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.
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.