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Think Different

The first commandment for adapting your alumni magazine to cyberspace

By Charles Creekmore


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Online alumni magazines require a significantly different approach compared with their print counterparts. Online magazines are best suited as quick-stop information services that supplement but don't duplicate the print version. Experts recommend cutting down on feature articles and photo spreads and emphasizing useful links, timely news updates, unlimited class notes, chat groups, bulletin boards, audio or video feeds, and direct links to authors and professors. The article includes case studies from University of Chicago; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Middlebury College.

Think different. That's the terse advice of communications consultant Michael Stoner on the subject of putting a print publication online. If you're one of the many alumni magazine editors forging into the parallel universe of cyberspace, this piece of advice ought to become your mantra.

The reality is that many editors today are not thinking differently enough. Online alumni magazines, by and large, have turned out looking like either Reader's Digest versions of their print parents or over-designed imitations that are all dressed up with no place to go.

"The fundamental problem is that most editors who are publishing online magazines still feel bound to the print format they're familiar with," says Stoner, vice president for new media at Lipman Hearne. "They continue to think of online magazines as objects made up of a set number of pages with the same space, time, money, and content constraints found in the print world."

Stoner contends that a totally different Web publication — one that isn't the virtual stepchild of its print forerunner — will serve editors and their readers much better.

"Editors need to look at the two different media and ask themselves, 'How can I use the Internet in the best way possible, and how can I use print in the best way possible?' " Stoner says.

Print magazines remain the better means to present full-length feature stories and showcase outstanding design and photography, drawing readers in for extended visits with the publication's content, Stoner says.

Online magazines, on the other hand, are best suited as quick-stop information services that supplement — but don't duplicate — the print periodical.

Stoner asks editors to envision an alumni magazine Web site filled with short, useful hypertext links; timely news updates; unlimited class notes; and plenty of interactive opportunities. The online magazine of the near future will have fewer feature articles and photo spreads and more chat groups, bulletin boards, listservs, audio or video feeds, and direct links to authors and professors. Full-text articles will be available, but in a searchable database, not as part of an issue that appears online each time the print magazine is published.

"I'm waiting for institutions to become bold enough to really embrace the Web," Stoner says.

Many of us feel like we're more than bold when we take those first halting steps to get our magazines on the Web — in any form that's not totally embarrassing. And, of course, boldness is not the only challenge. Editors also face staffing, time, and budget issues when taking their publications online, Stoner says.

As online alumni magazines evolve, however, and a growing number of wired alumni start expecting them, more editors will find the means to develop cyber pubs that take advantage of the timeliness and interactivity the Web offers. What follows are stories from three campuses that have had their magazines on the Web for a few years and are starting to take the bold steps necessary to raise their publications to the next level.

University of Chicago: An unusual, yet familiar, Web tale

Mary Ruth Yoe, editor of the University of Chicago Magazine, says it was serendipity that brought her publication online in 1994.

While her then-husband was recovering from an operation, he decided to pass his week of bed rest by combining his alumni magazine experience (he used to edit Middlebury Magazine) with skills he learned in a one-day Web publishing workshop at Northwestern University. At week's end, the University of Chicago Magazine was on the Web.

While a seemingly unusual process for going online, the magazine's path to the Web is not unlike that of many university publications: a spurt of effort and creativity during a brief window of opportunity. Since the site's inception, Yoe has made a constant effort to tweak its overall design and capitalize on the Web's advantages over print. That is, she has been thinking differently about the two forms of her publication. Yoe uses the Web version of University of Chicago magazine for four primary functions:

  • an online archive of past issues;
  • a searchable directory (by class year) of class notes;
  • a means to deliver news to overseas alumni more quickly than by mail; and
  • a convenient avenue for alumni to submit letters to the editor, address changes, class news, or obituaries.

Working with the university's alumni association, Yoe would eventually like to take further advantage of the Web's immediacy by offering and updating weekly news blurbs, photos, sound bites, and video clips on the site. Other features she foresees are online Q-and-A sessions with University of Chicago professors and a chat room for alumni. Of course, some of these innovations might not happen, she jokes, until she can pad her four-person staff with some of the 200 pros who produce the daily Sports Illustrated Web site.

From her five years' experience in Web publishing, Yoe says she has found that the basic requirements for producing a publication online are editorial savvy, design experience, technical ability, and time. One other less-obvious ingredient is taste, as Yoe discovered once her former husband went back to teaching and she had to farm out the production of her online magazine to an off-campus operation. The first issue designed by the contractor went online with an animated version of her print magazine cover — complete with a bouncing Barney the dinosaur.

"That's not us," she says about such gimmicks.

Since then, she has worked continuously to refine the publication's online image and ensure its consistency with the university's overall character and mission.

Yoe reports that online publishing methods are leaching into every aspect of her print production. In the past few years, for example, she has cut the length of print articles in half and introduced more sidebars, subheads, and sub-departments that echo hypertext links on the Web. These changes reflect what she calls "the sound-biting of America" — packaging information in small nuggets to satisfy the short attention spans of Web users and tv watchers.

Yoe's approach agrees with that of Web "usability guru" Jakob Nielsen, whose studies show that 79 percent of Web users scan rather than read. Nielsen also found that sites improve their usability by 124 percent when: (1) online articles contain half the number of words of print writing; (2) text is presented in inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion; and (3) paragraphs contain no more than one idea.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst: Agreeing to disagree on design

While doing research for this article, I went looking for some controversy related to Web vs. print design within my own shop at um Amherst. I hoped to drum up some good copy by luring UMass Magazine print designer Elizabeth Pols and our unit's Web designer, Ralph Loos, into a disagreement over design quality and approach in each medium. If all went well, I schemed, the interview might even turn into a fistfight.

Unfortunately for my plan, both designers agreed that print publications and the Web should not follow the same design philosophies. Apparently, they subscribe to Stoner's "think different" adage. If the writing and organization of a print publication change significantly when traveling from print to cyberspace, they reasoned, then its design should also change.

When Pols designs the print version of UMass Magazine, she has such elements as fonts, leading, headlines, illustrations, photos, and textual shapes at her disposal. She can orchestrate a seemingly endless variety of page spreads using a top hat full of graphic tricks.

In contrast, the choice of effective design elements for a Web site is limited to "the stuff you learn in design 101," Loos says: the heading, placement of graphics, and how text flows and breaks.

"A designer has very little artistic control over the Web," he explains. "Every Web visitor has a different-size window and different default fonts. People have different computer equipment, load times, and browsers. It's all a crap shoot for the Web designer. My attitude is to keep the Web site tasteful, but minimal."

Because the medium limits design options, the risk of compensating by "over-designing" on the Web is high. Both designers agree on the first sign of over-design: Your page takes longer than 30 seconds to load on a high-end machine. One example of over-design that can add considerably to load times is patterned backgrounds. While a well-intended attempt to introduce more visual variety, these wallpapers usually amount to no more than clutter.

Pols' pet Web design peeve is seeing several elements — such as a photo, a box, and paragraph of type — and not knowing which she should click on to get where she wants to go. The designers agree that simplicity should be the code word for everything from page design to graphics to links.

"Basically," Loos says, "if you're doing things on the Web just because you can, then you're over-designing."

Many elements you want to translate from print to the Web will require entirely different treatment. The cover of a print magazine, for example, has a much different purpose than the home page of a magazine Web site. The print magazine cover is intended to capture readers' attention, provide them with some idea of the publication's content, and entice them to open the magazine. The home page is a combination cover, table of contents, and map. It's meant not only to lure readers inside but also to guide them through the site and show them they're in good hands, not unlike a welcome center at the entrance to a campus.

One final tip from the UM Amherst designers is to include an obvious identifier for the magazine site on every page, because — unlike a print piece — you can never predict where people might be entering your Web site or if they know exactly where they have landed once they get there.

I did get Pols and Loos to lock horns on one issue: whether the contrasts between print and Web designs indicate a generation gap.

"I think there is a gap," says print designer Pols, "judging by my own reluctance to learn Web mechanics and my own distaste for all the gimmicks."

Meanwhile, Web designer Loos thinks these discrepancies point not so much to a generation gap as a medium gap.

"Take Wired magazine," he says. "I think there are people in their 70s who would love that magazine and people in their 20s who would hate it. Design is an aesthetic: Some people are going to like Web design and others won't."

Middlebury College: Mother is the necessity of invention

Middlebury Magazine Editor Rachel Morton describes herself as the mother figure who brought her Web site into this world, and, by golly, she's going to take it out, too. Out into the far reaches of cyberspace, that is. As a one-person shop, Morton conceived, developed, and delivered her site to the extended Middlebury community.

"I put the magazine on the Web because I couldn't afford not to," she says. "Not having a Web presence would have been admitting I didn't have it together enough to deal with the new technology."

By surfing through other institutions' Web magazines, she knew the two things she didn't want in her own: slow-loading graphics and articles with endless copy.

With those ideas in mind, Morton sat down on the floor of her office and sketched simulated Web pages on pieces of paper, spreading them out as if the Internet were a three-dimensional journey. After a while, her office resembled a board game run amok.

"What I tried to envision," she says, "is a site in its literal sense, a place where I was welcoming people. And it had to have a consistent and friendly identity."

What she created was an online magazine that many people regard as a prototype for other editors who are considering the possibilities of the new medium. Alumni who visit the site find a series of clear options marked by boxes with a rustic woodcut look. Some of the stories from the print magazine appear in a much shorter form on the Web version. Photos that play a large and important role in the print publication are subsidiary online.

The "friendliness" Morton courted is built into the Web site through interactivity. Alumni can connect in a chat room called middtalk and locate classmates' e-mail addresses in an alumni directory. They can easily submit class notes, send a letter to the editor, or forward comments directly to an author's e-mail address. The site also includes standing links to the college Web site and online Vermont weather forecasts as well as off-campus sites with interesting information related to the magazine's content.

Morton takes advantage of the timely nature of the Web by occasionally refreshing news articles or adding interesting stories that may be in progress for a future issue of the print magazine. In this sense, as she says, her site is losing its character as a "periodical" and mutating into more of a "continuadical."

Morton is looking forward to introducing more audio and video features into her site, such as recorded speeches by her college president or even live concerts and lectures as they happen on campus.

Her advice for editors venturing into cyberspace? "Just sticking your entire magazine, page by page, on the Internet can be really daunting, but it's a good first step. Eventually, however, you need to take a little breather and think about what your magazine means, who's using it, and what more you can offer alumni over the Web. This is all about offering useful, easy-to-access information."

Morton is not even averse to electronic bells and whistles, quite literally, if they make a site friendlier and more fun. Visitors to Middlebury Magazine Online can click to listen to a college a capella group sing a few bars or watch a banner wave in the breeze from the college bell tower.

This particular feature recalls how my college poetry professor used to inspire us to change our outlook on life. "Don't hear the bell," he would say. "Be the bell."

It was his own poetic way of reminding us to "Think different." That same advice tolls for thee as well.

About the Author Charles Creekmore

Charles Creekmore is senior writer for university advancement at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His free-lance work has appeared in Psychology Today, Omni, Modern Maturity, the New York Times, and many other publications.

 

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