Last week, Christine Spicer, editor of Viewpoint out of Point Loma Nazarene University, made an interesting comment on the first part of the “Making a Better Magazine” series. She made the comment a few days into the series, so I don’t know how many readers noticed or went back to read it. When I asked her if she would expand her comment into a guest post, she graciously agreed. Ms. Spicer, you have the floor.
Dale’s recent series of posts about improving our magazines was rife with good content, but I take issue was with one of his points. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from university editors many times: that there is a line in the sand between marketing/branding and magazines that puts them at necessary odds. I disagree. I look at the issue not as a divide between marketing and journalism but as a rhetorical Rubik’s cube. The goals of editors and administrators may not seem to align at first, but the puzzle is solvable. And good writing is actually the key.
After all, isn’t good writing inherently purposeful? If so, why can’t an alumni magazine’s purpose be to share compelling stories that reinforce the character and identity (i.e., the brand) of the institution?
I’m not advocating for cover stories on donors or feature stories about the business school’s philosophy. Those kinds of stories are neither good journalism nor good marketing. That’s my point. As writers, we have frequent practice in the art of persuasion. When administrators pitch a dull, institutional piece, shouldn’t we be able to propose or even simply provide a sparkling alternative that achieves their goals in a way they hadn’t imagined? And if our piece really does sparkle and really does achieve their goals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to persuade them to use it.
Take the business school example. At Point Loma Nazarene University, where I work, we don’t write essays about the business school’s philosophy (even though its motto, “More than the bottom line,” is kind of cool). But we did share the story of a business alumnus who carried 70 pounds of wood on his back while walking from San Diego to Los Angeles to raise awareness for his social enterprise (which sells carbon offsets to provide clean-burning stoves to impoverished families in Africa). The story was interesting and sweaty. It also happened to suggest something about the kinds of students in the business school and the kinds of ventures that come out of it. It certainly supported the “brand” of the university and the “More than the bottom line” philosophy of the business school.
The fact is that bad writing is bad marketing just as much as it is bad journalism.
It’s a related fallacy to imply that mainstream magazines are only about their readers. Aren’t they beholden to advertisers just as much as we are beholden to administrators? Can you imagine Runner’s World printing an article advising that people no longer buy brand name shoes? I suppose that example isn’t really comparing apples to apples, but you get the idea.
Finally, I don’t believe that alumni readers have no interest in messages from their alma maters. I accept that some alumni have no interest in messages from their alma maters. But others do. They are just more likely to listen to those messages and remember them when they are presented in a compelling fashion.
It’s easy to feel disheartened or angry when we’re asked to write about something that we don’t think will resonate with our audience or when we’re given a prescription for covering a story in a way we know won’t shine. But instead of either playing the victim or taking up arms, I suggest we push back and forward with our best creativity and most strategic thinking. Facing our challenges as puzzles to be solved might just add a measure of enjoyment to an otherwise unhappy situation and make our jobs as editors more fun.