Category: Issues

Readers first

For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Antonio for the 2016 CASE Editors Forum, I thought I would rework my presentation and post it. I’ve revised it so that it works better as a piece of writing (first version was a script). Hope you get something out of it:

Most of us work for departments of communications. The department might be named alumni communications, development communications, marketing communications, even news and information, but the primary purpose, whatever the name, is communications. And there’s a curious thing about that.

I am always struck by how many vice presidents of communications and AVPs and other gold braid administrators mistake broadcasting for communicating. How many of you hear this on a regular basis: “We need to get the word out.” The VPs and AVPs believe that if we just “get the word out” then we have communicated. Get the word out about the power of giving. Get the word out about the president’s vision. Get the word out about how welcoming and inclusive we are. Get the word out about our dazzling students and dazzling alumni and dazzling new student rec center and dazzling football team. So we order up the appropriate stories that get the word out and satisfy our bosses and we publish them with the knowledge—the knowledge of actual working communications professionals—that many of those stories will never be read by anyone. And what we know that the gold braid seemingly fails to grasp is that when the stories go unread we have not communicated. We have merely broadcast to the indifferent.

The premise that underlies everything I do as editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine is that the magazine accomplishes nothing unless it’s read. We communicate nothing, we do nothing to sustain alumni engagement with the institution, we do nothing to enhance our school’s image or reputation. Every time one of our readers picks up the magazine, pages through it pausing only to glance at a photo or skim a story, checks their year in class notes, then chucks it into recycling, my employer has poured money down the drain. We only communicate when we’re read, and the argument I’m going to press here is that we won’t be read unless we put readers first. And never forget, no one has to read us. Not one person.

What does this mean in practice?

The first thing it means is that we have to embrace an axiom—We are not special. Of course we’re special to ourselves, but we are not to readers. To them, university magazines hold no special place in their daily lives. No one is going to read us just because we come from Alma Mater. We like to think they will, but they won’t. A few years after they graduate, the university no longer looms all that large in their lives. In their 20s, they have student loans, and they have to find jobs or they’re in the middle of graduate education or professional education. In their 30s, they still have student loans and they’re getting married and they’re having kids and acquiring mortgages and working at more challenging jobs. In their 40s, they’re still married, maybe for the second or third time, and they still have kids, but now their aging parents are starting to worry them and they’re trying to build careers and there’s still the mortgage. In their 50s, they’re paying for their kids’ college and their parents’ assisted living and beginning to wonder if any money will be left for retirement. By their 60s, they have sore backs, the kids are back living in the basement, and all the rock stars from their youth are dying and that’s spooky, and their employer is downsizing and damn, they really should have saved more.

Okay. Now imagine those people at any point in that story, at any point in that parade of decades, pausing to think, Good old Faber College…I wonder what the president’s vision is? The class of 2020…how diverse is it? What’s the history of our school colors—that’s been on my mind for years. I’d like to know more about the new dining hall meal plan.

Please.

They’re not going to read stories on those topics because those topics have no congruence with their lives. And as I said, they won’t read them just because they’ve popped up in the alumni magazine. We get no special consideration. When our readers bring in the mail, they make three stacks on the kitchen counter: bills, magazines, crap. That’s it. Three categories, three stacks. If there’s a fourth stack, it’s catalogs, it’s not our magazines. We have got to go into the magazine stack or it’s game over.

How do we get into the magazine stack? By being magazines. We have to look like magazines, we have to read like magazines, and like good, successful magazines, we have to put our readers first.

What’s that mean?

It means we have to favor good stories over dry articles. We can’t avoid publishing some articles—dry, factual, emotionally neutral reports on the new sexual assault policy or the president’s commission on gender equality or the master plan for campus beautification. And we’ll never avoid a certain amount of propaganda—the capital campaign is going great, the football team was undefeated, let us introduce our great new provost. That’s life at an institutional magazine. But I think every single issue of our magazines has to have at least one (preferably more but at least one) feature-length piece that tells a story.

What’s the distinction I’m making between a story and an article? A story has characters—it’s populated, it has people doing something and saying something. It has scenes from life. Narrative is good, but not every great story is built around a narrative, around a plot. Still, there should be scenes of one kind or another. A good story usually has conflict. It doesn’t have to be conflict between people. It can be conflict between ideas, or competing theories, or a scientist in conflict with the intractable mysteries of the universe or an artist in conflict with her own inner life. But there’s a source of tension. Good stories do not gloss over complexity. They acknowledge that life is complicated and process is messy and people are inconsistent and motives are mixed. Most of all, a story has emotion. It’s emotion that captures and keeps a reader’s attention, it’s emotion that keeps them coming back for more—and it’s emotion that, at the end of the day, motivates them to respond to what the magazine brings them by donating to the university.

A story can be missing some of these elements and still be a good story. This isn’t a checklist. But the best stories have these things. And after more than 40 years in magazine journalism, it’s my belief that if we put just one story with these qualities in our feature well, our readers will think of us as magazines the next time we show up in the mailbox. The will drop us on the magazine stack. It only takes one good. Two or three or four are better, but I really am convinced that it only takes one good story to bring a reader back to the next issue.

You’re likely to encounter some resistance to this sort of storytelling. Not from readers, but from bosses and other various stakeholders. I find that we are under continuous pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, to be superficial. “Don’t tell a complicated story, people don’t want to think that hard in their free time.” “Don’t get into conflict, c’mon, that’s not very positive.” “Do you have to have all this emotion in here? It’s kind of a downer…” “Why is there still this mystery in here, this ambivalence, these inconclusive bits? Can’t you tie up all these loose ends?” “Your job is to keep it simple, keep it positive, promote the brand.” To which I say resist!

Putting our readers first means never patronizing them. They are smart, well-informed adults. They read books. They read The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Economist. They can handle a real story. They want real stories. That’s why so many of the oldest continuously published magazines have real story meat on their editorial bones.

Putting our readers first also means never overlooking a fundamental question. “Who cares?” It’s a question we have to address for every story we publish, every headline we write, every decision we make for the cover, every story that deftly and effortlessly flows from our pens, and every idea we field from a senior administrator. A biophysicist has developed a new technique for studying cell motility. Who cares? A political scientist worries about the growing influence of professional political consultants. Who cares? Here are 10 freshmen and the favorite things they brought from home. Who cares? Faculty dogs, sexual assault on campus, the rec center’s new climbing wall…who cares? The answer to the question varies with the story, but it governs how we approach each and every story, and it ought to govern whether we do the story or not, because sometimes the answer to “who cares?” is “nobody.”

Things get complicated when the answer to “who cares?” is, “The president.” Or the vice president, or the dean, or the provost, or the donor so rich his name is on three campus buildings. But let me emphasize something big that we have going for us in regard to this whole question of “who cares.” If we have good writers, and if we do our jobs as editors, we can make readers care. And we can reframe the question. If the question is who cares about the Higgs boson, the answer will always be “some readers, not a lot.” Who cares about NAFTA? Who cares about a critical rethinking of Milton or John Donne, or about a little known Latvian composer? Hard to say. But there’s a much better question to govern how we approach our jobs: Who cares about stories? Because the answer to that is, “Everyone.” If we do a story not with the intent of serving the institution by getting the message out, but with the intent of serving readers by bringing them a good story, then can we get people to read just about anything. The great thing is once we’ve gotten them to read the story, we’ve served the institution by getting the message out. We just did in the way we know is most effective.

Case in point: On March 25, 1974, The New Yorker published a story by John McPhee titled, “A Reporter at Large: Firewood.” It is several thousand words about people who sell firewood in Manhattan, and the people who buy it. Believe me, when I came across this piece as a journalism student at Ohio University, I had no interest in reading about firewood. If you’d said to me, “Who cares that the second-best firewood grown in the United States is mangrove?” I would have replied, “Not me.” But this story was in The New Yorker, which told me it might be good. And this story was written by John McPhee, which told me it was going to be good. So I gave it a try, and it’s great. It’s a terrific piece. And notice how this worked—I was willing to give it a try because it appeared in a magazine that had brought me good stories in the past, and it was by a writer who really knows what he’s doing, and after four or five paragraphs I knew this was going to be a well-told tale so I didn’t care about the subject. I just wanted to tuck into a good story.

This is why it’s so important to be real magazines, why it’s so important to approach our work as professional magazine writers and editors, no matter how much institutional scrutiny and control we’re under. Readers will give a story a chance if it appears in a magazine that has brought them good stories in the past. And chances are that they’ll stick with that story if it was written and edited by professionals with the intent to tell a good story. Not to check off an institutional prerogative, not to please a donor or administrator, but for the reader.

Okay, so, as Steve Jobs used to say, “One last thing.” Think for a moment about the potential we have in our magazines. We have access to so many great stories. We have access to so much knowledge, to so many people who create that knowledge, to so many huge ideas, to so many fascinating scholars and scientists and thinkers and artists and people who know and do the damnedest things. There’s no getting around it: We’re special. That’s inconsistent with what I said at the top of the story? Mea culpa. But in this one regard, we are special, or at least we’re in a unique situation, and that gives us the chance to do great things for our readers. We can go time after time to such a deep, deep well of stories, we’ll never use them all.

Sooner or later, you will run into this question: “How are you serving the institutional goals?” And your answer is that you are getting inside the houses of your alumni and for weeks, on their countertops and coffee tables and nightstands, you are exemplifying the institution. You are stating loud and clear how the university still cares about its alumni. Every issue of the magazine that makes it to an alum’s nightstand says, “We made this for you because you still matter to us.” It says, “You are one of us. It may be 35 years since you last set foot on campus, but you are still one of us.” If we put readers first, that’s what we communicate. You are one of us. And that’s a potent message.

Yeah, we’ve been there

ca736e_55ac5f31fe134871aef36c6e06839055Neil Caudle has been central to a pair of excellent university research magazines over the years, Endeavors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Glimpse from Clemson. He has retired from that sort of thing, mostly to write fiction, apparently. But he also has a blog as part of his personal website, and a recent post describes a situation he found himself in as editor at Glimpse.

It was just a geeky science story, but a vice president was telling me not to write it. He was not my boss, but my sources reported to him and wouldn’t utter a peep without his say-so. The topic was toxic, he said.

I sat in his office and gaped at him, dumbfounded. Only in some alternate universe would the topic of wind turbines and power grids be toxic.

Patiently, the VP explained to me the alternate universe of South Carolina politics. According to doctrine in that realm, decent Americans pledge allegiance to fossil fuels and nukes. Only weirdo liberals truck with solar and wind.

So Clemson University could build and operate, in North Charleston, a fabulous new facility for testing wind turbines and simulating their use on the grid. And we could bank some big grants and contracts from the U.S. Department of Energy and companies such as General Electric to do the work. We just couldn’t write about it.

Caudle bided his time, the VP left, and the shrewd editor brought the story back, tuned up to dodge legislative wrath.

Insurgents afoot in an alternate universe rely on stealth. To save my boss a world of hurt, I would have to think like a native. And in South Carolina, the natives take pride in their history.

So I dug up some history. Three centuries ago, windmills designed by Dutch engineers powered the saws that cut the lumber that built a city called Charleston. The windmills also drained swamps and ground corn. So wind energy was nothing new. It was heritage, deeply rooted as indigo or rice. I had my lead.

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You can find the story that ran here.

By the way, lest there be any question about Caudle’s motive, he has titled his blog An insurgence of words, with a subtitle: “In which we attempt to puncture the culture of spin.” Man after my own heart. And my first suggestion as a presenter at next year’s Editors Forum.

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?

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.

Wham!

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.

Broadcasting to the Indifferent

The other day an editor announced on CUE that her magazine soon would “have to create a feature for our alumni magazine that introduces the college’s most recent strategic plan.”  Other editors noted that they face the same task.

I assume that these projects arise from someone in senior administration who believes that it is imperative to tell alumni readers something important about the institution. We could debate that imperative, but that’s not my point. My point is that putting an article in the university magazine about the strategic plan will not tell readers anything. Why? Because to tell them something, you have to get them to read it and no one is going to read page after page about the strategic plan. Our readers don’t care and we can’t make them care. The strategic plan has almost no bearing on their lives, and it certainly has no entertainment value.

The people who believe these articles are good ideas confuse transmission with communication. Were a writer to pry a compelling story out of the new strategic plan—unlikely but stay with me here, human ingenuity should never be underestimated—that might stand a chance of communicating what the big boss thinks is essential to communicate. People who ignore articles about things that have no congruence with their day-to-day lives still read good stories, sometimes finishing the piece and saying I can’t believe I just read a whole story about that. But we all know the articles that senior administrators have in mind when they feel the need to tell alumni about the strategic plan. There will be nothing compelling about them.

Fail to grasp the fundamental difference between transmitting and communicating and you guarantee that all you will do through your magazine is broadcast to the indifferent.