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Custom Publishing

Alumni Calling

08.29.07 | Comment?

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There are some excellent Alumni magazines, but the question I want to examine is, why aren’t they all good—they should be.

On the face, alumni publications offer a lot of potential for interesting reportage. Even a medium-sized school can be plumbed for ranging topics based on the diverse research interests of the faculty—stuff that makes for meaty-in-depth writing, as varied as that in the NY Times Magazine. There’s also the off-campus life of Alumni, castle intrigue (if a college could bring itself to report honestly on internal politics) and finally, there’s all those wacky undergraduates and whatever hi-jinks they’re up to these days—cosmetic amputation or god knows. This is more than enough to fill two killer FOB sections and a decent feature well four or six times a year. While the college beat is small, even the tiniest liberal arts college or two-year institution generates real news.

Financially, U-Mags also seem to have potential—they serve a desirable, educated, middle-class readership with broad interests and a shared regional or cultural connection. Some university glossies are, and many others could be self-sustaining.

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Most university magazines do offer all my suggested topics—but too many of them print articles that read like press releases—the editors have agendas other than informing and entertaining or readers. Regardless of subject, second-rate U-pub features can all seem written to support a single nut-graf–“support the annual fund.” Too many alumzines cycle through the same dependable campus-centric topics, as if the only relevant school news happens within a stone’s throw of the quad.

Look at the magazines as a group, you’ll see a lot of pathetic reportage. Recently Widener Law devoted five precious pages to a text-dump from the school’s last accreditation report (a five-page list of a faculty paper titles—yawn). Tiresome reruns include: poorly framed, out of focus photos from graduation or the reunion which you don’t care about unless you were there, and even then you don’t care; endless lists of donors and fluffy profiles of recently hired/promoted/retiring administrators—stories that might interest the on-campus community or gratify egos but hardly transmit the message that anything substanative has happened on the old campus since you were doing beer-bongs there.

With the resources of a typical college at their command, U-Mags could and should cast a wider net—colleges are in the business of broadening horizons—and there’s no reason that mission shouldn’t extend to graduates through the magazine. Campus news reportage—the sort of things the student newspaper does—grows decreasingly relevant to readers the longer they’re out of school. I might care that my favorite professor got a grant, I probably don’t care that the guy they hired to replace her back in 1997 presented a paper at such and such conference.

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When alumni magazines look and read like brochures, it’s likely because there are put out by people in the brochure and promotion business. Many school magazines come out of the very same publications offices that generate all development material. Staff can’t and don’t turn over night into journalists (visual or otherwise). While many schools have journalism and design departments they could draw upon—few do, perhaps because the on-message writing and design of the pub-department seems safe—but safe in that sense is what good publication editors and designers try to avoid.

The folks at 02138 made headlines by believing in the potential of Alumni magazines—though the end results are unworthy of Harvard, and in truth probably unworthy of Maxim—the magazine tries to find titillation in a community that one has to guess isn’t titillating from the results. MIT’s Technology Review is closer to what a perfect Alumni magazine would look like, but there are other good ones—The University of Chicago, Swarthmore, Marriott School of Business and plenty of others. There seems to be little correlation between the size or prestige of the school and quality of the magazine, all that’s required is a determination to put out engaging writing and design—and a willingness to keep the development agenda at arm’s length.

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The question Alumni magazine staffs need to ask themselves is are they putting out a publication that anyone who wasn’t affiliated with the school would want to read? If not, odds are Alumni don’t want to read it either.

Note: Due to a raft of spam comments on this post, I’ve closed commenting. I would be happy to post legitimate comments e-mailed to me directly. 

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