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Shane Shanks


Magazine editors: What you should do in a pandemic

May 6, 2020   //   Shane Shanks

For starters, don’t put your magazine on hold. Your audience needs to hear from you now more than ever.

Since April, we’ve been hosting virtual roundtable discussions with our current and former clients — as a chance to chat, decompress, and share how we’re all navigating the coronavirus pandemic. The first roundtable in our series brought together college magazine editors across North America.

We harnessed the brainpower on that Zoom call to tackle issues that editors are facing right now. Here are some of their questions (school names have been removed to protect the innocent!):

My magazine is stuck at the printer. How do I get it unstuck?

One school’s magazine got locked in printer purgatory when COVID-19 hit due to a planned cover story that now seems out of touch.

If you’re in a similar situation, where do you go from here?

  • Take the time to get it right. Even if you push back your deadline, your readers won’t likely realize your magazine is late. Yes, scrap the planned story (or move it off the cover), and take more time to scope out a replacement feature. You could downplay your planned feature in this issue or reserve it for later.
  • Make the most of your existing editorial signatures. Another school adapted its standard departments to respond to the current environment. Its “generations together” piece focused on pandemic fighters young and old. And the nostalgia piece points back to the school’s response to the 1918 flu.
  • Do a follow-up interview to bring a story up to date. Another school revisited its spring cover story featuring a senior champion athlete with a followup interview about how he’s spending his final semester at home.
  • Look for small ways to incorporate COVID throughout your current issue. Can you inject your magazine with a short feature on a pandemic hero or letter from the president explaining how your campus is responding to COVID-19? Can you carve out space to show how you’ll address the pandemic in your next edition?

I can’t focus on the magazine yet because I’ve been pulled away to work on broader communications needs. Where do I even start with planning our next issue?

Magazines shouldn’t try to do what they’re not meant to do: keep readers abreast of up-to-the-minute news.

Instead of trying to beat the 24-hour news cycle, use your magazine to tell your stories, shedding light on your community’s experiences.

One school’s tip about “rising above” the pandemic story seems like great advice. Instead of hitting the baseline viral facts, elevate your content to broader themes: caring, community, shared memory or wellness. Other smart tips from our editors:

  • Recast stories in the pipeline. One school’s yearlong ride-along with med students has transitioned into a day in the life as a virtual student — with some personal insight into what a pandemic means for the future of medicine.
  • Feature first-person accounts of coronavirus impact. One school tapped a student writer to pen a story about her theater class in New York City over spring break. The writer expanded on her experience of being in a suspended city by interviewing faculty, administrators and fellow students. The combined accounts became a last-minute cover story about college in a time of coronavirus.
  • Keep your pulse on what’s trending. With sports fans worldwide experiencing sports withdrawal, one school did a quirky feature on the resurgence of an alum’s baseball video game that was both retro and de rigueur.
  • Refer readers to previous content. Some of what you featured years ago may be suddenly relevant. Follow the lead of media orgs that are happy to dip into their archives.

Are people ready for a lighthearted story yet? Or will it seem tone-deaf?

When will readers get sick of pandemic news? When will they be ready for a main feature about pro-wrestling’s early days?

Our answer: now! Why do you think 64 million households streamed Netflix’s Tiger King documentary?

One school had prepared a cool retro-wrestling cover. This strangely beautiful feature, shot by a beloved figure in the community, fit the readership’s quirky tastes. But it might come across as out of touch.

Their solution? Balance the cover story with other coronavirus news. The team had made other adjustments to highlight its pandemic response, including a piece on virus research and a special column feature from the president.

Smart tip:

  • Find your own COVID-19 tipping point. This question is probably institution-specific, so get some informal reader feedback to help you decide.

Next steps

Our pre-conference workshop at the 2020 CASE Editors Forum has been canceled — who would want to attend a three-hour Zoom session anyway?!

Check out our Super Strategic Magazine Makeovers webinar instead. We’ll show you how to bring your magazine content strategy in line with where your institution is heading.

Interested in joining a future roundtable? Send us an email.

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