Interview with Sherri Kimmel by Shane Shanks

Just call her the “turnaround queen.”

Over the course of an award-winning career, Sherri Kimmel has managed attention-getting magazine redesigns at multiple institutions.

Beyond earning raves from readers, Sherri always goes a little deeper than the average editor. She forms campuswide writers’ groups focused on the craft of writing. She organizes cross-country listening tours to gain broader insight into what her readers really want. And instead of handling print redesigns and website redesigns as discrete projects, she tackles them as one piece.

Zehno collaborated with Sherri on the print and digital magazine redesigns for Swarthmore College, and the new Bucknell University magazine that’s hitting mailboxes now.

Next month, we’ll present a special preconference workshop on editorial strategy with her at the CASE Editors Forum. The workshop requires pre-registration, so be sure to sign up — especially if you’re prepping for a print or website redesign.

Learn more about the workshop.

When we talk about doing a “magazine redesign,” many people think it’s only about a magazine’s aesthetics. If people tell you, “I need a redesign because I want my magazine to look different,” what do you say?

I’ve done that before, where I’ve not changed the editorial mix a whole lot, and certainly it helps to give your magazine a facelift. But to really give your readers something new and original, you have to look at the whole editorial mix and see what you think is working and what you think should be eliminated and replaced by something else. Your surveys and your focus groups definitely can help you find those answers. I also held staff retreats where we brought in the best consumer and college magazines for inspiration and trained a critical eye on every single element in the format we were planning to change.

The CASE magazine readership survey is great for benchmarking facts, and it lets readers tell you what they’re interested in (or not interested in). But you always do something extra: a listening tour at multiple sites around the country. How do you decide who to listen to?

The way I come up with the folks who are in the listening groups is I research people in a certain region. I may be traveling there for some other reason, or maybe piggybacking onto another event that the university is holding.

I look for people — early, mid and late career — who are actually in the communications field, who are interested in magazines and marketing and who can really give me some expert opinions.

When I first started doing the tour, it was more random people in an area. But I found that I get more bang for the buck by doing research on folks with the appropriate background.

What do the people with this background bring to the table that random people don’t?

They understand the purpose of a publication and know what a good story is. They understand the importance of good design, of illustration, of good photography. They appreciate white space. More than just the lay reader, they can hone in on what makes it a good publication.

They read magazines and have some opinions on ones that they like, and how those might have some elements that would be good for us to emulate.

You could just get the raw numbers from the CASE survey and quit with that. Why do you think these listening tour sessions are important?

Well, it’s a two-way conversation with real-live human beings, rather than just some statistics. There are comments on the CASE survey, but it’s not like getting the comment and then asking the person more pointed questions.

You have a conversation. You get their ideas — and some of those suggestions for content inform what we end up doing.

What comments from those original focus groups showed up in the end product at Bucknell?

One person was really adamant about how we needed more illustration. We’ve definitely done that with the mix of illustration styles that we’re using for our profiles. We have a lot of different ways that we’re doing alumni profiles now, and so we’re mixing illustration and photography there and in the features, as well.

They really like infographics, so we tried to do more of that.

In conversation it became clear that even though these readers love the magazine — and they’re interested in magazines and storytelling — they have limited time. We had a lot of really long stories before — even our campus news stories were sometimes two pages long.

In the mix of the new magazine, we tried to cut back our word count. We wanted to make it an easier grab for the reader. Instead of just showing them a wall of words they didn’t have time to read, we’d give them something quick and visually interesting that they could read and still get a lot of good information from.

“Wall of words” is a funny way to describe it.

It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! Then another thing: it really became clear that everybody loved the short alumni profiles in the back of the magazine. So we’re doing more of them, but in different ways — and in visually interesting styles.

Let’s talk about those. You’ve now got more profiles, but they’re handled in so many different styles. What dimension does that add for readers?

By having more profiles, you certainly humanize the magazine. You can really engage with the people now. Before we had everything in little boxes, all looking the same with a little poor-quality headshot.

Now we’re using graphic elements that tie in with our new brand to pep these profiles up. We’re mixing more Q&As with straight narrative. There’s even something that’s kind of modeled after Entertainment Weekly: a zippy, pop-culture way of doing a profile.

Which one do you predict the audience will connect with the most?

Oh, I think the new things. I just find them really fun and exciting. The first issue is just hitting mailboxes, so it’s too early to tell how this is landing with the readers.

But I’ve already had some comments on the Pathways section up front, which features really short profiles with a journey theme. They’re paired with large, very engaging photos of the people. That form of profile is hitting well with the readers.

Doing the profiles in the different formats is technically more difficult than just doing one style over and over. It’s more work. How does the editor who’s afraid to make big content changes get some courage from seeing what you’ve done?

I was afraid, too! You need to give yourself the time to really develop that model or prototype first. Play with the content for the first issue, and get used to it.

As editor, I have found that I ended up doing a lot of the work myself to set that tone for the first issue. Then after that, you can give your writers samples and say, “This is how it should be done.”

What was the biggest change in the redesigned Bucknell magazine?

I’d say the overall structure. We divided the magazine into three distinct sections, so the skeleton is very clear. The old magazine had so many different departments and some of them seemed interchangeable. It was hard to slot stories into them, because it wasn’t as focused.

I’m having an easier time allocating stories properly with the new format.

Who is the typical Bucknell reader — and how is this person different from readers at some other schools where you’ve worked?

The Bucknell reader is intelligent, with a well-rounded intellect. This reader is more of an athletic person who is into fitness — more so than at some of the other schools where I’ve worked. Bucknell is a less artsy/quirky type of school, whose graduates are grounded and accomplished.

And more business-oriented. There’s a school of management, which some of the other schools did not have. There’s definitely an interest in business management and entrepreneurialism, so we needed to reflect that.

At Swarthmore, readers said they wanted some stories to be long and bookish in appearance. Now you have a different audience. It’s still smart people at a top-ranked liberal arts college, but what’s the difference in how the stories needed to appear for the Bucknell crowd?

We definitely needed to have a strong attention to athletics, for one thing. I’d say at Swarthmore, a lot of those folks are very much into the life of the mind. The typical reader was more into ideas — more abstract and less concrete than at Bucknell. A lot of Swarthmore graduates are professors, writers, people actually practicing in the arts.

And Bucknell has all those engineers, right?

Well, Swarthmore has an engineering program, but it’s not as big and multidimensional. And Bucknell’s a lot larger than Swarthmore. The student body at Bucknell is much more into athletics through its Division I sports.

As an editor, is one audience better than the other?

No, I don’t think one is better. The important thing is finding out who your readers are and appealing to them by running stories that they’re going to want to read and displaying them in a way that draws them in.

On the philosophical side, how do you think a university magazine should connect with alums in today’s society?

I think you should talk about contemporary issues, but using your alumni, your faculty, your students as sources. Try to have a connection between world issues and something that’s going on at your college or university.

For instance, we did a story in our fall issue about efforts that our university is making to help people in the coal regions who are socioeconomically challenged. There’s an array of different academic departments involved — students, faculty, staff — and alumni. That was very popular with our readers — sharing a Bucknell take on the economic devastation happening today for a lot of blue-collar, rural folks.

In your new magazine’s premiere issue, what story are you the most excited about or proudest of?

The World War I story, of course. I think we told a very complicated and potentially long-winded story about an ongoing research project in an original and engaging manner. It took up a lot of space in the magazine, but I think all the story pieces were visually enticing, and the writing was very zingy.

We started out with an overview piece, and then broke up the rest of the story into a chapters format that made it easily digestible by the readers.

One person wrote in to say that this is the first time he had read everything in an issue — every single page — and he particularly pointed out the World War I story. It was engaging for him because it was a very personal story. Even though it’s about a horrendous event a hundred years ago, it tugs at your emotions today.

Bucknell was just starting to roll out its new branding when the redesign project started. What’s your advice for balancing magazine-style storytelling with the institution’s overall brand?

Just remember: this is still a magazine. It’s not a brochure; it’s not a viewbook. The editorial quality has to be that of a top consumer magazine, in my opinion.

I’ve seen some firms who just tried to replicate a viewbook as a magazine in their proposal. But I didn’t want an alumni version of a viewbook, so I think that’s a danger.

We didn’t mirror the new branding note-for-note, but it definitely has the feeling of the new brand. What drove that decision?

I wanted this to be a publication that could stand on its own, independent of the brand, but to have some echoes of the brand.

There’s a journey theme that’s common in the brand and the magazine content. The color palette is very similar. Some of the fonts from the branding are used, along with the graphic symbols. But it’s definitely not a duplication of the branding. I think it’s the branding taken up another notch — in a more editorial way. It’s not so overtly promotional, relying on authentic storytelling.

Your new magazine website is easy to manage, aligns with the print magazine’s vibe, incorporates the university’s latest headlines and features page types that show off the quality of your features. We’ve worked with you twice to redesign print magazines and the online versions at the same time. What’s the advantage of handling it all as one project?

There’s definitely more connectivity. There’s more flow and synchronicity between the projects by doing it that way.

It’s a lot for an editor to be in charge of both projects at the same time — and then also still put out the old magazine. It’s not less work, but I just think it makes sense to do it that way.

When you work on a redesign that’s driven by editorial strategy, what changes does it demand of your staff?

Well, it’s certainly a total shakeup of the routine. That’s a really, really good thing. If you go years and years doing the magazine in the same old way, it just gets rote and monotonous.

It lacks excitement. You start dialing it in. “Okay, here’s a 300-word profile. We always start it out this way and end it this way.”

I think it’s energizing for the staff to be trying new things. The folks that I’ve worked with, both at Swarthmore and Bucknell, have all bought into it, and been enlivened by this. They’ve gone all-in as far as sharing ideas and doing the extra work required to make it happen.

We tease you about being the turnaround queen because you go into a school and get the magazine and the website all flipped around and accomplishing new things. Do you view this nickname as a compliment or an insult?

Oh, I think it’s a compliment. I’ll take “queen” any day!

See Sherri and Zehno at Editors Forum

Sherri’s Best and Worst Readers’ Comments

Over your career, what are the best and the worst comments that you’ve gotten about the redesigns that you’ve worked on?

  1. Best: For Bucknell“I received my copy in the mail yesterday and read through it from cover to cover. I cannot remember the last time I did that. It’s visually stunning, and the approach is engaging on all fronts.”
  2. Best: For Swarthmore“The quality of the Bulletin has made me consider increasing my modest contribution to Swarthmore. I suggest a grade of A++++ with honors.”
  3. Best: For Dickinson “The new Dickinson Mag is not only gorgeous; it is also fascinating — the first one, I confess, that I’ve ever read cover-to-cover. You and your staff have assembled compelling articles. The writing is consistently clear and lively.”
  4. Worst: For Dickinson We moved from a very big tabloid to a regular magazine size, and I had this little old lady write in who said she was really unhappy with the new magazine because she was a small person. Even though the magazine format had gotten smaller, it was too big for her to handle.
  5. Worst: For Swarthmore
    One reader said that it smelled different. She was sure that we were using some foul kind of ink because it had a repulsive odor. We checked into it, and we didn’t know what she was talking about!