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Megan Youngblood


Ask the expert: Magazine editor Suzanne Johnson

Wise up with the smartest people in the higher ed business

October 5, 2016   //   Megan Youngblood

Suzanne Johnson is a master storyteller. She has, after all, published 18 novels that span pirate and vampire fantasy, suspense and paranormal fiction under multiple pen names. And her 19th novel is due out in November.

But that’s only her nocturnal post. By day, she’s the editor of Auburn Magazine — recently named one of the top five general-interest university magazines in the CASE Circle of Excellence national contest.

Over the past 35 years, she’s edited award-winning magazines at the University of Alabama, University of Illinois, Rice University, the University of San Diego and Tulane University. During that time, she’s amassed more than 50 national and regional awards for magazine and publications writing and editing, including the CASE Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year award — the Heisman Trophy of college magazines — while at Rice.

In 2015, Suzanne reached out to Zehno for outside inspiration on how to design Auburn Magazine with the flexibility to accommodate the best content for each issue. Zehno also brainstormed with Suzanne ways she could make the magazine more strategic to reflect Auburn’s strong brand. Suzanne talks about how this redesign consulting set up the magazine to win a CASE gold, and she shares the inspirations behind her creative storytelling.

What was the biggest change you made to Auburn Magazine?

Auburn has a real, tangible sense of family, with a deep institutional loyalty. So the thing I’ve tried to do since taking the editor’s chair is to try to maintain a strong balance in our content between alumni association messaging, university messaging, historic “feel good” content, forward-looking research to offset the concept of the university as football-centric — all while still maintaining that tie to the “Auburn Family.”

And I need to make sure the magazine’s content meets the needs of its readers, the Auburn Alumni Association and the university. It’s a balance all university magazines work to achieve, but we’re a true hybrid in that we’re published by an independent alumni association but we also are the closest thing Auburn has to a university magazine.

Which ideas during your redesign, from your back and forth with Zehno, made the biggest difference?

From an editorial standpoint, it was the transition to find less text-heavy ways to tell a story. From a design standpoint, it was the idea of adopting a photo style for the magazine — not just a color palette but a way of lighting and styling our photos. So we’re more deliberative with our stories now — not just features but also the smaller departmental stories. We ask: What are the different ways we can tell this story? And if it calls for photography, what can we do to make sure it fits with our photo style?

It’s easy to give a magazine high marks for design alone. But a CASE gold requires high marks in content too. What did you do on the content side to move Auburn Magazine ahead?

We’ve made a real effort to upgrade the quality of our writing — especially our feature articles. This isn’t easy with a small staff; we’ve often had to rely on student writers. But if I have to tear a story apart and rewrite it to get it to where I want it, that’s what I do. I guess that means it’s no more Ms. Nice Editor!

Our creative director, Shannon Hankes, and I also reorganized our departments when we redesigned, in order to give ourselves more flexibility. With our old design, we were so boxed in that we’d end up not having room for a good research story while running a dull “news” story because we had room in the news department and no room in research. Now, it sounds simple, but we run the best stories and the dull ones get drilled down to smaller pullouts or infographics. 

How do you keep the engine running and meet deadlines with everything else that a role in higher ed marketing and communications demands?

I spent the past three years as a one-person editorial “shop” for both the magazine and all the digital and print materials coming out of the organization, so I’ve struggled with time management. It’s easy to take the two-ton elephant in the job (the magazine), and set it aside to get the smaller jobs out of the way — until you’re suddenly in a magazine crisis.

The thing that has worked best was carving out a dedicated part of my day to work only on magazine. That meant going to my electronic calendar and marking myself out of office, ignoring email, and letting the phone go to voicemail for three or four hours every day. Otherwise, the small jobs eat away the magazine creative time. The creative team  also gets off campus every once in a while to brainstorm away from the phone and computers.

How should a magazine connect with alumni today?

I think the key is to identify the common experiences your alumni share — special places, special moments in history, special traditions — and find ways to reinforce the feelings those commonalities engender.

Readers today are also accustomed to more graphics and fewer words, so we need to maximize the words we do use.

Universities are by their nature changing, living entities, and the university remembered by alumni from 1960 is different than the one remembered by the 1980 alums or the 2000 alums. So finding that common ground and making emotional connections so the readers come away from your magazine feeling good about their alma mater and about their degree — that’s the goal. For example, a recent feature story examined all the rumored origins of the “War Eagle” Auburn battle cry. Our athletic teams are the Tigers. But for decades (although not as many decades as people thought), alumni have shared “War Eagle,” not just as a yell on the football field but as a greeting. Those types of traditions transcend generations and tie alumni to “their” university.

Which story in your portfolio are you most proud of and why?

Probably a story from five or six years ago, a simple alumni profile on Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller. He’d left Habitat under a cloud of controversy that was not in keeping with the faith or belief system on which he’d built the organization, but he’d never really told his whole side of the story.

I’m proud of that article not because I did anything particularly special, but because I was able to connect with this genuine person who’d been through adversity and come out with his spirit intact. He was open and transparent with me in the few days we spent doing interviews, and I hope I told his story in a way that did him justice. He died only a few months after the issue mailed, and I was honored that I’d been able to tell his full story before he passed away.

What have you learned in fantasy writing — especially pirates and vampires — that can apply to an alumni magazine?

I think writing any type of commercial genre fiction — including fantasy — has a lot of practical applications for the type of feature writing we want to see in our alumni magazines. Fiction is about storytelling and about making emotional connections between reader and characters and story. That’s the same kind of thing we want to do with our magazines — make that emotional connection (or reconnection) between our readers and our universities by telling the stories of our institution and its people.

Writing fiction has helped me better appreciate character, pacing and storytelling, and how important both of those things are to feature writing — even if my university features don’t contain undead pirates or vampires!

5 Sources of Inspiration

  1. Billboard Top 100“That’s an old standby when I’m brainstorming titles, especially for feature stories. I start out with a blank page open on my computer and do as much wordplay as I can, then I’ll resort to movie titles and, especially, song titles that I can play around with. Best-seller lists work well, too. Can you beat “Doggone Girl” for a story about a woman canine veterinarian?”
  2. Sketchbook“I keep a small sketchbook and pencils on my desk to play with if I get stalled and need a break. Art exercises a different part of the brain than writing, so it helps loosen things up.”
  3. Other magazines“I’m a magazine junkie, and always have been. So I read a lot of magazines. Recently, because I’m trying to downsize before retiring next year, I’ve been transitioning to Kindle subscriptions for most of them. (Pauses for a moment of silence and shame at abandoning print.) Garden & Gun is the only magazine I still get in print. I miss the tactile feel of the paper but not the stacks of magazine back issues I will ‘get to one day.’ They’re always on my reader, just waiting for me.”
  4. Late-night fiction writing“I do all of my fiction writing in the evenings so I rarely get to bed before midnight or 1 a.m., and our workday at Auburn starts at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m. So my morning routine consists of knocking the alarm clock onto the floor, throwing on clothes, and rushing out the door. On a good morning, I might remember to brush my hair, but that’s no guarantee. But writing fiction keeps my writing chops fresh.”
  5. Huffington Post“In any big news story, I check to see if there’s someone at the university or an alum who’s involved in any significant way or who can speak to it with some authority. For example, Apple and the National Security Agency were at loggerheads after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, and the CEO of Apple and the head of the NSA are both Auburn grads, so that became a jumping-off point for a feature on our NSA director and the challenges that agency is facing in balancing cyber intelligence and citizen privacy. ‘HuffPo’ offers a well-written overview of headlines and quirky stories.”

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