There are many alumni communications that could hold their own on the newsstand. Once a vehicle for strictly sharing campus news and accolades, these publications have become a platform for thought leadership and community engagements. Journalists and editors have moved from the consumer space into higher ed, reshaping the landscape to tell impactful stories that broaden engagement. And now, more and more alumni publications are becoming important vehicles to cover once-shied-away-from topics such as a women’s right to choose, living in a pandemic, and racial injustice.
Consider some of the recent CASE Circle of Excellence award-winners—Brown published an article about R.I.’s pre-Roe network, “Holding the Line,” (April / May 2021); Medicine@Brown took a look at how we respond to crisis in, “We Said We Would Never Forget. But What Did We Learn?” (Fall 2021), and Hamilton published a special issue “We Are Hamilton,” directed by alumni and guest editor, Evidge Jean-Françcois.
These magazines are doing an excellent job of telling meaningful and engaging stories. What they are not doing is publishing everything under the kitchen sink — no matter how much or often key stakeholders may ask. More than ever, print publications are in a vulnerable place: paper is a hot commodity, printing costs are going up, and younger demographics are engaging through digital. It is imperative to think critically about what gets published in print.
Getting to the Root of the Story. A regurgitation of institutional messaging is nothing more than a waste of time and resources, and it is the quickest way to get a magazine tossed in the recycle bin. That’s not to say that institutional messaging doesn’t have a place; rather, a talented editor can always unearth an interesting story. Allison Bennie, executive editor of Bowdoin Magazine, offers an example from when the college was raising money for a new hockey rink. Rather than spewing development talking points, the magazine ran “The Mind of the Goalie,” an engaging article with a human angle to a financial task.
Strategize all channels. Because most magazines are published less than four times a year (some just twice), it does not make sense to publish newsy updates and calendar events that will quickly become dated. An alumni communication plan should include social media, e-newsletter, digital platform, and a podcast with clearly defined goals and audiences that complement each other and the print. Having this plan in place allows for a “yes” we can publish that. Sean Plotner, editor of Dartmouth Magazine, noted that the monthly Dartmouth newsletter is so popular that it is now published 18 times a year and advertising has sold out.
Strike a Balance. In the same way that consumer magazines have to consider an edit / ad ratio, alumni magazines should consider the balance between journalism and branded content. Let go of the constant struggle to keep certain content out of the print and instead allocate a page count for more heavily branded content. It may be the least read content, but sometimes you just have to lean in.
Publish less to create a top-notch magazine. Budgets are real and it is important to be proactive. Before your magazine gets shelved, consider the page count and publishing calendar. Print less pages (an extra four pages can cost thousands of dollars these days) or fewer issues a year in order to secure a budget for something memorable. Embrace print for its tactile ability to connect one-to-one with a reader.
In a world of digital overconsumption, people are seeking connections and a desire to slow down. We've seen this in the increase of book sales during the pandemic—humans are drawn to tactile storytelling. A printed magazine has the unique ability to enter an alum’s home and connect with them in a world where everything is constantly delivered as digital.