Glossy Alumni Magazines Seek More Than Graduates
By EMMA DALY
November 10, 2004
New York Times
Their readers may still value the "class notes" most (the Wellesley Magazine section fostered a kidney transplant between graduates), but alumni magazines these days are revamped, glossy and offering an impressive array of more worldly topics. The subjects can be as varied as the educational value of art forgeries or the culture of S.U.V.'s, low-carbohydrate diets or gunshot wounds, the most important man in football or the vanishing young voter.
Colleges and universities have long seen their magazines as a way to tap into fond memories and deep pockets, but many are now spending more on their publications, recognizing that if graduates can be persuaded to actually read their college magazine, they may be stimulated to give even more.
"Alumni magazines have done much to make themselves more readable and to give more razzle-dazzle," said Karla Taylor, who helps judge the annual magazine awards given by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a professional group for those involved in university development and communications. "If you look back at old alumni magazines, you can really see that they were often black and white, very text-heavy. The photography tended to be quite hushed, like the ivy halls."
More than 90 percent of the 445 alumni magazines listed this year by Oxbridge Communications, publisher of the National Directory of Magazines, are four-color or glossy magazines, but in 1996 about 70 percent of the 423 magazines on the list were.
Several universities, including Vanderbilt, Penn State, Yale, Washington State and Oregon State, have revamped or restarted their magazines recently. New York University started N.Y.U. Alumni Magazine last year in an effort to increase donor rates among its 320,000 graduates from around 12 percent to the 30 percent-plus common in the Ivy League.
Colleges are also expanding their circulation base. While public universities traditionally sent their magazines only to paid-up members of alumni associations, many are moving toward the private college model of mailing to all graduates, as well as staff and faculty members and parents of students.
"Universities realize that communicating with all of their alumni households is valuable," said Karen Worley, who edits Mizzou magazine for the University of Missouri's Alumni Association.
Some of the magazines are able to offset expenses with advertising. Nestled between the articles in Harvard Magazine or Princeton Alumni Weekly are advertisements for $20,000 watches, $150,000 cars, investment advice and high-end retirement communities. As the magazine tells advertisers: "Want millionaires? More than half of Harvard Magazine's readers qualify."
The 930,000 readers in the Ivy League Magazine Network, a marketing bloc formed to sell national advertising in nine publications, make up one of the most affluent groups of readers in the United States, with a median household income of $136,000, far more than the national figure of $51,000. Even the magazines do not pay for themselves.
Editors know they are competing for sophisticated readers against newsstands, online journals, even corporate publications. Kathy Bishop, who edits the new N.Y.U. Alumni Magazine, and Lynne Brown, its publisher, sought also to harness and reflect New York City's creative energy, choosing an oversize format and a matte cover.
"We wanted to be visually interesting and provocative," Ms. Brown said.
Few colleges or universities have gone as far as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which spun off its alumni publication, Technology Review, as a consumer magazine. Still partly financed by M.I.T. (though it is expected to turn a profit eventually), the magazine is sold to 220,000 subscribers and sent free to 95,000 M.I.T. alumni. The version for graduates includes an M.I.T. news section, but most readers see a magazine concerned with technological innovation.
While technology has helped cut costs and improve print quality, many editors must still fight for the money and freedom to produce an engaging magazine. Dale Keiger, senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine, helped prepare a statement of standards adopted last year by editors and writers at their annual forum held by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Mr. Keiger said the journalists believed that if the council eventually approves their statement, it would help them convince their bosses that an academic institution is best served when the magazine is free to take an honest look at problems on campus.
Sue De Pasquale, editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, said, "The best university magazines are the ones that have the most ability to report honestly and comprehensively about their schools, because readers are smart and they know when they are fed a line."
In 2002, she printed a cover story about the death of a healthy human subject in a Johns Hopkins research study on asthma, and the university's subsequent investigation. "When a tragedy of this magnitude happens, it makes sense for Hopkins to be out front in terms of making changes," Ms. De Pasquale said, adding that many medical schools asked for copies of the story.
But, she continued, "We also heard from a lot of editors that there's no way they would ever be able to do an honest report from their school."
After several turbulent years at Baylor University, graduates are now receiving two magazines: The Baylor Line, published since 1946 by the independent alumni association, and Baylor Magazine, published since 2002 by the university. Vicki Marsh Kabat, editor of Baylor Magazine, said it was started not because of critical coverage in The Line but because the alumni magazine was normally sent only to 20,000 fee-paying members, rather than to all 100,000 graduates. Todd Copeland, editor of The Line, questioned why the administration chose to begin a new magazine rather than increase financing - and thereby circulation - for The Line.
"It is direct competition," Mr. Copeland said. "My perspective was that the launch of Baylor Magazine had more to do with wanting to control alumni communications and grooming messages."