Damn the Alumni, Full speed ahead!

June 25, 2008

Alumni affairs veep Donna Thornton today distributed a dense, three-page memo to class correspondents — who, yes!, get to keep that title, not the much loathed “class contributor” moniker which they had been told would be theirs — and first reaction from one reader was: Damn the alumni, full speed ahead!

Other than apparently infringing on the copyright of the New York Times (we hope we are wrong –more on that possible infringement momentarily), Thornton offered little that is new:

* She apologized for ignoring Rutgers alum input while this gaggle of UMass and Maine graduates in the RU alumni relations office revamped our alumni communications: “We should have communicated with you much earlier about the challenges and ideas we were contemplating and included you in the process. We regret that this left you feeling unappreciated and caught you by surprise.”

* She said buck up, dudes, we still insist on a maximum 200 wd. contribution.

* She backed off, maybe, the policy of printing only some columns in Rutgers magazine: “In the immediate future, we will explore a formula that allows every class to be in every issue as well as maximizes the online capabilities of our more internet savvy graduates. All class columns will be published in the Fall 2008 issue.” Note: there is no promise beyond the next issue.

* “Your title will continue to be Class Correspondent. This title has a long tradition at Rutgers and will continue to serve you and Rutgers well.” Funny that it took a mini-revolt to get an obvious point across but perhaps Mainers just are, well, different.

* In the cover note to her lengthy message, Thornton writes: “You will also receive a copy of this letter in the US mail along with a printed copy of the New York Times article I reference in the letter.” The New York Times article is here — but, Ms. Thornton, making hundreds of photocopies of intellectual property owned by the Times is a violation of rights. We trust — we hope, we pray — you have secured and paid for distribution rights, available by clicking on the “reprint” tab on the article page. (Linking to the article is not a copyright problem. Printing it and mailing it in bulk is.)  We mention all this because a remarkable cluelessness about publishing seems baked into the Rutgers alumni relations approach.

* Boil down Thornton’s turgid, murky miasma of prose and what she seems to be saying is –we don’t really know what we are doing, bear with us, we may figure it out.

* Lucky class correspondents can expect to receive much more of the same: “In the future, we will diligently communicate with you and engage you in a dialogue on items pertaining to the evolution of the Class Notes section in Rutgers Magazine and in the online community.”


Reinventing Rutgers Magazine, More

June 22, 2008

Let’s be honest: Rutgers Magazine is a sprawling, chaotic, uninviting mess, clearly architected by people who are clueless about how to make a print publication work in an era of ezines, interactivity and social media. We do not happen to believe that print is dead — but we also believe that publications like Rutgers Magazine are hastening the death of print because this is stuff that no one wants to read.

Question: were alums consulted on what they want to read? We don’t know anybody who was asked.

Question: why have class correspondents been so brutally, thoughtless relegated to the dustbin?

Question: is there really no paid advertising in Spring 2008 issue — and if advertisers are this scornful, why kill trees to print this boring pablum?

Question: why is the high-priced brain trust assembled by university president Dick McCormick so wretchedly incompetent?

We don’t know the answers, but here we provide a crib sheet that points to a better future — a memo from MIT’s “Technology Review” editor to that school’s alums. Technology Review is a first-rate magazine with a significant readership outside MIT (MIT alums get a version with an alumni notes insert). It also is put together by big-brained innovators and what they are doing is reducing print frequency, putting more material on the Web, but they say they will keep running alumni notes in the alumni version…because, duh, that is why alums crack open these pubs. Do you think Rutgers VP Donna Thornton opens her University of Maine alumni publication without first heading to the class notes? We imagine Anthony Guido, director of Rutgers alumni comunications, does much the same when his UMass alumni magazine arrives. Brian Perillo, assistant vice president, alumni relations, also probably does the same with his UMass magazine.

Far as we can tell, the editor of Rutgers Magazine, David W. Major is not a Rutgers graduate either. Good thing, we suppose, that the publication’s name was changed some years ago from the Rutgers Alumni Magazine.

Our advice to the folks tinkering with Rutgers Magazine is stop thinking, it’s not your forte, just steal MIT’s ideas…and, while you are at it, start asking real Rutgers alums what we want in our magazine.

Reinventing Rutgers Magazine

June 20, 2008

Memo to Donna Thornton:

Rutgers Magazine soon moves to a free for all circulation – multiplying distribution to all alums, in a move we support – and, supposedly, the need to cut costs is partly what motivated Rutgers vice president Donna Thornton and her gaggle in Alumni Relations to trim printed Class Notes (putting the bulk of them online, at essentially no cost). We have a better idea. Put out a slimmed down, tight magazine that hacks away the inert and superfluous and you’ll have saved all the money you need to, with no change in how class notes are handled.

Case in point is the Spring 2008 issue, only 88 pages, plus covers – but at least 15% is absolutely wasted space filled with stultifying material. We asked New York editorial professionals to recommend what to cut from the magazine and there was no shortage of possibilities.

Nobody suggested cutting class notes – which run from roughly page 57 through 87 (hard to pinpoint exactly because the editorial grid is about as organized as traffic in Bangalore, India). That content is all many alums read. Trimming it back makes absolutely no sense.

But there is much to cut:

· *     * The spread photo on the inside front cover and page 1. (A similar photo is on page 15.) (2 pages saved)

· * * The entire feature, “I Do at RU,” pages 46-49. Just boring. (6 pages saved, total)

* Editor letter, 1 column, p. 4 (6-1/3 pages saved, total). Editor letters are low-cost “facing edit” for ad sales purposes…but when you sell so few ads you don’t need facing edit. Duh.

·* * “The Gender of Politics,” p. 8, one-half page. No RU relevance. (6-5/6 pages saved. Total.)

· *        * Misc. “Insights” – just cut pp. 32-35, boring boring. (10-5/6 pages saved, total).

· * * “Rutgers 24/7,” pp. 42-45. Pointless filler. (14-5/6 pages saved, total.)

Right there we’ve slashed roughly 1/6th of the pagination – saving 1/6th of the budget – with no loss in quality or readership.

We could fine-tune this and easily cut another 5-1/6 pages (bringing the total to 20 pp cut).

Just ask any magazine professional. The current Rutgers Magazine is flatulent, poorly edited. Tighten it up and there will be ample room for extended class notes in print – which, as we said, is about all anybody reads in the magazine anyway.

Rutgers Alumni Relations in Turmoil

June 18, 2008

Vividly proving yet again that it is clueless about alumni sensitivities and concerns, the McCormick Administration in the past month has managed to alienate essentially the entirely compliment of class correspondents — the volunteers who file class notes blurbs for the alumni magazine, say sources who have forwarded literally hundreds of emails protesting planned changes to the magazine that apparently were dictated from on high, with little consultation and no real advance warning for alums. Many class correspondents have resigned, more say they will quit, and so far all they have gotten from Rutgers vice president, alumni relations Donna Thornton is a whole lot of mumbling and vague promises that maybe things will get better, report our sources.

That’s in between Thornton making scolding, chiding phone calls to alums who apparently have ruffled her delicate feathers by screaming foul about this whole process. Thornton of course is another of McCormick’s high-priced hires, so let’s mull on how she is performing.

Flashback to May 27. That is when a memo went out from one Lori Varga, assistant alumni editor, to the class contributors — and indeed the memo detailed that their titles would change (no explanation given in a stroke that is pure Dilbert) from class correspondent to the much disliked “class contributor.”

Then things got worse. Class contributors were ordered to file 200 word contributions that follow a rigid format (“Think of your Class Column as a personal essay about a topic of interest to your class,” stipulated the memo). Worse: they were told that only a maximum of 24 class columns would actually run in the magazine. The rejects will be relegated to a website (which of course puts older alums who may not be ‘Net savvy at a sharp disadvantage — but that wasn’t considered, apparently).

Keeping in mind that this means dozens of class columns would be put on the Web, with little or no readership, the memo breezily presented this decision as engraved in stone, no comments invited. “For each edition of Rutgers Magazine, we will choose up to 24 Class Columns for the print magazine and publish the remaining columns in a special section of our Alumni Relations website.”

Even so, all of this might have been acceptable to the class contributors — barely — but what apparently pushed many over the brink was a pervasive high-handedness evidenced by magazine staff and vice president Thornton.

As one longtime class correspondent wrote in an email: “It is difficult enough to come up with material for class columns under the old format. Trying to come up with a ‘subject of interest’ for the class and then maybe see it printed == guess I really don’t have time to play that game.”

As another alum said about the Varga memo: “Basically she tried to treat all of [class correspondents] like stringers for the Star tabloid — ‘get the meat in that story or we will not run it! You won’t get paid!’ Except of course [they] are volunteers who fight an uphill battle squeezing info out of mute classmates.

Remember, class correspondents are indeed volunteers, who serve the university out of an abiding affection for their time on the banks. They do not deserved to be pushed around and disregarded — but apparently in the new math of the McCormick administration alumni really just do not matter. That is indeed curious, what with state contributions to the budget dwindling, but the problem with alums, from McCormick’s perspective, is that too many just are obstreperous and cantankerous…so off with their heads, kill their columns, silence the lot.

But many alums are telling us that this year they will keep their wallets shut when Rutgers come calling in its annual fundraising appeal. Maybe that gives them the last laugh, as McCormick-Thornton and the rest of the Old Queens mandarins fiddle as Rutgers plummets yet deeper into disrepair and academic disrepute.