FEATURE : Case magazine webinar Q&A

On December 7, 2011, Brenda led a CASE Online Speaker Series called “Get Real, Get Read: Producing a Magazine Your Alumni Will Read” with Dale Keiger, University Publications, Johns Hopkins University, and Betsy Winter-Hall, Executive Director, Alumni & Development Communications, Temple Magazine. The webinar was so well attended that our panel was unable to answer all of the audience questions in the allotted time. Below is a selection of questions answered after the webinar by Brenda, Betsy, Tina Hay, Editor of The Penn Stater magazine, and Michael B. Shavelson, Editor in Chief of Columbia Magazine.

1. What are some specific things that you can do in a print magazine that you can’t do otherwise?
Betsy: You can control the layout—placement of the elements in relation to one another, fonts, etc. This is something HTML is not good at, as its formatting is so browser-specific. And attempts to fully control online design—PDF, Flash—really undermine the strengths of the web, which are access and information. Also, part of the relationship with readers is being in their home, in their hands. That tangibility is very powerful.

Tina: The print version is portable, easier on the eye, and does more justice to the design than an online version would.

Brenda: Print magazines also allow for more focus. If a an online reader links to another article, they move away from your magazine and can easily get lost on another site, never to return.

2. What are your thoughts on putting paid advertising in the magazine?
Betsy: I think it can serve several good functions; in addition to offsetting costs, it is legitimizing (it makes the publication feel more like a consumer magazine) and it highlights places and products relating to the university and our readers’ experience of it. My aim is for Temple magazine to contain paid advertising within a couple of years. The challenges, of course, are staffing and postage (we currently mail at nonprofit rate, which would not be permitted with paid ads).

Tina: We’ve done it for many years—probably 20 or more. It helps fund some of the magazine’s expenses, but it does not completely underwrite the cost of the magazine.

Michael: I strongly endorse paid advertising, although selling print advertising has become more and more difficult. Ad revenue helps the bottom line, of course, and that might promote greater independence for the magazine. Paid ads also make the magazine look more serious.

3. What tools do you use to gauge readership?
Tina: We participated in the CASE readership survey, which I highly recommend, and we also do a small survey after every single issue of the magazine. The sample size on the latter is very small, but over time—and we’ve been doing it for 14 years, I think—we’ve amassed a lot of data. The trends are unmistakable and very informative for us. I’d be happy to share a PDF explaining this every-issue survey; just send me an email at tinahay@psu.edu.

Michael: Focus groups, letters to the editor, and a survey of readers conducted by an outside research firm have all been helpful to us.

Brenda: Find out more about the CASE national readership survey here (CASE log-in required).

4. Can you provide some examples of compelling stories that will draw in readers? What content is the most engaging and attractive to readers of alumni magazines?
Betsy: Answered broadly, people like reading about things they see as relevant—to themselves and to the larger world. We find that our readers like knowing about the institution’s role in activities that are meaningful or tangible to them—such as laser research at Temple that could change how common surgeries are performed, and a nonprofit run by alumni that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people.

Tina: I could talk about this for days! In general I think readers are drawn more to stories, i.e., to strong storytelling with good narratives, some human interest, some emotion, etc., and less to news releases. They’re more interested in the personal than the institutional.

Michael: The magic is in the mix. The content needs to be varied. Knowing your audience is the great art of editing a magazine. Sports coverage is of no interest to some alumni groups, but essential reading to others. Fiction to some audiences is a welcome treat and probably of no appeal to others.

5. How do you convince administration to take risks with magazine content and design?
Tina: That’s a very common challenge in our business, isn’t it? I could talk about that for hours too! Around here we talk about being “reader centric,” about competing (with newsstand magazines and all the other media out there) for people’s attention, etc. You might also try baby steps … making small incremental changes. Very short answer to a big dilemma, I realize.

Michael: Tell your boss, “We need to respect our readers.”

Brenda: Risk means stretching your boundaries, going into new, unexpected territory. A publication that is willing to take those steps will find readers piling on for the ride. If everything is “safe,” why bother leaving home?

I like Jeff Lott’s suggestion of volunteering for committees outside your department. This will help others develop a level of respect for the work you do. If you have their respect they will give you the opportunity to take more risk.

6. How much should fundraising appeals be a part of the magazine?
Michael: There should be a firewall between fundraising and editorial. When development wants to run an ad, development pays for the ad. On the other hand, some development stories are of legitimate editorial interest. The largest-ever gift a college has ever received should certainly be a lead news story. Or, an engaging story about how a new gift enabled 10 low-income students to attend gratis, or a piece about how another gift permitted a new clinic to be built can be of great interest, as long as what the gift does is more important than the gift itself.