Tagged: betsy robertson

Valedictory eight questions for Betsy Robertson

Recently the alumni magazine world was stunned to learn that Betsy Robertson was stepping down as editor of Auburn Magazine to join Lane Press. OK, that’s daubing it on a bit thick, but many of us were saddened to learn that she would be departing our ranks, and if Auburn has any sense  it knows what it’s losing. Before she swept her stuff into a box and stepped away from her editor’s desk, I prevailed upon her to answer the UMagazinology questions. Best of luck, Betsy. You will be missed.

How long were you in your job?

Seven years, 10 months.

What proved to be the most significant thing you learned on the job?

Patience! When I accepted the job as editor, I wanted to knock the ball out of the park on the very first issue with better writing and story selection, artful photography, sophisticated design, and a more intuitive architecture. I brought to the table a background in higher-education publications and news media—but because I wasn’t an Auburn alumna, I needed time to study the campus culture, the staff, and the alumni audience in order to make changes that would resonate not only with the CASE competition judges but also with our most important constituency, the readers. It took nearly four years before I felt our team had truly lifted the magazine to the next level.

What was your best experience at the magazine?

Privately, I always thought that if we could break into that elite group of alumni mags that were always winning national CASE Circle of Excellence awards, then we’d know for sure we had arrived. In 2009, I was notified that we’d won not one but two silver awards for writing; two years later we were winning golds for both writing and publishing improvement. That was my Sally-Field-at-the-Academy-Awards moment. At the same time, we were receiving ever more effusive praise for our efforts from alumni (as documented in our quarterly readership surveys). I think the whole team was proud that both the readers and our professional peers had validated our hard work.

What proved to be your biggest frustration?

Lack of focus. Over the years, my job had become less about publishing a great alumni magazine and more about online content generation and revenue streams. Understand this: In college, I majored in publication management and minored in business; I have no beef with the need to increase ad sales or deliver alumni magazines in some sort of electronic format for the small percentage of readers who say they want to receive their alumni publication online only. But I oppose the increasingly prevalent notion that the Internet is the solution to every communication need (because it’s free!!!). Done on a shoestring, these new delivery methods come with hidden costs, most notably in the area of storytelling. I’m convinced that “shiny object syndrome” (we need a blog! we need an app!! we need a Facebook page!!!) keeps communications staffs from communicating in authentic, meaningful ways, and keeps alumni magazines from being the best they can be.

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

Hmmm . . .well, of course, I always wished we had the money to hire seasoned narrative nonfiction writers to provide original reporting/writing (as opposed to repurposed news releases) for every section. Barring that, I would like to have published more provocative, well-written essays in our regular back-of-the-book department, “The Last Word.” I think those one-page essay sections are a great place to introduce thoughtful commentary on social issues designed to spark debate among alumni, but we typically settled for mundane columns that simply recounted readers’ campus memories. I should have been more aggressive about choosing courageous topics and soliciting strong writing from faculty and alumni for that part of the book.

What story are you proudest to have published?

A couple of years ago we sent one of our best freelancers, as well as our chief campus photographer, to Haiti for a profile on an alumnus who is trying to establish a tilapia-production industry that he believes will bring that country’s people out of poverty. Our readers continue to reference “The Fish Farmer’s Story” as a feature that sticks in their minds. We could not have done justice to the alumnus’ work had we tried to shortcut the reporting with a phone interview and a few stock images.

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

Back in 2010, when Auburn’s football team was headed for the BCS National Championship, I actually tried to hire Sports Illustrated‘s Gary Smith on a freelance basis to write the cover story for the issue that immediately followed the game. He wasn’t able to do it, but I was pretty proud of myself for having the nerve to pursue him for the job.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be? (You are absolved from the need to say “account executive at Lane Press.”)

Ha! OK, going completely off the grid: If I were any good at math, I’d go back to school for an architecture degree. I’m fascinated by architecture, especially the way in which the built environment influences individuals’ emotions and social behavior.

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Told you we were back.

First, congratulations to editor Amy Braverman Puma, executive editor Mary Ruth Yoe, and The University of Chicago Magazine for being the newest recipients of the Robert Sibley Award as alumni magazine of the year. I find this hard to believe, but according to my list from CASE this is Chicago‘s first Sibley since 1957. (Third overall.) Congratulations also to Cathy Shufro, who scribbled the article of the year, “The Bird-filled World of Richard Prum” for Yale Alumni Magazine.

Betsy Robertson’s crew at Auburn Magazine had some fun with their 100th anniversary issue. Love the retro cover, and a class note from the first issue a century before that recorded the hiring of alum J.M. Moore to organize “pig clubs” around the state. I’ve been to a few pig clubs, but I’ve a feeling it meant something different in this context.

Wake Forest Magazine (Cherin C. Poovey, managing editor) made its summer issue all about writing. The school counts among its literary alumni Maya Angelou and A.R. Ammons. Laura Elliott, author of young-adult historical novels,  is quoted as saying, “The fun part about being a writer is you get to pretend all the time.” Yes, you do. You get to pretend that someone, somewhere is paying attention to you, and pretend that you’re making money.

Swell cover illustration from Concordia University Magazine. Howard Bokser edits.

And while we’re on covers, a couple of killer designs from Sarah Lawrence Magazine and Middlebury Magazine. Yum.

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The current Oberlin Alumni Magazine (Jeff Hagan, editor) contains an excellent essay, “Poetry is Dangerous,” by Oberlin associate professor Kazim Ali. Ali, of Indian descent, left a box of discarded poetry manuscripts beside a trash can on the campus of the Pennsylvania school that employed him in 2007. Someone in the ROTC office, which is located in the building fronting the trash can, called the police because what else could a foreign-looking, dark-skinned man who leaves a box in front of a building be but a terrorist? The police overreacted, evacuating buildings and canceling classes. Here is the last paragraph, which reflects the elegance and thoughtfulness of the whole essay:

My body exists politically in a way I cannot prevent. For a moment that day, without even knowing it, driving away from campus in my little Beetle, exhausted after a day of teaching, listening to Justin Timberlake on the radio, i ceased to be a person when a man I had never met looked straight through me and saw the violence in his own heart.

A new look for Temple, or The Magazine Formerly Known as Temple Review. Executed by Greatest Creative Factor in Baltimore, the new design, above left, is cleaner, more contemporary, and more adventurous in its typography. Plus it’s got some 50-foot numbers, so you know it’s good. (There are also hilarious photographs of a lizard running, and how often can you say that?) I can’t tell from the masthead who is most responsible for editing, either Betsy Winter Hall or Maria Raha, so I’ll give them both credit.

Virginia Tech Magazine (Jesse Tuel, editor) sports its own new look. Again, new is on the left, old on the right.

Finally Harvard Medicine has issued a video trailer promoting its forthcoming spring issue. This may not be a first for a university magazine, but it’s the first one that’s come to my attention. Many of us are producing video extras for magazine websites and iPad editions, but I haven’t seen a trailer before. Good idea, if you have the resources. Ann Marie Menting is editor. (Oh, clicking on the image below will not play the video. Sorry—I haven’t figured out how to embed video yet. Remember, I’m an old print guy.)

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A check of the bottom of the stack of new magazines that has grown to dangerous proportions on my desk has brought to light some items worthy of attention.

Magazine renovators have been busy at Southern Cal. USC Trojan Family Magazine unveiled a new design with its summer edition. New, bolder, sans serif nameplate shifted from center to left. More assertive typography inside as black lowercase section heads replace serif white type reversed out of color blocks. The biggest apparent change in organization has been a reduction in front-of-the-book pages from 10 in the spring edition to only three in the new magazine. USC also debuted a new online magazine and in the summer print edition devoted a page to nudging readers to it. The web version looks good, though USC has run into the problem we all have with magazine websites—the Southern Cal site looks good in the same way that all of our newer magazine sites look good. The medium seems to have imposed a design template on us and we all pretty much look alike. One more argument for print. Don’t get me started. USC editor is Nicole Malec.

The spring issue—told you I was behind—of NYU Alumni Magazine (editor Jason Hollander) has a nicely done cover story by Jascha Hoffman. “Patient, Heal Thyself” opens with 30-year-old research that has long fascinated me: Ellen Langer’s study that asked a group of elderly men to spend a weekend together pretending the year was 1959 and they were about 20 years younger. After the weekend, Langer recorded an astonishing array of physical changes in the men. After their weekend retreat they had improved posture, strength, flexibility, vision, hearing, and intelligence. Versus a control group of men on the same retreat who were asked only to reminisce, not pretend, their physical improvements were significantly greater. Through a purely mental exercise, they had effected physical change for the better. Hoffman goes on to recount the history of placebos, report some of the skepticism about the placebo effect, and explore the current research into a possible biological basis for mind-induced physical improvement. He gracefully covers a lot of ground, including Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with meditation, John Sarno’s studies of treating back pain by emotional therapy, and the knotty dilemma of placebos versus an obligation to tell patients the truth.

In the February 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, Susan Orlean wrote a fine piece titled “The Origami Lab” about a physicist-turned-origamist named Robert J. Lang. Lang used computers and his physicist’s way of approaching a problem to create folding patterns that allowed creation of fantastic paper sculptures, such as a life-size cuckoo clock folded from a single sheet of paper with no cuts and astonishing realism. Lang earned a master’s degree at Stanford in the 1980s, and Greta Lorge profiled him in the May/June issue of Stanford. We can all feel for Lorge—who wants to step on to ground already covered by Susan Orlean? But she does an admirable job, particularly in how she moves between the artistic aspect of Lang’s folding to the scientific and mathematical side. Kevin Cool edits Stanford.

Finally, behold the cover of Auburn Magazine. Does the summer issue, edited by Betsy Robertson, contain advice on hygiene of the most personal sort? The definitive feature on the Department of Human Waste Sciences? (I made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised to come across one somewhere.) No, the cover image refers to Mike Tierney’s “Family Trees,” a feature on a set of trees beloved by Auburn students and alumni. The oaks at Toomer’s Corner on the Auburn campus are regarded as the heart of campus, which is why someone poisoned them after Auburn defeated the University of Alabama in a football game last year. (A retired Texas state trooper and ardent Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke has been arrested and charged with the crime.) Tierney writes about the ongoing effort to save the trees, an effort funded by donors from both Auburn and Alabama. Now I advocate writing for the broadest possible audience in a university magazine, reporting on subjects of interest far beyond the boundaries of our institutions and incorporating the perspectives of people outside our schools. But at the same time, I think we should always be alert for those stories aimed purely at the narrowest definition of our readership. Not many people outside the state of Alabama know or care about the Toomer’s oaks, but they are a big deal at Auburn, and a feature story like this does a lot to sustain Auburn Magazine‘s community. It’s silly stuff, but every one of our schools has some sort of silliness at the heart of the emotional bond we feel to alma mater.

And the toilet paper? Tradition dictates that after an Auburn victory, students drape the oaks with it. If you’re part of the War Eagle family, you know at a glance what the cover story is about.

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Auburn Magazine has done a lot of things right lately, and I’d list the latest cover and cover story among them. The story is by Jeremy Henderson, an Auburn alum and fervent admirer of Bo Jackson, the Heisman Trophy–winning running back from Auburn who went on to stardom in both professional football and baseball. Assigned by Auburn Magazine to interview Jackson on the 25th anniversary of his Heisman, Henderson must confront the fact that Jackson prefers not to be interviewed by anyone, and consistently eludes Henderson’s attempts to pigeonhole him. The writer, who at age 5 had actually met Jackson at a charity event, does the smart thing with the story and mimics Gay Talese stalking Frank Sinatra. The resultant piece is clever, but cleverer, I think, is the cover, a simple typographical play on the Nike ad campaign that could not be avoided 20 years ago—“Bo Knows.” Betsy Robertson edits the magazine.

The current issue of Ohio University’s research magazine, Perspectives (Andrea Gibson, editor), has the best table of contents I’ve seen in years. Seriously. The cover story by Stephanie Dutchen concerns research on chimpanzees, and has a chimp for the cover image. But when you open the magazine . . . damn! Is that not great? (Click the thumbnail to do it justice.) Christina Ullman is the magazine’s senior designer.

Finally, Eric Sorensen has written a fine piece for the impressive Washington State Magazine (Tim Steury, editor). “First We Eat” begins:

Bob and Sue Ritter are looking cleaned and pressed, but deep in their bodies, from the base of the brain to the hormones of the gut, they’re feeling the after-effects of five days in the wilderness. They walked 30 miles with packs, encountering thousands of feet of elevation, windfalls, and part of a day lost to figuring out where they were besides Somewhere on the Bitterroot Divide.

(Surely do like “from the base of the brain to the hormones of the gut.”) The story concerns the Ritters and their work as neuroscientists who study why we eat and why we stop, or as Sorensen aptly puts it, “a tidy niche in which she specializes in appetite and he specializes in satiation.” That last bit is typical of Sorensen’s clear thinking and nimble prose. He hangs the story on the scaffold of dinner with the Ritters in a restaurant, deftly weaving biography, science, bits of dialogue, and the Ritters’ personalities. Paragraph by paragraph, Sorensen keeps hold of the reader with unexpected details and distinctive turns of phrase. As a girl growing up on a southern Oregon mountain, Sue Ritter used for hopscotch tokens “shiny pieces of glass and ceramic that she’d pull from pack rat middens.” The brain requires glucose, but must stay compact, so “glucose storage gets subcontracted to other parts of the body.” (I love that use of “subcontracted.”) How the body fuels itself is “a system of symphonic grandeur.” Mounted slices of brain tissue are “so thin they look like dried raindrops on a windshield.” (Go ahead, try to improve on that.) Sue Ritter studies appetite, as already mentioned, so Sorensen uses the first part of the meal, when the diners are really digging in, to describe her science. Bob Ritter studies why we stop eating, so his science comes in as the foursome’s feed begins to wind down. The story’s structure could not be better, in my view. Sorensen elicits good statements from people (including the Ritters’ son, musician Josh Ritter) and uses only the better ones, and wraps everything up with an anecdote that nicely recapitulates the opening narrative set-piece.

An all-round impressive job. I wish I’d written it.