Posts

More COVID-19 advice, fix the worst page of your mag, and a work-from-home tip

I’m hearing so much from everyone about the coronavirus coverage on your campus! Thank you for sharing your stories with me.

1. Feedback and questions about coronavirus magazine coverage

I want to share a few responses I got to my newsletter about coronavirus coverage. (If you missed it, it’s here.)

First, here’s a note from Kirstin Wilder at the University of Nebraska. I love how she’s thinking about the full range of people who can share unique stories in her magazine. What ideas of hers can you use for your publication?

Next, here’s a note from Beth Miller, who is at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, a school whose academic focus leads to all sorts of unique challenges. (If there is anyone who can figure it out, though, it might just be engineers!)

I know a lot of folks will be moving to online learning. It will be messy, without a doubt! But there are likely to be breakthroughs you can highlight, too.

 

I agree with Beth’s approach about including the line in your magazine about information being accurate at press time — for a crisis like this, you might literally have to specify the date and time.

Finally, heres’s a message  from Alicia Dirado, who notes a handful of the specific challenges that most of us are facing. My response follows.

I suspect that many of us will have to think through this concern. My best advice?

  • License or get reprint rights for any material that exists and is relevant to your institution

  • Seek out material that folks are producing for their own pages (Instagram, Twitter, or maybe even Facebook, depending on your access)

  • Pull quotes from stories where they have been quoted for other publications

Capstone is working with one client on this exact issue, and we’re currently collecting a list of promising sources that we plan to send a handful of questions/prompts. I’m sure many will be too busy to respond, and of course that’s fine! But if they can provide responses to a few prompts, we might just be able to tell a unique story.

Call it the party photos page. The chapter events spread. The alumni activities page. Whatever you call it, you know the page I’m talking about.

For many of us, this section of our magazine is an impossible must-do. How do you salvage a page when the photos you get are a series of poorly-lit grip and grins, images of people’s backs facing the camera, and pictures taken from what appears to be a phone from 2002?

:(

The reality, of course, is that our magazines might not have an events page for the next issue (or issues). But when we do add them back in, how do we improve them?

The answer might just be this one page guide for event photo submissions. Kirstin Wilder shared it with me awhile ago, and I love it.

It’s clear, simple, and incredibly useful.

Many coordinators have been cancelling events and using this time to update their protocols and alumni toolkits, which means this could be a useful guide that they can add to their arsenal as they make improvements during this slower time for them. When I passed it on to my own alma mater’s regional coordinator, she was thrilled:

This might be just the time to help your events coordinators amp up their photo game — and improve your magazine’s party photos spread in the process.

3. Exactly one tip for working from home during COVID-19

Many of you have moved to a work-from-home situation for the foreseeable future. If you haven’t done it before, it might not be the easiest switch! (Especially if you ALSO have kids at home.)

If you’re like me, it’s been hard to concentrate. You’re checking the news constantly, and you’re not getting as much done as you like. I’ve been working from home for 15 years, but there are new variables that have thrown even my time-tested system for a loop.

One thing I have found genuinely helpful — not just now, but anytime that I’ve felt stressed and overwhelmed — is using a 15-minute sand timer to focus on ONE task. (This is the one I currently have on my desk.)

You’ve got an email to write? Story to review? An opening paragraph to craft? Flip over the timer and commit to just 15 minutes to work on it.

I love the analog-ness of the sand timer. Often I finish the task in 15 minutes! And if not, I give myself credit, even if I really do stop at 15 minutes. The vast majority of the time, just getting started is all the motivation I need to work until the task is completed. Sometimes, just getting one solid thing done in the course of the day is enough. This might help.

Try it! Let me know if it works for you.

Many of you have torn up your editorial plans in the past couple weeks.

When your editorial lineup is in flux, it can be helpful to have some already-written evergreen content to use when certain stories fall through. When this is all over and you can take a breath, consider building some unbreakable backup stories with this process.

Consider this template for your magazine’s COVID-19 storytelling

To say our lives have been upended over the past couple weeks is an understatement.

As I write this, my kids — who have at least the next 20 days without school — are acting roughly like this:

Lots of us are trying to figure out how to think about coronavirus storytelling for our magazines, and I’m definitely helping clients think through this issue!

The news is changing nearly hourly, yet many of us will need to put the finishing touches on stories that won’t land in readers’ mailboxes for weeks.

While it’s true that nobody’s completely figured this out yet, I’ll share one look to the past that may help you chart a path forward. (Read to the end! I’d love if it you’d be willing to participate in a larger effort to share smart approaches to covering the current pandemic.)

How to tell a story about a quickly evolving, world-changing event

In 2001, I was working at Carleton College, and the alumni magazine was firing on all cylinders. Our tiny publications crew was fresh off of a Sibley win.

I don’t have to tell you what happened on September 11.

Within our team, we debated whether or not to cover the event in our alumni magazine at all. Was there anything that our magazine could say that newspapers wouldn’t say sooner? That wouldn’t already be covered by well-resourced consumer magazines? That wouldn’t just seem downright exhausting by the time it landed in alumni mailboxes in October or maybe even November?

I argued that we shouldn’t cover 9/11 in the alumni magazine.

My boss insisted that we cover it.

As the boss, of course, she won that argument! I’m glad she did. And here’s the story that we created as a result.

Obviously, a story about 9/11 is different than any story you might write about COVID-19.

But there are a few parallels worth considering:

  • We were writing it before we knew how everything would turn out.

  • Even as we were writing it in a state of flux, we knew we had to have the mindset of the people who would be receiving the magazine more than a month later.

  • We wanted to write something that would hold up over time. Alumni magazines are important materials in your school’s history.

Honestly, I think we did a pretty good job.

Three things to consider including in your coronavirus coverage

Here are a handful of things I notice about that story now that I think we did correctly:

  1. We captured the moment. You’ll notice that on the bottom margins of pages 3-6, we included snippets of emails from alumni in the days following the attacks, dated to show how people were feeling at specific moments after September 11.

    Sometimes, we think we’ll remember how we felt at a specific moment in time forever! But it fades. Having these tiny, authentic snapshots makes a difference.

    QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF: How you can show the emotions of this moment authentically?

  1. We also looked beyond the current moment. We asked writers and thinkers of all sorts to weigh in with their expertise that could provide needed context. We talked to historians and political scientists, students and alumni. This was an opportunity to showcase Carleton leaders and thinkers bringing real insight into an important moment.

    But it was also more than that. A college education should help us consider many different perspectives, and it should help us think more creatively and critically. This was part of what Carleton wanted to instill in its students, and we wanted that to be present in the story as well.

    QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
    Who can you talk to who will provide deeper insight in this moment? Public health officials or doctors? A historian or an older alum who lived through the polio epidemic? An ethicist? Think about how the people you choose and the stories they tell represent the strengths of your school and the alumni it produces.

  1. We didn’t reinvent the wheel! Not long after the attacks, we discovered that a New York photographer was coming to campus as a visiting speaker. As part of his talk, he shared some of his personal photos from September 11. They were incredible and affecting, and for a modest fee, we were able to arrange to run more than four pages of them. We also scoured newspapers and blogs to find insightful articles and op-eds from alumni, faculty, and staff that we could re-run in our pages.

    You don’t have to have 100 percent original content. Find the material that will resonate with your audience and include it.

    QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
    Where can you look to find material that already exists that is worth including in your coverage? How can you excerpt or license it appropriately?

***

You guys, I know I don’t have all the answers! These are just a few things to be thinking about, but of course the contours of the coronavirus will lead our work to new and unexpected places.

How are you planning to cover COVID-19 in your magazine? Share your plan, and if I get enough responses, I’ll share them in a future blog post so that we can all learn from each other.

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 erin@getcapstone.com and share more about how you did the story and how your readers responded to it.

Erin

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?

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.

Steal these ideas for your publication

Here’s a roundup of some of the most inspiring ideas I’ve seen lately.

1. Learn from this incredible profile.

I love the recurring Master Class profile from Fast Company’s print magazine. It’s a beautifully packaged glimpse into an unusual career. The profile above is of Aki Carpenter, a museum exhibit designer known for her work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It shares fascinating insights into the challenges of the career itself and digs deep into what’s required to rise to the top of the field. More than that, her ideas are insightful even if the last time you saw a museum exhibit was during a school field trip.

If “profile of an alum with a quirky career” is part of your story arsenal, study this piece to see how you can make your profiles even better. (Can’t read the text? Check it out here.)

2. Make the case for your print magazine. 

Many schools have been sending out alumni magazines for a century (or more). It is — without question — the flagship publication for your alumni and donors. But that doesn’t mean everyone sees it that way. If you’ve got to persuade the higher-ups of the value of your print publication, here’s an exhaustive guide on the case for print, with real research to back it up.

3. Get some analog loot.

One of my favorite things to do during the holiday season is to get plenty of stuff for myself. Here are a few things that I think that you guys, a buncha word nerds who appreciate real-world stuff like magazines, might enjoy as much as I do:

  • First: these A+ grammar pencils (slightly less grammar police-y than most).

  • Second: approximately one million colorful sticky page markers in a handy book, perfect for marking the pages of the magazine story concept you have been meaning to swipe for your own publication.

  • Finally: the most recent Best American Magazine Writing book from the annual series. Get plenty of inspiration by reading the best magazine writing that was done last year.

4. Think about how you want readers to feel.

Plenty of institutions have mission statements for their magazines (which is important). But the very best of them also do more than just methodically execute on their magazine’s big ideas. They also evoke emotions. They create a mood or a feeling in readers from the moment they pick it up.

Here’s one example: Michael Grossman, the founding creative director of Saveur magazine, talked about developing Saveur from scratch 25 years ago. Specifically, he shared what he wanted people to experience when they picked up the magazine.

He said, “I felt strongly that Saveur should appear as if it had been around for 100 years, as if it weren’t a publication we were inventing and, instead, one whose legacy we merely sought to uphold — the kind a worldly great aunt might save in slipcases.”

WOW. I mean, I will be honest, that is a slightly weird image at the end there, but it is very specific. Immediately, you can imagine the vibe of this magazine that had not yet been created.

Here’s the question you should ask yourself: What do you want your readers to feel when they pick up your magazine? And how will you work to achieve that goal?

How Can You Delight Your Readers?

1. Aim to delight your readers

One of the things I love about great magazines is that they think broadly about what is possible, given their mission and niche.

Take, for example the front and back covers of AirBnB Magazine:

Edward Hopper gets an update.

The brand-published magazine doesn’t publish many ads. In a way, the whole thing is an ad for a certain type of lifestyle. What that means (among other things) is that they don’t have a back-cover ad like most consumer magazines do.

So what do they do? They wrap their front *and* back cover with a beautiful piece of art. It works as a front cover, it works as a back cover, and for readers paying attention, it works as a single, beautiful piece of art spanning the front and back cover. A+, AirBnB!

Guys, you could do something like this! A shot of campus, student art, a beautiful illustration. There are so many cool options.

But more important: don’t just follow common conventions (regular front cover, separate back cover) just to follow them. Think about what is possible for your publication, and start working to achieve it.

2. Know your magazine’s strengths

Magazines can feel pretty old-school these days, but I genuinely believe that they’re the flagship communications tool for your alumni, donors, and parents.

Read about the three things that print does better than social media.

3. Follow Mr. Rogers’ four pillars of journalism

I love anything that Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes, so of course I was enamored of her profile of Tom Hanks, who’s playing Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

I was especially taken by a list that the real-life Rogers had crafted for the real-life Tom Junod, a journalist whose connection with Rogers is featured in the movie.

Rogers’ provided Junod with four pillars of journalism that Junod took to heart:

  1. Journalists are human beings, not stenographers; human beings, not automatons.
  2. Point out injustice when you have to.
  3. Point out beauty when you can.
  4. Be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.

While I like all of the points he makes, I think the publications we do for schools are especially well positioned to tackle #3.

4. Test this free transcription service

I’ve long been a proponent of the transcription service Rev. But when it had a rare stumble on a transcription I needed quickly, I turned to another service that proved extremely useful on short notice: Otter.ai.

The artificial intelligence transcription is pretty good, and the price cannot be beat: the first *600* minutes every single month are free. Even the premium tiers seem like an impossibly good deal, at no more than $12.50 per month per person. Test it out and let me know what you think.

5. Read profiles from one of the best in our biz

Not long ago, Dale Keiger — Sibley winner, popular CASE Editors Forum presenter, UMagazineology founder, longtime Johns Hopkins Magazine editor, and now 10,000 days blogger — published a book of profiles called The Man Who Signed the City.

Guys, this book is a *ridiculous steal.* You can get Keiger’s knockout, award-winning writing — stories that span more than three decades — for $4 on your Kindle, $15 in paperback. If you just learn ONE THING about profile writing from his examples, it will easily be worth the money. Just get it already, sheesh.

***
As always, I love to hear what you think! Hit reply and tell me what resonates with you.

Erin

4 Alumni Magazine Predictions for 2020

We’re less than 60 days away from the 2020s! And what better way to focus on what’s ahead than making some predictions?

I’ve been reading the alumni magazine tea leaves over the past several months, and here are some of the big shifts and changes that I think we’ll be seeing in alumni magazines coast to coast.

Can I predict your magazine’s future?

1. Class notes will make a comeback.

Remember the argument that class notes were no longer essential “because everybody’s on Facebook?”

That’s just not true anymore. Social platforms may be as popular on ever, but they’re splintering fast. In the past two years alone, for example, Facebook has shed more than 15 million users in the U.S. — and many others are on the platform in a merely cursory way. The drop is especially steep among younger users.

Sure, maybe your alumni are moving over Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat or TikTok, but are they really bringing along all of their old university pals along with them in the transition?

Class notes might be the best new (old) way for your alumni to see what’s happening with their classmates and peers.

There’s a reason that those who’ve deeply invested in class notes for their school say that ditching them would lead to “World War III.”

Those who are willing to put in the time can revive class notes, an alumni magazine staple, and reap real benefits.

2. Stories of true connections will earn traction.

More than ever before, schools are having to justify their sticker price. Online education platforms including Udemy and Coursera offer the knowledge of the classroom at a fraction of the price. Billionaire Peter Theil thinks college is so worthless that he pays brainy students to drop out and pursue their ideas.

But is college really just about packing students’ minds with knowledge and getting them ready for the workforce?

Schools will need to remind their alumni that the value of the institution isn’t just the degree — they may still be enjoying benefits from their time at the school.

  • How many of your alumni found their best friends or spouses or business partners at your school?

  • How many alumni learned to deal with people who were profoundly different than they were, thanks to the weirdo they roomed with their first year on campus?

  • How many found a mentor who said the right thing at the right time, a handful of words that gave them confidence to pursue the difficult thing they’d been considering doing?

How many of these experiences would they have had sitting in front of a laptop watching an online course?

Alumni should be reminded of — and encouraged to remember — the valuable parts of a college beyond books and Bunsen burners. Those are the human experiences that come from packing together a diverse group of people in one place during an important part of their lives.

Education is expensive! But hopefully you can show alumni that it’s still worth it.

Imagine doing a story like this for your school, but instead of stars and stand-ins, you share stories of mentors and mentees, best friends, or alumni and students.

3. Campus news sections will (deservedly) die.

A frequent question I hear from editors is “What should I do with my campus news section?” They want to know how to tell timely stories with a three-month lag.

Here’s the secret: there is no way to tell timely stories with a three month lag. Kill the section!

Nobody needs to see 10-week old stories about a volleyball tournament or a long-past alumni event.

Campus news sections made sense 25 years ago, when it was all but impossible to get regular updates any other way. Today, you can get campus news online or in email blasts.

Take cues from top-notch print quarterlies like Nautilus, which replaces “news” with short takes on a variety of issues, or Denison Magazine, which uses its front pages to dive into beautiful packaged features that are typically linked to recent recognition that the school has received (here’s one on researchers; here’s another on journalists and writers).

Save your print magazine for what it does best: telling beautifully crafted and packaged stories about your school and its people.

4. Unfocused print alumni magazines will continue to see big cuts.

For decades, print alumni magazines were able to get away with sloppy positioning, lackluster storytelling, and ho-hum design. When it came to sharing information with far-flung alumni, what other options were there, really?

But along came the web, social media, and all sorts of shiny new tools.

Alumni magazines headed to the chopping block as schools began pouring resources into these new platforms. Schools trimmed their magazines’ page counts, scaled back the number of issues, and slashed budgets. Some magazines ceased publication entirely.

Honestly? Some have deserved it!

Some magazines featured rehashed content, poor design, and mindless boosterism. Some schools had no desire to make a good print publication, and it showed.

That said, online magazines are no panacea. I have yet to hear from an editor who’s found a sizable alumni audience online, no matter how beautiful the site or how brilliant the content.

But I’ve *definitely* heard from folks whose efforts to move content online have fallen flat. (See my interviews with an editor who helped develop a magazine app and one whose print magazine was scrapped in favor of online content as part of larger sustainability efforts — but revived after alumni raised their concerns.)

Print magazines are “boring” compared to lots of tech out there today. But they work.

I’ve had the chance to review plenty of statistically significant surveys from colleges that have found that their alumni magazines still get plenty of attention.

The reality is this: paper, print, and mailing costs will continue to rise. Magazines will continually have to earn their keep by focusing relentlessly on their audience and delivering beautiful and engaging stories, art, and design.

I strongly believe print alumni magazines, done well, can and will remain the flagship communications tool for alumni and donors. Research shows that good alumni magazines get and sustain readers’ attention.

If you’re reading this post, you probably actually care about your magazine! And that’s a great start.

But if you don’t have the proper goals, focus, and support, your magazine could be headed for extinction as well.

***

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know your predictions for the coming year!

Erin

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:
TheESCplan.com

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: emdashonline.com

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: 2communique.com

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: tomroster.com

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:
www.rubinsteinphoto.com

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.

3 Myths About Alumni Magazines You Definitely Need To Ignore

When I started out in alumni magazines, I learned lots of smart things about writing good profiles, creating packaged features, and making a magazine that was beautiful and compelling.

But I also internalized a few truly terrible ideas that it took me years to unlearn.

I was not smart.

In fairness, one of the big reasons I hung on to those bad ideas was that so many other people seemed to live by these unwritten rules!

But you don’t have to.

Read on to find out some of the pervasive myths of the alumni magazine world — and why it’s time to ditch them in favor of something better.

Myth 1: Your publication competes with major media for your audience’s attention.

Backstory: I remember going to a conference more than a decade ago in which a speaker made the case that your alumni magazine had to be as good as anything else on your coffee table: The New Yorker, People, Real Simple — major powerhouses.

If your magazine was sitting on a coffee table with those magazines, would someone in your audience pick it up?

No?

Then you better aim higher.

Later, that idea expanded beyond magazines to anything that could capture a person’s attention. Would your audience choose your magazine? Or would they choose the latest episode of the Real Housewives? What about that ridiculous “Yeah” Tik Tok video?

According to these experts, your magazine — with a half-time staffer and a freelance designer — has to compete with billion-dollar behemoths that are churning out endless hours of clickbaity content, guided straight to your eyeballs thanks to sophisticated artificial intelligence.

No pressure!

Reality: While I appreciate the idea that alumni magazines should always be looking for ways to improve their writing, design, and art, to suggest that people think of your magazine in the same way they think about a Netflix show or story in the New York Times is…absurd.

How do I know?

Consider your own media habits.

I’ll share some of mine: I love the Hollywood Reporter and The Good Place and a dozen different high-profile podcasts. These are big, expensive ventures!

But I also religiously read the magazines produced by a couple of the nonprofit organizations I support. I read my neighborhood newsletter seconds after it lands on my doorstep.

Why? Is that four-page monthly neighborhood newsletter — which features grainy photos and clip art — “as good” as the latest season of Serial?

It’s the wrong question.

That newsletter is amazing not because it has tons of resources, goes viral, or has world-changing ambitions. It’s amazing because it’s relevant and useful to its very specific audience.

And creating a publication that is relevant and useful to your very specific audience? That’s your job for your publication, too.

You can’t do what BuzzFeed is doing. You’re not supposed to!

But you can do work for your alumni and donors that is fascinating to them. It’s the work that only you can do, by virtue of the fact that you know your school and you know your alumni.

Don’t focus on what everyone else is doing. Focus on doing great, relevant work FOR YOUR AUDIENCE.

Myth #2 You should be laser-focused on featuring successful alumni.

Backstory: It’s pretty standard to use an alumni magazine as a way to share the stories of successful alumni. That’s the way you help your readers feel proud of their alma mater, right? All those smart, high-achieving alumni, straight from your campus to the top of the wooooorld!

Sometimes, this superstar-focused philosophy of storytelling is even baked into the magazine’s mission statement.

I definitely saw that reasoning guiding the work at some of the magazines I worked at years ago.

But the mission statement didn’t always align with what our audiences wanted. And that misalignment bubbled up in a number of different ways.

As one example, when I was on staff at an alumni magazine, I was constantly floored by the “stories” alumni would ask us to write about.

They wanted us to write about the four generations of alumni from a single family. They wanted us to write about alumni who’d randomly run into each other halfway around the world. They wanted us to write about the alum who’d put a note on another alum’s windshield in a grocery store parking lot 500 miles from campus.

In a word: uggggggggggggh.

Did they not know that our alumni base featured Academy Award winners, surgeons saving lives, and CEOs of billion-dollar companies? Sorry, guys, your dumb windshield alumni encounter doesn’t count as a “story.”

Right?

Reality: Wrong.

When I had the chance to see, in real-time, what alumni from my own alma mater appreciated on the college’s unofficial Facebook page, I realized that *I* was the dumb one.

Take a look:

The exact thing that I thought was the dumbest story in the world got hundreds of likes and dozens of comments.

Just because I’d taken some journalism classes and spent time writing for newspapers, I assumed that I knew what readers wanted.

But I wasn’t listening to what actual readers were telling me they wanted!

The reality was this: I learned that alumni wanted to read things that helped them feel connected to fellow alumni. They wanted stories about real humans, and failure, and the unexpected twists and turns that had been hurled at them since they’d graduated.

At the magazines I’d been working at, we’d been sharing highlight reels of superheroes. Readers liked some of that. But they also wanted more than that.

You don’t have to spend pages talking about failure or little moments like the one I’ve noted above. In fact, your alumni might want something totally different!

But the only way to know for sure is to listen to what alumni are telling you what they want, in both direct and indirect ways.

Find ways to deliver that to them.

Yes, you should share the things that your institution needs you to share with your readers. But give your audience the things that they actually want, too.

Myth #3: Awards are the correct standard to measure the success of your magazine.

Backstory: Maaaaaaaan, I love awards. Early on in my alumni magazine career, I was part of the editorial team that took home a Sibley. Since then, profiles and features I’ve written for a handful of schools have landed many awards.

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and I’m so grateful for everyone who was focused on making the work as good as it could possibly be.

There’s no question that awards can help you bolster your case for your magazine’s value with your bosses. And I’m not gonna lie: it’s nice to have some hardware.

But along the way, I noticed something interesting about the stories that didn’tcatch the eyes of judges.

Reality: The stories I’ve done that have landed awards showcase big-deal alumni or real progress on a vexing problem. They’ve definitely resonated with judges! But judges aren’t your audience.

I have done a lot of stories that haven’t won a thing — but they’ve generated a dozen letters to the editor, or sparked a conversation on Facebook, or led to actual gifts.

I’m incredibly proud of those stories, too. Those stories might be more valuable in some ways than the ones that won awards. It’s not just about dollars and cents. (Though that can be a part of the equation.) It’s about the way those stories put the school on their audience’s radar in a meaningful and positive way.

Here’s another example: I’ve seen schools make incredible investments in class notes. I’ve also seen colleges collect dozens and dozens of alumni memories to develop a feature package honoring a beloved, retiring coach. These things don’t feel flashy! But they’re an incredible amount of work, and alumni love it.

To an outsider — to a judge, even! — this work looks…really boring, honestly.

But to the people whose voices are amplified? Well, it can feel like a small miracle.

It’s fun for alumni to see their names in print. It’s cool to feel recognized and validated by your alma mater, even if — especially if! — you’re not next in line for a Nobel Prize.

Few judges are going to hand out awards for a raft of class notes or feature story built around alumni memories! Certainly, editors I’ve talked to about these labor-intensive projects haven’t received the kind of significant recognition that they probably deserve.

Yet if your larger goal is to make your school feel more like a community, to remind people of the value of your institution, and to engage with people where they’re at, this is the correct work to be doing.

Awards are great, and you probably deserve them! But your focus should stay, unwaveringly, on your audience. Serve them as well as you possibly can.

***

What myths do you think it’s time to reconsider? Shoot me an email.