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.

UMag inbox

I’ve been catching up on the 14-inch stack of university magazines that has arisen in my office, in anticipation of CASEpalooza 2016, formally known as the Editors Forum, to be held this year in San Antonio. Here are some things that caught my attention.

gwspreadThe Fall 2015 issue of GW Magazine, out of George Washington University, includes a piece adapted from Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychology, by Irvin D. Yalom. How’s this for a lead:

While on a month-long writing retreat in Hawaii, I was shocked to receive this email from my patient Ellie:

Hello Irv,

I’m sorry I’ll have to say goodbye this way, not in person. My symptoms got a lot worse a week or so ago and I decided to do a process of VSED (voluntarily stopping eating and drinking) in order to die faster and with less suffering. I haven’t drunk anything for over 72 hours now and should (according to what I have read and been told) start “fading” soon, and die within a couple weeks at most. I’ve also stopped my chemotherapy. Goodbye Irv.

The story is pungently titled “Get Your Own Damn Fatal Illness: Homage to Ellie,” and you should read it here.

Interesting TOC from Law Quadrangle, published by the University of Michigan School of Law, from an issue devoted to entertainment law:

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New Trail, from the University of Alberta, has a beer column! How good is that? Another reason to consider moving to Canada. (The first two are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.)

Okay, UT Dallas Magazine, if you’re going to  shoot a takeoff from The Beatles’ Abbey Road for your Fall 2015 cover, the strider second from left has to be barefoot. C’mon, know your rock ‘n’ roll history. (“Sweartagodman, I heard it means Paul is dead. Like he had an accident or something.”)

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The “Late Fall 2015” edition—love that designation; hell, most all issues of Johns Hopkins Magazine are late—of Monmouth University Magazine includes a tipped in 2016 calendar—12 months of campus calendar photography stapled into the center of the issue. Never seen that before.

Not just a redesign, but a rare renaming. Minnesota is now Minnesota Alumni.

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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.

 

Eight Questions for Leslie Stainton

findingsThe long-time editor of Findings, from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, responds to the UMagazinology questionnaire. Check the answer to the third question for a senior administrator we’d all kill for.

How long have you been in your job?

Seventeen years. I took the job because I was desperate to escape a corporate editorial gig, never dreaming I’d stay longer than a year or two. Despite its rather bland name, public health turns out to one of the most interesting fields there is — rarely a day goes by that it doesn’t make news somewhere. My husband says I can never quit  my job because if I did, what would he talk about at cocktail parties?

 What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

How to tease compelling stories from scientists who are inherently (and rightly) cautious about making big claims.

 What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Two things, really. More than a decade’s work with a terrific designer who’s smart, irreverent, curious, passionate, driven, deeply collaborative, and who shares my taste in scotch. The second is autonomy, of the sort few (I suspect) university magazine editors enjoy. Earlier this year I thanked my boss for the long leash she’s given me. “What leash?” she asked. It’s true.

 What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

A consistently paltry budget for freelance, coupled with no associate staff editors or writers. Our admins seem content with mostly one voice, mine.

 What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

The absence of a wide range of other voices in the magazine. (See “biggest frustration,” above.)

 What story are you proudest to have published?

A feature about a nurse, Elenita Congco, who was viciously attacked on the job by a psychiatric patient. During our interview, Elenita spoke at great length about the terrible ongoing impact of her trauma. The day after I finished drafting the story, I learned that she had died — most likely as a result of issues related to the attack. She was maybe 50. In effect, I’d gotten her last testament. What I didn’t know was that one of Elenita’s nieces was an SPH alumna. The niece wrote to us after we’d published the story to say how grateful she and her family were. Painful as the story was, without it they would not have known what Elenita was thinking and feeling in her last days. It’s hard to imagine our work getting much more important or meaningful than that.

 If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

Adam Gopnik (what can’t he write brilliantly about?).  Brian Doyle (imagine his spin on cardiovascular disease). Rebecca Solnit (few are better at speaking the truth to power).

 If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

I’d still like to work in the professional theater, probably as a dramaturg. I’m guessing that’s an option you haven’t heard before.