Vicki Glembocki on the blanding of university magazines

I have known Vicki Glembocki, writer-at-large for Philadelphia Magazine, for a long time, going back to her time on the staff of The Penn Stater. She is an acute and astute observer of our publishing niche and often has tart commentary about our shortcomings. Next month at the CASE Editors Forum, she will deliver a presentation titled “Are You ‘Just Another Alumni Magazine?'” and I’m telling you now that you should attend. If you’re already registered for the conference, go to this session. If you’re not already registered, go do that now, because it’s going to be a terrific conference. Here is the official summary of Glembocki’s presentation:

If you blacked out the name on the cover of your magazine, would we be able to tell what school it belonged to? Is your news section called something generic like Campus Currents? Can you actually see your institution in your pages? Does opening your mag transport alums back to that special, unique club that is your school? So often, alumni magazines decide that being “great” means becoming something else—uber-intellectual, or general interest-y, or newsstand-worthy, or writerly, or exactly like that last Sibley Award winner. But being like everyone else—or even being like anyone else—is the worst strategy for an alumni magazine. Your greatness comes from being distinct, from being exclusive, from capitalizing on your magazine’s unique personality-your brand.

Glembocki agreed to an email exchange with me about her session, and here’s the first part. Stay tuned for more in the days to come.

vgDale Keiger: So The Dale interviews the The Vic. Let’s not dawdle on how long we’ve known each other and just dive right in here. The first line of the description of your session reads: “If you blacked out the name on the cover of your magazine, would we be able to tell what school it belonged to?” Did this idea come out of how frequently you found that your answer to that question was “no”?

Vicki Glembocki: Yes and no. I mean yes, the answer was generally, “no, I could not tell which school it belonged to.” But, more so, the issue was that, when I blocked out the name of the school, the magazines all looked the same. There was no personality. None. At all. It was like that time right before my high school reunion, when I pulled out my yearbook as a refresher course. If I blocked out the names, I couldn’t really identify which guy belonged to which mullet, which girl belonged to which “claw of bangs.” We all thought we were super cool and individuals and unique but, in reality, we were just a sea of indistinguishable hair. That’s what it felt like looking at the alumni mags.

DK: What sort of homogeneity were you noticing?

VG: One big, vague cover line that could literally be on any magazine in the stack. An image that relates to it. Several smaller three to five–word vague subheads that also could be on any magazine. And cliches. Oh, Lord almighty, the cliches!

DK: What do you think accounts for it?

VG: I’m not sure, but I think that it’s possible that editors look too far outside of their schools for inspiration. We look at newsstand mags. We look at other alumni magazines. We look at the Sibley Award winners. And we decide, “I want us to be like that.” And then we work really hard at it. Sure, it’s smart to get ideas from people who do what we do well. But I think that we often skip a really important step that should come first: figuring out what makes us “us.” What defines us? What defines our school, its personality, its brand? How does our magazine embody that personality and recreate it so that every time a reader gets our magazine in their mailbox they’re immediately reminded of their feelings about their alma mater? Because that’s the money, right there.

 

2 comments

  1. Lynne Smyers

    I love The Vic. She’s the one who just rips the band-aid off, and that’s exactly the gut-wrenching honestly editors need. But, as someone who consults for a university magazine, I see the struggles the editors deal with in the face of having to answer to the brass in the building with the columns who dictate running the same articles ad nauseam. How to do move forward when you aren’t able to do the job the way you know it needs to be done, and not lose your job?

  2. Michael Todd

    What we’re really talking about is differentiation. How do the stories work with the design to create a magazine that embodies the unique qualities of your particular institution? This is not easy for a bunch of reasons. Often “slick” design masks a real lack of content or, perhaps more accurately, an actual POV/personality (editorial, institutional, or otherwise).

    I get a lot of the high-end U.S. university magazines mailed to me. Honestly, they all look somewhat (and sound somewhat) alike. Their production values are superlative, yet, somehow as Glembocki says, they are almost interchangeable. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that in Canada I don’t think that’s so much the case. Various magazines from universities in the Great White North are all actually pretty reflective of a certain flavor (with a “u” please). For instance: check out Calgary’s magazine (https://www.ucalgarymag.ca/) or the University of Toronto. Very different geographies, demographics and student populations (http://magazine.utoronto.ca/). I get both print editions and they definitely have different feels/perspectives. In other words they are differentiated from each other and from the other Canuck magazines produced by other universities up here.

    Maybe it’s money or maybe it’s that we are not striving to all look like one another. Probably a bit of both. We are not as well heeled as our U.S. counterparts and for that reason the production values are not quite the same as say Bates or Duke or Stanford, et al. But in the end it adds up to a diversity rather than homogeneity.

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