When an editor I know took the helm of a magazine published by an esteemed liberal arts university in the northeast, the words “alumni review” had been in the publication’s name for a century. Right away, she wanted to rename it. The magazine really covered the entire college—including alumni, but not only them. Her efforts went nowhere until the arrival of a new president asking new questions. One of them was for her: “Why does the magazine only care about alumni?” The question gave her the backing she needed. For more than a decade now, she has been editor of a publication named for the entire institution, not just its alumni, and she started distributing it to faculty and staff within the campus community.
Around the same time, I guided similar transitions on both counts—renaming and distribution—at the university where I work. In my case, a publication that had started in the 1930s as The Alumni Bulletin had morphed into Richmond: The Alumni Magazine by the time I became its editor. Today, it is University of Richmond Magazine. Along with changing the name, we started mailing it to faculty and staff.
The other editor and I didn’t know each other when we made our changes. Yet, we independently concluded that our publications had untapped potential for our on-campus communities. But why, exactly, did we think these publications would be meaningful for the people who work on campus every day? And why should our budgets support the additional distribution costs, even if years later plenty of folks on both of our campuses still call our publications “the alumni magazine”?
For me, the biggest benefit is creating community. Just as these publications were originally designed to connect far-flung alumni with dear alma mater, they also create connective tissue within the campus community—both among its members and between them and the institution. These publications can also help faculty share their research with new audiences, be a source of recognition for their efforts, and motivate fundraising support for their initiatives and their students. A great deal of effort goes into the stories and images that appear in any given issue—over time, they build up to a robust depiction of the institution as a whole. What a lost opportunity it would be if readers had to be away from campus to see it.
As an editor friend of mine points out, it’s short-sighted to assume that just because people work on the same campus, they know what’s going on. We’re all siloed to some degree. On my campus, there’s a psychologist who has taught rats to drive tiny cars as part of a study on living environment and resilience in learning. There’s also a law professor who took students to the Qatar World Cup as human rights observers. These two faculty members are unlikely to cross paths organically, but surely we are better off as an institution when these world-class experts have opportunities to hear about each other’s work.
Yes, this information may be nominally available in other ways. There may be a press release about an award or a mention in a message from the provost highlighting recent grants. But, with all apologies to those media, they don’t have the curb appeal or sticking power of a well-crafted magazine story. The magazine is uniquely designed to communicate about research and teaching in accessible ways with nonexperts. Those of us who produce magazines are in the business of writing headlines and leads and coupling them with art that prompts readers to want to know more. A quasi-mentor of mine, now retired, used a deceptively simple question when surveying her readers. She’d ask, “Did you skip, skim, or read this story?” I’ve always thought of that as a good trifecta for describing what we’re trying to do with every page: turn skippers into skimmers and skimmers into readers. It’s what we do.
Everyone won’t read everything, of course; our strategy is designed to encourage enough people to read enough things. This reader-first approach is the secret sauce that distinguishes the magazine from other forms of campus communication, important as they are. Sharing what’s happening on campus through intentionally developed stories builds knowledge of, and engagement and interest in, what’s happening across campus. As my editor friend notes, “Our faculty and staff members may be smaller in number than the alumni readership, but they are core to [the college’s] mission and carry out the work of educating, feeding, and caring for the students who will one day become our alumni.”
The magazine’s benefits to the campus community can also be very transactional. A few years ago, I cold-called a faculty member I didn’t know because his research sounded interesting. He asked about the magazine’s circulation and instantly won a place in my heart when he observed how exponentially bigger it is than the readership of a typical research journal article. The article we did about his work ended up reaping benefits neither of us foresaw. After it ran, an alumnus in California reached out to him. The alum was connected to the film industry, and he thought there might be a documentary in the professor’s research. Several years later—and I’m being deliberately vague here—the professor has had preliminary meetings with people in Hollywood whose names I recognize. A documentary about his research may well end up on a screen or streaming service near you in the coming years.
Most articles don’t end in film deals for faculty, of course. More commonly, stories have far-reaching benefits across the campus community. I, and many other editors, aren’t plucking the topics for our magazine pieces out of thin air. We’re aligning them with institutional priorities while applying a journalistic lens that asks, “Why would someone want to read this?” Communication, after all, is not message sent; it’s message received, as I heard once at a conference. A friend of mine at a Big Ten institution points out that generations of reader surveys tell us that audiences aren’t interested in reading articles about fundraising. Yet, chances are good that our antennae are up for stories that align with development priorities. When we produce a great story, we make it more likely for a donor to reach out or to say yes when we ask. We also help the campus community better understand the institution’s priorities, where the resources for them come from, what outcomes they result in, and who the people behind these efforts are. It strengthens our sense of common purpose.
Many campuses, including my own, have dedicated publications for faculty and staff. These play an important role, from providing necessary information about benefits changes to highlighting things of interest to an internal audience. People need to know if the coffee shop on their end of campus is closing for renovations. But a well-crafted magazine that uses the tools of journalism to tell stories for and about the entire campus community— students, alumni, faculty, and staff—fulfills a broader purpose. Like our alumni, the people on campus deserve to hear stories that tell them what’s going on; how great their colleagues, students, and alumni are; and how much the publication, and the institution writ large, cares about them, too.