Grand Gold Medal
Kenyon College, (Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin)
The gold-medal–winning magazine entries in this year’s Circle of Excellence presented the Sibley Award judges with a high level of overall excellence in writing, editing, design, and production. The judges saw that one or more of these elements is an underlying strength of each of these magazines, but the Kenyon College Bulletin had them all.
Kenyon had undergone a redesign in 2002 that brought about dramatic improvement in the look and architecture of the magazine. Building on this impressive visual foundation, stronger editing and writing have recently led to a publication that is firing on all cylinders.
Kenyon plays skillfully on two elements of the small liberal arts college experience shared by the college’s alumni—a deep emotional attachment to Kenyon’s educational ethos and an abiding sense of place. By combining past and present on a palette of carefully calibrated stories, the magazine mixes deep tones of memory with a bright reassurance that present-day Kenyon, though it may be different in many ways from what alumni experienced, is inextricable from its storied past.
The clean design, executed on snow-white uncoated paper, encourages an elegant balance between art and editorial. The magazine’s architecture is comfortably traditional, but is punctuated by innovative departments such as “Doors of Kenyon,” “Hot Sheet,” and “Burning Question.”
Feature stories in the two issues submitted fulfill the magazine’s stated goal of conveying Kenyon’s “beauty, fun, quirkiness, and academic rigor” in addition to the college’s reputation as “a small place to think big thoughts.” Cover packages included a recent graduate’s experience in Teach for America, told in diary form and documented by professional photographs, and an innovative and intellectually challenging approach to treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder exemplify the college’s engagement with the world. The latter was coupled with powerful profiles of Kenyon alumni who have served recently in the U.S. military.
On a more personal level, the magazine marked the death of Kenyon alumnus Paul Newman with a perfectly calibrated remembrance illustrated by never-before-seen photos of the young actor. And it commemorated a campus fire that killed nine students 60 years ago with a compelling package of personal remembrances of the tragedy. No Kenyon alumnus (the college was all-male in those days) could fail to be moved by either of these stories.
There is some space in Kenyon that could be devoted to better purposes. The book review section is unnecessarily long, a page of “Kenyon in the media” is gratuitously puffy, and the use of the inside back cover for a list of important people squanders important real estate. Tightening or eliminating some of these elements might allow for another feature or department that more readers could enjoy.
But overall, the Kenyon College Bulletin is to be congratulated on its rapid ascent from the ranks of the ordinary to the smaller company of the extraordinary among college and university magazines.
There were more good magazines than the judges expected to find. Some of the small-school magazines would have been good magazines for schools boasting a quarter-million alumni. Successful entries gave an outstanding first impression, starting with the cover subject and design. From the moment they picked up these magazines, the judges knew they would be worth their time to read.
The best of the magazines had unexpected content and were not afraid to use alternative story forms. They took a world view in their coverage, and the judges suspected that people would want to read them whether they knew anything about the school or not. These winning magazines also offer a personality and a distinct narrative tone within their pages.
They took risks with both editorial and design, and their design was fresh and not pedestrian. They used a lot of white space, and they also made good use of painted space (black or red).
Some of the entries either did text or design well, but not both. The bad ones used design that showed a lack of restraint. Perhaps one-third or more of the entries had brutally bad design. Before entering another competition, they should take a look at other magazines and ask themselves, “Are we at least this good?” The other 70 percent were pretty competent.
The bad magazines aren’t thinking about the reader much, but either about the subject (as with a donor profile) or the school. They had a sense of self-absorption. They should ask themselves, “What would I want to read if I were a reader, or if I didn’t go to this school?” In reviewing these magazines, time and time again the judges had to ask, “Who else besides top administrators would care about this content?” The answer: No one.
Another failing was dry, boring writing that represented a school that was taking itself far too seriously. One of the rewards of graduating from college is the ability to read for pleasure, to escape academic fare that was assigned reading. The less successful entries in this competition featured ponderous, academic writing — or, on the other end of the spectrum — pages and pages of grip-and-grin photos paired with captions that did nothing but identify attendees at yet another special fundraising event.
Kenyon College, (Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin)
Fashion Institute of Technology, (Hue)
Carleton College, (Carleton College Voice)
Pomona College, (Pomona College Magazine)
Our judging panel met for two lengthy and spirited sessions over a two-week period. First, we whittled the 48 entries in this category down to a group of 10 finalists. This proved a depressingly easy task. The typical entry had an attractive design and clear signs in several articles of a thoughtful and creative editorial team at work—yet was rendered anodyne by front-of-the-book articles, and even feature stories that read like lists of talking points. Headlines like “Century of Progress,” “Alumni Make a Difference,” and “Preparing for the Future” abounded (rephrased; we have no wish to embarrass anyone by making our criticisms Googlable). The text of these items was even less inviting. One magazine opened with a full-spread essay about the rewards of giving to the alumni fund. Many articles lacked real leads and instead began with statements like, “In the past X years, the university has achieved significant growth/change/improvement.”
From the better content elsewhere in these publications, it’s clear the editors would cover these issues with more flair, and produce much more inviting magazines, if they had a freer editorial hand. The administrators who require these kinds of articles clearly want alumni to understand the university’s most important priorities, yet don’t realize that predictable content will simply drive readers away. For anyone who cares about higher education—especially public institutions, whose magazines were most prone to these problems—this is a very troubling state of affairs.
Nevertheless, the judges found much to admire, and not just in the medalists. Columbia College’s magazine had an especially fine design and some very good articles, including a remarkable piece on voguing, by a professional dance critic. The College of Charleston was enlivened throughout by a wonderful sense of humor. We loved NC State’s “36 Things We Love”—design and text both. Barry offered profiles of an undercover cop and a female prison warden; who wouldn’t stop to read those? The University of Iowa’s photo essay on student tattoos was exquisite, and we commend the editor for being upfront about the coach who refused to allow students on his team to be photographed.
The medalists were handsomely produced and compellingly written. The best had one additional quality: courage in covering their institution. A complaint heard too often in our discussions was “This magazine is not honest enough.” A publication doesn’t need to foment controversy, but it fails its readers when it deliberately ducks bad news. Franker reporting would have improved matters in many cases, as would the occasional inclusion of critical opinion about the institutional policies and events covered.
Princeton University, (Princeton Alumni Weekly)
Middlebury College, (Middlebury Magazine)
Suffolk University, (Suffolk Alumni Magazine)
The Alumnae Association of Smith College, (Smith Alumnae Quarterly)
Dartmouth College, (Dartmouth Alumni Magazine)
The judges were pleased by the overall quality of the entries. Many editors cited their dedication to readers and their recognition that they face considerable competition for reader attention. Our impression is that overall quality of entries to this category has improved markedly over time.
King's College, University of London, In Touch
Stanford University, (Stanford)
Notre Dame University, (Notre Dame)
We awarded bronze medals to Columbia Magazine and Duke Magazine. Both offer an abundance of serious, engaging content and solid design. We applauded Duke for its “Crime Happens” feature, a candid look at the difficult topic of campus safety.
There were plenty of other strong magazines in this category—Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Penn Stater, and Tufts, to name just a few that caught the judges’ eyes. At the same time, it’s clear that a large press run doesn’t necessarily equate to higher quality, and some editors in this category should take a hard look at what they are doing in comparison to winning entries.