Interview with Dartmouth Alumni Magazine – Running an online publication

Sean Plottner
Sean Plottner

Join Sean Plottner, the Editor of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, and I for an inside look at running an alumni magazine at one America’s most prestigious colleges. It’s 26 minutes and you can download the interview (right click/Save As). Listen in:


If you prefer to read here is the transcript:

Pete: Welcome Sean Plottner. We’re interviewing Sean Plottner. He is the editor of DAM Magazine, that is Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. It’s my favorite acronym in the entire world.

Sean Plottner: [laughs] It’s pretty good.

Pete: It’s a good one. You can leverage that one. What we’re going to talk about here is the online publication and Sean’s been very kind to share with us his experience with publishing on the web, which you’ve been doing now for a few years, I think.

Sean: Yes. I can’t remember how many years. Is it three?

Pete: Three, I think it’s three, maybe three full years going into four.

Sean: Yes.

Pete: Before we jump into the online magazine, though, I wanted to talk a little bit about the print version, just from a personal standpoint. When I first put my hands on this beautiful magazine that I’m looking at now and I think Stephen Colbert was on the cover. I can’t remember who was on the cover.

But my first reaction was — and I didn’t go to Dartmouth, but I thought…

Sean: It’s OK, neither did I.

Pete: [laughs] I thought, “Wow, this is an interesting mag…” I enjoy…I read a whole bunch of articles. I still read some of the articles when they come through in my email box. But I really enjoyed it and it really struck me when I got back to the post office at home a few days later and my alumni magazine showed up.

The first thing I did, of course, is I sat down and I looked at it and I thought, “Wow.” This, in comparison, was a boring corporate newsletter compared to this really rich, vibrant, beautiful, fun experience that was the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. I’m not just saying that because you’re sitting here, that’s what really happened in the post office.

My first question to you is how do you do this?

Sean: Well, our approach is to put out a magazine that is, what I would call, reader driven. We try to put together a magazine that is going to have high appeal to the reader which is to say unlike a lot of alumni magazines, although the scene is shifting, many are just simply looking to solicit donations, cheerlead, and they’re more publicity vehicles.

We try to serve the reader with journalism, opposing viewpoints. We also try to emphasize alums and what they’re doing out in the world. Our alums love to read about each other, as opposed to getting very, very institutional.

That’s not to say you won’t find news about the college and professors and administration in the magazine and students, our bread and butter is stories about alums. The research shows that that works. That’s what they want. The fact that we’re one of the few alumni magazines in the country that is editorially independent of the administration enables us to do what we do.

Our greatest asset is the credibility that is derived from that independence. We don’t consider ourselves publicists. We consider ourselves journalists and magazine makers.

Pete: Interesting. You won an award for this magazine, right?

Sean: We’ve won several. We, in 2008, were named the Alumni Magazine of the Year from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which is the big player in the alumni magazine world awards. That was the fifth time Dartmouth had won that award.

We’re not necessarily doing anything that the magazine hasn’t been known for almost 100 years. It is 108 years old and has always been editorially independent. Over that century, five times it’s been named the magazine of the year.

We are frequently the winner of the best alumni magazine in our circulation category and we’ve won awards for design and for some of the articles that we’ve submitted as well.

Pete: Kudos to you.

Sean: Thank you.

Pete: It’s good. All right, so let’s switch gears, shall we?

Sean: Yeah.

Pete: Let’s talk about the online version a little bit. The first question I have to ask is why, why did you push to online. Let’s say it was three years ago or so, roughly, what was the main motivation or motivations for doing so?

Sean: Well, that’s a good question, because I think the answer is not typical for most magazines wanting to go online. We had been slow, as far as the print world goes, even in alumni magazines, to have an online presence. We backed into it.

I saw a lot of our peer institutions pouring money into an online effort, because they felt they had to. Our reasons were a little more…They were not, “Oh, let’s put it online and attract thousands of eyeballs or make tons of money.” The economic climate in 2008, 2009 was pretty grim, everybody was facing budget cuts.

We looked at the magazine and we faced something like 12 percent cuts across the board at the magazine. One thing that we strategized we could do was do smaller issues. But the only way we could do smaller issues to save on printing and mailing and still retain the essence of our editorial was to take something out.

We were devoting close to 30 some pages of every issue to class notes and obituaries. The idea of pulling obituaries out of the magazine, which ran maybe 9 to 12 pages an issue, putting them online only would enable us to continue to do the magazine that we wanted to do, that we felt would serve the readers the best and retain its essence and do smaller issues.

We also realized that would drive people to the website, because there would be something on the website that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Pete: You’d have to go there, yeah.

Sean: The three reasons we decided to go online were simply to get obits out of the magazine, put them somewhere else, to test the local ad market in a small way. We didn’t have some big business plan. Thirdly, just to make the content of the magazine more accessible to more people. It was that simple.

The content that we put online is simply the content from the magazine and obits is the only real exclusive that you find online. Those are the reasons.

Pete: Class notes and obits, right, you have class notes on there now, I think, as well.

Sean: We have everything on there, but we don’t have everything on there. But class notes still run in the print version and they run online. Obits are not in the magazine, but they do run online.

Pete: How did your readers, how did alumni feel about that? How did they react?

Sean: Well, I think the initial reaction was, “Great, you’re online. We have more access.” Then quickly came, “Hey, where’s your mobile app and your iPad version.”


Sean: Not in a big way, but some of the younger readers were asking about that and it seemed as though those were inevitabilities.

The graduates of Dartmouth who are older and used to seeing obituaries in the magazine were disappointed that they were removed from print. Many embraced going online and one way we sold it to them was not only will they be online, they’ll still be around, but they can be longer now, because we’re not necessarily as confined by space.

Not that they can be infinite, because we still have to go through a production and editing process and fact checking. They could deploy links and commenting to really…It’s an enhanced obituary environment.

Initially, there were some complaints from the guys in the ’50s about the obits going online. I think that’s just a resistance to, again, where technology is going. I’ve been told by some people in alumni relations that some of the older guys have said that literally it makes dying a little bit easier, to know that they would be in the magazine.

My response to that is, “You still will be, it’ll just be on the online version and there will probably be links to other stories about you and comments from your classmates.” I think that that’s something that has really died down and will continue to die down as the old guard gets used to the new ways. But there was some contentiousness.

I had one guy yell at me that I was forcing him to use a technology that did not exist when he was born. I said, “Well, I think you do that every day just hopping in a car, practically.”

As far as anyone who is not, maybe, over the age of 60 in our audience, there’s been really no comment at all. I think they just see it as part parcel of what we do now and they don’t have any strong reactions to it.

Pete: Well change is tough. Good change, bad change, it doesn’t matter, people react. It is tough. You’re printing and you’re digital and you have to walk in both worlds. I’d imagine that’s particularly challenging.

Sean: Yeah, but we did succeed at meeting the expectation that we would have something online and we do. So far, so good, I think most people have responded very nicely to the fact that that’s available online.

Pete: Let’s touch on something you just mentioned earlier, advertising. There’s so much discussion about how to handle advertising in the digital world. You have a print magazine, you have advertising in the print magazine. Now you moved it over to the digital world as well.

First of all, who do you advertise to? It’s a two-part question. Who do you advertise to? Then, how did you handle the migration onto the web?

Sean: When you say, “Who do we advertise to…?”

Pete: Who is your target audience? I think it’s local, right? You have a fair amount of…

Sean: Oh, in terms of the advertisers we attract? Yeah, we sell national and local ads. The local ads, the sales are pretty robust because there’s no other real print vehicle in this area and certainly nothing that has the audience that we have. Circulation’s about 58,000, it’s an incredibly affluent, well-educated audience. A lot of our readers are going to come back to this area for whatever reason, reunions, homecoming.

This is a place that fosters a sense of home and so no matter where they are then alums love to come to back to their college home.

We also have a lot of data on older alums that want to return to this area and retire here or buy a second home, so we’re very strong with real estate advertisers.

We send one issue a year to parents as a little bit of a bonus to the advertisers who know that the mom and dad of current students are going to come up here and drop a few dimes here and there.

Sean: How do you handle it now with the web version? Do you find that the web version has impacted your print ad sales or your print ad sales impacting your web version?

Pete: What we’ve done is that we haven’t been real aggressive in trying to go out and sell online advertising, but it’s another tool, it’s another thing we can offer to our advertisers. Most advertisers nationally are going to say, “Yeah, we’ll come into your print vehicle, but what are you going to give us online?”

It’s going to be value added. We’ve been able to package our advertising by having online available as well, but we’ve also, with some endemic advertising such as the college fundraisers and the office of development, able to sell some large banner ads at a very good price on an annual basis.

Again, we don’t shill for the college, but I don’t have any problem with paid advertising that is soliciting donations and that’s been very successful. Now, we haven’t gotten into specific ads falling into certain types of editorial or any of that kind of depth or pop-up ads. That’s all maybe something for down the road.

We do think about that, but we also feel that we have a pretty static website. All we do is put up our content from the print vehicle every two months. It is what it is and if we were ever to get to a point where we had more original content, I think we would be driving more traffic in and therefore be able to sell more advertising.

The local advertisers have come on board online as well, but mostly in a packaging way.

Pete: Do the local advertisers usually take both print and digital or do they like just digital or just print?

Sean: I would say most are just in print, but they are learning to deploy their online advertising as well, coming along. There’s a lot of small advertisers in this area, we’re a pretty small staff, and ultimately, we need to work harder to bring them along online and I just don’t know how well suited we are to do that staff-wise just yet.

Pete: Find someone else that is as good of a customer as the development office and if you can find someone else who really wants to reach your target market then you could probably charge for that. Interesting stuff though.

Let me check my list here. I think I have a couple of generic questions for you. One is, what would you say your biggest challenge is in running an online magazine along side with the print magazine? Is there any one particular thing that gnaws at you, that you wish you could do better or handle better, or would be easier for you?

Sean: Well, there’s probably a lot of ways I could answer that question. I think to be very broad in my response, this is something I may have told you before, print is an environment where you work hard to get it right, polish it all up, do your production, and kick it off to the printer. Then you kick back, hope you’ve done everything, and everybody is happy with it.

Online, even if you’re not doing content every day, I’ve likened it…Basically, there’s an expression in print where you put the magazine to bed. Well, with online, that little baby is seemingly always crying or could wake up crying at a moment’s notice. In other words, you’ve got all the technical potential for server issues, a bad comment coming through, a click not working, or the chaos you’ve talked about.

I have learned after some 20, 30 years in the magazine business that you may send that print vehicle off to bed, but the web never sleeps.

Pete: [laughs] That’s a good way to to put it.

Sean: It’s the baby that even if you stick a bottle in its mouth then that’s not necessarily going to insure you a good night’s sleep.

You’re talking to someone who is maybe a print dinosaur who is learning all this stuff, but that’s a broad answer to your question. I think more specifically, it’s a steep learning curve for those of us who have not been immersed in the back end of a website.

With Word Press, I’ve had a little frustration in that Microsoft Word, the most common word processor out there and we all know it well, but Word Press just works a little bit differently in that back end. So just the learning curve of the technology and doing that.

Pete: Good answer, that’s interesting. On the flip side, what would you say your best experience or the best part of having an online publication? What’s really working for you online?

Sean: Well, I think that people are going there. People are going online and they are commenting. I’m sure that folks are commenting in a way that they wouldn’t if they sit down and write a letter. I think we’re a little more interactive, we get more feedback from the audience, and that’s been fulfilling.

Also, just the fact that we were late to join the online party and we finally did. I also enjoy the little experimentation we do, and we do want to ramp this up at some point, with driving traffic to the site through Facebook. We don’t employ twitter or too much social media and we’re not full time devoting our efforts to Facebook.

But Facebook is pretty neat and I like the way that you can drive traffic to your website through Facebook. I think there’s more potential there for us.

Pete: You started a Facebook page shortly after the online magazine started and I watched it for a little while. I think it grew very quickly in the beginning. I haven’t looked at it recently.

Sean: It did grow quickly and then it settled into this pattern over the last several years where we post a new issue, I put on Facebook, “Hey, here’s the new cover,” or I’ll put the cover up a week before we publish. Then we publish online, I put another thing up on Facebook, another post.

Every time I did that, every two months oh, we get a few new people. Now, it’s interesting in November, we were at about 800. Again, we haven’t done a lot to promote growth on Facebook, but we had about 800 people on the page.

It seems that we are getting more people each time we post and people coming there without us posting. We’re all of a sudden, and I know it’s slow growth, but over the last couple of months, it’s been much faster. We’re now close to 1,000.

I do think that if we were more frequent with Facebook, and we’re driving them to more unique things, those numbers would go way up. I think some day we will do that.

Pete: Do you send people to individual articles?

Sean: I have done a little bit of that. We don’t really have the time, but I have found that when we say the new issue’s up, people pay attention. When I have tried to drive people to specific articles, less so. I have learned that if you want to put something on Facebook to drive some web traffic, Friday afternoon probably isn’t the best time to do it. Mondays are good.

Without looking at what other people are doing, informally playing around, that’s what we’ve learned.

Pete: I read recently that Sunday afternoon is an excellent time to publish on the web, only because we’re gearing up for Monday. We’re more relaxed about it so we tend to absorb things and spend time on new things on Sundays. That’s an article I read recently. It seemed to make sense but I haven’t tested it.

Pete: No, it’s interesting, but Friday afternoons are definitely dead.

Sean: Yeah, right. [laughs]

Pete: I wonder why.

Sean: Last question. Future plans. Mobile…Anything new that you’re cooking up?

Pete: Our future plans are that we don’t have anything definite, but we would someday like to have more than just the magazine content going online. I envision a time when we are doing what we do now.

In addition to that, we are linking to more existing news about alums. We have a section in the magazine that talks about newsmakers in the alumni body. It barely scratches the surface of what we know about.

Aggregation is in our future. Some original content, of course. We have a small staff and I don’t see us really growing. I would like to have a much stronger social media element. I really see the potential with Facebook, for example. We should probably be tweeting. I’m not a huge Twitter person, but I can see some of the value there.

As far as mobile and whatnot, I would like to see a day where we have a responsive design, HTML 5. HTML 5, it seems, have not taken over the web yet. A big reason is because so sites are mired in previous iterations of HTML…

Pete: And browsers are not all compatible.

Sean: Yeah, and it’s a big leap. Now, you’ve got people like Time Magazine, The Boston Globe, that have done it and they are fantastic. In many ways, it eliminates the need for mobile apps and whatnot.

The other thing that I think is a potential, and this is the final thing, that I think will be a — and I’d love to see all these things come together and we’d have a real robust online presence, is we are in the process of beginning to think about digitizing our whole archive.

If we were able to pull that off, make it as searchable as something like the complete New Yorker or Rolling Stone, we are going to really open the floodgates, I think, in terms of our 58,000 readers.

If you graduated in the class of ’77, you’re going to be able to on there and see every class note that has appeared since ’77 and search for your grandfather and also see how everything new around here really isn’t. Also, it’ll be a great treasure trove for the editors here to mine for more content.

Pete: That would be fabulous. I think the HOP just did that or they’re in the process of doing that, pulling the decades of art and music archives…


Sean: College wide, I know the library is working, the digitizing and photos and documents. We’re not a high priority in terms of that effort. They’ve got a lot of academic stuff to deal with and college history. But we’ve been talking to some people who offer some interesting platforms for the digital archive and yeah, it’s where we need to go.

What I like about it is that we are late, maybe, getting this, but we haven’t fallen into the trap of spending a bunch of money on something that tomorrow is probably not needed, but holds you back from moving forward because of the money.

Pete: Waiting and learning, that’s smart.

Sean: Yeah.

Pete: One quick comment about curation, you talked about curation and taking the newsmakers that are out there and showing a little spotlight on them. That sounds like the perfect fit with your social media ID. In other words, if you — even just Facebook, just highlighting alumni that are out there doing things. You can do it through Facebook, you can do it through Twitter and LinkedIn and, of course, all those things.

But that curation is definitely a big push these days.

Sean: Well, curation is a very trendy word, I’m glad you said it before I did.

Pete: [laughs]

Sean: But yeah, that’s a big part of it and that’s part of doing the archives and also linking to new stories. But also making them so that there’s a history there. Yeah, no doubt.

Pete: Gets the conversation going, too. People like to talk about themselves.

Sean: Well they do, and there are things that we have that are kind of, that are traditional alumni magazine staples that we don’t do. We’re not going to run your blurry little postage stamp size photograph of your wedding party. We don’t do it. Send it to us, we’ll put it on Facebook, we’ll put it online.

I think that we have three things that I think could attract reader driven content and Pinterest comes in here, too. That is, your wedding, your babies, and your pets. I think those are three killer things that when people can start posting that stuff up…So, someday, who knows when, that’s my dream.

Pete: Yeah, sounds good. Well, thanks, Sean. Thanks for coming and sharing your wisdom with us and good luck to you in the future.

Sean: Thanks, I enjoyed it.

Pete: I’ll shake your hand now. [laughs]

Sean: Thanks.

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