When you stare at your year-end magazine budget, it can be a complete downer. Despite your penny-pinching good intentions, there may not be any savings socked away to improve the magazine over the next year.

Your conclusion may be obvious: We can’t afford to make this magazine better.

But here’s a question you should be asking: can we really afford not to make it better?

A mediocre magazine is probably a waste of money. It doesn’t put your institution’s best foot forward. It doesn’t draw your readers in. (Hell, it may not keep them awake).

And let’s be honest in a completely self-centered way: a middling magazine isn’t inspiring to produce. It doesn’t bring out your creative team’s best work. It’s no fun.

So how can you scale up your magazine when your institution is too cash-strapped to shell out for outside design firms, top-flight photographers, big-name bylines, extra pages or luxe paper?

Here’s an idea that everyone can afford: skip an issue.

Then redirect the money — and time — you save to transform your magazine.

Will readers revolt? Not if you tell your readers that a new and improved magazine is a deliberate decision. Build the anticipation with your readers while you take the time to do things right.

Will your bosses say no? Probably not. They’ll support the goal of making the magazine more strategic. And they’ll love that this project can be tackled without a lot of “additional” cost.

How to redirect your savings of money and time

Clarify your magazine goals and rethink your content

Reevaluating your content strategically is the biggest improvement you can make. You can handle this step internally, but many schools bring in an outside perspective. Working with an outside firm like Zehno delivers fresh thinking and keeps your redesign from being the Same Old Thing: Part 2.

Be sure to think about online content at the same time. Don’t let the web content be an afterthought to the print.

Survey your readers

The CASE magazine readership survey is higher education’s biggest bargain. For $500, you can learn what your readers want — and what they don’t care about. Even better: you can also compare your school to other institutions. How are your readers different from Giant Research U or Small Liberal Arts College? The results will surprise you—and will drive your magazine’s content strategy.

Also consider a set of focus groups with readers of many stripes. These face-to-face sessions are your chance to get qualitative feedback about what your magazine could do better. See if you can tag along to key alumni association events (and schedule your focus groups immediately before or after).

Extend the talents of your team through freelancers

Upgrade the visual impact of your magazine by bringing in photographers and illustrators with a signature style. Add new voices by hiring talented feature writers. Use freelance web developers to create cool online content — from animations to timelines to video clips — that add a new dimension to key stories.

The “skip one” solution in action: TCU Magazine and website redesign

If you attended this year’s CASE Editors Forum, I hope you caught the great session by TCU’s Rick Waters, assistant director of editorial services, and Tracy Bristol, creative strategist and art director. They walked step-by-step through their redesign collaboration with Zehno.

The “skip one” solution enabled TCU to revamp both the print and web magazines simultaneously — and to partner with Zehno at every stage — from strategic recommendations to page design to website implementation.

And the results? A new approach to editorial planning that is brand-driven but not brand-stifled. Deeper “academic quality” content to compete with its new peer set. Departments freshened up with newsstand-ready creativity. Bold design that strategically aligns with the university identity. Targeted, career-centric articles for the under-40 crowd, TCU’s biggest readership segment.

Not only is the new website reorganized and responsive, it’s also easier in every sense: easier to read, easier to edit, easier to add multimedia, easier to share. Social media traffic to the magazine website has grown by leaps and bounds — a 63-percent spike in traffic the first year — as readers discover and share the website’s colorful features, well-read blogs, and online extras such as podcasts.

Learn more

Check out the TCU magazine website: magazine.tcu.edu

What are your next steps? Check out Zehno’s magazine strategy white paper.