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10 Sacred Cows of Alumni Magazines (And Why You Should Rid Your Pages of Them)
10 Sacred Cows of Alumni Magazines (And Why You Should Rid Your Pages of Them)

A longtime editor reveals his list of wrongfully revered and oft-repeated publication practices, departments, features, and philosophies (and editors of several award-winning college and university magazines agree with him—with one exception)

By Ed Cohen


Stevie Mahardhika

1.The typical editor's column

Are you that editor who helpfully points out stories in the issue that readers shouldn't miss? Stop it. That's what headlines, visuals, and the table of contents are for. Unless you have an amazing tale to tell about how the issue "came together" ("and after we awoke from the mustard gas …"), spare us the confessions of how you roused yourself from the dog days of summer to tackle the fall issue. Or how the staff heroically squeezed in four pages of commencement coverage just hours ahead of the print deadline. Don't write an editor's column to show how cute you look with a pencil tucked behind your ear. Compose one only if you can accomplish what the rest of your magazine is supposed to: Make readers laugh or cry or fume or think. Brian Doyle at the University of Portland makes a habit of this. In the spring 2015 issue of Portland Magazine, he entertains with a vivid recollection of his nervousness at his first time moving into a dorm. He describes hauling an old black steamer trunk up the stairs "just like a man would haul a recalcitrant walrus, with all his might and with no help whatsoever from the walrus."

2. Holding pieces for print

Nearly every alumni magazine's website functions as the electronic display platform for the current issue—after the issue has been printed and mailed, of course—and an archive for past issues. Not for Stanford Business. Since its redesign and relaunch in 2013, the magazine of Stanford University's Graduate School of Business has published content first on the website and then in the printed magazine. The idea, says former editor Michael Freedman, is to share the school's research with a broader audience. And has it ever worked. As Freedman explained at the 2015 CASE Editors Forum, the print edition circulates to 27,000 alumni. But Stanford Business content reached 7 million people in 2014 thanks to digital sharing. Freedman, who recently became chief communications officer and director of alumni relations at the Stanford School of Engineering, predicted "significantly higher" numbers for 2015. He learned from the example of major publishers that had already switched to publishing continuously and not worrying about which channel carried stories first.

3. Commencement

The people responsible for putting on commencement are proud of their work—as they should be—and they expect to see it included in the magazine. Here's why you shouldn't cover it: Most people only care about their own commencement—or maybe their children's or grandchildren's. If they attended the event, they hardly need a summary of what happened. Rarely does something newsworthy happen at commencement. When it does, it will be shared via social media and 24-hour news channels long before your printed magazine arrives in mailboxes. Equally unnecessary is reunion coverage, says Gigi Marino, director of communications and outreach at the University of Florida's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and former editor of Bucknell University's magazine. Her advice: "Move it all online, where you can do lively video interviews and photo galleries."

4. Promotional material

If you work with PR professionals long enough (say, 45 minutes), you'll hear that the magazine's mission is to "tell our story" and show what your institution does well. Communicators, however, should remember this: If you publish content that people don't find entertaining or useful, they won't read, watch, or listen to it. Dale Keiger, editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine and a longtime magazine category judge for CASE's Circle of Excellence Awards, offers this warning: "People do not read promotional material, they do not read advertorial, they do not read reports, they do not read extended sales pitches or mission statements or the institutional message. And we can't make them." If your magazine's modus operandi is to "tell our story" without regard to audience needs and desires, you likely have a happy boss—and a small audience. Your magazine has to do two things: interest readers and advance the institution. If it doesn't do the first, it will never do the second.

5. The books department

This section spotlights new works by alumni and faculty. Even when the content is advertised as book reviews, it never is. Has any alumni magazine ever given books written by faculty members or graduates a negative review? These departments also regularly include self-published novels and dense works of scholarly research. What service does alerting readers to these titles provide? How does this section advance the institution? A better strategy is to highlight or excerpt books with broad enough appeal that your audience will consider them potential reading material. This is the lone sacred cow defended by some of the editors I contacted, likely because these professionals generally are bibliophiles and some are book authors.

6. The vanity Q&A

People might be dying to read an interview with a popular movie director or the president of the United States but not so much one with a new dean or alumni board president. One private university's magazine ran a Q&A with its new provost last winter. Its headline revealed the chief academic officer's intention to focus on "synergy and balance between the humanities and sciences." Another reliable antidote to insomnia is the vanity Q&A's cousin, the roundtable discussion. Ginny McCormick, deputy editor of Stanford Magazine, says these campus staples "don't translate well into print" because they're not succinct. Editors should worry that readers may lose interest the longer a conversation goes on. We all do.

7. The unachieved achievement story

Stories about planned or recently established centers, institutes, schools, or programs are boring because there's no story to tell. These unlaunched or nascent programs "still reside in the imagination," says Kerry Temple, longtime editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Imagined or not, most editors have felt the pressure to publicize the baby elephant's birth. Notre Dame's magazine demonstrated its attitude toward such pieces with a winter 2014–15 story headlined "Hey, we just launched a school of global affairs. Now what?" As article author John Nagy, one of the magazine's associate editors, wrote: "A day will come" when the Donald R. Keough School of Global Affairs (named for a late board chair and mega-benefactor who once headed Coca-Cola) will do great things. But that day lies in the future, Nagy acknowledged, after the center has operated for a while.

8. The stewardship profile

(Or, as one editor describes it, "The Sycophantic Profile of Some Rich Person") "Nine times out of 10, it's just fluff," says Alex Joseph, managing editor of Hue, the alumni magazine of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "It's always all positive. Even in profiles of people with interesting ideas or projects, there's always that gooey graf that reads, ‘And of course I love my alma mater, because I learned everything I needed to know there!' You think readers can't see that for what it is? Whenever I read this kind of thing, I have to go lie down with a damp washcloth over my eyes."

9. The group story

These introduce us to a collection of people with a common bond. Newly hired faculty. Alumni who started microbreweries. Students who testify to the wonders of a particular program. The assumption is that the more people you feature, the more interesting it will be. But these roundups are hard to write and harder to read. Instead, feature an interesting person who represents the point you're trying to make. Such stories have also inspired many regrettable layouts. Earlier this year, one liberal arts college used a group story to spotlight its diversity-minded admissions program. The eight-page spread kicks off with a photo of a student peering over a chalkboard with the yawner of a headline "Inside Perspectives." The piece introduces the reader to seven students, two administrators, and a professor involved with the program. Portraits feature each person either seated on or positioned near a wooden stool and clutching a chalkboard with three written words that describe them. (The recent trend of people holding descriptive signs is a design cliché that makes universities appear preschool-like and unsophisticated. Save this look for the viewbook.)

10. The lousy president's column

This is where your CEO reveals how honored he or she is to lead such a fine institution, how inspiring the faculty and students are, and how the campus's air is wonderfully breathable. One large state university begins each issue with a presidential Q&A reminiscent of Pravda, the mouthpiece publication of the former Soviet Union. The opening question in a recent issue: "The entering class of first-year students once again set a record for academic quality. What does enrolling another exceptional freshman class reveal about the [u]niversity?" Many an editor has lamented seeing their gregarious and witty president evaporate in print (or be lobotomized by an aggressive ghostwriter). As a therapeutic counterexample, show them the musings of University of Puget Sound President Ronald R. "Ron" Thomas in Arches alumni magazine. His piece in the spring 2015 issue weaves together a visit to Washington, D.C., with an album of Bob Dylan covering Frank Sinatra songs, which Thomas listened to on the flight home.

Bonus Cow: Class Notes

Finally, here's one dishonorable mention. Wait, you don't mean the stuff in the back of the magazine that everyone turns to first? Yes, I do. Why get rid of it? Let Bob Bliwise, longtime editor of Duke Magazine, explain. He may be the first editor of a major university's magazine to put this sacred cow out to pasture. But he probably won't be the last. Duke doesn't have class correspondents or secretaries who send in pages of warm, folksy updates on their classmates, so the magazine relies on individual submissions and company press releases. The volume of personal submissions, in particular, has declined, he says. Today, many people prefer to update classmates and other contacts via social media. A contributing factor is that Duke is also rolling out a private social network where alumni will be able to share news and reconnect with campus clubs and fellow graduates. When class notes disappear from Duke Magazine sometime in 2016—a change endorsed by the magazine's editorial advisory board—Bliwise plans to beef up the vacated space with profiles of a particular class, groupings of alumni by activity (mountaineers or chefs, for example), and a column on love and marriage between alumni. Euthanizing a healthy class notes section doesn't make sense. But if yours is dwindling like Duke's is, it may be time to put those pages to better use.

About the Author Ed Cohen

Ed Cohen is the director of marketing and communication for the National Judicial College in Nevada.




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