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.
Dale 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.