I thought one of the most provocative presentations at last March’s CASE Editors Forum was by Michael Freedman, editor of Stanford Business. He spoke about the overhaul of his magazine, which serves 27,000 alumni of Stanford’s graduate business program, which resulted in a radical (to me) workflow: Stanford Business stories appear online first, in print later. The magazine also helps produce an email newsletter. Freedman spoke of this print/digital hybrid system as becoming “ambidextrous,” graciously took the time to answer some questions that I had been harboring ever since his conference session.
Was there a precipitating event that pushed you in your “ambidextrous” direction, some insight or revelation? Or a can’t-ignore-this statement from the dean?
It was more of an evolution than a precipitating event. It has always been important to the school that the research and ideas generated here reach a broad audience. Digital and social media give us more opportunity to do that than ever before. Our alumni are extremely important to us as well, and they want a print magazine and deserve a great one. The question became, how can we both disseminate our ideas much more broadly and publish a top-quality print magazine? We believe the strategy we are pursuing—which is not dissimilar to that of major publishers—is allowing us to do that.
How long did you work on the transition?
That too is an evolution, so it’s a bit hard to say. I started here in January 2012 and we published our first redesigned printed magazine a year later. Another big milestone was in the fall of 2014 when our amazing digital and IT teams launched a new section of our website that highlights insights and ideas, or what we call “stories that teach.” That gave us a new and more beautiful playground for creating more engaging pieces—including with a greater emphasis on info graphics and design—and for sharing our stories digitally. All along the way, our social media team has been building up followers and working with us in partnership to optimize our email product. All that said, we are always in the process of thinking through how we can do both print and digital at the same time—and making sure that all of our products are as strong as possible.
Can you amplify a bit on your presentation statement about wanting to reach beyond readers to influencers?
That’s a bit of a misquote, or possibly something I said incorrectly. Our readers are influencers! Our magazine readers, who are primarily our alumni, are highly representative of a much larger group of leaders and aspiring leaders throughout the world. We realized that if we could serve our alumni with the kinds of stories they wanted, in the format they wanted, we would have an opportunity to be successful with this larger audience as well.
How does the newsletter content differ from the online and print content (if it differs at all)?
The email newsletter content is essentially the same as online and print content, simply repackaged for people who prefer their news in their inbox. That means being mobile friendly, lots of white space and nice big typography so it’s easy for readers to scan, offers clear calls-to-action, and integrates social sharing.
You said you redo the art for stories that go into the print edition. Why?
A few reasons. First, they are different media, so they require different approaches. For example, timelines tend to be horizontal, so they may not work as well online because you don’t have a spread as you do in a magazine. Infographics that work great in print may not be optimized for the web, and, of course, you can do all sorts of things digitally that don’t work in print, and vice versa. For example, we did a series of flipbooks in our print magazine, but of course that doesn’t work on digital pages. So we asked the artist to convert one of them into an animated gif, which of course wouldn’t work on a printed page. Also, the print magazine comes out three times a year whereas we are publishing on a much faster cadence for the web. We have more time to think things through for the print magazine. This gives us an opportunity to spread our wings a bit more visually. Also, because the primary audience for the magazine is our alumni, we often want to think about art differently. For example, there are more photos of our own faculty.
I was intrigued that you bank on Stanford’s reputation for attracting a wider audience. Can you speak to that a bit more?
I think this is true of many universities, particularly large research institutions. Universities and colleges remain trusted sources of information and ideas, and there is such an extraordinary hunger out there for knowledge. Places like Stanford and Johns Hopkins and so many other universities and colleges are incredibly well poised to fill that need, and it is our mission to do so.
At Johns Hopkins Magazine, our workflow and deadline structure is based on producing content four times per year in four big chunks. What sort of deadline system did you have to configure when you want ambidextrous?
We are very fluid. Every Monday morning, we all sit down to talk about the stories we intend to publish in the coming week as well as the stories we are pursing in the medium term—say, the next two to five weeks. We strive to hit those marks, but of course, things don’t always go as planned. Stories sometimes fall out or new ones come in. It requires some degree of flexibility on everyone’s part. We also have a monthly magazine meeting in which we talk about a range of things depending on where we are in the magazine production process. It could be developing the story list, discussing art, looking at proofs, and so on.
What has proven the hardest about your new system?
We always need to make sure to have enough stories. Usually that’s not a problem, but we are a small team, so there are probably times when we’re a bit thinner than we all might like.
You said at CASE that you believe you’re now reaching 7 million readers each year. How was that calculated?
We forecast that it will be significantly higher than that in 2015. The figure represents the number of views/reads of our stories (across multiple platforms) and comes primarily from a variety of analytics tools, as well as some estimates.