Back From the Dead
How unexpected patrons stepped in to help revive a shuttered alumni magazine.
By Will Kopp
OWU Magazine was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the president, the cabinet, the board of trustees, and the chief of communications.
And I figured it was missed about as much as Jacob Marley.
The magazine for Ohio Wesleyan University alumni, parents, and friends, OWU Magazine, was born in October 1917, just a few months before a global pandemic would kill millions around the world, alter our everyday way of life, and interrupt the academic year at Ohio Wesleyan.
The magazine survived the 1918 Pandemic, but 102 years later, it could not survive COVID-19. We mailed what we didn’t realize would be our final issue in April 2020. Ironically—or appropriately—the headline in brilliant red on the cover was “Cheers!,” referring to the lead story about several OWU alumni running wineries, owning and managing microbreweries, and working in the wine, beer, and spirits industry. It was a fun article and was typical of the editorial direction we’d taken with the magazine, focusing on alumni rather than the university, and providing entertainment and useful information. For instance, in the article, you’ll learn that according to Chris Sayer, founder of Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford, Connecticut, if you like beef, you might enjoy an Abbey Dubbel (a dark Belgian-style beer).
Our freelance designer and I were making final corrections for this wonderful issue in early March, and then the world collapsed. In 10 days, the university went from closing classes for a week to shutting all offices and bringing faculty together to figure out how to move all of our classes online for the rest of the semester.
No more in-person classes. No spring sports. No graduation ceremony. No alumni reunion weekend. Yet, the magazine was due togotothe printer—and nowlooked as if it was coming from the before-world.
We had no time to change the cover—and perhaps I didn’t want to let go of the normalcy it represented—so I converted our letters section into a note from the editor updating our readers about changes at the university. The letter saluted the resilience of our students, employees, and alumni, and we included this update from Sayer, which I received on St. Patrick’s Day: “We are in good shape here for the moment. Still able to sell curbside, and luckily we have the education and life skill set to hold out better than others. (On our staff are) two MBAs, a JD, and two years in the Peace Corps. We can pivot and adapt to a situation quicker than most!”
A year and a half later, I’m happy to report that Brewery Legitimus is still going strong, with Chris and Christina Sayer still at the helm and in-person customers back again.
Soon, that would not be the case for OWU Magazine. But the cause of death was not COVID-19, as most would come to assume. Since the fall of 2019, OWU had been undertaking a review of all administrative work as part of an effort to reduce expenses and improve efficiency. With a budget of $150,000 to produce three issues a year for 25,000 readers, the magazine was the rare line item that could be crossed out for a decent step toward a goal of saving $10 million.
The administrative review resulted in real pain, including the loss of 30 staff positions, and in our notice to alumni, the actions also included: “ceasing publication of OWU Magazine, which we will replace with enhanced website and social media opportunities to keep you informed with news about your fellow alumni and the OWU community.” That would be the extent of the magazine’s obit.
At that time, with pandemic news running 24/7, it would have been easy for our readers to miss that notice and conclude that OWU Magazine was just one more thing taken from them by COVID. We heard almost nothing from alumni about the magazine throughout 2020, and only a few “Where’s OWU Magazine?” questions at holiday Zoom events. Then came an unexpected visitor.
OUR SPIRIT OF OWU MAGAZINE PAST AND PRESENT
As we rolled into the spring of 2021, our alumni association team began receiving more questions about the magazine, submissions for class notes, and requests to bring it back. One prominent alumnus even floated the idea of finding donor funds for the magazine.
The president and advancement VP asked me about reviving the magazine in some kind of print form. Do we have the staff? Could we print one a year? How about one final issue?
Magazine staffing would have to be filled by an already slim communications office, so, no. And a once-a-year magazine is an annual report. Producing the magazine had been one of the most rewarding parts of my job; my undergrad degree was in magazine journalism. But, we’d made the decision and buried the book. It was time to move on.
Then on a cool and cloudy commencement day, as I was standing at the stadium gate waiting for the graduating class to march in, I saw an alumnus I’d known for several years, there to see his grandchild graduate. We got to talking.
He told me he missed the magazine—loved the magazine— read it cover to cover, and displayed it proudly on the coffee table. The magazine was more than a symbol of the university, more than a communication or marketing piece. It was a concrete connection to Ohio Wesleyan. And it represented the quality of the institution he loves.
And he praised the last issue as the best he’d ever seen.
OK. Now I was listening.
He asked me what the budget would be to publish two good issues a year. I let him know, including the funds to hire good writers and photographers and a talented designer.
A couple of weeks later, the president asked me, if we had full funding, could we produce two issues a year? And a couple of weeks after that, we were set, with an account sufficient to produce OWU Magazine, twice yearly, for the next five years.
This alumnus had recruited a friend, and together, the two loyal readers had donated the funds and thereby breathed new life into OWU Magazine.
But before we brought the magazine back to life, we had some important questions to answer.
For these extremely generous alumni and the many others who asked us to revive it, what made the magazine worth saving?
What would re-energize the publication to make it even more relevant and compelling when it relaunches?
And what will we need to do over the next five years (and beyond?) to ensure that the magazine continues to entertain and inform—to bring joy and pride—to new generations of alumni?
Though the magazine saviors swept in just this spring, the saving of OWU Magazine began much earlier.
Seven years ago, we overhauled the magazine, redesigning the look; hiring a broader team of talented freelance writers, photographers, and designers; and most important, transforming the editorial focus, which had been largely internal, with stories about student travel and cool projects, faculty and administration news, and the history of the school. Everything was staff written and designed; there was no pay for freelance writers.
Under our re-envisioned editorial guidelines, we looked outward, at the reader and what news and entertainment we could provide that was about them or could make their lives better, easier, richer. Sure, we’d continue to provide some updates from campus, but our purpose was to showcase alumni out in the world as the university. And we wanted to tell fascinating, compelling stories.
So, we published articles on issues in urban housing, the state of journalism, and the data analytics revolution—all featuring OWU alumni who were national leaders in their fields. We published fun pieces on married couples who met at the school and what happened when the Baby Boomers first came to campus in the mid-1960s. These were not the historical pieces gathered from the archives. They were built from interviews with alumni— with feature photos and art created for the magazine.
We hired talented freelancers. These are tough days in the journalism business. Many longtime journalists have retired early or have gone into other work, so many are available to write the kind of stories we want for modest but respectable rates. Similarly, we’ve been able to hire outstanding photographers locally and across the country.
Alumni magazines don’t compete with each other; they compete with every consumer magazine out there for a sliver of their readers’ time and attention. The writing has to be crisp and enjoyable. The photos and art have to be compelling, beautiful. Our mantra: Pay professionals for great work and build a pool of talent.
And, of course, we couldn’t ignore the most widely read section of the book: class notes. Instead of constraining it, we expanded it, with mini-features of about 200 words and a photo, looking for the offbeat items that could prompt a smile. We ran wedding photos big, and we took the time to make sure every person in group shots was named.
Our magazine donor said: “When our daughter was married (in the 1990s), a picture was taken of all the OWU grads there, and I said from the back row that we would have to send it to the Magazine. A woman nearby told me she was at an OWU wedding in Boston not too long before and that wedding pictures were no longer being published. Without even thinking, I replied, ‘Then, we will have to change the policy.’ John Fairchild, who turned WWD into a must-read within and beyond the fashion industry, was ahead of his time in understanding the importance and draw of people coverage. He created W on that basis, and it became a companion to Vogue on the newsstands. John Knight said he had concluded that sometimes the most important information in newspapers was in the smallest type: sports stats, movie listings, and classified ads! None of these are important without meat on the bone, but combined, it’s a blockbuster.”
After seven years, we had created a product that alumni valued.
As we relaunch this winter, we’ll expand our freelance pool with a couple of talented journalists writing our two lead features and custom photography coming from D.C., Atlanta, Columbus, and our beautiful campus.
We’re also using this rebirth to make a core structural change to the oversight of the magazine that I hope will impress our readers, improve the product, and show the world our ambitions for quality.
From the 1960s through the ’80s, OWU may have been best known for its journalism program, headed by the revered Professor Verne Edwards. Our graduates from those years have won Pulitzers and Emmys and have worked as journalists and editors at The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, ABC News, and major news outlets across the nation.
And they read OWU Magazine.
Gordon Witkin, Class of 1977, an editor at U.S. News & World Report for two decades before becoming executive editor at The Center for Public Integrity in 2008, told me, “The return of the magazine is terrific, and important, news for Ohio Wesleyan alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends. The magazine provides a sense of community; it is a crucial part of the glue that keeps Bishops together. Its arrival on your doorstep is in effect a reunion with your alma mater—a chance to reflect and relive your days on campus, a one-stop shop for updates on the institution and its people.”
We have reached out to some of those prominent journalists to form a new editorial advisory board for the magazine. They will meet virtually two or three times a year to help guide the long. term vision of the magazine and, no doubt, lend their insight into uncovering and telling fascinating stories.
When you have Pulitzer Prize winners on your advisory board, you’d better create a product that they and the balance of your readers value. With the board’s guidance and support, it’s going to be easier—and more fun—for our entire department.
As Charles Dickens knew, the ghost of times yet to come was the most mysterious, unknowable, and frightening, as, “in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.”
So it can seem with the future of magazines and print journalism.
But I don’t think the gloom is necessarily the shadows of things that will be, but only of things that may be. I know our print magazine is valued—even treasured. And, as readers of Pages know, it has qualities that no electronic communication can match.
Sure, we’ll continue to expand an online news service and a social media presence—not to replace the print magazine but to supplement it. Some of the best consumer magazines are doing this now, with online news supporting the print publication. But, I think it’s a mistake to publish an “online magazine.” A website and a print publication are different species, with different capabilities. Don’t try to cram one into the mold of the other. Instead, recognize their unique strengths and let them flourish in their own habitat.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learned over these two years is that we’ll need to expand the pool of alumni who will be the saviors of OWU Magazine in times yet to come. We can do that if we keep our readers in our minds and hearts throughout the year.
We will cherish the past, understand the present, and anticipate the future. All three must live within our work. We will not shut out the lessons they teach.
Will Kopp is chief communications officer at Ohio Wesleyan University and editor of OWU Magazine. While preparing the first issue of the revived magazine, he took a dream week to complete his third Boston Marathon and then hike up Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. Connect via firstname.lastname@example.org.