How to Start a College Magazine, Part Four: Survival and Growth

This is the last article in a four-part series on starting a college magazine, written by the former Chairman of the Yale Record, America’s oldest humor magazine. There’s a lot of information here; pick and choose whatever seems helpful. 

 

In the first three parts of this series, I gave advice about starting a publication, recruiting writers and other staff, and putting together your first few issues.

This is the cleanup post, where I talk about everything else. It will make more sense if you read the other posts first. Topics covered include:

  • Publicizing your work
  • Funding the publication
  • Selling advertisements
  • Staying out of trouble
  • Preserving your history

 

Find Readers, Get Famous

You’ve published an issue! Congratulations.

Now what?

The most obvious follow-up is distribution. You should know where people tend to pick up publications: Dining halls and other common areas are safe bets. But you should also consider:

  • Libraries
  • Classroom buildings
  • Local coffee shops and restaurants (ask permission first; most people won’t mind)
  • Dorm rooms
    • By which I mean, the rooms of your subscribers. You can advertise your publication on Facebook and set up a Google Form where people can sign up to get the new issues. If someone’s asked you to deliver an issue to their door, they’ll probably read it.
    • This can also be done digitally (see below), though getting someone to read an online magazine is harder than getting them to read something you slid under their door.
  • Email
    • Sending someone a digital copy of your magazine is free.
    • Add a subscription box to your website, or even just an email address people can use to subscribe.
    • Seriously, email is freeSend one whenever you publish an issue, host s speaker on campus, post a video on YouTube, etc.
    • MailChimp lets you do this in a nice format and easily track how many people read your emails. The Yale Record uses MailChimp for biweekly newsletters. It’s a great service.

 

Some college publications print an issue once in a while, distribute copies, and stay quiet until the next issue. That’s fine. But if you want to recruit a large staff and increase your readership, you should go beyond that.

Here are some things I’ve seen publications do to reach a wider audience:

Publish extra content online. If you put something new on your website on a regular schedule (daily or weekly), and publicize that content as it appears, you’ll start to get regular readers who stop by knowing they’ll see something new. You can also create online

Get active on social media. The second your first issue comes out (or even before), make a Facebook page. Post often. Having extra online content helps with this, but you can also share news stories or tell jokes or do anything else that fits your vibe. The Record found a thousand new readers when we created a Facebook page for parody photos and fake “overheard” conversations, and it only takes us an hour or two a month to keep the page going.

Outside of Facebook, do whatever you have time for. Some college publications have massive Twitter followings. Others are probably on Pinterest or something. Try new things when you can, and abandon social accounts that aren’t working. Spend your energy where you get the most readers for your investment.

Organize events and happenings. You don’t just have to be a “student publication”. If you have enough people and energy, you can be a full-fledged student organization that does all sorts of things:

  • Do you publish music reviews? Host a listening party for an album you liked, or a silent disco that starts in the middle of the night.
  • Do you publish comedy? Organize an open mic night for student stand-up, or pull a (safe, respectful) prank that the campus will remember for years
  • Do you publish serious journalism? Invite a writer to speak on campus (you can get funding for this from your college), or host a debate on a hot topic in the news (perhaps between two rival professors).

Don’t bite off more than you can chew, of course. If you want to start a publication, make sure the publication comes first. But don’t be afraid to do something that falls outside the realm of “publishing”. After all, college is a place to experiment.

For some more context on this, here’s a quick, non-comprehensive list of what The Record does when we aren’t printing magazines:

  • The Cucumber (four-times-a-year standup show, performed by a mix of staffers and non-staffers, with 50-60 attendees per show)
  • Videos (this one got Chipotle’s attention on Twitter)
  • Pranks (e.g. distributing a fake edition of the student newspaper)
  • Speaker events (webcomic artists, TV writers, and anyone else we could convince to show up on campus)

 

Pay the Printer

Publications don’t grow on trees. (They’re made of trees, but you know what I mean.)

If you want to print a few hundred copies of a magazine each month, you should expect to pay between $0.50 and $2.00 per issue. If you print four issues per year, that’ll be $1000 or more. You may also end up funding release parties for new issues, or pizza for staff gatherings.

Where are you going to get that much money?

Here are some ideas, all of which I’ve seen tried by a publication I worked for at one time or another:

Only publish online. This isn’t an ideal solution, since the most devoted readers of college publications are students trapped in a dining hall with nothing else to do. But it certainly is cheap — you’ll pay $150 or less each year for web hosting, and you might even be able to get free hosting from your college, as long as you keep the format simple (e.g. a few static pages and a PDF download for each issue).

This is also a great way to find out whether people will actually care about your publication. If you put up a website and share links and no one seems to notice, you might want to tweak your content before you spend $500 on your first print run. I always recommend putting some content online before you print your first issue.

Pay for it yourself. If you and five friends want to start a magazine, it might cost $150-200 per person to publish. That’s not cheap, but if you all have student jobs (or generous parents), you might be able to fund the printing yourselves. You can also try having new staffers “pledge” to the magazine, paying a small portion of the printing costs when they join.

I don’t love this option. If the founders/staffers have different financial backgrounds, figuring out who pays for what could create tension. And a pledge fee will discourage new members (or make them angry, if you aren’t up-front about it). On the other hand, many other college organizations — frats, for example — use pledge fees. And being a founding member of a publication will be worth the money if you learn a lot in the process.

Print very cheaply. The Yale Record prints on thick paper with full-color card-stock covers. It looks great, and it lasts forever, but it also costs $1.80 an issue. If you pick newsprint instead, or print and staple the publication yourself, you’ll save a lot of money.

The downside of a cheap publication is that it will also be a cheap-looking publication. You might not get many readers if your black-and-white covers fail to catch the eye  — but it’s up to your staff to figure out the balancing point. And sometimes a publication looks better cheap. Yale’s Broad Recognition releases “zines” on folded sheets of paper stapled together, and that feels totally natural given the history of the zine.

Find outside funding. This could be anything from local businesses to your own college. Many colleges give out grants to student organizations; this usually won’t cover a year’s printing, but it helps a lot. Sometimes, a college will pay publications to advertise upcoming events or the class ring sale. If you see ads like this in your college paper, try reaching out to the people who placed them. Offer to beat the paper’s price, or to reach a different audience. Same goes for businesses.

Advertising is the most common source of funds for student publications I know of — but it comes with a lot of risk. You need to spend time collecting money, get signed contracts, and be prepared to deal with business owners who won’t answer the phone. You’re also under a lot more pressure to publish on time: It’s very embarrassing to print two weeks after Halloween when you have a back-cover ad from the local costume shop.

But keeping this in mind, there’s a good chance you’ll need to get advertising. Here’s what you need to know:

 

Selling Out: Finding Advertisers for Fun and Profit

Some college students love selling ads to businesses. I’ve never met one. But I’ve sold my share of ads nonetheless, and I’ve learned a little in the process.

Ideally, you’ll start finding advertisers well before your first issue: It normally takes a few weeks and two or three conversations to decide on a price, get a contract signed, and get your hands on the ad design.

You should start by making a list of businesses to contact. Unless you’re in a small college town, you won’t have the time to ask everyone. Signs that a business might be interested include:

Advertising. …yeah. If a business has ads in the school paper, or staples flyers to telephone poles, or shows up in the ad box on Yelp, they clearly care about reaching customers. Students are customers. And it’s nice to start a conversation with: “I saw your ad in [place]. We can help you [advertise better than you did with that last ad].”

Popularity. You’d think that the place everyone goes for dinner wouldn’t need to advertise, but they often do. Sometimes it’s because a business owner is grateful to students for their business, and wants to show their support for student endeavors. Take advantage of this.

Newness. When the fourth coffee shop opens in your town, they’ll be looking for ways to snag an advantage over their competitors. These businesses are often cash-strapped, but if the owner is already investing $500,000+ on real estate and equipment, what’s another $200 for advertising in the well-known College Name Publication Name?

 

I can’t go into a ton of detail on ad sales (contact me if you have specific questions). You could fill an entire library with books about selling stuff. But these are some very simple steps that many publications overlook:

Write helpful documents. Have a piece of paper you can leave with a business owner that will tell them everything they need to know about your publication: The size of your print run, the cost of your ads, the dates that you print, and the things that make you superior to other advertising. You should also have an official-looking contract document: No need to consult a lawyer, but make it look nice.

Go prepared. When you walk into a meeting with a business owner, you want to look like someone they can trust. Dress business-casual, show up on time, carry a folder with your helpful documents, and be ready for the obvious questions: “How much?” “How many readers?” “Why will this help me?”

Document everything. When I was Publisher of The Record, we had a dozen different advertisers in any given issue. Every month, I had to collect money from a lot of places, deliver issues as proof that we printed the ads, and renew ads when contracts were up. I’d have been totally lost without two things: A spreadsheet with comprehensive data on every ad sold, and a folder full of signed contracts. That folder helped us recover money from more than one business that “forgot” they’d purchased advertising. Don’t leave home without it.

* * * * *

By the way, most of this also applies to college events and whatnot. You’d be surprised at how many different ways your college advertises: Departments advertise classes, theaters advertise plays, and well-funded Last Name Institutes advertise people who give speeches in the Last Name Auditorium.

 

Remember Your History

College organizations go through a complete staff turnover every 4-6 years. This is ruinous for institutional memory: Every new editorial board has to relearn the basics and remake the same mistakes, over and over again…

…or do they? You’re just starting a publication, but if you want it to last for more than a few years, you’ll want to start building its history. What that means:

  • Keep careful minutes for every staff/board meeting, and save those minutes in a cloud-storage account you can pass along to each new board.
  • Whenever you learn something interesting or make a mistake, put it in a “Tips and Tricks” document you can keep in the same folder.
  • You know that folder we’ve been talking about? You should also use it to store a PDF copy of every issue you print. (It’s also nice to keep a box with a physical copy of every issue.)

 

Stay Out of Trouble

Publishing is risky. If you print enough issues, you’ll probably print something that makes someone mad. Steps you can take to stay safe:

Stick to the facts. If your publication isn’t explicitly humorous or otherwise fictional, don’t write anything about a real person that can’t be proven. This includes everything from random gossip to accusations of criminal behavior.

Be nice. You can absolutely criticize things that ought to be criticized, from administrative policy to lousy acting in a student play. But remember that everyone you write about is a human being. They feel emotion, fall in love, and suffer. Most of the time, they’re probably trying their best to be a good person. Publish stories that acknowledge all this. Offer constructive feedback, give praise where praise is due, and you’ll end up with more friends than enemies.

Get a second opinion. If you’re about to publish something controversial — a joke that might be offensive, an editorial attacking something most students believe — have a friend read it who isn’t involved with your publication. Preferably more than one friend. When you’ve worked hard on something, it’s easy to forget about risk, and someone disconnected from your publication is more likely to spot problems.

Also, just in case you publish something really controversial, brush up on the legal meanings of slander and libel.

Finally: If you’re in the U.S., free speech is your friend. The administration can get mad at you, and they can take away your funding, but they can’t stop you from printing. If they try to do so — or threaten you in some other way — you have allies.

 

Thanks for reading until the end! And good luck with your magazine. It will be difficult, but you’ll learn a lot. Please do contact me if you have questions.

5 thoughts on “How to Start a College Magazine, Part Four: Survival and Growth

  1. Pingback: How to Start a College Magazine, Part One: Ground Rules and Structure - Alpha Gamma

  2. Pingback: How to Start a College Magazine, Part Three: Building the Publication - Alpha Gamma

  3. Pingback: How to Start a College Magazine, Part Two: Recruitment and Staffing - Alpha Gamma

  4. I have an issue regarding the funding of publications. Our primary source of fund is to deduct a certain fee from departmental dues payed by students annually. Would it be alright to then sell these magazines or just distribute them for free?

    “Some college publications print an issue once in a while, *distribute copies*, and stay quiet until the next issue.”
    By Distribute copies, do you mean give to the students for free?

    Thanks for this great piece once again.

    • Almost all college publications, at least in the United States, distribute copies for free, since students are generally reluctant to pay for almost any publication (especially those written by “amateurs”). At The Record, we occasionally considered starting a “subscription service” where we’d deliver magazines to dorm rooms or apartments for a small fee, but I don’t think that would have worked even if we’d tried it.

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