Eight questions for Sherri Kimmel and Ann Wiens

Two of the best alumni magazines in the land have appointed—anointed?—new editors. Sherri Kimmel, most recently editor of Dickinson Magazine, takes over from Jeff Lott at Swarthmore College Bulletin, and Ann Wiens, who created and edited Demo at Columbia College Chicago, will step into the office previously occupied by Guy Maynard at Oregon Quarterly. It goes without saying that their first editorial duties were responding to the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long were you in your previous editorial jobs?

Kimmel: I served as senior editor of Dickinson Magazine for 12 years.

Wiens: I launched Demo in the summer of 2005 and edited it until the fall of 2010, when I left Columbia for a non-editorial position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

What proved to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do those jobs?

Kimmel: When I was hired, I was the only person working on the magazine. Then we added more staff to the roster, so I needed to learn how to hire good writers, manage them and inspire them to thrive, grow, and prosper.

Wiens: With Demo, it was to navigate the politics and various agendas of a large institution, and to learn when to dig my heels in to push something through and when to let it go. That, and basic HTML.

What have been your best experiences in alumni mag-azines?

Kimmel: Traveling to Germany three times to interview an alumnus for two magazines (ours and a national consumer magazine). The three Dickinson German courses that I took after the first visit boosted my bond with this distinguished octo-genarian writer/diplomat.

Wiens: Getting to meet so many people—story subjects, readers, and contributors—I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and finding all these little gems of experience that make great stories, then figuring out how to work through the writers and photographers to connect readers with those stories. With alumni magazines, you’re working within the limitations of the institutional purview—generally, everything in the magazine must somehow connect back to the college or university. This limitation forces you to look for stories in a different way than you would if your charge were broader, if that restriction weren’t in place. There’s a common exercise in painting and drawing classes in which students are restricted to a small range of colors or materials. The restriction is designed to force creativity, to encourage students to pull out all the stops in other areas, such as observation, composition, or mark-making. Editing an alumni magazine is similar—it compels editors and writers to look for the story in places they might not otherwise, to dig a bit deeper, be a bit quirkier, forgo the obvious.

What have proven to be your biggest frustrations?

Kimmel: Just now, making the grade in the UMagazinology blog. But seriously, dealing with the donors, trustees, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and students who did an end run around me to pitch outlandish story ideas or complain directly to senior officers. Luckily, leadership saw fit to bounce the decisions on how to respond down to me. But responding took a lot of time and tact and additional minutes in the college gym blowing off steam.

Wiens: Institutional politics, and the ongoing difficulty of convincing certain administrators that magazines and marketing/development brochures are not the same thing.

What part of your previous magazines never quite satisfied you, despite everybody’s best effort?

Kimmel: The sports section. We always have had limited space and felt obligated to run a roundup of seasonal results. With some reimagining (and another page) we could have made it more engaging.

Wiens: Demo was called Demo because we set out to show, rather than tell, the college’s stories. There was a section in each issue called “Portfolio,” which was intended to show the creative work of an individual or group with minimal text, to be a portfolio of work. It generally ran three or four spreads, and might feature a short story, or a series of photographs, or images of artwork. I still think the idea was solid, but it seldom hit just right. We always thought it could be a truly powerful, sustained feature, but it usually fell short, in my view. I suspect we tried to make it carry more weight than it really could.

What stories are you proudest to have published?

Kimmel: “Making Their Mark—Presenting the 25 Most Influential Dickinsonians.” The top 25 (in college history) were selected based on the number of votes cast by our readers, then our full staff (including two students) wrote 25 short profiles for our fall 2007 cover story. We created a lot of good will and inspired reader response and we invited all of the living “Influentials” to a luncheon at the President’s House. Recipients still list their Influentials status in their bios for speaking engagements.

Wiens: Despite my previous answer, the story I’m probably proudest to have published was the Portfolio in Demo 9, which was a selection of photographs by students and alumni who were in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008, witnessing Obama’s historic win. Grant Park, where Obama held his home-town election-night rally, is across the street from Columbia College, and many in the campus community were there, some great photojournalists among them. I worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John H. White, who teaches at Columbia, to put together a portfolio of images shot that night by his students and former students. John is African American and knew Obama; the victory was personal for him, adding to the beauty of the story. The images and accompanying text by the photographers capture a moment when I felt proud of my country, proud of my city, and proud of the community of students the magazine represented.

If you each could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

Kimmel: Before Nov. 29, I would have said the late Saul Bellow. But since I interviewed Margaret Atwood (on campus for a guest lecture that day), I would give the Canadian icon the nod. She wrote one of my favorite novels, The Blind Assassin, is dedicated to sustainability, and has about 300,000 Twitter followers. Who could ask for anything more?

Wiens: My favorite writer right now is Jim Crace, but I’m having a hard time imagining what he’d do with an alumni magazine article. Maybe Bill Bryson. His writing is like a good cocktail—an easy mix of history, humor, interesting word choices and sentence structures, personal anecdotes, and worldly information, so the reading is purely enjoyable at first, but it has a kick to it, it affects you without your realizing it. When I’m reading one of his books, I find myself thinking about what I’ve read, pondering new knowledge, engaging friends in discussions about obscure tidbits of information. Oh wait, I’d pick David Sedaris. Yeah, definitely David Sedaris. Maybe.

If you weren’t editors, what would your dream jobs be?

Kimmel: Horse whisperer.

Wiens: The job I’m beginning next month feels like my dream job, with all its potential as yet untainted by day-to-day reality. I think I’ll just bask in that for the time being!

Bonus question: What a) thrills you the most and b) scares you the most about your new postings?

Kimmel: A) Great place, great president, great people, great (Quaker) val-ues, great mag. B) Leaving a college I love, and staff that I love, to begin anew.

Wiens: I’m thrilled—truly, honestly, pinch-myself de-lighted—to be assuming the editorship of a magazine as solid as Oregon Quarterly, at an institution that clearly understands the value of a real magazine over a marketing piece, and seems committed to supporting its independence and continued editorial quality. I’m thrilled at the opportunities I see to add to what Guy Maynard and his colleagues have built. I’m scared, as an outsider, of getting it wrong, of misreading a story due to my lack of familiarity with the place. Thankfully, Guy has agreed to stick around for a while, to keep the training wheels on until I have a sense of the place and the publication. So I’m not that scared.

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