Ditching the Class Note

At Duke Magazine, an evolution from formulaic announcements to storytelling focused on alumni.

June 6, 2017

Some years ago, the editor of Notre Dame’s alumni magazine shared a meaningful bit of correspondence—though its exact meaning was murky. The writer’s husband had recently died in bed while grasping the magazine. Did his blood pressure shoot up, with fatal consequences, because he was so angry at what he was reading? Or, are we meant to take comfort in the fact that he was absorbed in the work of alma mater, right up to the very end?

Whatever explanation we embrace around that tragic event, we know that alumni magazines are relationship-builders. At Duke Magazine, we find the same result from our regular readership surveys: The printed magazine remains the most powerful means by which alumni connect with the campus.

All of which brings us to that standard point of connection in the alumni magazine, the class note. We’ve all heard that class notes are the gateway to the alumni magazine. The question is, what are readers finding once they walk through that gateway? Are they reading stories they care about?

Over the years our class-notes section—which for us, came through self-submitted updates—grew to populate about a third of the magazine. And we’d get a steady stream of promotions and job changes via PR people—all those newly honored “Super Lawyers,” for example. But many of our most interesting alumni didn’t see submitting a class note as a particular priority.

So just a year ago we began a project to give the alumni section a sensibility that always drove the rest of the magazine: storytelling. It also comes down to having the editors exercise editorial judgment—to become curators.

The other aspect of the change was the introduction, around the same time, of Duke’s online alumni network. The tagline around the network is “Your Community of Infinite Possibility.” Within that community, the individual user can largely control the experience: He or she can shape his or her own online profile, and can filter by class year and other factors in seeking out fellow alumni. So the network helped provide a rationale for the disappearing, print-based class note—just as the disappearing class note would provide an incentive for alumni to latch onto the network.

In the magazine, what we would call our Forever Duke section became a story site with alumni as the central characters. An alumni profile, stretching for several pages, leads the section. Maybe a 1993 graduate, the CEO of Etsy, the online marketplace that trades in handcrafted and vintage goods. Or a 2007 graduate, an Olympic competitor in fencing. Or a 1995 graduate, the comedy chief for HBO.

From there we go a bit smaller, with alumni mini-profiles. A typical cluster might include the chief academic officer of West Point, a mental-illness researcher, and the inventor of Facebook’s “Like” button. Then, a bulletin-board listing of alumni newsmakers and a column, where the alumni director interviews a graduate. Even in the Q&A format, it’s story-based, with a focus on the graduate’s life trajectory and relationship with Duke. In much the same spirit, we hold to the storytelling imperative in showcasing the work of the alumni association—not through standard program reports, but rather through the voices of alumni talking about their experiences as alumni volunteers or as participants in some alumni event.

Part of the broad Duke story, of course, is that alumni feel they are part of a network (more and more, a virtual network). A spread we call “Doers Profile” delves into that network: It clusters alumni who share an endeavor, whether professional or avocational. In one issue, that endeavor was “Extreme Explorers.” They ranged from someone who discovered a new species of cave-dwelling bats, to someone studying conservation practices in Madagascar; and from a mountaineer who has climbed the highest peaks on every continent, to a scientist who has set a record for deep-sea diving.

Our Forever Duke section ends with the dead—but in a lively way. We provide a basic listing of recently deceased alumni: name, class year, residence, date of death. But we build those pages on storytelling around the lives they led. Maybe they headed the family business well into their nineties. Or served as science adviser to a U.S. president. Or dedicated themselves to bringing female writers into the literary canon.

For most readers, all of this seems to be a smart evolution. Our indicators of readership engagement remain high. Alumni regard the magazine as trustworthy, a good read, and a good avenue into campus.

We do hear gripes about the absence of class notes. One reader reports hurling the magazine into the garbage because of that missing element—he’s too fired up even to recycle. But those complaints, if intense, are isolated, and they’ve hardly caused panic among our alumni-affairs and development colleagues. Readers now realize that they have more opportunities for mention. And in turn we have more places and more formats for telling their stories. The result is both less and more: Less formulaic, abbreviated, dated, and often inconsequential information. More stories.

Robert J. Bliwise is editor of Duke Magazine and teaches magazine journalism at Duke University.


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