Category: Ideas

Vicki Glembocki II

Part II of my brief email exchange with Vicki Glembocki about her upcoming CASE Editors Forum presentation  “Are You ‘Just Another Alumni Magazine?’” If you missed the first part, scroll down and read that first.

Dale Keiger: I have noticed that a strange reluctance to assert the individual character of the school extends to the admissions office. I think your test of blocking out identifying magazine text and then trying to guess the identity of the school would yield the same results if applied to so much of what our admissions people send out. Every school wants to look like an idyllic sanctuary for the pursuit of knowledge set somewhere on 500 pastoral acres with well-tended ivy and a generic student body. Why do you think colleges and universities are so timid about establishing a distinct identity?

Vicki Glembocki: I don’t claim to know what’s going on in the minds of those admissions people. But I actually think the problem might be that the people who are “selling” the school just don’t spend enough time really thinking through what their identity actually is. They think about what they want to be. Or what will look appeal to the broadest audience. Or what will appeal to the audience of their biggest competitor. And, let’s face it—it’s so . . . much . . . easier to just do what the other guy does. And safer. And institutional-er. But admissions offices and alumni magazines have totally different customers, so to speak. We aren’t selling an unknown quantity like they are. We’re selling a known quantity. So we need to really know that quantity. In fact, I’d argue that we need to know it better, even, than the admissions people if we want our readers to open the magazine (and their check books . . . because let’s be real here . . . )

DK: Can you cite examples of alumni magazines that work counter to this blandness?That in your view do a better job of being distinctly reflective of their unique institutions? [I can hunt down some digital examples of what you cite and link to them.]

VG: I see what you’re doing here . . . trying to get some insider, pre-show deets on my presentation. Not happening, hot stuff. Get your red pens to San Antonio if you want to see if Johns Hopkins is on the nice list or the naughty list.

DK: Am I right that you are advocating something beyond the sort of standard appeals to nostalgia that are a staple of many university publications?

VG: Well, “standard appeals to nostalgia” work for a lot of schools. But “appealing to nostalgia” is not a “brand attribute” for an alumni mag. All mags, to some degree, can claim that. It’s just not specific enough. The million-dollar question is: what is unique about your school?

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.


Make Mine Print, Please!

lists_bookstores_grumpy_listKerry Temple has been at the helm of the estimable Notre Dame Magazine for quite a while now. Two weeks ago he published a column titled “Out of the Office: The Science of Print.” I commend it to your attention.

Temple deftly weaves notes on how he reads print and pixels differently, is preferences, and neuroscience that has demonstrated the different outcomes of reading text on paper versus text on a screen.

I am more likely to skim online content — not fully engaged, cruising over text looking for highlights, bullet points, the pertinent “take-aways,” while also trying to ignore pop-ups, ads and other distractions. Some call this “information foraging,” not reading. I do a lot of foraging in a day.

So here at the magazine, when I read a manuscript sent to us for potential publication, I print it out. I make sure I read the hard copy, not the screen version. That helps me really read the words, pay closer attention, fully engage the story being told, be with it as I read it.

I do this because my job as an editor asks me to care about the depth and quality and nuance and substance of the stories we tell on our pages. I also do this because, as a writer, I know the labor put into crafting prose. The writer deserves my attention to detail; I honor the transaction with my thoughtful focus, by being fully present during the encounter.

I would not mind a bit an editor who brought that sensibility to a story of mine. Regarding some of the science:

“People understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read on screen,” says Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American. “Researchers think the physicality of paper explains this discrepancy.” And according to the presentation, this applies to “digital natives” as well.

But the next step — that reading actively shapes brain development — deserves equal attention. Citing Proust and the Squid: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and child development expert, the booklet explains: “The ability to derive meaning from abstract letterforms is not built into our neural circuitry; every generation has to learn it anew, and when we do it rearranges the way our brains are built. Reading and writing only happen when the brain grows the interconnected neural pathways for sharing information. And here it gets really interesting: the media we use to carry our messages have a lot to do with how those neural pathways get developed.”

The medium does not just carry the message; it helps shape the brain.

Temple wraps all of this up with a sentence that gladdens me:

Any enterprise hoping to last depends upon constant adaptation to shifting landscapes. But the qualities of reading still supersede the fast-food snacks gleaned from foraging.


Those Alumni Magazine Profile Blues

First word came from Erin Peterson‘s newsletter. Peterson wrote about how rare it is for a university magazine to write about failure. (True dat.) She cited two pieces by writers complaining about the profiles of over-achievers that alumni magazines had presented them. One piece, published in 2013 by Pamela Fickenscher in The Christian Century, is titled “The Spiritual Dangers of Alumni Magazines.” That overstates the content of the essay, in which Fickenscher seemed peeved that some unnamed university magazines ignore unsung heroes for sung — especially self-sung — heroes (heroes in the eyes of development, at least: the people the school most wants to be identified with). She began:

I went to two institutions of higher learning that were large enough to have glossy full color magazines (and another that was not that big). My husband went to two other institutions whose magazines are so glossy you practically need sunglasses. All four publications have an uncanny knack for arriving just at those moments in my life when I am feeling most unaccomplished, most detached from my dreams of earlier years, most stuck in the midlife rock-and-a-hard-place rut between family and career.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who experiences Alumni Magazine Syndrome. I mean, we can’t all be tenured faculty at the places where we studied, start our own non-profits by the age of twenty-eight, or give a few millions dollars away.

She continued:

But what bothers me most about the flavor of many of these stories is the impression that most worthy work is either publishable or highly profitable, when a lion’s share of what holds the world together is neither.  Some of the most brilliant people in the world are working on Apple patents that they simply can’t talk about, or formulating poems that will not make the Times bestseller list.  Some of our most gifted diplomats, counselors and chaplains are professionally bound to not talk  — not even to their dearest friends — about the most interesting parts of their work. And legions of managers throughout the world are taking care of their employees and their institutions instead of spending a lot of time blogging about it or accepting interviews.

The reasoning here is sketchy in spots and doesn’t suggest a sophisticated grasp of what makes someone the center of a good magazine story. My take was a sort of alumni magazine–induced angst. The second story cited by Peterson, titled “Diverse Futures: The Myth of the High-Stakes Smithie,” appeared on the blog of a writer named Mo Daviau. Daviau was writing about dealing with the aftermath of an abusive relationship, and her post included this:

This extra layer of shame we create for ourselves when we fall down the hill becomes a barrier to reaching out to other women in our times of need. How many times have our classmates said, tongue not so firmly in cheek, that they don’t feel worthy of attending a reunion, or of sending in news to the Smith Alumnae Quarterly? That their accomplishments thus far had not earned them some illusive sense of permission, or that Smith’s classrooms, free of males taking up space and dominating discussions, were underground bunkers in which we were given the secret code for never, ever making a mistake.

Smith claims to have a commitment to honoring diverse backgrounds, but honoring diverse futures? Not so much.

Again, I found the reasoning spotty, as if the post had been written before the author fully thought through what she wanted to say, but it’s an emotional response and the emotion, not the logical rigor, carries it. No argument with that, and that last bit records a hit — I think Daviau is right in regard to most of our magazines. We do have an obsession with post-graduation accomplishment, especially any of us laboring under the senior administrative mandate of all brag all the time.

Daviau then fired a torpedo:

You have to remember this about the Smith Alumnae Quarterly: it’s a fundraising organ, targeted at women between the ages of 21 and 101. It has to please everyone, so it pleases no one in particular.

Ezra Pound has that line about aiming for the middle. That.

It is largely written and edited by writers and editors who are not alumnae. They are writing to please their employer. They are not writing from the soul of our collective experience.

It’s a pretty fabrication. It isn’t real. Read it or throw it in the trash the minute it touches your mailbox. It doesn’t matter. It’s all myth. So don’t feel a corrosive sense of failure if you fear you haven’t done something to get you in those pages. I’m not going to tell you that you’re enough out of some hippie self-help Oprah horseshit sense of obligation, as if some platitude from Mo Daviau is going to save you from yourself. I’m just going to tell you that the SAQ is plastic made-up garbage and nothing you should ever measure yourself against.


The core of Daviau’s post is her struggle to deal with past abuse, and it is not my intent to be churlish about that, in any way. It sounds like she experienced a lot of rough years, and that shouldn’t happen to anyone. But the way she brought Smith’s magazine into it fascinates me, and points to why favoring conventional alumni magazine articles over genuine stories, promotion over engagement, blows back in a magazine’s face. I am not picking on Smith Alumnae Quarterly here. I don’t know what sort of mandate senior administration imposes on the editors as SAQ, but it probably does not differ markedly from what most of us work under. What interests me, and what is instructive, I think, is what sticks in the craws of Fickenscher and Daviau and what that can tell us about how some readers respond to our work:

— The only people who university magazines ever write about are people who will, in the estimation of someone at the school, generate checks made out to development — and that’s the only reason they appear in the magazine. (Unless they’re in the magazine because  development wants to kiss up to a big donor.)

— The alumni magazine is only a fund-raising tool. That is, it’s not really a magazine at all.

— Alumni magazines do too little to capture the soul of a university, in all its inclusive complexity.

— The stories in university magazines repel readers by doing little more more than hoisting impossible exemplars into view.

I know nothing about either of these writers. Perhaps nothing would induce them to hold university magazines in more esteem. But I believe the best way not to create this sort of response, but to create the engagement that should be at the heart of the enterprise, is to eschew the bragging, ditch the superficial feature writing that reduces everyone to a handful of cliches, and as editors find and present the sort of stories that bring readers into contact with people, knowledge, problems, and attempts at solution in all their complicated, messy, contradictory, inconsistent, puzzling, bemusing, laudable, exasperating, human glory.

Cheer up, you only have 11,999 competitors

Gleaned online today:

According to the Association of Magazine Media, 91% of people read magazines, an all-time high.

“Newsstand numbers have gone down and some of the really large magazines have lowered subscription levels, circulation levels, because they couldn’t sustain the expenses as ad budgets got smaller,” said Sterner. For example, the circulation for National Geographic was close to 8 million in 2000. By 2009, it has fallen to 4.5 million, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Reader’s Digest has dropped from 12.5 million in 2000 to 7.5 million in 2009.

But, there are more magazine readers because there are more magazines.

“There are more magazines than we’ve ever had in our entire history,” said Samir Husni, Director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

In 1980, there were 2,000 magazines. Now, there are 12,000.

Digital makes up about 5 to 8 percent of the magazine market.

The thing is not to worry about whether anyone reads print periodicals anymore. The thing is to grow and sustain an audience for your print periodical by producing high-quality editorial content, well written and well edited and well designed, and get the word out to them that these professionally crafted stories were created just for them as members of your alumni base.