Tagged: renee olson

Erin Peterson talks to Renée Olson

Free lance Erin Peterson writes for a number of university magazines, and presented at the March CASE Editors Forum in Chicago. She also writes a well-done electronic newsletter that I recommend, and her latest offering featured this interview with Renée Olson, editor of the newest Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year, TCNJ Magazine. It’s the first Sibley for TCNJ, and congratulations to Olson for that coup. Here’s the interview, which Erin has graciously let me reprint.

First, tell me a little bit about the magazine and its readership.

Although the Sibley award judges didn’t single out in their written comments the pair of staples that hold TCNJ Magazine together, our team knows that these stalwarts telegraph a lot about the attention we give to detail. Gone is the fear among our readers that unfettered pages will hit the floor, making their retrieval trigger a sciatica flare-up. That’s the level of care we put into every issue.

Our magazine goes to the usual suspects: largely alumni, plus parents, faculty, and staff. We’re a public college, founded in 1855 as a teacher’s college. The 20th century saw TCNJ grow into the public liberal arts college it is today, with more than 6,000 undergraduates and a small graduate school program.

Here’s a fake brand tagline that aptly describes TCNJ: “Private feel, public cost.” We’re on a sparkling, leafy campus about a 20-minute drive from Princeton and are known as the place to go if you are A) brainy and B) ultimately seek top employers and grad schools without going broke.

How has your own work with the magazine evolved?

I’ve had an interesting trajectory at TCNJ. I began on staff as the director of strategic communications with oversight for the magazine. At about the same time in 2016, editor Tony Marchetti and I made career switches: He snagged the top editor spot at Monmouth University’s magazine, and I moved to part-time employee status and inherited the magazine as a project. I also launched my company, Squint.

This arrangement works because AVP of Communications Dave Muha has a broad and deep understanding of how to effectively motivate his people—and then lets us skip through fields of daisies as we put together an issue. Many thanks are due to Kara Pothier, our indefatigable, on-campus assistant editor, who noses around for story ideas and connects the fabled dots. Also, Art Director/Design Goddess Kelly Andrews is both a deft designer and a patient soul.

Judges called your magazine “fun” and “approachable.” Can you talk about a part of the magazine that you think does that really well?

Despite lacking evidence, we must first consider whether the Sibley judges looked at TCNJ Magazine at the end of a long day, punch drunk after nonstop alumni magazine review — or maybe after fleeing to the closest bar. Still, I consider it a high compliment when readers say they enjoy the magazine. What else is there? If your work sparks an emotional connection, readers will pick up the next issue and the next. A magazine needs a soul. Ours happens to be a combination of warmth, smarts, and the unexpected.

I inherited a recurring department on the first spread (inside front cover and first page) that rounds up responses to a question — What professor do you remember most? What did the library mean to you? — posed to readers in the previous issue. I’m always surprised by how many people reply. It’s a fresh, immersive way to start each issue.

Is there one area you think the magazine excels in that makes a difference in its quality (an area where you see that other mags have struggled or don’t get quite right)?

I’ve seen many magazines underestimate the power of photography and illustration. Most times, the budget is too skeletal to hire quality people or the art director is content to work with his brother-in-law who’s cornered the local market on K-12 portraits. I offer a challenge. Email me one upcoming story idea, the space it will fill, and what you can spend for art. And I’ll send back suggestions on what you need to do to make the article stand out.

Is there something you don’t do—like a president’s letter or something—that you consciously decided not to include because it doesn’t matter to your readers?

We don’t cover commencement because magazines are not made for repetitive content—though we will run a blurb about the undergrad who moved to Florida to get married and finished her final semester by flying up to Jersey each week.

What do you read or study as inspiration? 

New York for how they package stories. Reader’s Digest for concise human interest pieces. The New Yorker for penetrating insight and depth. Twitter for snark.

TCNJ came away with a whole armload of awards, not just the Sibley (congrats!). For you, what is the value of such awards? Do they give you more leeway with your boss? Recognize your hard work? Something else? Why is it worth the (significant!) effort to apply for this kind of recognition?

Thank you. We only think about awards as the CASE deadline looms (and we never think about the Sibley). Yes, having people recognize quality in our work is a tremendous rush. What’s more, it gives our bosses a reason to keep us around.

I’m personally flattered by winning a Gold for Illustration simply because the first sentence of the judges’ comments reads, “The references are hilarious.” We put together a three-column chart looking for similarities between John Lennon and Ivan the Terrible after I stumbled on two unrelated undergraduate research papers. Goddess Kelly hired illustrator Eric Nyquist, whose work we spotted in The New York Times Book Review. He made it magical.

For editors eager to find ways to make their own magazines better, is there a specific piece of advice you can share?

Ask yourself every hour if you’re delighted by what you’re doing. Are you jazzed by a potential story idea? If not, maybe it was never destined to be a story. Are you excited because there’s real promise in a first draft—or you see a way to get it there? If not, pause and let your gut tell you if you should walk away. Be vigilant. If you let humdrum stuff make it into your story lineup, it’ll still be there when advance copies land in your office.

Anything else you want to add?

I know many people have micromanager bosses or are weighed down by departmental decisions made without editor input. To survive, lobby for a full redo of your magazine and carefully define the kinds of stories and content that are true to that new vision. If you rebrand to focus on what alumni achieve in their first 12.5 years after graduation, let’s say, you have a concrete reason to jettison the current page devoted to administrators and their pets.

And don’t wait for story ideas to come from supervisors. Instead, rely on your connections across campus and supply supervisors with a list of what’s under consideration and why at regular intervals (monthly, semi-monthly). Take this task off their plate and you may find you have a far greater say going forward.

Editors Forum 2017, Day Two

And on the second day, no rest for us. A full day of keynote presentations and elective sessions.

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— And more: Stories, deep meaningful stories, are essential to our primary mission, to engaging an audience in the only way that matters—sustained reading. And what matters is not the digital media metrics. “You’re trying to reach people. Clicks are not people. Tweets are not people. Downloads are not people.”

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Temple again: “When I say we cover the institution, we cover the institution. We are not a mouthpiece for the administration.”

— And again: In anticipation of controversy over a story you want to do, address the concerns of your bosses early in the process. “Don’t get too far out in front of your blockers.”

— And: “When readers get the magazine, I want them to feel like they’re having a visit to campus.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.

— More Braz: “Crop [photos] like a mofo.”

— Sean Plottner and Wendy McMillan, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: Stop shooting pictures of professors and students standing next to a globe, a bookshelf, or an open laptop.

— More McPlottner: Stop worrying about stealing. Stop running crappy headshots. Stop with the boring history. Stop being so serious with science stories. Stop with all the meetings. Stop running cutesy author’s bios. Stop running editor’s notes. And stop using semicolons.

— Richard Rhys, Wharton Magazine, and Renee Olsen, TCNJ Magazine: Casual conversations with senior administrators over lunch are much more fruitful than office meetings.

— Matt Jennings, Middlebury Magazine: “Recording an interview frees you up to notice things the digital device doesn’t. That doesn’t mean get lazy.”

— Jennings again: “Have a good plan [for an interview], but plan on deviating from your plan. The interview subject is driving the train.”

— Madeleine Baran, American Public Media and the podcast In the Dark: “Start [reporting] by assuming you’re wrong.” Continue reporting until you’ve run out of good arguments for being wrong. Only then are you probably right.

— Some more Baran: “It’s not just about knowing the facts of a place. It’s also important to know the feel of a place.”

UMag inbox

For the second issue in a row, Baylor put football on the cover. OK, the first, Fall 2011, was technically a homecoming cover, but homecoming revolves around the football game, of course, and football players were part of the cover illustration. Winter 2011/12 featured Baylor’s new Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III. That makes four football or football-related covers in the last 14 issues. Can’t wait for the Spring 2012 cover—spring football practice! (Randy Morrison edits Baylor. By the way, RG3, as he’s known at the school, also made the cover of The Baylor Line. Yes, Baylor has two alumni magazines. It’s complicated.)

New redesign for CM, the magazine of the Commonwealth School in Boston. Editor Tristan Davies—you may recognize him as the CUE-L listserv majordomo—notes that the new biannual magazine consolidates the formerly annual alumni publication and two yearly newsletters. Davies says, “I’m an alumnus, and even before I came to work at Commonwealth, I had talked with people at the school about how old-fashioned its pieces seemed: loaded with dense text, almost no color, illustrated almost completely by student art that also printed in black and white, and not based on the standard periodical magazine. Once I started working at Commonwealth in July 2008, I started thinking more seriously about merging the three pieces into one. But I was also about to lead a complete redesign of our admissions materials, and so I put off a decision.” Then came last year’s Editors Forum. Davies got a critique from Middlebury’s Matt Jennings—hard to see how any good could come of that, but maybe it’s just me—and attended Tina Hay’s “Magazines 101” workshop. Says Davies, “On the Friday afternoon of the Forum I sat in my hotel room and mapped out the new magazine format.” Jeanne Abboud of Abboud Design had been doing the publications the last few years, and she did the new look, as well. “Yes, the same person did both the before and after,” Davies says, “which I think says quite a bit about how much we were holding her back.” The first issue of the new CM surely does look better, and includes a couple of fine pieces, Janetta Stringfellow’s “Unbreakable,” and Melissa Glenn Haber’s “Into the Words.” Now if only they’d stop employing the term “alumni/ae.”

Two other major redos: USC Trojan Family, from Southern Cal, and Drexel Magazine. First issue of the new USC magazine includes a letter from athletic director Patrick C. Haden detailing the violations of NCAA rules that led to sanctions against Souther Cal football, men’s basketball, and women’s tennis. The NCAA ordered publication of the letter, which is not exactly what you want appearing in your pretty new magazine. Sympathies to editor Lauren Clark.

Drexel’s previous design was hardly bad, but I thought the book looked more like a corporate report than a magazine. Editor Tim Hyland says, “Content-wise, the magazine was just fine when I arrived. And it looked pretty good, too. But my sense was that we really wanted to make sure that we achieved a sort of ‘cutting-edge’ look to this redesign, and to make sure the look of the magazine matched up with all of the exciting things that are happening here at Drexel today. It really does feel like a university on the move, and there’s a lot of energy here right now. I wanted the magazine to capture that.” He retained designer Emily Aldritch, who previously had designed Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin and Voice (Carleton). “She came for a campus visit, and within no time delivered two really interesting design directions. Both of them reflected the ideas we wanted to convey about Drexel—it’s urban location, it’s focus on experiential education, it’s fast-paced environment, etc. In the end, we ended up choosing a hybrid approach that borrowed from each of the design directions.” The new look makes use of bigger type and bigger art, and drops the dragon mascot from the nameplate. I was actually sort of fond of the dragon, but will concede that working your sports mascot into your nameplate is a bit lame. (Unless you are the University of California, Santa Cruz, in which case I want to see banana slugs all over your pages.) Says Hyland, “I think from a design perspective we are exactly where we want to be. Emily has done her part, and now I’d like to really focus on making the content as engaging and interesting as possible. I want our alumni to look forward to getting the magazine, and to reading it. I want to see more feedback and more letters to the editor. To get there, we need to churn out really interesting content. That’s on me as editor and on my team as well.”

Sad to say it, but the mail brought the last print edition of Endeavors, the axed research magazine at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill. Jason Smith’s fine publication lives on as a website, but it just ain’t the same. And it must be said of the Winter 2012 finale—Best Pig Cover Ever. Look at the penetrating gaze on that beast.

Finally, the latest Drew Magazine (Renée Olson, editor) has a centerfold. Yeah, yeah, yeah, not what you’re thinking, grow up already. It’s a double centerfold, actually, of a watercolor by Drew faculty member Roberto Osti of four seasons in Drew’s much-loved Forest. Look, it’s got birds and a chipmunk and a bunny. Now don’t you feel bad about where your mind went first?

Eight questions for Renée Olson

The long reach of UMagazinology extends to Madison, New Jersey to tap the shoulder of Renée Olson, bearer of a sexy accent aigu and Chief Editorial Drewid at Drew Magazine.

How long have you been in your job?

Three and a half years.

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

To loosen up and not be so ploddingly literal about content. In my ancient past, I was the editor-in-chief of School Library Journal, a combination of the nation’s largest children’s book review and a trade magazine for librarians who work with children. At SLJ, we were primarily in the business of putting out news and information, but at Drew, I’m creating a reflection of the university that relies much more on shared experiences and bonding. It calls for a more refined—and infinitely more imaginative—approach to chasing both text and images.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Redoing the magazine from top to bottom starting in 2007, and subsequently hearing the phrase, “I read it cover to cover.”

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

This is a frustration, but also an opportunity: Imagining how to get the fullness and richness of a magazine to happen online when the gestalt there is still about atomizing content and letting it fall where it may. How does my magazine, minus the staples, shift to an environment that isn’t yet about wholeness and depth? At the same time, I’m totally psyched to have a platform that allows for audio and video.

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

The cover. We’ve had some good ones, even memorable ones, but I don’t feel that I’m capable of crystallizing the essence of whatever bubbles up as cover material so that Margaret Kiernan, our art director, can run with it. I’d like to think it’s not having enough time (I read that Texas Monthly considers up to 50 possible cover options for an issue), but I think it’s my brain.

What story are you proudest to have published?

There are two. Both are cover stories I’m proud of for the same reason; they both seemed to resonate with our readership because they brought Drewids to life. The first was a feature Q&A with three alumni serving in Iraq: a U.S. State Department officer, a hedge-fund manager in the reserves, and an Army chaplain from Ghana. Their experiences, I’m told, gave an on-the-ground view of the war. The second was also a feature Q&A with10 outstanding undergraduates, paired with three videos, called “I Am Drew.” I gnashed my teeth over this because I worried it would come off as a bland promotional piece, but my writer and videographer, Jenny Deller, did a great job of asking unexpected questions. But neither were eligible for the CASE Circle of Excellence awards—inexplicably, the Q&A format, which I adore, is banned.

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

The first name that came to mind was Dale Keiger at Hopkins. But besides him, Mark Jacobson, who just wrote a riveting cover story for New York about a lampshade that may or may be not fashioned out of human skin from Buchenwald. Or Ian Frazier, whom Brian Doyle suggested I contact for a story about a 19th-century Theological Seminary student of ours, a Bulgarian mystic whose followers still gather annually there to dance in circles in a mountain valley.

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

Curator of public art, like The Gates project in New York’s Central Park or the Tribute in Light at the World Trade Center after 9/11.