Want help starting a magazine?
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This is the first article in a four-part series on starting a college magazine, written by the Chairman of the Yale Record, America’s oldest humor magazine. There’s a lot of information here; pick and choose whatever seems helpful.
As the chairman of the Yale Record, and the person whose email is connected to this web page, I get requests from students around the world to advise them on college magazine projects.
I looked around the internet to find resources on this, but most of them were written at least a decade ago, or applied only to newspapers, rather than the humor magazines/fashion blogs/scholarly journals people were asking me about. So I decided to write a series of posts explaining most of what I know about college publications.
This is part one of the guide, which deals with “ground rules”: things you should do, or think about, before you start writing and recruiting.
For part two, which deals with building a staff, click here. For part three, which deals with creating content, click here. For part four, which discusses growing your publication after you start producing material, click here.
I’ve worked on over a dozen publications at Yale, ranging from blogs to newspapers to magazines. Some of those publications were over a century old; others had been created within the last month. I’ve also edited four publications, and I’ve done just about every job there is for the Record, from selling advertisements to working on the website.
In addition, I’ve been lucky enough to work with older mentors who have decades of collective wisdom on building excellent college publications. I’d especially like to thank Michael Gerber, who saved a struggling Yale Record from total collapse in the 1980s.
Who should use this guide?
The people to whom this advice most closely applies are college students starting magazines and other publications (including blogs with many writers).
The guide might also be helpful to high school students, and to non-students trying to start small (circulation 5,000 or fewer) publications in their own towns or online communities.
Are You Sure?
First things first:
Are you sure you want to start your own publication?
Starting a newspaper or magazine is a sizable endeavor, and most new college magazines fail within a few years. There are many alternatives, some of which might be better ways to get what you want.
For example, you could:
Start a blog. Blogs are free (or very cheap, if you’d like to buy your own domain), and much less complicated to run than a bona fide magazine. Plenty of great publications are only available online, and articles published online are much easier for publishers and authors to share with the world. WordPress is a beautiful platform, easy to set up, and powerful enough to do almost anything you could want.
Publish a one-time project. If you’re interested in the publishing process itself, or in doing something with printed material that can’t be done through a blog, consider just printing a single “issue” without expecting to print more. If that single issue is hugely popular, then it’s much more likely that starting a publication is a good idea.
Talk to an existing publication. You might be able to partner with another publication at your school to produce something new. For example, if you like art, culture, and humor, and your campus just has a single serious newspaper, you could ask the editors about starting up a “weekend” section that publishes lighter content. This gives you access to the publication’s resources and experience, without stopping you from contributing ideas and brainpower.
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Still want to try this? It won’t be easy. Think about it for a second.
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Starting a publication could be the most rewarding thing you’ll do as a student. College publications have launched the careers of hundreds of distinguished writers, and they’ve been a source of deep friendship and camaraderie for over a century. By starting something, you’re taking the initiative to become part of a grand tradition, and for that, I salute you.
Before You Start
Once you’re sure you actually want to start a publication, there are a few more steps you should take.
Get to know your campus publication scene. Whether your college has one newspaper or an entire newsstand’s worth of publications, reading what students are publishing will give you a sense for what kinds of writing your college still needs. If you’ve got three different newspapers but no literary magazine, there will be legions of students waiting to publish fiction if you give them the chance. If a quarter of the campus majors in Visual Arts, but there’s no established art magazine, you’re already off to a promising start. And so on.
Find money. You’ll need it to print copies, if you plan on printing copies. Some strategies that might work: Advertisements for local businesses and school events, grants from local or national foundations, money directly from your college, small contributions from each staff member, fundraising events, etc.
The Record makes most of its money from advertising, with small amounts coming in from Yale’s student activities committee and from alumni donors. Other Yale publications make money in very different ways. If you’re sure you want to print physical copies, take whatever you can get.
Talk to professors. If your college offers a Journalism major, that’s a perfect place to start, but English and Communications professors are also a good bet. Many good things can happen as a result of these conversations: Your club could get a new faculty adviser, you could learn about a grant you can apply for, and you might even get connected to other students on campus who also want to start a publication (co-founders make life much easier).
Prepare your technology. You don’t have to be a programming/design expert, but you should at least have working knowledge of the technology that is going into your publication. Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll need:
- Word processing/editing software: There’s really no good reason to use Microsoft Word instead of Google Docs. You, the editor-in-chief/president, should be able to see every piece as it is being edited and leave comments of your own. But don’t force writers to share unfinished pieces — first drafts are early enough for you to go in and see the writer’s progress.
- Design software: InDesign is the standard here, but it’s expensive ($240/year from Adobe, even with a student discount). Here’s a list of free/cheap alternatives; Scribus is the best-liked of these, from what I’ve heard.
- Photo-editing software: Photoshop is obviously the standard here, but GIMP is free and does basically the same things in a similar fashion. I’d stick with GIMP unless your school has Photoshop access already.
- Online hosting: WordPress is so good that other options probably don’t make much sense, unless you’re looking for an extremely quick-to-learn alternative like Tumblr. WordPress.com is easy to use and free, but a self-hosted WordPress.org website will make it easier to change the design, speed up page loading, and so on. (Web hosting will cost about $50/year at a place like Siteground, the web host I use.) Here’s a good article on creating a WordPress.org site; there are hundreds of others out there.
Write sample articles. Before investing huge amounts of energy into a full publication, or trying to recruit staff with nothing but promises, write some content yourself, or get some friends to do it. Then, design a front page or sample blog showing off the articles you have. This way, you can show interested students exactly what they’ll be working on, while proving that you are a serious founder.
Establish Your Brand
What kind of publication would you like to start? (If you already know, you can skip this section!)
If you don’t have something specific in mind, you may want to consider some combination of the following formats. I’ve included one Yale example for each, so you can see how the style works on a college level:
News. Daily, weekly, or hourly updates on what is happening around campus, around town, or around the world. Plus, opinion pieces! Think: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Yale Daily News.
Alt-weekly/culture. Focuses on less traditionally “journalistic” news stories, plus lots of writing about the local art scene, plus reviews of movies, music, TV shows, and books. Think: The Village Voice, Pitchfork, The Yale Herald.
Long-form journalism. Stories that delve more deeply into the issues of the day than an average newspaper can. Might also include travelogues, essays, reviews, and interviews with public figures and other newsmakers. Think: Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Yale New Journal.
Creative work. Short stories, excerpts of longer stories, poetry, creative nonfiction (personal essays, philosophy), interviews with writers and artists, and perhaps illustrations and other works of art. Think: Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Yale Literary Magazine.
Humor. Parodies of other media. Jokes, lists, and stories. Fake news headlines and interviews. Satirical videos. Bizarre tweets. Think: The Onion, McSweeney’s, The Yale Record.
Art and photography. Yes, you guessed it: Art and photography. Probably also some words about the art and photography. Think: Metropolis Magazine, Surface, The Yale Obscura.
There are plenty of other styles and topics besides these, of course, and there’s no reason a publication has to fall into any particular genre “box”. If I were starting a new publication, I’d publish anything awesome I could find, whether it was an article, an essay, or a painting.
Bonus: Three Rules for an Awesome Publication
Whenever you’re faced with a tough decision, or feel a lack of direction, these rules can show you the way. I’ve been in many situations where using them would have made a positive difference for the magazine in question.
Try Lots of Things. You’re starting a new publication, which means you aren’t bound by lots of old-fashioned rules or traditions. Whenever you get an idea that might be good, you should try it and see what happens. In the worst-case scenario, it doesn’t work, and you never have to do it again. In the best-case scenario, it becomes something you can do over and over again. (For example, the Record started making videos a few years ago, and those wound up reaching people who never read our magazine.)
Learn from the Best. There are thousands of college publications out there. Here, for example, are one hundred of the best college newspapers. Read these kinds of publications. Study those which most appeal to you — including, of course, newspapers and magazines and blogs written by skilled professionals. My favorite place to find great writing is Longform, but you probably have your own favorites. Learn from them. Also, you should ask everyone on your staff to read On Writing Well, the best book ever written about writing.
Do Something Original. Even though you’re learning from the best, there’s not much point to starting a publication that slavishly imitates other newspapers and magazines. You should have an overarching and original purpose when you start out: Telling stories no one else has, giving attention to little-known subjects, speaking truth to power, or simply bringing laughter to a place that takes itself too seriously. The best publications all feature something unique to themselves, whether it’s the Harper’s Index or the Record’s Mailbags.
All right! You’re well on your way to starting a publication! Read on to learn about recruiting staffers, creating content, and growing the publication after you print your first issue.