Do you publish your print magazine and put its stories online after it arrives in most of your readers’ mailboxes? If so, your process looks a lot like many — perhaps most! — alumni publications. But is it possible that you’ve got the process exactly backwards?
Recently I was at a breakfast where editors were sharing the details of their publishing process, and this sequencing was up for debate.
The discussion reminded me of a CASE Editors Forum conference talk from 2015 by then-Stanford Business editorial director Mike Freedman.
Freedman, who is now the chief communications officer and director of alumni relations for Stanford’s School of Engineering, transformed the business school’s magazine process from a print-first approach to a digital-first approach.
What does that mean in practice? It means this: nearly every story that appears in the magazine — save, say, an editor’s letter and class notes — appears in multiple formats before it lands in print. Not only that, but the stories often appear online months before a reader sees them in the magazine.
Deborah Petersen, who now holds the editorial director position at Stanford’s business school, has continued to refine this process since Freedman took his new position in late 2015.
So that you can see what I mean about the digital-first approach, I’ve included an example of the way they’ve made the most of single story with a mini-calendar below:
Story calendar: Working from home research
- June 22: Stanford’s website publishes a story about new research on work-from-home policies.
- July 4: A link to the story is posted on the school’s Facebook page. (667 likes)
- August 3: A link to the story is published on its Twitter page. (53 RT, 72 likes)
- August 9: Another link, with a different image, is published on its Twitter page (166 RT, 196 likes)
- August 9: Another link to the story is posted on its Facebook page (1K likes)
- Fall: The story, “The bottom-line benefits of working from home” (page 8) appeared in the print magazine under a different headline and with different art.
The point? This is a lot of bang for the story buck.
Making it work
A few weeks ago, Mike and I talked about the process of moving from a print-first approach to digital-first approach. He shares why they did it, how it worked, and what questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering a switch.
I’ve also included updates from the Deborah about their 2018 processes and approaches, which look similar — but not identical! — to those that Mike put in place years ago. I think it’s particularly useful to see this evolution. Major overhauls can make a big impact from the start, but also that they’re never really “done.” There are always ways to refine processes, make improvements, and integrate new ideas.
First, tell me about what your role was at the business school.
Mike: I was hired to think about the magazine and more specifically about how we could better get faculty research and ideas out into the world digitally and in print.
When you arrived, what did that process look like?
Mike: We expended most of our energy and resources into putting out a printed magazine. Then we would take that material and put it online. There was some online-only material, but we were focused on the printed magazine.
But over time, we recognized that we could reach a lot more people and have a much greater impact by putting all of our stories first digitally. Then we could take some of them and repackage them in a printed format.
Why did that strategy make sense?
Mike: You can reach so many more people digitally. One of our goals was to be able to reach more people, and in a way that they wanted to be reached. Because of demographics and technological shifts, people are less engaged with a printed magazine. We knew we had to get ahead of that curve.
We also knew that there was a vast audience of people who are interested in research and ideas — the kinds of things that we were writing about. We saw that there was no reason we shouldn’t reach them first. It allowed us to create a lot more content. We were able to pick up the pace a little bit, and then have something beautiful and special for a much smaller and select group of people: our alumni.
Talk about how you made that work.
Mike: At the beginning of the year, we’d come up with a rough list of themes that were meant to serve as metaphors. Throughout the course of the year, we worked toward building up a list of stories around those themes, and then we could pull those stories together as a collection and publish them in the printed magazine.
One example is boundaries: How could we explore that concept? Issues related to immigration typically evoke a literal boundary, so we included in the magazine faculty writing about or thinking about immigration issues. There were stories about boundaries as the limitations we set on ourselves. We looked at the boundaries between managers and their reports, and how they could be overcome. We explored boundaries as they relate to how a company can better explain its products and overcome consumer confusion or apprehension.
We worked on all these stories throughout the year, and by the time it came to doing a magazine, it we said, “Okay, we have 64 pages to fill, and we know we can fit about 20 stories in there.” We didn’t mind that the story was six months old. A year old would be fine, because all of these stories are evergreen.
Deborah: A significant number of the stories we post online never appear in the magazine because we create more content for our Insights by Stanford Business platform than would fit in three magazine issues a year. Also, we now assign some stories specifically around the theme of the magazine. In the past, we had most often pulled already-created stories from the website, and repurposed them. The stories we assign will appear online too, of course.
Were you ever worried, when you had stories showing up on the web, Facebook, Twitter, and the magazine, that it was too much?
Mike: I don’t worry about over-saturation. I was happy if a reader read the stories we were publishing. It would be terrific if they saw it once and read it so carefully that they noticed it a second time!
Fair! We should all be so lucky to have such engaged readers.
Mike: We see this all the time in the mainstream press — the New York Times, for example. On a Wednesday or Thursday the Times will start publishing some of its magazine stories online. Sometimes it jumps out at me digitally, because they can do interesting things digitally that they couldn’t do in print, and I’ll read it right there.
Other times, depending on the story, I might think to myself, “You know what? I’m going to wait and read it in print on Sunday, because I know they can do things in print that they can’t do digitally,” or because for whatever reason the story touches me in such a way that I feel like I would enjoy it more in print.
The New York Times Book Review is a good example of that. I try not to look at it digitally, because I enjoy reading it on a Sunday morning as part of my media diet and habit. I think most people are the same way. But I never think, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they published that first on the digital. Now I feel overwhelmed by the content.” I’m glad I have multiple options.
How did you create a magazine that worked in such a flexible way?
Mike: As we made this shift, we re-designed the magazine. We worked with Luke Hayman at Pentagram, and we told him and his team that we wanted to make sure we could easily take any story, regardless of length, and put it in the magazine without changing it, aside from a word here or there.
We didn’t want to have to take a thousand-word story and say, “Now we need to fit it into a 300-word spot,” because it would be too much work to be able to do that. You have to go back to the faculty, you have to rewrite it, re-copy edit it. You have to do a whole range of different things.
His team created a design that was flexible enough to allow us to do the bulk of the story exactly the same — and if we needed to make a couple of adjustments or something like that, we could do that.
It sounds like the word count might not have changed substantially, but you did make some changes, right?
Mike: We changed the art every time. We changed the headline and all the display type.
We were also cognizant in each magazine of showcasing a diverse array of faculty and alumni in terms of discipline, subject matter, and gender. We did likewise in our digital format, but as we themed stories together we wanted to be careful to have the right mix.
Deborah: We have greatly improved our photography in the magazine, and therefore, whenever possible, we take advantage of the terrific art produced for the magazine by using it for the online piece too. (Before, as Mike says, the process only went in one direction). That goes for the illustrations that are produced for the magazine, too, which additionally, are sometimes repurposed for social media. We animated the Autumn 2017 issue cover, for example.
Deborah: The Autumn 2017 issue also marked another departure for us. We published a 12-page staff-written narrative about an alumni who runs a social impact company in Rwanda. The story, which included professional photographs as well as staff-created infographics, was significantly longer than any of our previous pieces, and focused not only on business lessons, but on how a student’s experience at the school led directly to the work she is doing now after graduation.
What were the biggest challenges in making this shift?
Mike: We were not just redesigning a publication, but we were redesigning a way of working. That was something that we needed to think through.
We talked about changes that we needed to make organizationally. How were we going to rethink what we were doing on a day-to-day basis, knowing that we were publishing three to five stories a week? There were operational things to work through. On every level, we had to be mindful of our new approach.
It sounds like you had to be clear about your goals, too.
Mike: Right. We had to rethink our whole thought process around our criteria for storytelling.
You’ve talked about the idea of “stories that teach.”
Mike: There’s a world of stories at any institution. Being able to crystallize the kind of stories that you will tell, and the kinds of stories that are important but not necessarily part of your mission, is important. It’s difficult to do, but it’s beneficial when you can do it. It makes everyone’s lives a lot easier. The idea of “Stories that teach” allowed us to do that — we defined our criteria as stories that would help you improve your personal or professional life and/or help explain how the world worked.
The important thing is that the audience appreciates that you are making decisions for their benefit.
How did you decide whether or not you were succeeding?
Mike: We were tracking the full range of metrics. For example, the number of Twitter and Facebook fans and follower grew, along with engagement. We tracked that all of that. YouTube grew tremendously; our web traffic also grew tremendously.
We were also able to get to a point where we were syndicating with other publications — like Inc. magazine — or other publications wanted to pick up our stories.
What would you tell others who might be interested in making this shift?
Mike: Digital first is not a one-size-fits all solution. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate it for everyone. The first question an organization might ask themselves is: Why are we doing it the way we’re doing it? Go through the range of different possibilities and then say, “Is that a good enough reason to continue doing it this way?” Maybe the answer is yes. Every institution is different, and there might be a good reason why the current approach is the right one.
It all comes down to being intentional about your decision-making process. One approach could be: We want to try this new way, and for the next six months we’re going to test doing everything first digitally. We have a process by which we’re going to assess at the end of the six months, according to a number of different metrics that we’ve pre-determined, whether that makes sense.
The key is bringing stakeholders together for a strategic process and thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing — and how do we improve upon that as we move forward?
As someone who spends a ton of time thinking about the best ways to tell stories, I love these ideas, including the emphasis on maximizing the stories you tell about your institution and your people. This digital-first approach seems like one great way to do exactly that.