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Ask the expert: Editor Nancy Brokaw

Wise up with the smartest people in the higher ed business

January 6, 2020   //   Zehno

Interview with Nancy Brokaw by Shane Shanks

If your campus culture isn’t like every other college’s, why should your magazine be?

When Bryn Mawr teamed with Zehno to redesign its magazine and companion website, the goal was to build a new magazine that is completely — and unapologetically — Bryn Mawr.

To reflect the campus’ one-of-a-kind culture, we asked, “How can we make this more Bryn Mawr?” at practically every decision point in reengineering the content.

As One of the Seven Sisters colleges, Bryn Mawr pioneered education for women, including being the first women’s college to offer a PhD. Alumnae/i include Oscar-winning actress Katharine Hepburn, NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, and a parade of scientists, mathematicians and academics.

So what are Bryn Mawr alums really like? They’re smart, motivated and serious, as you’d expect. But there’s also a sly sense of humor. They jokingly refer to themselves as Mawrters — martyrs, get it? — because they’re so driven.

Nancy Brokaw, editor of Bryn Mawr, shares how the school’s singular campus culture shaped the redesign with Zehno.

Capturing the culture

Shane Shanks: It’s been a few years since the redesign, but one thing that still stands out is that the magazine is so tied into the culture of Bryn Mawr. It’s not like every other school. How did we all get that right?

Nancy Brokaw: Going in, I think we had​ ​a pretty good sense of our audience. We did a survey with around 4,000 alums across the whole age group. And then Zehno did a lot of interviews with not only alums, but also staff and faculty. You really got a good sense of the place.

One reason we feel so successful about where we’ve landed is that we truly knew our audience. What you guys were able to bring to it was to also figure out how to reach them in a more suitable visual package.

How did the audience react?

After that initial “Oh my god, you’ve changed something!” period, the responses we got are overwhelmingly positive.

Understanding the culture

During our early focus groups, someone told me it was essential to understand Bryn Mawr’s unique campus culture. But what did that mean? The example was this: If you win a silver medal in the Olympics, everybody here will say, “Great! Congratulations.” And then immediately, people will start to make suggestions about how to win the gold next time. That was obviously a joke, but it suggests that Bryn Mawr’s culture is evaluation-centric and heavily analytical. How do you describe it?

Well, Bryn Mawr instills high standards. You know: Good is nice, but perfect is better.

Why is that?

There’s a strong intellectual culture here that I think makes people very analytical. They will look at something and say, “Yeah, that’s nice. But why don’t we do this instead?” Not all the students and alumnae/i become academics, but many do.

It’s a good thing because it keeps us on our toes. Although it can be a challenge — because there’s only so much time. We have deadlines!

You could work at a less intellectual school, where people would still offer too many suggestions!

That’s also true. We don’t follow every suggestion we get. But we listen to and consider every suggestion, and that’s how and why the magazine keeps getting better.

One thing in the surveys that was different at your institution was what your audience liked to read. Typically, your readers would mention some pop magazine — like a Real Simple — and then an academic journal.

That’s the first time we’d ever heard that. And it helped drive the decision to choose a slightly different format — a smaller size like a literary journal. Looking back, was that the right way to go?

Definitely. When we first rolled it out, we got some comments: “I used to be able to lay it down flat and now I can’t” because of the perfect binding.

But it was a smart move. Fantastic. Mostly what we hear now is that people really love it.

I remember other comments along the lines of “Now it fits in my backpack” or “Now I can read it on the train easier.” But none of those issues were the driving force for the decision.

It’s a fun format. And because it’s off-sized, it stands out. Just about everything else I get in the mail is 8 1/2 x 11. But this — you know when it’s arrived.

I loved the second issue where you invited readers to debate the redesigned magazine itself. People could chime in with “I love this” or “I wish this were different.” That’s so Bryn Mawr.

A lot of schools wouldn’t print the criticism. Why did you?

Well, why not?

The magazine has to be authentic — that’s very important to our alumnae/i — and that authenticity gives us credibility when we’re touting what is happening at Bryn Mawr. So we had no question about embracing the feedback.

And some people won’t like everything you do, but you put it out there. Then they write letters.

Besides, it means they’re engaged and paying attention.

Do you gain credibility by letting some criticism hit you?

Yes. And that’s important.

Making content smarter

When I describe Bryn Mawr’s magazine, I say it is smart content for a serious reader. As the editor, how do you keep “serious” content from being somber or draggy?

For the most part, the work that academics do is interesting. There’s nothing intrinsic to what they’re studying that should be dull. If you engage with what the researchers are doing — and don’t panic at the density of the prose — you can come up with a story.

But you can’t be intimidated by what you’re reading.

We built spaces into the magazine to handle “fun.” For example, in the front of book section, where you’d often place important news, the first item in your latest issue is about Bryn Mawr on “Jeopardy!.”

That is the secret about Bryn Mawr alums. They will tell you that they’re serious all the time. But when we put stories like this on social, readers go mad! They love this stuff.

How else do you bring in brightness or fun?

The issue that we just put to bed is about the trees of Bryn Mawr. This is a beautiful campus, you remember that from being here. We have some state champion trees, so I wrote a piece about our gorgeous trees — and trees in general. We’ve already had really warm and appreciative feedback.

On social media, our readers respond to tradition stories and campus stories. Things that they have emotional ties to — or that reflect their campus experience — are still very much in their heads.

So when that story runs, will readers give you some Bryn Mawr-style evaluation? Maybe next time you can get a more exciting interview with some of those trees!

I expect to hear, “Why didn’t you include this tree?” But I’ll know that means they’re reading.

I remember that your president builds in campus moments that are just for fun. On a Wednesday afternoon, the students might all meet on the quad for snow cones (or something like that). Is that still part of the culture?

Yep. And there’s a reason she’s doing it: Bryn Mawr is a very serious place. I remember my first spring here, I would walk through this beautiful campus and wonder, “Where are all the students?”

When I was in college and spring hit, we were all out on the green. But here, they’re in the library!

How it plays out

Let’s talk about some specific parts of the magazine. One thing I’m proud of is the section called Discourse. That’s the place to learn, discuss, debate and show all your Bryn Mawr characteristics.

In that section, one of the first stories covered was about research on spheromaks. (For nonphysics majors, a spheromak is an arrangement of plasma formed into a toroidal shape similar to a smoke ring. Helpful, huh?)

Other magazines wouldn’t run the story, because most people don’t know what spheromaks are! Why are you not afraid to run that story at Bryn Mawr?

People here are smart. These are people who read the Atlantic, who read the New Yorker, who want to read things that probably wouldn’t make it onto the nightly news or into People.

At the same time, I’m aware that they’re not going to sit down and read cover to cover. So you have to make deeper stories snackable — and accessible. We’re not going to do three spreads on someone’s obscure physics research — unless we can turn it into something that’s not obscure.

It’s a point of pride with our readers, right? They’re smart people.

We also included Class In Session, which focuses on what people learn in a particular course. When we shared this idea with your advisory board members, they were super-interested. One person even asked if we could include the class reading list.

We work with a lot of schools, but nobody’s ever asked for a reading list. They’ve never cared to learn more about topics like spheromaks!

It’s very remarkable here.

And how has the new page devoted to Bryn Mawr’s history resonated?

I’ve had a lot of fun with that myself, digging up quirky little facts that alums don’t necessarily know. For example, apparently we have a ghost on campus.

Just one?

Just one that that I know of. There’s also a mountain range in Alaska named after an alum. That’s all part of the grand history of Bryn Mawr.

Another section at the back is called Anassa Kata, which is named for the school’s cheer tradition. Most schools wouldn’t put that in — because they’d worry that not every potential reader would get it. What does Anassa Kata mean to Bryn Mawr readers?

Anassa Kata is basically the cheer alums offer up for each other. It’s ancient Greek and the whole thing roughly translates to “Queen, descend, I invoke you fair one, hail hail hail victory.”

We use the section for profiles. We try hard to elevate what I would call everyday achievements. You know, people who are doing good and doing something interesting. There might be a public defender lawyer in Colorado who also is in the roller derby. We’ll do a little thing about that. It’s not always the “significant” alums that we write about.

And, no, we never worried about people getting it, because the culture is so deeply and proudly intellectual.

When you look back, what was the smartest decision we made together (even if we didn’t realize at the time that it was important)?

I think that that whole literary-magazine vibe was brilliant for us. It gives it an identity that is our own.

And literary magazine not only as a size, but as a concept. It has helped me as the editor to think about what kinds of stories I should put in. They should be elevated, thoughtful, imaginative — not just a record of what happened.

One thing that can happen with college magazines is you get internal people telling you, “We have to cover this.” But it’s not stuff that people are going to be interested in. I think this format — because it demands a different type of content — really helps to corral that.

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