In March, I attended the CASE Editors Forum, an event that annually gathers college and university magazine editors (along with a few from independent schools) for 2½ days of professional development.
This year’s conference, in San Francisco, was the first in-person event since 2019, due to COVID. Regular attendees told me it drew a smaller crowd than normal — about 100 people.
I had a great time at the conference and came away with five main takeaways from this year’s Editors Forum:
Writing as a borderland
Author Rubén Martínez’s opening keynote made the case that, when we talk or write about a sense of place, what we really mean to convey is a sense of space. To make his point, he called upon the work of several California writers. The resulting speech felt perfect for the Golden State; delivered elsewhere, Martínez’s address would not have felt so true and apt.
What continues to echo for me was Martínez’s description of reading and writing as “a sort of borderland, where all mix and blend.”
Borders, Martínez said, erase that which is binary, and he quoted the scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, who wrote, “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish between us from them.”
Literature and journalism should be the common ground where such differences can come before readers, Martínez suggested. He called on the assembled editors to find and amplify voices from different communities and cultures who could contribute to and enhance this dynamic of borderland.
Figure out your audience
The highest honor in the field of college magazines is the Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year Award. The past two winners are Loyola Marymount University (in 2020) and San Francisco State University (in 2021), and a panel discussion featured the editors of each magazines talking about their winning issues.
What struck me was the remarkably different focus each editor brings to his book.
LMU’s Joe Wakelee-Lynch said he is building a magazine that speaks to the world, not just the university. “We’re dwarfed by USC and UCLA, yet we’re a player, in every way. We own LA, too, and we want to show that,” Wakelee-Smith said. So he engages the school’s faculty experts with national or even International topics, rather than reporting on their own research.
San Francisco State’s Steve Hockensmith, meanwhile, said his magazine focuses on showcasing the work done by the university — a model most colleges and universities follow.
What distinguishes SFSU, according to the Sibley judges, is excellence in every way: “The writing has bounce and attention to craft. The treatment is smart. … There is often great attention to photo and illustration choices, and nearly every square inch seems to have been developed with care. “
Should a magazine look inside, or outside? Either approach is fine, the discussion made clear. But the focus on audience that the Sibley winners bring struck me as unusual in the field.
Brilliance in a small package
Also in the Sibley session, Steve Hockensmith mentioned that San Francisco State’s magazine is only 24 pages per issue. That includes class notes, death notices and the table of contents.
With so tight a space limitation, Hockensmith said, he is constantly juggling his story lineup to make things fit. “What I think is the cover story often proves to be one of three or four or five,” he added.
What determines the final decision? Sometimes that comes down to the cover art. Creative director Barbara Stein said, “I only want to put the best I possibly can out there, as opposed to, ‘Oh, this story needs to be on the cover.’ You want something to pick up the magazine and read it.”
Another surprising detail: Hockensmith said that editing the magazine amounts to only about 10% of his job. Reassuring news, for those who have a crowded list of responsibilities.
The back cover is your second cover
This comment was attributed in one of the elective sessions to Kelly McMurray, the creative director of the design firm 2communiqué.
It stuck with me because, in practice, the back cover is often an afterthought. The mailing label eats up nearly half the page; the rest typically features a throwaway element.
But what if we used that space to drive readers back into the magazine? Spotlighting the second-best story is one option, such as featuring a strong horizontal image from the story package. Another is creating a “Did You Miss” collection of interesting details in the issue.
These are my people
It was really a fluke that I attended the Editors Forum. I learned of the conference last November almost by accident. But the announcement immediately intrigued me, and an encouraging email from an old colleague convinced me to sign up.
I couldn’t be happier that I did. These people were kindred spirits, even though I don’t edit a magazine today. The turnout made it easy to connect with people, and the “dine-arounds” that CASE coordinates — where small groups of attendees go out together for dinner — were a great chance to talk shop and get to know one another.
I have already exchanged messages with a few of the people I met in San Francisco, and a dozen magazine samples came home with me for inspiration and good reading.
The site for the next Editors Forum has not been announced yet, but I’m looking ahead already to it.