feel that we struck a chord.

It also helps us demonstrate here the magazine’s role in connecting the alumni body and that, as with all things, when we put out good work and authenticity, people respond to that.

What did you learn from the experience that you would do differently for a theme issue in the future?

When building the story list we (the editors) were focused on story, story, story, because narrative is our comfort zone.

But it would’ve been nice to find a way to present even just one feature visually. The University of Alberta’s New Trail magazine did a “future of everything” issue a couple years ago and did a fantastic job of mixing narrative and more visual storytelling.

I also think about something I saw in Stanford Business a few years ago. All of their issues are theme-based; they did one around the idea of “risk,” and there in the bottom corner of every right-hand page, almost imperceptibly, was a flipbook illustration of a stick figure jumping out of an airplane, free falling and then opening a parachute.

What a brilliant, light touch of levity. Next time we do this, I think I’d strive to find something like that—something that’s just for fun. [Erin adds: This is incredible. It’s also something that only a print magazine could pull off. I love it when folks find ways to maximize the medium they’re working in. If I had gotten that magazine as an alum, I would have kept it on my coffee table forever, and would have shown people that little delightful detail.]

Any advice for folks planning out their own theme issue?

  • Look around you. What are things your community (or all of us) relate to?
  • Go through your story idea files. You might already have the makings of a theme there for the taking. Much of our “adventure issue” was drawn from a list I’d been keeping for years, all these ideas that never quite seemed to fit in other issues.
  • Make a list. For the “power issue” we started with types of power that we found interesting — like muscles, bombs, gatekeepers, the absence of power, electricity, parental authority — and then looked for stories within those areas. Once you have a list, then go through it critically. Show it to others. Think: Is this story really in-theme … or is it just one I’m wanting to tell, or one that’s already in the can?
  • Listen. Listen to any or all of the hundreds of episodes of the theme-based radio show/podcast This American Life. Nobody does it better.

Planning out your own theme issue?

Tell me what topics you’re considering, what’s proving toughest, and what your hopes are for the finished product.

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!


Can a digital magazine save you money? Will your alumni love it?

Recently, Skidmore’s Mary Monigan weighed in on the pros and cons of ditching your printed alumni magazine based on her school’s experience — as well as a survey she conducted of more than 40+ institutions. If you missed it, you can read the full interview here.

Today, I’m excited to share a story from Lynette Lamb, who spent more than a decade as the editor of the quarterly alumni magazine published by Macalester College. She spoke at a CASE conference a few years ago in Minneapolis about the development of Macalester’s digital magazine and app.

Here she shares more details about the decision behind and the development of the app, what she and the institution learned during the process, and why the college ultimately ditched the custom magazine app they developed. Lamb has also edited Carleton’s Voice, Minnesota Monthly, and Utne Reader magazines, as well as taught journalism at several Twin Cities universities. She is currently a Minneapolis-based writer, editor, and editorial consultant. (Reach her here:

Lynette Lamb

Tell me about the initial interest in creating a digital magazine. In 2012–13, there were a lot of people developing iPad-specific apps for their magazines. Several influential members of the Mac community, including some members on the Board of Trustees, thought it would be cool to have an app for Macalester Today magazine. We staffers caught the fever, too, and decided the app should have extra “assets” — photos, audio, and video. Plus, we had been spending a lot of money, perhaps $8,000 or $10,000 an issue, to send our magazine to international alumni and friends. We reasoned that if we could stop sending the magazine internationally, and encourage people to download the app, we could reduce those mailing costs.

That makes sense. But the costs to develop it weren’t zero, right? We had a freelance designer who did a separate design for the app, basically from scratch. So that doubled our design cost per issue, though even after that expense we still saved a bit on postage. And it was cool. We presented it at the CASE Editors Forum a few years ago in Minneapolis, and editors were really interested.

Tell me more. It was one of those techno-dream things. In our minds, we thought: maybe this is the direction things are going. Maybe this is how people will read magazines and books from now on. We thought that eventually we might stop printing and mailing the magazine entirely.

That’s pretty bold! Online is definitely seductive, and print is expensive. We were spending about $25,000 per issue on printing at the time, plus thousands more for postage. And those costs, of course, only continue to go up.

What was the reaction among the alumni community? We hoped that the app would be cool enough that everyone would download it and show it to folks on airplanes or to their friends. But fast forward a year, and when we looked into the numbers we found that only a few hundred people were downloading the app — out of a circulation of 32,000.

That seems low. Yes. We were surprised. We had done a good job publicizing it, and the app itself was great. But it turned out that people wanted a paper magazine. We started by adding a few international alumni back to our paper mailing list — not all, but some. After about a year and a half, we stopped producing the app.

Were there other lessons in this process? I don’t think people remember to seek out their alumni materials online. You really need to get in front of them purposefully, and to have a regular connection — and, I would argue, to make that connection at least quarterly. By publishing two or three magazines a year, you will save money, but at what cost? How much are you really saving per alum? And is that savings worth diluting your alumni relationships?

Do you really need a print alumni magazine? Here’s what research says

Do you really need print magazines for your alumni?

It’s a controversial idea to ditch a magazine entirely. But there are plenty of rational reasons to consider it.

Your school’s website is as close to your alumni as the phones in their pockets. You can send email newsletters to thousands of alumni as frequently as you want.

It may not even be clear that alumni and donors even want that magazine. Does it go straight to the recycling bin? Could you save six figures — or more — just by dropping the magazine?

Reader, you will not be surprised to know that I have many opinions on this.

But the very best folks to talk about this are those who have experimented with reducing or even eliminating their magazines.

That’s why I’m super excited to share my conversation with Mary Monigan, an advancement editorial associate with Skidmore. A couple years ago, Skidmore dropped its three-times-a-year print magazine, Scope, to focus on building a stronger marketing and design team in its office.

Mary Monigan SkidmoreSkidmore’s Mary Monigan

As is true for any big change, the implementation had its share of hiccups. Monigan shared what went right, what went wrong, and what she and her team might have done differently if they could do it again.

Even better, she shared some incredible research that she conducted after Skidmore had completed its process. She set up a survey, and more than 45 colleges and universities shared insights about their own decisions to drop one or more print magazines from their lineup. She delivered a talk about her findings at the CASE II conference in February.

I’ve included highlights of our conversation below.

Read to the end to get access to Monigan’s presentation.


The bigger picture. Skidmore has always been the little engine that could. We did not have a culture of endowment or philanthropy for many years. Among the heads of advancement and communications, the sense was that instead of having a traditional communications department, which functioned more like an information office, we needed to infuse it with a full-fledged marketing division.

The idea was that for a private liberal arts school to remain competitive in this marketplace, you need a professional marketing department to keep your brand at the forefront of the national discussion. We added five positions to do that, including a new cabinet level VP, a designer and videographer, and two marketing managers.

Why the magazine was one of the first things to go. The three issues of the magazine were consuming most of the budget of the communications department — about $150,000 total. The printed magazine had been around for 50 years, but the team decided that digital is the future and dispensing with print would allow us to fully fund the new marketing wing.

(But not totally.) We did decide to print a small publication of mostly class notes to appease older alumni —those who graduated prior to 1970. They’re loyal, they’re engaged, and they’re still sending news to their class secretaries. For them, the magazine is about community.

We came up with the idea of a printed newsletter with a four-color cover, but to save money, the inside would be black and white with no pictures.

Positioning the change. We crafted a letter to alumni explaining that the decision was driven by budget constraints and the need to be a good steward of the college resources. Also, moving away from print advanced our goal of planned sustainability. Finally, we said that we needed to maintain our momentum as a college. It is a competitive marketplace. We felt that we needed to restructure the communications department and make it a communications and marketing department. Today, we produce an annual printed publication that is more of a “year in review” piece, not a magazine.

On sharing the news. I had to be the one who broke the news to a core of 70 class correspondents, many of whom had been doing it for 20 years. There is a real culture of close community with these folks.

How alumni responded. I did six to eight conference calls with different eras of class correspondents. They wanted to know things like: “Why can’t you get an alum to pay for an issue?” “Why do you have to do this?” “Is it really necessary?”

It was difficult.

People shared interesting details with me. They would tell me: “I want have something to put on my coffee table, because that means a lot to me. I read it over a month, cover to cover. ” One said, “I’m proud that I graduated from Skidmore, and when my friends come over, we talk about it.” She helped me see the value of the magazine from their perspective. I’m not sure that emotional connection was factored into the equation.

On the plus side. One thing that has been successful with our replacement monthly e-magazine, Scope Monthly, is that there’s a link that drives people to class notes every month. The class notes are refreshed three times a year, so we always let people know when there’s a fresh batch of class notes. It drives people to the site.

I can also put links in the notes. For example, if somebody is appearing in a Broadway show, or they’ve just had an opening at a gallery, I can keep a live link in there so people can see their stuff.

On the mixed feelings beyond Skidmore. The survey we did of other institutions showed that a lot of alumni at different institutions still value an alumni magazine. Some institutions surveyed their readers and found that readers wanted print magazines, so these institutions decided not to give them up. Another person said, “We went to digital for a couple of issues, and totally lost alumni input into the class notes section. We’re printing again for three issues, and we have already increased our magazine page count by eight.”

People at one institution said, “Our development officers are voicing concerns from their older prospects and parents, who are much less receptive to an online magazine. Also, the development officers use the magazine as a leave-behind on donor visits.”

No one is 100% sure how their constituencies are going to respond to a reduction in issues.

Not every institution’s alumni felt so strongly. For some institutions, especially those that went from four magazines a year to three, or from three to two, people didn’t notice as much. They said things along the lines of: “We didn’t really get complaints. People didn’t seem to notice that we no longer published a summer issue.”

The keys to a successful print magazine reduction. In general, those who were able to reduce their issue count successfully were folks who reduced their publications by one issue per year, and who also tended to have a comprehensive strategy that included their other platforms.

They beefed up their social media and overhauled their design. They added a lot more content that would be best living online and that complimented the once- or twice-a-year print publication. They upped their game on all of their platforms, and those are the folks you could tell took time to develop a strategic plan around this.

People from one institution said, “We increased the page count and quality, but now only print twice a year. Our readers still love the magazine.”

Big takeaways. You have to know your culture, and you have to be planful about it. If you are going to eliminate magazines, it’s also absolutely essential to be proactive about the process.

Survey people, but also be proactive with your staff across the institution, so that everyone has the same talking points and understands what’s happening, because many of the folks who are on the road and seeing donors were confused.

Digital > print? Like with everything else, the right combination of print and digital is the key. What balance is right for your constituency? We spent $150,000 on the three issues of the magazine. Are we spending a comparable amount on something that doesn’t deliver as much ROI in terms of engagement as the magazine did? What compares to the magazine as a primary brand identifier for almost all class years?

On what digital can’t do that magazines can. With digital, you are typically intentionally looking for specific content. With a magazine, that process is different. You get it and you look at one story, but then you might end up reading a lot of other material. It is better, I think, for certain types of stories and content.

Reversible decisions? Maybe. I think that if a pot of money were to become available, we would definitely go back to publishing two issues of a print magazine each year.


If you want to see the full results of the survey and Monigan’s analysis, check out her amazing CASE presentation here.