The Unintentional Process That Is Devaluing Your Magazine

Let’s start with the stat: CASE research published in 2020 found that print magazines are tied with email as the most effective channel for reaching alumni and donors.

Alums value it more than social media, more than in-person events, and more than your website.

Good job, print! Not bad for a medium that everyone says is dead.

So why are so many alumni and communications team taking aim at this valuable communications tool?

Why aren’t communications and alumni offices finding ways to plow more resources into their flagship publications, rather than fewer?

As I dug into the details — into the work and processes of offices at institutions across the country — I realized that while print might have the potential to be an incredibly effective tool, many were not harnessing it as well as they could.

Let me share one example of what I mean.

Are you playing defense with your magazine?

Recently, I was chatting with an editor about her magazine, and I asked her what she had planned for an upcoming issue.

She laughed. “I won’t have time to think about that until I get the one I’m working on out the door,” she said.

I laughed too, because I know how all-consuming the tail end of the magazine production process is.

But I also felt worried for her.

I worried for her because the kinds of frustrations that she’d expressed about her magazine process were the exact kinds of problems that were exacerbated by that somewhat haphazard approach:

  • She was disappointed by reader feedback (zip) and a lukewarm on-campus reception.
  • She was constantly scrambling: stories would fall through because sources weren’t available, because a featured program had gotten delayed, or an ambitious idea turned out to be too difficult to execute in the given time frame. No one — not the writers, not the photographers, not the designers — could do their best possible work.
  • She felt stuck in a rut: as she and her team struggled to meet increasingly urgent deadlines, they ended up relying on familiar but stale approaches, reliable but too-often-leaned-on sources, and whatever photos happened to be on hand, rather than captivating images that were intentionally created.
  • Her designers were exasperated with her! Their timelines also got crunched considerably, and they couldn’t do great work with mediocre images, copy that was 20 percent too long for the allotted space, and few opportunities to think expansively about their work.

In not so many words, she admitted to me that her magazine felt slapped together, not crafted. When it was published, she didn’t see bright spots, she saw missed opportunities.

The magazine was one of her most significant responsibilities, but the end product was not something she, her bosses, or her readers liked all that much.

The cost of reactivity

If you recognize parts of your own magazine process and results in this story, I promise that you are far from alone! And it’s very likely that you’re doing the best you can within the constraints of your resources and other responsibilities.

Still, this reactive approach can significantly reduce value (and the joy!) of one of the most powerful publications your school produces for one of its most important audiences.

It robs your alumni of having a tangible connection to your institution. It diminishes their emotional engagement. And that has serious, long-term implications.

If your print magazine isn’t as good as it can be — more “eh, it’s fine” than excellent — the solution is not to diminish the importance of a publication that your alumni consistently say they want! It’s not to trim its budget, its mailing list, or its frequency.

The solution is to take a step back and figure out a way to increase its impact and value. It’s time to stop playing defense, and instead play offense.

One way to play offense with your magazine

Here’s a simple exercise that you can try to tame some of the chaos that you and your team may be feeling — and maximize the impact of your flagship publication for alumni and donors.

Carve out an hour to adapt and fill out the simple content planning tool below for the next year or so of your magazine’s issues (h/t to Macalester’s Julie Hessler and Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz, who developed and shared theirs).

This grid gives you the opportunity to see how your magazine works from 30,000 feet — not from ground level (with an oncoming train speeding toward you).

Do you have to know every last detail and story? OF COURSE NOT. You’re not setting this in stone, you’re developing a draft.

This roadmap will absolutely change, but you will also gain insights that can help guide you in the very next issue (and maybe the next one or two after that).

Here’s what you might discover:

  • There are stories that you might not be running for a year that you and your team could do some legwork on now: shooting photos, chatting with a faculty member who’s going to be on sabbatical, working with folks outside your office to identify unique sources.
  • You might be over or underweighting specific topics or areas — and you can fix that now, before you hear from grumbling department heads who want to know why they’re not getting as much coverage as their peers. (It might also give you an opportunity to point out that you’ll be covering a relevant topic an issue or two in the future.) In short, there are ways to create balance not just within issues, but across issues.
  • You can start collecting samples to build the case for a creative approach (and maybe request additional funding to help make it as good as it can be).

While this planning tool won’t magically fix every detail of your magazine, it can help you think bigger about its role, and can help you take advantage of a range of different opportunities.

Creating a year-long (or even 18-month long!) roadmap for your magazine can help you truly go on offense with your publication. It can help you ensure that your magazine makes the most of every page, delights your readers, and becomes as valuable and beloved as it deserves to be.