Embracing Tough Topics

And shying away from safe and fun editorial.
Spray-painted graffiti smiley face on a wall.

Alumni magazines have a unique editorial role that is different from consumer magazines. Connected to an institution, rather than a topic, an alumni magazine must engage a broad readership of interests and ideologies. It is a publication rooted primarily in storytelling—of alumni, faculty, research, campus, and history. And the best ones take on tough topics that challenge their readers to think and engage. 

Higher education institutions are inherently places where faculty challenge students to question the status quo and take risks; the protections of faculty tenure were put in place for reasons such as this. Yet school communications are becoming more and more risk averse. 

With the slew of challenges that higher education has faced recently—media scrutiny, racial inequalities, declining enrollment, and alumni engagement—the lean toward safer ground is noticeable across campuses. Magazines that used to push the boundaries with provocative stories are being toned down by cautious administrators. Advancement and alumni directors are asking for a shift towards lighter, more entertaining content to avoid offending readers. As one client said to me, “People get enough bad news that they don’t need to read it in their alumni magazine.” 

But isn’t it the role of an alumni magazine to remind people of a time when they asked questions, pushed boundaries, and grew intellectually? I understand that an alumni magazine has to consider its broad audience, and at its core it is an advancement communication, but that does not justify the abandonment of difficult topics. And while no one expects it to act as the Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine and intentionally challenge readers with provocative stories, it also shouldn’t avoid it. 

Over the years we have worked with determined editors who encouraged tough conversations, like “Are We As Good As We Used to Be?” (Boston Latin School Bulletin), “Bold and Unafraid” (Winsor), “The Sixth Extinction,” and  “Where Are We Now?” (Williams Magazine). These stories highlighted faculty doing the research, alumni having the conversations, and students questioning the institution. Instead of shying away from these topics, these editors viewed the content as important ways to engage with the readers. 

When telling the more difficult stories, it is imperative to have institutional support and alignment on editorial integrity. If alumni magazines become solely tools of promotion that are focused on fun times, then what value do they offer beyond marketing? This approach is bound to lose the interest—and respect—of readers. College-educated audiences are curious people who see right through the fluff.

Mental health, racism, political unrest, transphobia, and environmental destruction are all topics that our clients have tackled, some more bravely than others. When these stories are written, it is critical to support the visualization; a powerful image has the ability to attract readers and bring a concept to life. Visuals must not be compromised even if—especially if—there is nervousness about telling the story. Editing the art to tone down the story is disingenuous, and that may just as likely polarize the readership. 

What is the best approach to visualizing a tough topic? First, the visual direction should be discussed before the assignment, and key stakeholders should agree on how the story will be portrayed. Different voices need to be respected. If a Black artist is illustrating a story about their community, a white editor should respect their vision. If a photographer is doing a story about drug addiction, they should not have to make it feel hopeful. 

Let the story be captured honestly. Trust the artist to capture the story. Trust the art director to develop the visual direction. Trust the editor to have the conversation. And trust the reader to be challenged. They are, after all, the embodiment of your institution.