Category: Guest Post

Erin Peterson talks to Renée Olson

Free lance Erin Peterson writes for a number of university magazines, and presented at the March CASE Editors Forum in Chicago. She also writes a well-done electronic newsletter that I recommend, and her latest offering featured this interview with Renée Olson, editor of the newest Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year, TCNJ Magazine. It’s the first Sibley for TCNJ, and congratulations to Olson for that coup. Here’s the interview, which Erin has graciously let me reprint.

First, tell me a little bit about the magazine and its readership.

Although the Sibley award judges didn’t single out in their written comments the pair of staples that hold TCNJ Magazine together, our team knows that these stalwarts telegraph a lot about the attention we give to detail. Gone is the fear among our readers that unfettered pages will hit the floor, making their retrieval trigger a sciatica flare-up. That’s the level of care we put into every issue.

Our magazine goes to the usual suspects: largely alumni, plus parents, faculty, and staff. We’re a public college, founded in 1855 as a teacher’s college. The 20th century saw TCNJ grow into the public liberal arts college it is today, with more than 6,000 undergraduates and a small graduate school program.

Here’s a fake brand tagline that aptly describes TCNJ: “Private feel, public cost.” We’re on a sparkling, leafy campus about a 20-minute drive from Princeton and are known as the place to go if you are A) brainy and B) ultimately seek top employers and grad schools without going broke.

How has your own work with the magazine evolved?

I’ve had an interesting trajectory at TCNJ. I began on staff as the director of strategic communications with oversight for the magazine. At about the same time in 2016, editor Tony Marchetti and I made career switches: He snagged the top editor spot at Monmouth University’s magazine, and I moved to part-time employee status and inherited the magazine as a project. I also launched my company, Squint.

This arrangement works because AVP of Communications Dave Muha has a broad and deep understanding of how to effectively motivate his people—and then lets us skip through fields of daisies as we put together an issue. Many thanks are due to Kara Pothier, our indefatigable, on-campus assistant editor, who noses around for story ideas and connects the fabled dots. Also, Art Director/Design Goddess Kelly Andrews is both a deft designer and a patient soul.

Judges called your magazine “fun” and “approachable.” Can you talk about a part of the magazine that you think does that really well?

Despite lacking evidence, we must first consider whether the Sibley judges looked at TCNJ Magazine at the end of a long day, punch drunk after nonstop alumni magazine review — or maybe after fleeing to the closest bar. Still, I consider it a high compliment when readers say they enjoy the magazine. What else is there? If your work sparks an emotional connection, readers will pick up the next issue and the next. A magazine needs a soul. Ours happens to be a combination of warmth, smarts, and the unexpected.

I inherited a recurring department on the first spread (inside front cover and first page) that rounds up responses to a question — What professor do you remember most? What did the library mean to you? — posed to readers in the previous issue. I’m always surprised by how many people reply. It’s a fresh, immersive way to start each issue.

Is there one area you think the magazine excels in that makes a difference in its quality (an area where you see that other mags have struggled or don’t get quite right)?

I’ve seen many magazines underestimate the power of photography and illustration. Most times, the budget is too skeletal to hire quality people or the art director is content to work with his brother-in-law who’s cornered the local market on K-12 portraits. I offer a challenge. Email me one upcoming story idea, the space it will fill, and what you can spend for art. And I’ll send back suggestions on what you need to do to make the article stand out.

Is there something you don’t do—like a president’s letter or something—that you consciously decided not to include because it doesn’t matter to your readers?

We don’t cover commencement because magazines are not made for repetitive content—though we will run a blurb about the undergrad who moved to Florida to get married and finished her final semester by flying up to Jersey each week.

What do you read or study as inspiration? 

New York for how they package stories. Reader’s Digest for concise human interest pieces. The New Yorker for penetrating insight and depth. Twitter for snark.

TCNJ came away with a whole armload of awards, not just the Sibley (congrats!). For you, what is the value of such awards? Do they give you more leeway with your boss? Recognize your hard work? Something else? Why is it worth the (significant!) effort to apply for this kind of recognition?

Thank you. We only think about awards as the CASE deadline looms (and we never think about the Sibley). Yes, having people recognize quality in our work is a tremendous rush. What’s more, it gives our bosses a reason to keep us around.

I’m personally flattered by winning a Gold for Illustration simply because the first sentence of the judges’ comments reads, “The references are hilarious.” We put together a three-column chart looking for similarities between John Lennon and Ivan the Terrible after I stumbled on two unrelated undergraduate research papers. Goddess Kelly hired illustrator Eric Nyquist, whose work we spotted in The New York Times Book Review. He made it magical.

For editors eager to find ways to make their own magazines better, is there a specific piece of advice you can share?

Ask yourself every hour if you’re delighted by what you’re doing. Are you jazzed by a potential story idea? If not, maybe it was never destined to be a story. Are you excited because there’s real promise in a first draft—or you see a way to get it there? If not, pause and let your gut tell you if you should walk away. Be vigilant. If you let humdrum stuff make it into your story lineup, it’ll still be there when advance copies land in your office.

Anything else you want to add?

I know many people have micromanager bosses or are weighed down by departmental decisions made without editor input. To survive, lobby for a full redo of your magazine and carefully define the kinds of stories and content that are true to that new vision. If you rebrand to focus on what alumni achieve in their first 12.5 years after graduation, let’s say, you have a concrete reason to jettison the current page devoted to administrators and their pets.

And don’t wait for story ideas to come from supervisors. Instead, rely on your connections across campus and supply supervisors with a list of what’s under consideration and why at regular intervals (monthly, semi-monthly). Take this task off their plate and you may find you have a far greater say going forward.

Guest post: Susan Allen

Susan Allen contributes a guest essay. A version first ran on her blog at St. Norbert College.

Today I’m practicing slow journalism. Today I said yes to an opportunity to which common sense dictated I say no. I drove south instead of north. I skipped the office, I went well off campus; out on a limb, on the lam and in the company of our college curator, Shan Bryan-Hanson.

Shan was intent on some art “shopping” at the warehouse conservation facility of the Kohler Foundation. The foundation acquires art, restores it, and then carefully thinks to itself, “Hmmm, we have all these nicely restored pieces, pieces of considerable merit. Now, what would be some sensible organizations to whom we might gift these pieces — organizations that would be well placed to take care of them, and to share them?”

Sometimes the answer to that question is, to MoMA. Sometimes it is to some local high school in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Sometimes it is to the Art Institute of Chicago and sometimes it is, why, to St. Norbert College, of course.

stnNow, for a future article on this generous relationship, I’ll need at most 600 words — along with some high-quality images mooched from the foundation’s inventory — in order to share with our readers this unlooked-for abundance and what it means to our students. This is all to happen in some forthcoming issue of St. Norbert College Magazine, date yet to be determined. Back at the office, the Fall 2015 issue lies untended. As I head south, I’m aware that there are maybe two questions still to be answered before I put pen to paper. There may be a third, but I haven’t thought of it yet.

I say to myself, Hey, how about you just let this one unfold?

So I tag along. I hang out. I don’t have much to do, but I watch. I listen. I pay attention. I put my first question. I touch. (You can touch, at the warehouse.) I cast my vote for one piece. (Not that Shan pays any attention — she knows what she is looking for). I ask my second question, and a third. I take a few poorly lit iPhone photos that will be of no use to anyone. I look at some boxes labeled for the Smithsonian and wonder what’s inside them. I clue back in to what is going on at the table, where Shan’s picks are accumulating. Suddenly it becomes evident that a show is being curated here, and I ask, how. I ask, what.

Lunch arrives. I poke around just a little bit more, and then I leave. It’s my birthday and I’ve given myself this day as a birthday treat. I’ve promised myself a walk on the dunes at Kohler-Andrae State Park. (Yep. Same Kohlers, bless them, the high-end kitchen-and-bath company family and their money.)

Producing a college magazine with a large vision and a small budget often feels like attempting to stretch a dinette-sized tablecloth across a table large enough for a Hogwarts-sized dining hall — a table upon which banquet after banquet of stories keep serving themselves up, the feast never ending.

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Amid all this abundance, economy and efficiency prevail at the magazine. Contingency dictates that many stories are stingily reported, via phone call and email. I worry that it shows. Just a week or so ago I myself sat down for exactly one hour with a new faculty member in order to write a profile of her. Mid-interview, I remembered once hearing Dale Keiger, editor at Johns Hopkins Magazine, talk about the three full days — I’m pretty sure it was three — that he spent hanging out with the champion thoroughbred Funny Cide’s trainer, Barclay Tagg, for a story. I bet that was a heck of a profile. Dale fielded a question from a room full of less well-placed editors about what to do if we found ourselves with only one hour to spend with a subject: “First of all, I hope you never find yourselves in this position.” I can tell you what it feels like, profiling someone with whom you have spent precisely one hour. It feels like an act of gross impertinence, is what it feels like.

I wouldn’t call what I did today deep reporting. But let’s call it slow reporting, and honor it as such.

And now here I sit, under a sky as blue as blue; sand in my shoes and one toe in Lake Michigan; some small shells and a seagull feather decorate my outdoor desk.

I’m shopping through my Kohler notes, curating my story.

It’s a slow day at the office.

Guest post: Erin Peterson on Cultivating Freelance Writers

(Ed.: Erin Peterson has worked as an editor at Carleton College, Macalester College, and Grinnell College. Now she scribbles full time as a free lance based in Minneapolis. She has some thoughts on consistently getting good stories from freelance writers.)

erin-2011When I was at the CASE Editors Forum in April, an editor told me about a terrible recent experience she’d had with a freelance writer. The school was just about to open a new building on campus, and she was planning to include a feature story about it in the alumni magazine. She decided to go all-in and reached out to an architecture writer who wrote regularly (and spectacularly) for Vanity Fair. The writer said he’d do the story—for his normal rate of $10 a word. She balked, and they eventually settled on $3 a word, which was far higher than her usual rate. In the end, she got only a so-so story.

This is an all too common experience—writers who have done phenomenal work for other publications feel as though they can phone it in for alumni magazines. But you don’t have to settle for terrible writing and storytelling. The best award-winning stories aren’t written by ringers. In the “Best Articles” category for the CASE Circle of Excellence competition in 2013, for example, 100 percent of the bylines were from staff writers or editors—or freelancers who had written at least two (and typically many more) stories for the magazine in the past.

Getting great writers for your magazine is not about finding the “best writer.” It’s about finding good writers, nurturing them, and seeing them as partners who can help you tell your school’s best stories. Here are my best tips for working with freelancers who will tell great stories at a fair price.

Invest in the relationship. Think of your search for freelance writers the same way that New Yorker cartoon Robert Mankoff thinks of his search for cartoonists: He’s not looking for a good New Yorker cartoon. He’s looking for someone who could be a good New Yorker cartoonist. It’s a subtle but important distinction. One focuses on the thing itself; the other focuses on the relationship. You’re looking for writers who can be great [Insert your Magazine Name Here] writers. They may be student writers with potential, local freelancers who can spend a lot of time on campus, alumni, or freelancers who focus specifically on higher education. Instead of looking for the best “science writer” or “art writer” for a specific piece, look for a good writer, period. They may not be able to take on every story, but they’ll probably be able to take on more than you imagine. A writer who has a deep understanding of your school and your magazine will trump a writer who has technical expertise almost every time.

Think of your writers as partners. By the time they’ve finished their reporting, writers will know the story better than you do, and you can benefit from that knowledge. You might have your writers ask sources about photo ideas. (Every once in awhile, a source will have a great idea that you never could have anticipated.) You can also ask writers to check in with you once they’ve finished their reporting to find out if they think the story could benefit from tweaking the angle, packaging the story differently, or talking to a few more sources.

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Budget accordingly. There’s not a linear relationship between fees and quality (see the Vanity Fair example above), but you won’t keep good writers long without paying fair fees. I once heard an editor say that she was happy to “get away with” paying just 50 cents a word, while simultaneously bemoaning the work she was getting. The problem is that freelancers paid low rates will also see what they can get away with—banging out a story in a couple hours with few sources and little research. Good writers aren’t always cheap, but they’re far less expensive than writers who turn in shoddy work—or worse, writers who turn in no work at all.

Offer regular work. When you find a good freelancer, do your best to give them projects as frequently as possible, even if that’s just three to four times per year. Not only will writers appreciate the regular work, but they’ll learn quirks and politics of your school, and that will help them craft better stories.

“A rhetorical Rubik’s cube”

viewpointcoverLast week, Christine Spicer, editor of Viewpoint out of Point Loma Nazarene University, made an interesting comment on the first part of the “Making a Better Magazine” series. She made the comment a few days into the series, so I don’t know how many readers noticed or went back to read it. When I asked her if she would expand her comment into a guest post, she graciously agreed. Ms. Spicer, you have the floor.

Dale’s recent series of posts about improving our magazines was rife with good content, but I take issue was with one of his points. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from university editors many times: that there is a line in the sand between marketing/branding and magazines that puts them at necessary odds. I disagree. I look at the issue not as a divide between marketing and journalism but as a rhetorical Rubik’s cube. The goals of editors and administrators may not seem to align at first, but the puzzle is solvable. And good writing is actually the key.

After all, isn’t good writing inherently purposeful? If so, why can’t an alumni magazine’s purpose be to share compelling stories that reinforce the character and identity (i.e., the brand) of the institution?

I’m not advocating for cover stories on donors or feature stories about the business school’s philosophy. Those kinds of stories are neither good journalism nor good marketing. That’s my point. As writers, we have frequent practice in the art of persuasion. When administrators pitch a dull, institutional piece, shouldn’t we be able to propose or even simply provide a sparkling alternative that achieves their goals in a way they hadn’t imagined? And if our piece really does sparkle and really does achieve their goals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to persuade them to use it.

Take the business school example. At Point Loma Nazarene University, where I work, we don’t write essays about the business school’s philosophy (even though its motto, “More than the bottom line,” is kind of cool). But we did share the story of a business alumnus who carried 70 pounds of wood on his back while walking from San Diego to Los Angeles to raise awareness for his social enterprise (which sells carbon offsets to provide clean-burning stoves to impoverished families in Africa). The story was interesting and sweaty. It also happened to suggest something about the kinds of students in the business school and the kinds of ventures that come out of it. It certainly supported the “brand” of the university and the “More than the bottom line” philosophy of the business school.

The fact is that bad writing is bad marketing just as much as it is bad journalism.

It’s a related fallacy to imply that mainstream magazines are only about their readers. Aren’t they beholden to advertisers just as much as we are beholden to administrators? Can you imagine Runner’s World printing an article advising that people no longer buy brand name shoes? I suppose that example isn’t really comparing apples to apples, but you get the idea.

Finally, I don’t believe that alumni readers have no interest in messages from their alma maters. I accept that some alumni have no interest in messages from their alma maters. But others do. They are just more likely to listen to those messages and remember them when they are presented in a compelling fashion.

It’s easy to feel disheartened or angry when we’re asked to write about something that we don’t think will resonate with our audience or when we’re given a prescription for covering a story in a way we know won’t shine. But instead of either playing the victim or taking up arms, I suggest we push back and forward with our best creativity and most strategic thinking. Facing our challenges as puzzles to be solved might just add a measure of enjoyment to an otherwise unhappy situation and make our jobs as editors more fun.

Guest blogger Claude Skelton on editorial illustration

My long-time friend and Baltimore colleague Claude Skelton has written some of the most-read blog posts in UMagazinology‘s brief lifespan. Today he offers some thoughts on illustration.

A good illustration can do what a photograph can’t. For communicating difficult and abstract concepts, drawn art says more with a single image than a collection of photographs can. Illustration can be technical, serious, quirky, or silly, depending on the tone of the piece. A really good conceptual illustrator can interpret a story in ways that surprise and delight, and in the best cases, introduce a whole new spin. Take a look at these Bloomberg Businessweek covers, for example. Could a photograph demand as much immediate attention or communicate so effectively? Not likely. [Throughout the post, you can click on the images to view them larger.]

Bloomberg Businessweek cover credits: Bernanke: David Parkins (after Milton Glaser); King of Vegas Real Estate Scams: Barry Falls; Coke in Africa: Nick White; Crisis in Japan: Noma Barr; creative director: Richard Turley.

So how do you find and work with illustrators to get innovative, thoughtful results? First, familiarize yourself with the talent that’s out there. Look for great work. Don’t limit yourself to local or regional illustrators (another advantage of illustration is that artists don’t need to be on location; almost all work electronically). Use the best, most professional illustrators you can afford. Amateur or mediocre illustration reflects badly on your magazine and ultimately on your institution. Look at sites such as,,, or, all of which can connect you to individual artists or artist’s reps. Another approach is to notice illustrations that grab your attention in publications you read; start a reference file with names and samples as you find art that impresses you.

As you plan a story lineup, consider illustration as part of the mix. If you’re profiling a professor or an alum, the natural default solution is to commission a photograph. An illustrated portrait, like this drawing of a disabled war veteran from Dartmouth Magazine, can add style and substance to an otherwise run-of-the-mill profile. If the work or activity of the profiled person is more to the point, illustrating that idea or topic is an effective approach. The full page image below, from Cambridge Alumni Magazine, illustrates a complex essay by a neuroscientist on movement and the brain—a far more intriguing and informative solution than a portrait of the author.

Illustration and text combine in a pop-inspired spread (above) by Design Army, Washington DC, from Kogod Now, the American University Kogod School of Business’ magazine. The article, on targeted food marketing to minority populations, is original, eye-catching, and unexpected in the context of a business school publication.

When you’re ready to choose an illustrator, think about the tone and emotion you want the story to communicate and find illustrators whose styles best fit what’s in your mind. You’ll need to be confident of the illustrator’s track record and ability to translate an idea into art. And you’ll need to sell a working concept, knowing that the illustrator will be bringing additional thinking and visual interpretation to the table.

This is a very subjective process and should never be attempted by committee. It’s a matter of trust—between publisher and editor, between editor and creative director, between creative director and artist. If approval from “above” is necessary before hiring an illustrator, you’ll be forced to justify your choice with nothing more than your idea and samples from the artist’s portfolio. It could be hard for an administrator to visualize the outcome, therefore the need for trust.

Art directors: it’s usually best to communicate a general concept and supply a draft of the story to illustrators, then wait and see what they come up with before making suggestions or over-directing. It’s your job to inspire creativity, not solve the problem. Trust your illustrator to find a solution that fits the assignment and suits his or her style. It rarely works to force a pre-conceived vision on an artist; be open to surprise and innovation and you’ll almost always get the best results.

A word on stock illustration: it is a less expensive alternative, but generally too generic to properly illustrate a feature story. Spots can liven up a news or class notes section, and stock can be a good substitute for those bland head shots that show up in faculty or alumni profiles—better to illustrate what they do (with symbol or icon) rather than what they look like (do readers care?). If stock isn’t available, original illustration can be cost effective for simple spots, drawing attention to complex, text-heavy pages (see news spread from Auburn Magazine, above).

Illustrated covers can be both challenging and satisfying. You have two big challenges: Finding the right artist for the job, and getting approval of concept, style, and budget. Then it’s working with the illustrator through sketches, revised sketches, more approvals, adjusted deadlines, and the holding of breath before the final artwork arrives. It’s the rare (and lucky) editorial staff or art director that has enough autonomy to move ahead through this process with no roadblocks. It’s the not knowing until it’s finished that can make you uneasy. What if it’s a disaster? What if readers are offended and cancel subscriptions? What if it’s just not quite what you had in mind? What if you hate it? These are the questions and fears that might keep you from taking a risk in the first place. But when that finished, original art finally appears, and your cover sings, it’s so worth it.

To illustrate my point, a few covers that sing (all very different tunes):