Keeping it real with Brian Doyle, editor of the award-winning “Portland Magazine”Posted: February 10, 2011
Under Brian’s leadership, Portland Magazine received the 2005 Shibley Award as the best university magazine in North America and has racked up additional CASE awards over the years. It presents a deft mixture of thought-provoking stories, photo spreads, and essays that inspire non-alumni like me to pony up each year and make a donation, just so we can get the magazine.
(Read an archive of some of the best articles and features in Portland Magazine from the UP website).
I interviewed Brian about how and why he does what he does. His answers could be considered a treatise on how to make sure your university / college magazine stays innovative and relevant.Brian, describe the process you take as editor to come up with your themes and stories, particularly in light of the University of Portland positioning itself as Oregon’s Catholic university?
Listening, reading, asking, wheedling, plotting. Ask a million questions. What are the priorities of the fundraisers and how can I make those targets into wild ideas for stories and photos and paintings? What crazily creative things have alumni and students done? what are we obsessed with as a community.
For example, in recent years we have become totally absorbed by clean water and its holiness and the river and engineering and inventing things to foment clean water. But the biggest ideas, in which we try to swim, are ideas with endless permutations here – grace, pain, joy, prayer, courage, violence, greed, lies, miracles, etc. I read lots of grant proposals, I talk to faculty not about what they are good at but about what they love, often two different things.
You can never get to the end of great teachers talking about great teaching. You can never get to the end of the great stories inherent in scholarships and where they came from and to whom to go. You can never run enough glorious full intent amused stunning faces. You can never run enough amazing photos from the past. You can never collect enough stories about momentous moments. You can never have enough conversations with great writers about what work they are on and how I can steal some of it. The secret to a great magazine maybe is listening like a madman and then choosing the best.
What university / college magazines do you admire and why?
North Dakota State University – the most subtlety beautiful, understated, intelligently composed magazine in our business, and they have about eleven cents. A model of what you can do with a lot of creativity and not much cash. The other magazine in this class to me is Puget Sound, which has a lovely fun mix of story and design that just makes you moan. Again a magazine without much cash, but just made with dash and wit and color.
Brown, Notre Dame, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, Penn State, Yale, Hopkins – intelligent, cover their bases deftly – model “alumni magazines”. Boston College – superb writing and editing, writing occasionally off the charts. Pomona, Carleton – superb examples of how a magazine can make you drool to be in their communities
Oregon, Washington – always nuggets of great price inside – cannot ignore them.
Who helps you hone our own writing (the editor’s editor, as it were)?
Heh heh heh – it’s tempting to say no one, for I have been very fairly accused of vast elephantine sentences, and “passionate overwriting,” a phrase I loved then and still do, and semicolon-addiction, and wild silliness, and etc., but I guess the answer is other editors. Almost always my pieces, when edited with care, have been improved. The exceptions stay with me, of course, but it would be a mule of a man who thinks he cannot be edited to his own benefit.
What trends in the university publishing industry make you jump for joy and which ones make you want to slap your forehead?
Delighted by the tide of new tools and toys – some of which are fascinating new windows (youtube clips, video snips, sending bits of the magazine to lots more people than I can send the paper magazine to, printing bits that you can scan with phones) and some are silly (twitter). Any new ways I can reach and startle people, I like that.
As for head slapping, I continue to be amazed that (a) so many administrators settle for or require mere newsletters with covers, which seems like a terrible waste of money and creativity to me, and (b) I sigh at the number of magazine trimming pages and issues or being canceled altogether.
Magazines are a glorious and effective genre unlike any other, and they lend themselves beautifully to selling universities, which is what we do. In the end I am a sales and advertising guy, recruiting money to my employer, but I am allowed to do that with dash and brass, in a form that no other genre can match for playfulness and substance both.
When you say “mere newsletters with covers,” do you see newsletters as lesser vehicles or somehow incomplete? Or is it a matter of trying to dress up something that is essentially narrow and make it seem like something broad?
Lesser than magazines, yes – they are useful things, newsletters, but that’s all. Magazines are much bigger cars. But I also mean that a lot of what is sold as magazine in our field is only a newsletter, I think. There are a lot of “magazines” that just provide news and fact and spin, which is useful, but not the best use of the medium, I think. And more and more electronic newsletters are probably more effective not only cost-wise but because they give you chances to open other windows, to donate on the spot, etc.
In some ways, it takes some faith that a magazine with depth that isn’t littered with strategic talking points or blatant profiles of wealthy donors and the like can still accomplish the overarching goal of raising money for the campus by giving readers a reason to care and engage with the college / university. This also gets back to the “ownership” question. Who do you report to?
I report to the marketing director, who reports to the vice president for university relations (alumni, development, marketing, events), who reports to the president, who reports to the Lord of the Starfields, but my supervisors get it that a challenging, fascinating, funny, burbling, odd, unusual, stimulating, provoking, startling, riveting journal of ideas and debate and stories is the best business for us as a corporate entity.
We want to do more than provide news, which people can get in any number of ways – letters, emails, web, e-newsletters, newsletters, brochures, news releases, Twitter, Facebook, etc., and in my view and my experience every suggestion like the ones you get, which I get also, can be turned into a much more interesting story than the mere news item.
To report that someone has donated their beach cabin to the college is a news note – to pull that thread and discover that people can and have donated boats, houses, paintings, cars, fur coats, jewelry, wine, tires, jam, timberland, free rents, plane fares, an airplane, horses, cows, etc – that’s a fun story, with a much bigger sense of how the college welcomes every sort of gift large and small.
The fact that trustee X was named CEO of X is a line in class notes – the fact that she now is responsible for employees who collectively have 50,000 children begins to be a story about business as community, responsibility, creativity, even love in action, maybe. See what I mean? A magazine gooses facts and catches the stories that fall out, something like that.
Some college presidents / Advancement VPs / Marketing Directors etc. would be aghast at the thought of their institutional magazine actually upsetting readers, lest it strain donor relations. However, I think what makes Portland Magazine so well regarded and relevant is its willingness to be daring and thought-provoking and honest while also being unabashedly proud of the university. How do get away with this?
Jeez, how do you not? People are not stupid. My readers are intelligent, skeptical citizens of the world. If we only handed them happy fluff and newsletter material, they wouldn’t read it, and I couldn’t blame them – what a waste of money and time that would be. But a magazine that challenges, debates, laughs, causes to weep, causes thought, provokes, infuriates – isn’t that what college education is about?
We talk bluntly about moral stuff, war and peace and sin and greed and violence and mercy, not because we are a catholic university magazine so much as because we are trying to have a roaring adult conversation about stuff that matters in readers’ lives. Reunion and donations are lovely – huge ideas are deep food, and I want to be the magazine that provides the best and deepest food.
We compete against TV, books, web, papers, DVDs, church, political parties, etc for attention and respect and communion. We had damn sell better bring real meat to the table, or else be ignored. It’s just good business, in the end – why not make a magazine that gives our readers something – story, flavor, character, ideas, etc – they cannot get elsewhere? Why not make the University a continual source of interest and commitment? Why else have a freaking magazine at all?