College and University General Interest Magazines: Columbia College Chicago - Silver Medal

Category 17: College and University General Interest Magazines
Columbia College Chicago, Demo

Contact: Ann Wiens, director, college communications/editor, Institutional Advancement, 600 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 400, Chicago, IL 60605-1996, Phone: (312) 344-8631, e-mail:

Objectives: Columbia College Chicago is an arts and media college located in a series of vintage office buildings in downtown Chicago. It embraces its independent spirit and urban grit. It trumpets its generous admissions policy and takes pride in the creativity of its students, alumni, faculty, and staff. The core of the college’s lengthy mission statement—the part that inspires faculty and draws creative students from the top high schools across the country and Chicago’s inner-city public schools alike—is captured in the line:

“Columbia’s intent is to educate students who will communicate creatively and shape the public’s perception of issues and events, and who will author the culture of their times.”

Our tag line is “create…change.” Columbia’s mission is to teach students to engage fully in their world—to actively create culture, not passively consume it. Demo magazine was launched in September 2005 to show—rather than tell—the world how our alumni, students, faculty, and staff are doing just that.

We do this through stories that demonstrate the creative contributions our alumni are making to their fields—dancers, actors, photojournalists, painters, writers, sports-arena scoreboard directors, poets, editorial cartoonists, radio announcers, broadcast journalists, teachers, fashion designers, filmmakers—we’ve brought the work of all of them to our readers in our four short issues so far. Our second issue featured an article profiling several graduates of our television department who are now in key positions at CNN, quite literally shaping the public’s perception of issues and events, as our mission states. Talking to our writer, they described their individual roles in bringing up-to-the-minute coverage of Hurricane Katrina to CNN viewers, and even of shining the camera lights on rooftops to assist the rescue workers, and pulling people into boats, to safety.

We also include stories about the college’s long—but little-known—history. Although Columbia College was founded in 1890, as recently as the early 1970s the school was unaccredited, held classes in a single rented warehouse space, and had fewer than 200 students. Today, the school is fully accredited, occupies 16 buildings in the heart of downtown Chicago’s vibrant South Loop, and has an enrollment of 11,500 students—a figure that has jumped by more than 35 percent in the past six years. One of our most popular stories looked back at that largely forgotten history. Starting with a handful of old letters written by alumni in the 1950s (and retrieved from a trash can during campus renovations!), we tracked down several alums of the school’s radio program who graduated in the 1940s, asked a current local radio personality (and part-time faculty member) to interview them, and presented a snapshot of their careers alongside the original letters. It was a poignant story about a school that dates back to (and was named for) Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, although many people, even on campus, think it was founded in the 1960s.

We also publish stories about our students and campus today. With such explosive enrollment growth, the school is sometimes hardly recognizable even to those who graduated as little as a decade ago, and we want to excite them about today’s Columbia, and encourage their active participation in the life of the college—to bring them, literally and figuratively, back to campus.

We celebrate the creative contributions of the entire Columbia community, past and present, and demonstrate the institution’s active engagement with the life of the city, the vibrancy and creative energy of our campus learning environment, and the progressive nature of our campus culture and curriculum.

Among the objectives set before Demo, a brand-new magazine launched at an institution with an inconsistent history of maintaining contact with its alumni, was a threefold challenge of engagement: 1) to maintain the connection that new graduates feel with the school, 2) to re-engage alumni of the past decade or so who may feel neglected by the institution, and 3) to instill a new sense of pride among older alumni at the legacy they helped produce.

The magazine is modeled more closely after an arts and culture publication than a traditional alumni magazine, with the goal of supporting the college’s mission of educating creative professionals.

In addition to the objectives mentioned above, we have set a goal to produce a publication that is completely created by members of the college community. Since we are educating students “to be creative communicators,” and have robust programs in journalism and photography, we assign nearly all freelance work to alumni, student, faculty, or staff writers and photographers. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to showcase the work not only of an article’s subject, but of its author and photographer as well.

Staffing and use of resources: Demo is staffed by one editor and one designer who each devote approximately 20 percent of their time to the publication. A freelance editorial assistant (an alum of our journalism program) helps with copyediting and proofreading each issue, and members of the marketing and communication team contribute writing (in addition to that contributed by freelancers).

The use of freelancers is inextricably linked with the objectives of the publication itself. As we present stories about the college and its alumni, we showcase the work of additional alumni (as well as students, faculty, and staff) as writers and photographers. Our aim as an institution is to educate professions in these fields. If we’re doing our job, then we’d better be able to find first-rate professionals within our alumni and campus communities (and we do).

We’ve streamlined the production of the magazine so that we can spend less on printing and postage, and save our budget for great writing and photography.

  • We print on a web press. Given the importance of art and photography to the school and to this publication, we did not make this decision lightly, as web presses often produce lower-quality results than do sheet-fed. We are working with an excellent printer in Wisconsin, however, which has consistently provided the quality we demand at a lower cost than sheet-fed printing would allow.
  • We print locally (three hours away), thus saving on shipping and travel costs.
  • We use a relatively inexpensive paper stock. This was an easy decision, as a fancy, thick, glossy stock would not appropriately covey the gritty, urban vibe of the college. We chose a stock that would hold the ink and do justice to the artwork, while not appearing lavish.
  • We don’t use envelopes or polybags; we mail directly from the printer in Wisconsin using nonprofit-rate bulk mail, and we keep the magazine within standard size limitations to save on postage. A bonus to this approach is that readers get their magazines sooner, as we’re not spending time shipping them to the Chicago post office!

Audiences: Demo magazine is intended for an audience of alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of Columbia College. The admissions office has received overwhelmingly positive response to the magazine, so we now send it to prospective students as well.

Frequency: Three times per year

Average pages per issue: 48 plus cover (recently expanded from 40)

Circulation: 60,000

Annual budget: $156,000

Cost per issue: $52,000

Unit cost: $.87

Response/results: Historically, Columbia College Chicago has not done a good job of communicating with its alumni, or even with its own faculty and staff. The launch of Demo (in fall 2005), and the planning that preceded it, indicated a new commitment on the part of the administration to develop and sustain an alumni/ college periodical, but the college community was not used to, or expecting, regular communication. With the publication of the first issue, we received a flurry of kudos and well wishes, mostly expressing gratitude that the college was investing in such an effort, and that the result was a publication that truly reflected the creative culture of the college. This was encouraging, but not really measurable.

By spring 2006, when time for the annual all-staff convocation rolled around, we had published two issues. When the vice president of institutional advancement mentioned the launch of Demo during his remarks about his area’s accomplishments for the year, the room erupted in spontaneous applause. It was the only thing in any of the VP’s speeches that elicited such a response. This pleased (and somewhat surprised) us. But it’s hardly quantifiable.

With the publication of our third issue in fall 2006, we decided to conduct our first reader survey and see what a broader spectrum of our intended audience thought of the magazine. The survey, conducted online, comprised 23 questions in five sections. It was available online for approximately one month, and was advertised in the magazine, in an e-mail blast to alumni, in an e-mail announcement to faculty and staff, and through postcards distributed at a local alumni event.

Of those who responded, 69 percent were degreed alumni, 22 percent were faculty/staff, and five percent were former students. Following are some of what we found to be the more significant results of the survey:

  • Thirty-eight percent spend more than half an hour reading the magazine
  • Forty-eight percent read most of each issue; another 25 percent read more than half of it
  • Forty-four percent said that more than half of their information about the college comes from reading Demo
  • Readership (those who reported actually reading each issue) increased 43 percent over the course of the three published issues, even though issue three was sent to 30,000 fewer individuals than issue one.
  • When asked to rate various aspects of the magazine on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent), respondents rated every category listed as 3.6 (good+) or better. Highest marks went to photos and artwork, graphic design, representation of the college, and quality of writing.

Many readers took the opportunity to offer their own comments after completing the survey. Following is a sampling of what they had to say:

  • “We showcase success that's real, that's big-time, and that exceeds the expectations some alumni have of the college they used to know.” [note that the writer used “we” in this comment—we loved that!]
  • “I enjoy feeling connected to Columbia through the magazine. There are some amazing stories and it makes me proud of my school.”
  • “It’s a beautiful publication and I think it is trying to find its niche...almost like Columbia, no? The quality and level of the publication layout and writing is extremely high and is not only far better than other Columbia publications, it's far better than any alumni magazines I see or receive. It's got a Vanity Fair/Wallpaper quality that is fun and more of that would in my view be welcome. Why should Columbia do a boring old alumni magazine? That's not what Columbia is supposed to be about!”
  • “It feels like a slice of how Columbia seems to be NOW.”

Responses ran overwhelmingly toward the positive, with most critical comments asking for more pages per issue (we’ve added eight), an online version of the magazine (we’ve launched one), and greater frequency of publication (we’re still working on that one).