College and University General Interest Magazines: Penn State Alumni Association - Gold Medal and Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year

Category 17: College and University General Interest Magazines
Penn State Alumni Association, The Penn Stater
Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year

Contact: Tina Hay, editor, Hintz Family Alumni Center, University Park, PA 16802; phone: 814-863-1275; e-mail:

Objectives: Although we have a written mission statement that states it more formally, the overarching objective of The Penn Stater is to be a readable, genuinely interesting--if not irresistible--alumni magazine that strengthens readers’ ties to Penn State.

We do this by being as reader-driven as possible, striving to keep the reader consistently at the forefront of our thinking and planning. We try to remember that no one has to read the magazine. Of course there are some rabid alumni who read it cover to cover the minute it arrives. But we are realistic enough to know they’re in the minority. There are many, many others whose tether to the University isn’t as strong, whose daily schedules are packed, and who are already bombarded with information from the news media, the Web, and every other source imaginable. As a result, we cannot assume that we have our readers’ attention; we assume that we must earn it.

Everything we do flows from this assumption. We’re fussy about the stories we choose to pursue, and about how they are written. We find the best photographers and illustrators we can afford. We also spend an enormous amount of time on titles, subtitles, pull-quotes, and captions, because we know these are the first things that a skim-reader, flipping casually through the magazine, will see. We are saying to the reader, in essence, “Give this story some of your time. You won’t be sorry.”

Again, we do all of this because we know we have to be realistic about what we’re competing with—and realistic about what readers will read and what they’ll pass by.

We try to make the magazine more personal than institutional: We avoid the bland, sometimes stilted language found in new releases and in many alumni magazines. We shun boosterism in our writing; in fact, in assignment letters we often tell writers, “No gushing.” For us the choice of a cover is a design decision, not a political decision. And the editor’s column is always a personal essay (albeit on a universal theme) rather than a guide to what can be found in the current issue. The idea is to make the magazine a friend whom alumni welcome into their home; by extension, they will come to feel that way about Penn State as well.

It’s not that we won’t carry stories that convey institutional messages. It’s just that we try to package them in the form of a compelling, entertaining read. For example, when asked by the athletic department to do an article promoting Penn State’s youth sports camps, we responded by hiring a 48-year-old freelance writer to take part in a baseball camp with the 8-year-olds and write a tongue-in-cheek piece about the experience.

We try to use humor when possible, and even try to be irreverent at times. We ran a chart listing the recent national rankings in which Penn State had fared well--including not only such praiseworthy indicators as “number of alumni in the Peace Corps” but also some more dubious ones, such as “jock school,” “dating town,” and “lots of beer.” A story about construction on campus made a passing mention of one of the advantages of a new student-housing complex: its unobstructed view of Hooters. And a recent feature-length quiz about Penn State faculty expertise took a deliberately light tone, with questions like this one:

In September 2006, astronomers including Penn State’s George Chartas and Gordon Garmire took the first-ever looks inside of:

a) the sun
b) dark matter
c) a quasar
d) a Little Debbie Star Crunch cookie

We want readers to know Penn State is a confident school, one that doesn’t mind poking fun at itself on occasion.

We also are as honest as we can be in reporting about Penn State. Unlike those rare few alumni magazines that are published by an independent foundation, we are not editorially independent of the University. So we must constantly make the case to the administration that giving readers an accurate picture of Penn State “both the good news and the bad” enhances the magazine’s credibility, and in turn the credibility of the university. Obviously part of our mission is to make people “Penn State Proud”; we simply believe that one way of doing that is to show that Penn State is a confident school, unafraid to take and honest look at its own challenges and problems. Thus we didn’t shy away from reporting, for example, in our Nov/Dec 2006 issue on the University’s controversial acquisition of the Dickinson School of Law. That story included this sentence:

Even now, some graduates still rail against the loss of that independent status; a blog titled “Dickinson vs. Penn State” ( offers “all the sordid details of the extremely messy marriage of a fine old independent law school to a second-rate football factory in Happy Valley.”

Similarly, in our July/Aug 2006 issue (enclosed as part of this entry) we devoted nearly a full page in the Sports section to controversies surrounding Penn State’s women’s basketball coach. Other recent articles have focused on problems with race relations on campus, accusations of liberal bias in the faculty’s teaching, and efforts to clean up the university’s troubled Greek system. Often such stories present an opportunity to set the issue in a national context—showing that Penn State is not the only school struggling with the issue—and to explain the steps that the University is taking to address it.

Results: For the past nine years we have sent a survey to a randomly selected group of readers after each issue. The results indicate that The Penn Stater is a magazine that readers consistently rate highly and on which they have come to depend. For example:

—When we ask readers what they consider to be their best source of information about Penn State and present them with a list of choices in random order, 60 percent choose The Penn Stater magazine - more than four times as many as the next closest answer, the World Wide Web (14 percent).

—When we ask them how much they agree or disagree with this statement, “Reading The Penn Stater strengthens my connection to Penn State” 58 percent agree, and another 25 percent strongly agree.

—More than two-thirds (69 percent) of respondents rate the magazine’s quality as either “good” or “very good,” with another 27 percent rating it “excellent.”

The results also reveal how readers respond to specific covers, departments, and stories. We have learned, for example, that readers crave news of Penn State sports. While many alumni magazines don’t even have a sports section, we’ve found that it is consistently one of our top departments in readership. More than half of respondents say they read it (as opposed to skimming it or skipping it altogether, their other response choices). Sports articles in the feature section always score high as well, as do human-interest stories, which can garner readership numbers as high as 80 percent. We also know that the From the Editor column is among our most-read departments, and that research is a tougher sell. All of this feedback helps inform our editorial planning.

Other indicators of our success include our advertising revenue, which is on track to reach $300,000 this year—surpassing last year’s record-breaking $257,000—and the nearly 100 national awards we have received from such organizations as UCDA, Communication Arts, the Association of Educational Publishers, and the Association for Women in Communications.

We also know we have succeeded when we receive unsolicited comments such as these from our readers:

—“We admire The Penn Stater; you really know your audience, speak to them clearly, and package the whole thing with style.”

—“The Penn Stater magazine is like a course in continuing education for me as I read it from cover to cover.”

And this from a colleague at another university:

—“The Penn Stater is one of our ‘wannabe’ magazines around here … the magazine we wannabe.”

Staffing: Fulltime: one editor, two senior editors, one associate editor, one art director, one utility infielder (serving as production coordinator, advertising manager, and class news editor), one staff assistant. Quarter-time: one copy editor.

Audience: Dues-paying members of the Penn State Alumni Association
Frequency: Bimonthly
Average pages per issue: 80-96
Circulation: 159,000
Total annual budget: $524,600, excluding salaries and postage
Average cost per issue: $87,400
Unit cost: 67 cents