Thinking Beyond Print

Storytelling Belongs Everywhere.

By Chris St.Cyr & Kelly McMurray

During 2020 and 2021 many editors were struggling to publish their magazines. The solution for a lot of schools was to put print on hold and move to a digital format. Unfortunately many schools did not have a comprehensive communication sharing strategy. An alumni magazine can no longer be just a printed magazine, it needs to be a communications ecosystem that connects with readers where they are. A brand in itself, it includes a printed publication with digital communications (website and e-newsletters), social media, and podcasts. Each of these communications provides a unique experience, using tactility, visuals, and sounds to connect with audiences in intentionally different ways.

Consumer brands like The Atlantic, New York, and New York Times Magazine know this. They share stories on social media before the magazine arrives, create audio versions of longer articles, and give readers a behind the scenes view. Alumni magazines do well to adopt these best practices and build a strategic plan for their publication ecosystem.

Nevertheless, our focus must be on the story and not the medium.

As someone who has been an editorial designer for more than 30 years, I know it can be difficult to move beyond print—I love my print magazines! Nevertheless, our focus must be on the story and not the medium. Do I believe that alumni get up in the morning and go directly to their alma mater’s website? No. But they are picking up their phones and checking their feeds, streams, and notifications. And those channels should bring them to a website that is rich with storytelling. It is not about the magazine; it is about the stories at the institution. And while the print magazine is a very important tool to engage alumni, it is only one form of communication. We must think more broadly.

We’re not dumping print, but the relationship is changing.

All things considered, the print magazine is important. It is the piece that arrives in someone’s house, as one editor I worked with said, “like an old friend.” But it needs to evolve with the times. It does not make sense to print news about faculty appointments, awards, sports updates, and new buildings in a quarterly or bi-quarterly publication. This information should have already been shared through digital channels—they are the perfect medium for such news.

Another change to consider is the approach to the print publication. The print magazine is often vulnerable to budget cuts because of the costs associated with putting it out–those costs tend to be immutable because the approach is always the same. But print magazines have the unique advantage of being an object; we should explore different formats, sizes, and printing and finishing techniques to make them unique.

Planning makes progress.

First, it’s important that a publication website be conceived as a storytelling device. Unlike an information-driven commercial site, a publication website serves a very different purpose of creating an experience through connection. A successful site considers the who and how well before it’s built; it requires a well-conceived plan. (I like to use the following analogy: You wouldn’t construct a building before drafting and approving the architectural plan, right?)

Next, use the beginning of each issue as an opportunity to explore digital storytelling—photographers are shooting video, designers are exploring interaction and motion, editors and writers are developing linked content. Too often stories are shoehorned into existing formats, and that usually leads to disappointment. When the elements are planned in advance, there is so much more room for creativity and connection.

Also, I recommend a deep audit of previous issues. Take a look at past stories and ask how they could have been told digitally. This practice not only makes you think strategically, it may also provide future story ideas. For more inspiration, be sure to check out best practices in the publication world, and not only alumni publications.

Communicate and collaborate

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Institution communications are siloed. You know how it goes: The alumni office is hosting events and posting content on social media; the news office is posting daily or weekly updates; advancement communications is producing its own content; videographers and photographers are being hired for one-off assignments; and sometimes the magazine is a completely separate entity—all of this work without a point of continuity.

With tools like Slack or Basecamp, there is no reason for the walls; there should be a central communications set-up with an overarching communication plan. The big-picture strategy has to consider how to best share the content with teams across campus. And plans have to move toward digital-first with evergreen stories in development for longform narrative and print.

Again, it’s not about the printed publication, it’s about storytelling in support of the institution.

A final note: I strongly believe that storytelling is the glue that connects alumni to their alma mater, and this must come in whatever form is best suited to make that happen. The print magazine can’t be the end goal for an editor’s pride, and digital can’t be expected to do it all. Editors have to consider all channels.

Look at magazines that are doing it well: The New York Times Magazine promotes its cover before it is published on Sunday, adding a story about the story; New York Magazine stories appear on social media, and the print distribution was cut in half; and MIT Technology Review has an entire events division along with its digital presence. They are all finding the right balance to engage with readers.

Communications teams are expected to do more than ever, so strategy and planning is more important than ever.. Other industries have pivoted—look at the music and film industries—and now it is time for education to follow suit. We have to stop thinking in terms of print versus digital and start developing a plan for both.

Kelly McMurray is the editorial and creative director of The Issue. She is also the founder and creative director of 2communiqué, a design firm focused on narrative experiences for community-driven clients.