Should university magazine editors regularly challenge their publishers? That’s what Ohio State University Assistant VP for Research Communications Earle Holland suggested last week in a comment on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog.
The post covered a talk given by American University School of Communication professor Matthew Nisbet on the changing of the guard in science news delivery, but Holland pointed out the ways in which he feels that most university magazine reporting doesn’t meet basic standards of journalism in the first place. It’s a relevant issue for storytelling journalists, because these magazines’ features departments provide a small but steady outlet for narrative reporting.
We often get submissions to the Nieman narrative sites from reporters whose stories have run in these publications. While the submissions are sometimes well-researched and even well-written, they can end up flattering the publisher and feeling like a marketing tool for the university or college in question. Interviewed by phone, Holland suggested it doesn’t have to be this way:
I’m a great fan of narrative journalism. I worship at the altar of Jon Franklin. I’ve known him for years and years, and he’s a master of exactly that kind of thing. The venue of research magazines offers an opportunity to do short versions of narrative stories—maybe three or four thousand words. My concern about how research magazines tend to use it is in their story selection.
There’s an emphasis on evading those stories that are tougher to do. Early on at Ohio State, we dealt with animal rights concerns on campus. We dealt with the emergence of AIDS in the college community. We dealt with a whole host of things. When a student does research that ends up having an economic benefit, who gets that—the institution or not? We went way beyond the boundaries of the institution for content on that.
These issue stories are the area where I see research magazines basically lacking. How and why are they choosing the types of stories they’re doing? I look at these magazines, and I see stories that are okay in their own right, but they really don’t have the true journalistic aspect of following the path, and if the path leads into a dark area, continuing down that path.
The only obligation that a writer actually has is to the reader. That’s where we have a dilemma. As I pointed out in my comment in the Tracker, I’ve been inundated with negative responses over the years to my complaints that editors ought to take a more assertive stance in their roles. I they don’t find themselves in hot water periodically, I don’t think they’re doing their job.
Middlebury Magazine Editor Matt Jennings, who co-chaired the 2009 CASE forum for college and magazine editors, agrees with Holland about the journalistic standards of most magazines, and adds that only “a handful of college and university magazines out there can legitimately say they are editorially independent of their college and university.”
Nonetheless, Jennings suggests it’s possible to run a magazine with high journalistic standards without going as far as Holland recommends. “I’m not in the mindset that I’ve got to be risking my job once a month to rattle some cages,” says Jennings. “Unless we’re talking about criminal, moral or ethical lapses, that’s not where I’m at.”
Rather than take an actively adversarial position, Jennings says he tends to air the university’s disagreements and let the audience make up its own mind on issues. While he’s quick to say that Middlebury’s coverage of conflict doesn’t compare to a recent Johns Hopkins Magazine piece examining the death of a patient in one of the university’s clinical trials, Jennings cites his magazine’s coverage of the contentious closure of an academic department and student profiles that have included problematic aspects of life at Middlebury.
Overall, however, Jennings seconds Holland’s larger message:
You see a lot of college and university magazines that are, frankly, from a journalistic standpoint and from a storytelling standpoint, dreadful. They’re nothing more than a glossy brochure. And my guess is they’re not read.
But on the other hand, there are a handful of other magazines that are read and that I feel are every bit as good as any commercial publication. Just this year in the Utne Independent Press Awards, a university magazine won the award for best spiritual coverage. That was from the University of Portland—Brian Doyle there just does an amazing job. I think both Stanford Magazine and California Magazine—Berkeley’s magazine—were nominated for science and technology magazine. Those are just a few examples; they’re not alone. Yale has a publication that does a good job—that would sell on the newsstand—because it’s interesting. My philosophy is that we’re not competing with other alumni magazines, we’re competing for attention from people reading The New Yorker and The Atlantic, going on the computer or reading a book. So we need to be every bit as thoughtful and engaging as those publications.
Jennings points out that in the past, not many publications surveyed readers to find out if they were reaching their audience, but that Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which puts on an editors’ forum every year, is now offering survey help for members. (OSU programs and publications under Holland have won more than 40 CASE awards, and Jennings’ magazine has garnered nearly a dozen.)
For those hoping to write for the better university publications, Jennings did say that as much as 85% of Middlebury Magazine’s feature content comes from non-staff sources. At good university magazines, you’ll be competing with people who write for major news and literary outlets, but Jennings says that having name writers is a good sign of a professional magazine—one where contributors can feel confident they’ll be allowed to do quality work.
Narrative features are often the heart of university magazines, and in a dwindling print market, their importance may grow. Still, Holland warns that while “institutions have an opportunity to fill in some of the gap, I don’t see many of them taking on the role with the same mindset and the same editorial approach I expect from real journalism.”