As a writer for alumni magazines, one of my favorite times of year is the announcement of the CASE Circle of Excellence Awards.
I love seeing what creative work colleges are doing, and I try to learn from some of the very best ideas and adapt those ideas for my own clients.
For alumni magazines, of course, the Sibley Award is the one worth watching.
This year, I was delighted to interview the most recent Sibley-winning editor, Renée Olson. Her work at The College of New Jersey’s alumni magazine, which you can find both here and here, is exceptional. She spearheads a magazine that’s beautiful to look at, with stories that are smart without being stuffy. It includes plenty of elements designed to appeal to people in the TCNJ community, making it a must-read for anyone with a connection to the institution.
Read on to find out more about what makes her magazine work, what she thinks more alumni magazines should be doing, and a challenge that she has for your magazine.
First, tell me a little bit about the magazine and its readership.
Although the Sibley award judges didn’t single out in their written comments the pair of staples that hold TCNJ Magazine together, our team knows that these stalwarts telegraph a lot about the attention we give to detail. Gone is the fear among our readers that unfettered pages will hit the floor, making their retrieval trigger a sciatica flare-up. That’s the level of care we put into every issue.
Our magazine goes to the usual suspects: largely alumni, plus parents, faculty, and staff. We’re a public college, founded in 1855 as a teacher’s college. The 20th century saw TCNJ grow into the public liberal arts college it is today, with more than 6,000 undergraduates and a small graduate school program.
Here’s a fake brand tagline that aptly describes TCNJ: “Private feel, public cost.” We’re on a sparkling, leafy campus about a 20-minute drive from Princeton and are known as the place to go if you are A) brainy and B) ultimately seek top employers and grad schools without going broke.
How has your own work with the magazine evolved?
I’ve had an interesting trajectory at TCNJ. I began on staff as the director of strategic communications with oversight for the magazine. At about the same time in 2016, editor Tony Marchetti and I made career switches: He snagged the top editor spot at Monmouth University’s magazine, and I moved to part-time employee status and inherited the magazine as a project. I also launched my company, Squint.
This arrangement works because AVP of Communications Dave Muha has a broad and deep understanding of how to effectively motivate his people — and then lets us skip through fields of daisies as we put together an issue. Many thanks are due to Kara Pothier, our indefatigable, on-campus assistant editor, who noses around for story ideas and connects the fabled dots. Also, Art Director/Design Goddess Kelly Andrews is both a deft designer and a patient soul.
Judges called your magazine “fun” and “approachable.” Can you talk about a part of the magazine that you think does that really well?
Despite lacking evidence, we must first consider whether the Sibley judges looked at TCNJ Magazine at the end of a long day, punch drunk after nonstop alumni magazine review — or maybe after fleeing to the closest bar. Still, I consider it a high compliment when readers say they enjoy the magazine. What else is there? If your work sparks an emotional connection, readers will pick up the next issue and the next. A magazine needs a soul. Ours happens to be a combination of warmth, smarts, and the unexpected.
I inherited a recurring department on the first spread (inside front cover and first page) that rounds up responses to a question — What professor do you remember most? What did the library mean to you? — posed to readers in the previous issue. I’m always surprised by how many people reply. It’s a fresh, immersive way to start each issue.
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)?
I’ve seen many magazines underestimate the power of photography and illustration. Most times, the budget is too skeletal to hire quality people or the art director is content to work with his brother-in-law who’s cornered the local market on K-12 portraits. I offer a challenge. Email me one upcoming story idea, the space it will fill, and what you can spend for art. And I’ll send back suggestions on what you need to do to make the article stand out.
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?
We don’t cover commencement because magazines are not made for repetitive content — though we will run a blurb about the undergrad who moved to Florida to get married and finished her final semester by flying up to Jersey each week.
What do you read or study as inspiration?
New York for how they package stories. Reader’s Digest for concise human interest pieces. The New Yorker for penetrating insight and depth. Twitter for snark.
TCNJ came away with a whole armload of awards, not just the Sibley (congrats!). For you, what is the value of such awards? Do they give you more leeway with your boss? Recognize your hard work? Something else? Why is it worth the (significant!) effort to apply for this kind of recognition?
Thank you. We only think about awards as the CASE deadline looms (and we never think about the Sibley). Yes, having people recognize quality in our work is a tremendous rush. What’s more, it gives our bosses a reason to keep us around.
I’m personally flattered by winning a Gold for Illustration simply because the first sentence of the judges’ comments reads, “The references are hilarious.” We put together a three-column chart looking for similarities between John Lennon and Ivan the Terrible after I stumbled on two unrelated undergraduate research papers. Goddess Kelly hired illustrator Eric Nyquist, whose work we spotted in The New York Times Book Review. He made it magical.
For editors eager to find ways to make their own magazines better, is there a specific piece of advice you can share?
Ask yourself every hour if you’re delighted by what you’re doing. Are you jazzed by a potential story idea? If not, maybe it was never destined to be a story. Are you excited because there’s real promise in a first draft — or you see a way to get it there? If not, pause and let your gut tell you if you should walk away. Be vigilant. If you let humdrum stuff make it into your story lineup, it’ll still be there when advance copies land in your office.
Anything else you want to add?
I know many people have micromanager bosses or are weighed down by departmental decisions made without editor input. To survive, lobby for a full redo of your magazine and carefully define the kinds of stories and content that are true to that new vision. If you rebrand to focus on what alumni achieve in their first 12.5 years after graduation, let’s say, you have a concrete reason to jettison the current page devoted to administrators and their pets.
And don’t wait for story ideas to come from supervisors. Instead, rely on your connections across campus and supply supervisors with a list of what’s under consideration and why at regular intervals (monthly, semi-monthly). Take this task off their plate and you may find you have a far greater say going forward.