College and University Magazines

Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year

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.

College and University General Interest Magazines with Circulations of 29,999 and Fewer

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.

Gold Medal

Kenyon College, (Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin)

  • More than any other entry in this year’s competition, Kenyon’s magazine used its resources wisely, devoting the resources that were essential to capture compelling stories. The judges noted that, had time allowed, they would have read the Kenyon issues cover to cover. (One commented that it felt good just to hold it and look at it.) The editor took a risk with a cover story based on a journal kept by a recent grad during his first year of teaching — and the risk paid off, resulting in an emotional, honest portrayal with an unexpected ending. The decision to commit to long-term, documentary photo coverage for the story also impressed the judges. That cover story was only one of dozens of wise decisions represented throughout the issues. The content has a voice and a quirky personality that immediately helps a reader connect to this college. Finally, in using the magazine as a jumping-off point for coverage of world events, the editors highlighted the expansive vision of the college.
    The magazine’s graphic design does everything right. It’s clean and easy to read, and even weaker visual content is handled gracefully. The art director on the judging panel noted that Kenyon’s magazine passed his test with flying colors: it made him think, “Damn! I wish I had done that.”

Silver Medal

Fashion Institute of Technology, (Hue)

  • Hue, the institute’s magazine, is a striking publication. It’s content, though very New York-fashion centric, strongly portrays the school’s mission and is a perfect fit for its school, doing an excellent job of speaking to its audience. The design is edgy and confident, and the judges were impressed by how easily Hue could compete among consumer fashion magazines. They also noted the magazine’s unique take on the world of fashion, going beyond the superficial to, for example, delve into the subject of mannequins in an original way. (The judges were envious, in fact, of the opportunity to cover such a story.) The “One Question, Many Answers” poll draws readers in, although its location seems to jump around a bit in the magazine.
    The panel noted one particular weakness: the magazine missed an opportunity to tie fashion into other aspects of the world. This somewhat insular point of view earned the magazine a silver award, instead of gold.

Bronze Medals

Carleton College, (Carleton College Voice)

  • Carleton creates a really strong magazine — despite working within a more limited budget than some entries. The judges noted the magazine’s engaging design, its energetic feel, and its willingness to feature alternative story forms. Informing readers about the volleyball team using a double-truck photo of the team’s locker room, with information conveyed with brief pullouts, was an entertaining, quick read. So was the magazine’s creative coverage of a table setting as a way to introduce readers to the president’s residence. An article on weathering the economic storm was eye-catching and practical, and Carleton’s highlighting of Web extras throughout the book struck just the right note: subtle enough not to be intrusive, but large enough to be noticeable. Two areas need attention if Carleton wants to compete at a higher level in a future competition: the cover designs need to be as compelling as the inside pages, and headlines and decks could be clearer: in some cases, it was difficult to tell what the features were about.

Pomona College, (Pomona College Magazine)

  • Pomona produces a personable magazine with superb covers and a remarkable breadth of topics. Fresh, engaging design and elegant photography combine with compelling content and strong feature writing to create a very solid publication. The judges were impressed with the editor’s risky decision to run a photo of Richard Nixon on the cover — instead of a photo of the candidate he beat, who happens to be a Pomona alumnus. The risk paid off handsomely, and Pomona’s story development skills shine through with the “what if?” angle of the story. This type of story gives readers the idea that this magazine is going to be bringing them the world, and not just little old Pomona. The judges also loved the clever teasers on the back covers that promoted a particular story inside the magazine. In particular, a feature on 47 ways to save money was both practical and entertaining. Although Pomona does theme issues, the stories do not seem forced, and the topics were varied enough that judges were initially unaware that each issue was organized around a particular theme.

College and University General Interest Magazines with Circulations of 30,000 to 74,999

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.

Gold Medal

Princeton University, (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

  • It was the “influential alumni” issue that won us over, with its compulsively readable fly-on-the-wall report about panelists arguing the merits of Nader vs. Donald Rumsfeld, and its outstanding biographical essays. The ToCs in both issues submitted to us caused us to stop, read, and then turn to the pages indicated; of course, this is a ToC’s raison d’être, but it’s so hard to achieve in real life. The clincher was that both issues tackled the tough topics head on—by including, for instance, student criticisms of the new drinking policy and of the “isolation and distinct marginalization” Latinos experience on campus.

Silver Medals

Middlebury College, (Middlebury Magazine)

  • The beautiful and elegant design is fully worthy of the beautiful and elegant prose. We couldn’t help poring over the graphic spread on what is usually the least fascinating topic of all: commencement. The use of student fiction and alumni writing on poetry elevated the intellectual level and brought in true artistry, but the overall quality of the writing is outstanding.

Suffolk University, (Suffolk Alumni Magazine)

  • In profiling an alum whose career as a Las Vegas celebrity lawyer is widely regarded as sleazy, the magazine took a political and editorial risk. Its witty, slightly tongue-in-cheek piece was a beautiful solution. And a feature about an alumni paramedic wrestling over a “do not resuscitate” order issued by a parent—for a youngster who had begged to be saved—was an extremely moving read. In general, the writing was outstanding and the photos creative.

Bronze Medals

The Alumnae Association of Smith College, (Smith Alumnae Quarterly)

  • The stories were interesting, the writing fresh, and the angles new. (“How She Got that Job” is a far better approach to alumnae’s professions than the usual Q&A department.) The election issue featured many terrific, grabby ledes. And any alumnae/i magazine bold enough to put student complaints about race issues on its front cover, and allow students plenty of space to voice those complaints in their own words, deserves kudos.

Dartmouth College, (Dartmouth Alumni Magazine)

  • Stunning design, with outstanding covers and illustrations—especially of Stephen Colbert, which were drop-dead funny. The strikingly beautiful, expertly written story on the alumna who has devoted her life to wildlife was a compelling crowd-pleaser. The front of the book is infallibly creative—a must-read section. And, as much as any magazine we saw, Dartmouth’s editors seem to have a sense of its alumni and their relationship with their alma mater.

College and University General Interest Magazines with Circulations of 75,000 or Greater

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.

Gold Medals

King's College, University of London, In Touch

  • The judges enjoyed InTouch’s fun and fresh design. It seemed as though the editors had tossed out most conventions in college/university magazine design to create a magazine tailored to a young, sophisticated audience. It’s lively, chock full of fun graphics, and easy to read. InTouch reminded us that while many college and university magazines are skillfully designed and pleasing to view, our magazines do not tend to be leaders in design innovation. A little more verve might be a good thing.

Stanford University, (Stanford)

  • Stanford’s cover stories (“How the West Has Won” and “Reality Check: Can Virtual Identity Change you for Good”) would compete against any of the best commercial magazines on the newsstand. Packed with highly readable content about the institution and excellent photography, Stanford also engages its readers in national issues of significant scope—befitting the institution’s role as one of the world’s top research universities. The judges were impressed by the sheer intellectual heft of Stanford.

Silver Medal

Notre Dame University, (Notre Dame)

  • In its “Kids These Days” issue, Notre Dame presented the most vibrant, eye-catching cover of any magazine in this category. The judges also appreciated the significant effort the editors made in that issue to get a handle on a difficult topic — capturing generational change — and doing it in a typical Notre Dame way: substantively versus superficially.

Bronze Medals

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.