Show of hands . . . how many of you would love to take a road trip on your magazine’s tab? I’m not talking about grab the tequila, grab the weed, grab the Oreos and let’s do a Kerouac. (Any hint that I came of age in the 1960s?) I mean a professional road trip that results in a story. So, once more, show of hands? Just as I thought—almost all of you. OK, one more: How many of you have a Dixie cup full of nickels for a travel budget? Uh-huh. A few hands down now, but not many.
Prepare to suffer terminal envy.
Carol Gieseke edits Visions, the alumni magazine of Iowa State University. In 2010, she was driving back to Ames, Iowa from Chicago with photographer Jim Heemstra. With not much else to do—I can tell you from experience that driving across that part of the Midwest is a less-than-riveting experience—they started batting story ideas around in the context of “if you could do any story, what would it be?” They came up with a dozen ideas. One of them was write about alumni in all 50 states. And damn if they didn’t bring that one off. The Spring 2014 issue of Visions was Visions Across America, a glossy, perfect-bound, 128-page tabletop magazine with stories about and photographs of Iowa State graduates in each and every state in the union plus the District of Bureaucracy and Partisan Bickering. Featured alums include a female DEA agent from Tennessee, a social worker from Kanasas, a marathoner in Oregon, and a computer science professor / cowboy in Wyoming.
Gieseke and Heemstra made 18 trips around the country, reporting and making images and no doubt having a helluva good time. The editor and I had an email Q&A about the project.
UMag: First editor’s question, the one first on every editor’s mind, is how did you pay for this project?
Gieseke: We normally produce Visions quarterly (48 pages). Since this was a long-term project I was able to tap into three fiscal-year budgets for travel and photography. I also obviously have a regular budget for printing and postage. The additional cost—over and above the cost of a normal issue—of producing this special issue was about $125,000. Most of that went to travel expenses and paying Jim Heemstra, our freelance photographer, who traveled with me to every state; the remainder went toward the extra cost of printing and postage for a 128-page magazine. Early in the process, our alumni association president pitched the idea to units and departments on campus (the president’s office, our foundation, colleges, etc.) and some helped support the project financially because they liked the idea. After that, we approached a few individual alumni and friends for donations. I also got a strategic initiative grant from the provost’s office, and we sold a few full-page ads at $5,000 each. We were always very aware of our expenses. Let’s just say that we did not travel in luxury.
U: What did you accomplish, in the end?
G: I love to tell alumni stories. That’s my absolute favorite thing to do in the magazine, so this project appealed to me greatly on that level. I especially wanted to tell stories that had never been told—alumni who were not necessarily award winners/donors/CEOs/usual suspects. I mean, I don’t think we had ever told a story about a math teacher or an engineering grad who had quit her job to stay home with her kids or anyone in Rhode Island. Someone who read the issue told me that they always hear about the “one percent”; Visions Across America told stories of the other 99 percent.
U: How much did the outcome match your expectations?
G: The project morphed in a lot of directions. We started out thinking we’d do one story in each state and put those stories in a special issue of the magazine. Then we decided to do a travel blog. Then we decided to feature more than one person in most states (for a variety of reasons, primarily because there were so many good stories to tell, but also because I was afraid that someone might cancel or otherwise not work out at the last minute). We told some of those “extra” stories in regular issues of the magazine (which also kept the project in front of our readers) and posted all of them on the blog. In a few areas we traveled, we hosted special alumni events. I worked with our alumni merchandise folks to design state T-shirts that say, “I’m a Montana Cyclone” (or fill in your own state), which were surprisingly popular. The largest outgrowth of the project was a portrait exhibit: 116 large-scale alumni portraits currently on display in the Brunnier Art Museum, the premier art museum on campus. The exhibit went up in early April, and it’s been a real thrill to see so many people experience the show—335 people attended the opening, including alumni from as far away as Utah and Nevada. The show turned out to be a perfect accompaniment to the magazine, and we received lots more media attention from the show than from the magazine. But to answer your question, yes, the magazine turned out exactly as I hoped it would, and it was incredibly well received by readers.
U: What did you learn?
G: I should have tried harder to get frequent flier miles; I’m just a sucker for lowest fare. Same with hotels and rental cars: I should have stuck with one chain, but instead I spread my reservations around too much and didn’t end up racking up the points. That’s pretty insignificant, though. The project itself ran smoothly, and I attribute that to good organizational skills, the world’s best photographer, and really awesome alumni.
U: What proved to be the hardest thing about putting this together?
G: Just the time factor. I’ve never worked so damn hard in my whole life.
U: That sound you hear is editors everywhere weeping over your hardship.