In Search of New Avenues of Delight

As job requirements for writers, editors, and designers have expanded, so have the opportunities for rethinking what it means to tell stories in the 21st century.

By Laura J. Cole | Illustration by Kathleen Fu


Editorial boundaries have been blurring ever since the birth of the computer and, later, the internet. Writers and editors search for images and artwork. Designers and art directors write headlines. Web developers suggest ideas for stories based on keywords and spikes in traffic. Photographers and videographers propose layout direction. And even when we have dedicated social media professionals on staff, we all think about how to present or push out a story through the various platforms and their ever-changing algorithms.

All of this has become, in effect, business as usual, and it got me thinking: What does it mean to work on magazines in 2022? What does it mean to be a storyteller in a post-postmodern world? And why should we care about new trends?

For the last question, I think the answer boils down to three reasons:

Necessity: Our jobs require it.
Curiosity: As writers, reporters, and creative professionals, we’re often inquisitive by nature and trained to identify and interpret trends.
Mimicry: We want to be able to create, or re-create, the things that inspire and engage us.

All three fuel what it means to be a storyteller in 2022—and help us better understand how to reach our audiences whose attention is split and fractured.

“There are so many tools available to us these days,” says Leo Jung, creative director for Pop-Up Magazine, who has also worked on California Sunday Magazine, Wired, and The New York Times. “I think that’s the beauty of it—just figuring out that you don’t have to do just one thing. When I used to work on California Sunday, it was all about the page-turning experience. How do you make that an experience for somebody? With Pop-Up Magazine, it’s a live storytelling experience, which takes the magazine and puts it on the stage. That opens up many, many possibilities.”

The possibilities can be dizzying, especially with small staffs, budget cuts, and time constraints. That particular combination can be to blame for many instances of fatigue, if not outright burnout. But all those possibilities can also exponentially expand opportunities for not only how we can tell stories, but also how we can create meaningful reasons for our audiences to engage with us—wherever we are.

I still love print, but I’ve come to appreciate the additional depth and elements of fun, and frankly delight, that new media affords.

I admit print is my first love. As a teenager, I had subscriptions to 8 to 12 magazines at a time and a giant cardboard box in my closet where I kept my favorites. I loved the articles and the photography, and I would spend hours lying on the floor flipping through the pages and dog-earing pieces I wanted to come back to.

My first foray into working on alumni magazines was far from the thing that made me fall in love with the medium. As a class notes editor, I was responsible for compiling and tediously fact-checking submissions. At the time, I was working in alumni relations and managing the website, in addition to all that fact-checking, when I came across a project by Penguin Books UK called We Tell Stories.

The concept was simple: Pair six writers with web developers to re-create classic novels while leveraging new technology. The site no longer exists, but one was a reimagining of John Buchanan’s Thirty-Nine Steps using stops on a Google map with key plot points. Another used a website to present The Thousand and One Nights as a building with interconnected hallways and doors. Each room offered one story, and as the reader, you chose how you wanted to flow from room to room, story to story. The presentation was more analogous to how I—and so many others—read magazines: nonlinearly.

That project single-handedly changed how I viewed websites—and how they could be used to present not just stories but also information. For example, many years later, when I was editor of Pegasus magazine at the University of Central Florida, we transformed an infographic called Knights in Space from a center spread in the print issue into an interactive map of the solar system for the online version. The desktop version allows you to click on various planetary objects to learn more about the work of UCF researchers—and readers can choose to start with Mercury, Pluto, or anywhere in between.

I still love print, but I’ve come to appreciate the additional depth and elements of fun, and frankly delight, that new media affords. I love the ability to pair audio with photography, as we did for a piece introducing a then-new head coach. I love the ability to use video to tell more of a story, as we did for a feature about a local Black community that was burned to the ground after residents tried to vote; as well as using video to show highlights of a cover and promote an issue through social. I love the ability to make a story accessible to a broader audience by adding a translated version online, as we did with a story about the Pulse nightclub shooting.

As writers, editors, and creative professionals, we are trained to listen: for when an idea has potential, a source opens up a new path of consideration, a problem presents a new way of doing things.

And I also love seeing how other editors are using these media to create additional experiences for their audiences. For example, for a story about the cross-country team, Greg Rienzi, editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, spent months following the team and coaches. He attended practices and ran with the team. In addition to taking notes for the print piece, he had photographers follow them, and his team recorded some of the sounds. At the end, they turned those clips into an NPR-style segment that readers can listen to.

“What does training for a cross-country race sound like?” Rienzi says. “I think the final piece was lovely because we got the sounds of practice that were incorporated in with these intimate moments where the coach is encouraging the runners on a really hot day before a big meet coming up. … We were able to give readers this access that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have.”

For LMU Magazine, Joseph Wakelee-Lynch, editor at Loyola Marymount University, focuses on how to best reach audiences by leveraging the interactive capability of different media. For example, in honor of NCAA March Madness, they created an interactive online game (that’s no longer operational) that pitted 32 different LMU-related elements against one another, tournament style. The team intentionally made readers make difficult choices, for example, having to choose “between the Jesuits and Sr. Peg Dolan, R.S.H.M. Sr. Peg was a giant here, with decades of devoted students who had known her and worked with her. We wanted people to have to make that choice. So, setting up the brackets at the start was one of the most fun parts of the project for us,” Wakelee-Lynch says. Afterward, they tallied and published the winner of the LMU tête-à-tête.

“The core of the allegiance of an alumni magazine reader, the heart of it, is an emotional feeling,” Wakelee-Lynch says. “That opens the door to appeal to the reader. You can appeal to fun, the way we did with the LMU NCAA bracket game. It’s a game. It’s enjoyable, but it also appeals to their fond memories of all these places from campus or people from campus that we’ve provided for the game. Fun is as important—is as useful to a university magazine editor—as nostalgia.”

Just as that element of delight can help draw readers in, it can also help fuel us, our teams, and the work we do.

“All the options of storytelling excite me,” says Nicole Dudenhoefer, managing editor of Pegasus at the University of Central Florida. “All the potential that’s there, all the different avenues, all the different ways to bring a story to life and do it justice. Sometimes just traditional writing isn’t necessarily the best way to tell every story. I think that’s really exciting.”

Only five years out from earning her bachelor’s degree, Dudenhoefer never knew a world where only print existed. She majored in journalism and digital media because “I don’t feel like you can separate those two things.” Her career, as with so many others, has necessitated the ability to navigate seamlessly through many worlds, and you see it in the work being produced.

In recent issues, they’ve paired a written story about a new beer-brewing course at the university’s hospitality school with a video about the brewing process. They paired a Q&A with the new poet laureate of Orlando with a video of the spoken-word artist performing a poem about the City Beautiful. And they’ve started incorporating QR codes to leverage the reality that most readers are now reading the printed edition with their phone within arm’s reach.

“QR codes are the winner of the pandemic,” Dudenhoefer says. “They’re something we started to use in Pegasus this spring and came from just knowing what people are using now. Most restaurants don’t even have menus anymore; they just have the QR code on the table or on a little printout. … We decided that we would use them for pieces that link to multimedia pieces that you could see on your phone, such as videos and photo essays or things like that, and just use links for regular websites.”

Storytelling is such an inherent part of everything we do that we bump up against all the ways people are playing with it.

So much of that is thinking through how we use and engage with interactive elements— such as videos, podcasts, and even QR codes—in our personal lives. Storytelling is such an inherent part of everything we do that we bump up against all the ways people are playing with it. Disney has long built upon the power of storytelling to propel the experiences they curate. Artists are incorporating that more and more, from interactive exhibitions to full-blown museums such as Meow Wolf. Universities, including UCF, are now offering Themed Experience programs to teach the next generation how to create these experiences. Think of a Beyoncé concert or TedX or PechaKucha. Or Pop-up Magazine, which produces a live issue.

“[Pop-Up Magazine] just totally opened up my mind to what storytelling could be, because suddenly I’m not working on a page layout or a spread,” Jung says. “I’m listening to a story, and I’m thinking about where the visuals should be, and when they should be seen—on a word? On a sentence? Should I cut into it? Should I fade into it? Should I fade in over 30 seconds? There are so many different ways of revealing, showing, surprising, and it just sort of opened up my mind to all the different kinds of possibilities, of how you can be effective, not just in commissioning artwork, but in how you tell a story.”

For example, in a performance you can use senses that you can’t in print or online, including taste and smell. For the Fall 2018 issue of Pop-Up, the team shared a story about scientists who revived the DNA of an extinct flower, the mountain hibiscus, and in so doing were able to re-create a scent that no one had smelled in a century. Knowing this scent was an important part of the story, the team handed out envelopes to audience members containing a card with the scent printed on it with a note not to open it until instructed to do so.

“The moment when the storyteller was talking about revitalizing the DNA and being able to smell it for the first time is when we asked the audience to open up their envelopes, and then the entire theater was filled with a scent of an extinct flower,” Jung says. “Visually onscreen, we had a tree that has a flower that’s blooming, and the petals are expanding out from the center of the screen. We projected these graphics of red petals onto the walls of the theater to make it feel real. That kind of stuff really excites me because it sort of teases the senses in a way that most people don’t experience when they only hear or read stories.”

This playfulness and expanding boundaries of what’s possible when it comes to storytelling is what I love about the job. And it’s not contained to the digital realm.

At Pegasus, we commissioned a mural for the cover of the arts-themed issue, and in turn it became a way to showcase art on campus. Denison University once famously moved their cover feature from the middle of the book to the opening spreads of the magazine.

And for California Sunday, Jung played a lot with those boundaries. One involved rethinking a special issue about teenagers today and replacing all the page numbers with timestamps and organizing the book that way. Another included turning a negative—paper quality—into something positive for a story about a North Korean who escaped to South Korea. The end result leverages the thinness of the paper to tease the transition of moving from one place to another and how you never fully leave it behind.

“I decided that our paper was not the most beautiful paper,” Jung says. “It was kind of flimsy, a little see-through at times, so I took advantage of the see-through-ness of it.”

As writers, editors, and creative professionals, we are trained to listen: for when an idea has potential, a source opens up a new path of consideration, a problem presents a new way of doing things. But also to hear excitement as it spreads from one person to the next.

“I think when you’re in a brainstorm, even if it’s in a Slack channel or it’s live, what story do you toss out that gets everybody talking?” Rienzi says. “If it’s a group of four, five, or six of us, and we’re all like, ‘That’s great. What about this? What if we do that?’  then that’s the idea you go with because you’re all excited about it. There’s got to be a reason why you’re excited about it. And if you’re excited about it, hopefully the readers will be too. I always try to listen for that.”

We’re no longer just entering our audiences’ homes by way of their mailboxes, but trying to reach them wherever they may be.

Finding ways to engage our readers is at the heart of what we do. After all, we want them to pick up, read, and talk about our magazines. We’re not doing our jobs if readers aren’t doing these things. But the reality is, our job has long been about more than getting a reader to open and spend time with our print magazine. Our job is also about getting our audiences to open an email, click on a link, watch a video, listen to a podcast, engage on social platforms. We’re no longer just entering our audiences’ homes by way of their mailboxes, but trying to reach them wherever they may be: Yes, at home. But also in the office, on the playground, while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or scrolling through their phone late at night rather than going to sleep.

“The stories we are telling are stories that we hope are gripping enough to engage somebody for some reason—either because the story that we’re telling is about a crucial issue that we have reason to believe they care about or there’s a really strong human-interest aspect to this story that they are inclined to want to know and be moved by,” says Wakelee-Lynch. “What hasn’t changed is the need to conceptualize interesting, engaging stories.”

Now, in addition to listening for kernels of stories, we’re required to listen for excitement in terms of patterns and trends. What platforms and new technology are people using? What types of content are people clicking on and engaging with the most? Which stories have the most pageviews and longest time spent on page? How can we reach them where they are?

Admittedly, the myriad ways we can tell stories and reach audiences in a post-postmodern world can feel dizzying and overwhelming, especially if you’re a one-woman or -man shop. There are so many things to consider and be responsible for in addition to creating, you know, an actual issue, that they can lead to paralysis or stasis.

Or, by paying attention, they, like the story of the mountain hibiscus, can unfold new avenues for delight, collaboration, and accessibility. And, if we’re lucky, they can allow us to take on challenges that keep the work exciting and meaningful for us.

Laura J. Cole is a freelance writer, editor, photographer, and content strategist. She has previously worked as the editorial director at both the University of Central Florida and Rollins College, her alma mater.