Tagged: johns hopkins

Eyes not averted

jhphdeathcoverWe’ve a policy here in UMagville against writing about Johns Hopkins Magazine or any of the divisional publications that go forth from the university. When we created UMagazinology, we decided it would be important to avoid any suggestion that our intent was to promote Johns Hopkins or any of its magazines. The blog has always been about the big Us—alumni magazines everywhere—not the small Us.

But Johns Hopkins Public Health, edited by Brian Simpson, recently did something extraordinary that I think is worth describing. It devoted the entirety of its latest issue to death. Stories about people trying to figure out if the buried remnants of bioweapons research are killing people, stories about mortality demographics, mortality among new mothers in countries like Ghana, public health’s slow embrace of end-of-life issues, how investigating the causes of death saves lives, and so-called verbal autopsies. Features are supplemented by Q&As and essays written by alumni. (The magazine solicited the latter, and posted more than two dozen responses on its website.)

In an editor’s note that appears on the last page of the magazine, Simpson writes:

I wanted to avoid death and its unpleasant reality. However, that’s not what public health is about. Public health is not about flowers and sunshine. It’s not about eyes averted. Its purpose is not to avoid but engage with our most intimate adversary—to stare, to probe, to investigate, to understand, and then to fight. All with the promise of making a difference and saving lives.

The issue is very well done, starting with its cover, which is a photograph, cropped close, of the face of a dead 50-year-old Bangladeshi woman, Nyati Sarkar, with a traditional basil leaf placed over her closed eye. Editorial content is divided into three sections titled “Death and Data,” “Death and Lifespan,” and “Death and Learning.” The features are all worth reading, but my favorite writing in the magazine turned out to be one of the essays. Marcelo Cardarelli, a cardiac surgeon whose whole professional life has been devoted to intervening to prevent death, ponders the day he found a mortally injured deer on his property and brought it water:

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps when my own end is near and inevitable, all I really want, all I will really need is a compassionate human being to order one less test, one less procedure, while taking the time to stand by me and help me take that last sip of water before I die.

Simpson’s son, Colt, has the final say in his father’s note. Simpson pére had recently visited the office of the chief medical examiner in Maryland.

At some point after my visit to the medical examiner’s office, I had an enlightening (and lightening) conversation with my son. I often ask him big questions out of the blue to gain insight into a 7-year-old’s world. I asked him what he would like to do with his life. He thought a moment and then said, “Spend more time with it.”

You’re right, kiddo. You’re right.

Insidehighered.com’s take on the CASE survey

On July 9, Scott Jaschik of Insidehighered.com published a story about the CASE member magazine readership survey. One aspect of the survey that he chose to emphasize was the relative lack of interest in university magazines from readers age 25 years or younger. Citing the CASE survey data, Jaschik points out that among the youngest cohort in the survey, only 21 percent turn to university magazines for information about their schools, and only 38 percent read every issue. By contrast, the survey shows that among readers 50 and older, 54 percent turn to our magazines for information, and 70 percent report reading every issue. In his story (for which I was interviewed, as was Jeff Lott, editor of Swarthmore College Bulletin), Jaschik attaches more significance to these data than I do, and suggests that the numbers indicate cause for concern among editors who want to “stay relevant” to younger readers, especially at a time when development officers report that younger alumni are not exactly rushing to contribute to university capital campaigns.

I don’t worry about this age gap for several reasons. For one, I doubt that it is new. Had CASE and member magazines conducted this reader survey 40 years ago, I suspect the data would show the more intent readership skewing older then, too. Why? Well-wrought, thoughtful, complex stories on research, politics, culture, and intellectual topics, like a fine cabernet and Shostakovich’s string quartets, are something most people grow into. Now that I am 56, I read Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, The Paris Review, and subscribe to the daily New York Times. When I was 22, I read Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Time, with the occasional glance at a skin magazine. (Hey, I was 22.) Forty years ago, new graduates weren’t texting or using friend as a verb on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they were reading 4,000-word pieces on the latest Spinoza scholarship instead. And young adults are in the magazine habit, despite the lure of digital entertainment. Consumer research firm Gfk MRI reports that readers 18–34 buy more magazines than adults 34+ and spend more time per issue; since the founding of Facebook, magazines have gained 1 million “young adult readers,” and in the 12 years of Google’s existence, magazine readership has grown 11 percent. My bet is that as young readers get older, deeper, and smarter, they will turn to us for more than class notes.

Institutions concerned that their magazines need to go electronic to generate more donations from young alumni are misguided. A new graduate is not writing checks to his or her alma mater because the school’s print magazine is no longer “relevant”? Please. That new graduate has recently emerged from the academy with debt that not long ago would buy a suburban bungalow, into an economy that has little to offer in the way of good jobs. Twenty-something alumni don’t need their university magazines on an iPad—they need employment and a future not already looted by Goldman Sachs.

In the last year or two, several schools have cut at least one print edition from their annual publication cycles, in favor of special digital editions. This may help square a few budgets, but it’s short sighted. Our readers—readers of all ages—have expressed a strong desire to receive print magazines from us. The CASE survey shows that, Johns Hopkins Magazine‘s reader survey shows that, and I bet other surveys show that. If we do our jobs right, when alumni begin to sneak up on that stage in life where they’re more willing and able to contribute money to our schools, they will be among our most avid readers—provided we produce the sort of engrossing, engaging reader experience that rewards their attention to our pages. We cannot ignore the Internet and the changes it has wrought, but chasing a younger audience by getting all digital will prove to be a pointless exercise, I believe. One thing my 35+ years in the business have taught me is that worthwhile magazines don’t chase a readership. They build a readership.

Good to be lucky

Illustration by Jesse Kuhn

My friend Kelly Brooks, the estimable editor of Johns Hopkins Nursing, just brought out her Spring 2010 issue. On pg. 18 there appears a photograph of earthquake victims in a Haitian surgical ward that had been relocated from University Hospital in Port-au-Prince to a Red Cross medical tent. An elderly female patient lies on a bed in the foreground, recovering from what looks like treatment for a leg injury.

I’ll let Kelly tell some of the tale, from an e-gram that she sent.

The story went through all the routine approvals and procedures: I confirmed the photo with the faculty member and got some background to write a caption; our art director cropped, touched it up, and dropped it into the spread; my boss reviewed the layouts and gave her approval; a proofreader looked over the entire issue with her sharp eyes; and my in-house graphic design expert took a look at the photos, colors, and design elements too.

Off to the printer.  Final proofs approved.  Presses off and running.

What I did not realize—and would not have even considered very important before yesterday—was that all of my reviewers were women. [That is] until yesterday, when I sat down with the two men on our Web team to prep them for posting the online magazine.  Spread by spread, we flipped through and talked about links to include, content that can be pulled onto the school’s Web site, links to photo galleries, etc.  And then I flipped the page to the Haiti story. “Hey, do you really think I should include that breast photo on the Web site?” Dave asked.

Breast photo?  BREAST PHOTO!?!

What no one had noticed up to then was that the gown on the lady in the photo’s foreground was gaping, fully exposing her breast. The magazine was on press and, for all Kelly knew, already bound and minutes from shipping. Imagining a gross violation of this poor woman’s privacy—and her own impending unemployment—Kelly called to find out how many thousands of dollars it would cost to scrap the whole print run, swap out or retouch the photo, and do another full run of the revised contents. Maybe, just maybe, good fortune would be with her and she’d learn that the printer had not yet printed the sheet with that page.

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Kelly’s luck was better than that. The printer reported that, before the sheet with pg. 18 had run through it, the press had broken down. The magazine’s art director had time to restore the patient’s modesty with a quick bit of digital wizardry. Kelly paid $250 for a late change and gladly accepted a slightly delayed ship date. End of story.

As has been said of many other situations, sometimes being good is less important than being lucky.


Samir Husni also pointed out how often some the most successful magazines put the word “sex” on their covers. I have taken this to heart. When I return to Baltimore, I will argue that the next several issues of Johns Hopkins Magazine include the following cover lines:

  • Summer 2010: “More Sex Than Usual.”
  • Fall 2010: “Not Quite as Much Sex as Last Issue.”
  • Winter 2010: “Sex—Still on Our Minds.”
  • Spring 2011: “Sex in the English Department: Oxymoron?”
  • Summer 2011: “First Annual Johns Hopkins Magazine Swimsuit Issue.”