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Lauren Sanders


7 key takeaways: 2019 CASE Editors Forum

April 29, 2019   //   Lauren Sanders and Shane Shanks

If the city’s literary heritage and foodie scene didn’t lure you to New Orleans for CASE Editors Forum, relax.

The Zehno crew split up to hit as many sessions as possible. And we took notes!

Wise up from our seven key tips and takeaways. (And see you at next year’s conference.)


Cut to the chase

LA journalist Lynell George’s session described how to capture a sense of place in writing. We also appreciated her tips for conducting more revealing interviews.

To add richness to any story, she tries to interview people in person and in meaningful places. She suggested some intriguing questions for the interview: Can you take me someplace that brings up memories for you? What’s your favorite time of day there — and why?

There’s a certain point where writers can be strangled by too much reporting. Resist the urge, she says, to do a “notebook dump” that piles on extraneous details at the expense of the story’s true arc.

How can you escape this info overload and cut to the heart of your story? Write your lead with a pencil — without ever referring to your notes. Or even better, say the point of the story out loud.


Don’t sweat the class notes

Two longtime editors — Tina Hay of Penn Stater and Dale Keiger of Johns Hopkins Magazine — claim that class notes demand less attention, not more. Heresy!

This advice seems counterintuitive for magazines with 40+ pages of class notes, each item lovingly overstuffed by a dedicated class secretary.

But think about it: Readers flock to class notes for the info, not for their stylish presentation.

Even if you work overtime adding profiles and other tidbits to hook your casual flippers, the truth is that most readers only care about a couple of pages before and after their own graduation date.

Instead of making your class notes bigger (or better or longer), Tina and Dale say to devote your time to amping up the storytelling in your features.


Wrap your head around inclusivity

Keith Woods, NPR’s VP of newsroom training and diversity, described three types of inclusion that editors typically balance:

  • Because of diversity. For example, when featuring an LGBTQIA+ graduation, your story is about what this ceremony says about society today.
  • Thread of diversity. For example, when profiling a grad at the top of her field who describes how her South Asian ancestry shaped her finance career, her heritage is one thread in a wider story.
  • Regardless of diversity. For example, you tell a story with no acknowledgment of the subject’s underrepresented status, although it may be apparent in a photo. The subject’s race (or gender or other characteristic) is treated as everyday and ordinary.

Woods advised editors not to focus only on one type of inclusion, but to balance all three — across all stories, all issues and all people.

Most important of all? Make the inclusion seem authentic, not painted on or paraded out.


Look for the longtail

At Texas Christian University, editor Norma Martin’s team has amassed in-depth magazine analytics that should make other schools green with envy. They’ve got the data to prove the digital magazine is performing (time on pages is up 46 percent in 2018) and to identify which social media channel works best for promoting local Dallas-Fort-Worth content (it’s Facebook all the way).

But they’re also tracking individual “longtail” stories.

A typical magazine story spikes when it is first posted, then tapers off drastically. But longtail stories rise again in readership, sometimes even years after the original story was published.

Among TCU’s longtail hits: a nostalgic residence hall story that swells every fall, a story about failure that was so topical that it ranked No. 6 of reader-shared stories for the year, and a floral design feature with video that clocks a jaw-dropping average of 11 minutes on the page with readers.

Now TCU is making longtail part of its story selection strategy. When choosing between a one-shot feature and another that has a tail, why not go for the long haul? It’s an inexact science so far, but the team has already identified the Netflix Effect, a big boost that occurs when an alum’s book comes out, then becomes a movie, then hits Netflix.

Check out Zehno’s case study on TCU Magazine.


Make your mantra

The University of Toronto puts out a med school mag like no other. U of T Med got on Zehno’s radar a couple of years ago when it knocked out all the usual players to win the Sibley award, the Oscar of university magazines.

That award typically goes to a broad-circulation, all-college magazine, but U of T’s entry from the smaller “special interest” category swept it all.

Linda Quattrin, executive director of communications at the medical school, was on hand to share tips on how to get buy-in from the bosses the next time you want to try something unorthodox in your magazine.

What stood out is how her team boiled its readership survey down to three bullet points. Readers wanted:

  • Recreational reading, not more “work” reading.
  • Challenging stories, not just brags.
  • Interesting visuals, not headshots.

Then U of T’s internal team created its own manifesto, equally tight, to stay on track:

  • Always push creativity.
  • Reflect the leadership’s vision.
  • Be bold.

Judging by the magazine’s striking style and its bravery — covering topics like cannabis or physician error, years before other med school mags — they’ve stuck to their guns.


Bring out your brand

We always say brand doesn’t mean bland in the university magazine world.

So we were encouraged to hear Denison Magazine Editor Mo Harmon express a similar viewpoint. Her thinking aligns with our experience at Zehno, where every single redesign involves balancing the magazine’s identity and content strategy with the larger school brand.

Mo says the goal is to make your readers feel like they are part of the club, as if they are in on something special.

As she walked us through her mag’s recent redesign, we liked the simple survey used to rate four different cover directions. Paired with the straightforward “Which cover gets your attention most?” was this gem of a question: “Which cover best represents the Denison you know?” The survey winner eventually became the new mag cover, giving readers unprecedented say in the direction of the redesign.

What stands out about the redesign? It balances what readers want with the institution’s bigger brand story. More importantly, it feels specifically like Denison, not some generic liberal arts college or funky art school.

The redesign keeps the pre-TOC opening feature — a Denison signature — but reshapes it with the student-centric focus readers asked for. The front and back of book spotlight new story types that align with the broader brand.

The class notes section is peppered with extras: from nostalgia bits and profiles to a cool featurette called “compare notes.” So bonus points for bucking the advice of Penn State and Johns Hopkins!


Define analytics that matter to you

At Santa Clara University, Managing Editor Leslie Griffy and Director of Storytelling Matt Morgan say to stop looking at your month-to-month Google Analytics — if those numbers have nothing to do with your goals.

  • If you really want to communicate metrics that your boss will understand and value, Leslie says define your own analytics based on your goals.
  • Want to build community? Track your social shares, class notes submissions, letters to the editor and comments.
  • Raise awareness? Track how many alumni update their addresses after receiving your mag or send in an article comment the old-fashioned way: wrapped in an envelope.
  • Increase donations? Track gifts.

And Leslie figured out how to centralize this information for her team. She built her own impact tracker in Google Forms that reports analytics that matter to her — defined by audience type (donor, alumni, parent, etc) and the action each reader took (posted a comment, wrote a letter, made a gift).

When her boss asks, “Do donors even read our mag?” she can now say 40 percent of letters to the editor were written by donors.


Does your magazine matter? Next time budget slashers descend on your office, be prepared to answer what it actually accomplishes. Get the white paper.

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