“I hope I don’t throw up.”
That was the response of one of my students a couple of weeks ago as she nervously prepared to give a presentation to five Bay Area magazine professionals and our department chair, who had agreed to serve as judges for my magazine publishing class’s Pitch Day.
Luckily, she didn’t. Pitch Day went off without any bodily eruptions – except for several enthusiastic rounds of applause — and instantly became a tradition for my JOUR 500 The Contemporary Magazine course at San Francisco State University.
I’ve taught the course, developed by my colleague John Burks, for several years. In the past, I’ve always had students present their magazine business plans to their classmates in a festive but low-key final class. But this year, after participating in the 3rd annual Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University and learning the art of the pitch, I decided to raise the stakes and bring in professionals to critique their work. With a few emails and phone calls, I quickly assembled an impressive – and, to my students, somewhat intimidating – panel of judges:
- Barb Newton, magazine consultant and former president of Sunset Publishing
- Linda Jue, editor and executive director at the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism
- Cristina Azocar, chair of the Journalism Department, SFSU
- Kevin McKean, publishing consultant and former chief editorial officer of Consumer Reports, PC World and InfoWorld
- Michael Zivyak, president and publisher of Sonoma Magazine
- Leigh Walker, digital content editor at Marin Magazine
Their mission: To offer feedback and choose a winner among the four teams that had been working for weeks to create the next Vanity Fair or Real Simple.
A Course in Magazinology
The Contemporary Magazine is designed to give students a crash course in what Burks called magazinology (“don’t bother looking it up in the dictionary,” he wrote in the original syllabus, “it’s not there”), the study of magazines, and then put what they learn into practice. For the first five weeks we immersed ourselves in the culture, lingo and history of magazines (my students were impressed to learn that Henry Luce and Briton Haddon were just 24 when they launched TIME magazine). In the last 10 weeks of the course, students worked in teams to create a launch plan for a new magazine, digital or print.
Burks came up with the course long before “media entrepreneurship” became a buzzword in journalism education. He had the vision to see that by challenging students to build a business plan for a new publication they’d have to thoroughly understand all aspects of magazine publishing, from advertising and budgeting to white space and zines.
I tried to get students thinking about an idea for a magazine from the beginning. On the first day of class I passed out colored pencils and paper and instructed each student to design a cover for a magazine they’d like to create, a publication they thought was missing from newsstands packed with the likes of Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker, Men’s Health and Motor Trend. They then introduced themselves and their magazine, offering a window into their passions and proclivities.
Throughout the semester I brought in guest speakers who spoke about various aspects of magazine publishing. Editor Chris Ying spoke about the founding of Lucky Peach, a quirky quarterly journal about food. Publisher Paul Banas discussed his purchase and relaunch of Pregnancy Magazine. Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig recounted the birth story of Shades, a magazine for women of color. Hayley Nelson, director of product development for Wired Magazine, got students thinking beyond print magazines and websites to new products and apps and the power of social media. We also visited San Francisco Magazine, where editors walked us through the production process and explained the all-important difference between a topic and a story.
The fifth week of class, after we had studied what flies and what fails in the magazine industry, I had each student once again pitch an idea for a magazine, this time something that was a bit better thought out than the off-the-cuff notions they had on the first day. Of the 20 ideas they came up with, the students chose four they liked the best and then formed teams of four to six to work on them.
From BayScopic to Y&Y
The four magazines were:
- BayScopic, a regional culture magazine about the Bay Area
- Cinesphere, a digital magazine and community gathering spot for up-and-coming filmmakers
- Liquid Bread, a quarterly about craft beer
- Y&Y, an alternative health magazine
Over the next few weeks, we had workshops on various aspects of launching a magazine. One week we looked at magazine mission statements and the students worked to craft a couple of sentences that perfectly captured the essence of their would-be publications. In other class sessions we discussed magazine covers and design; advertising and alternative revenue streams; budgeting and P&L statements; digital products and strategies; and editorial planning. While they worked together, each student took a specific role (editor, publisher, advertising director, designer, marketing director, etc.) and was responsible for one part of the launch plan – the business plan, the cover and design scheme, the media kit, the website and digital/social media strategy, the marketing program.
Throughout the semester students learned to pivot and reframe, to question assumptions and to work collaboratively. Roles and titles shifted. Logos morphed. Once or twice, tempers flared.
Two weeks before Pitch Day we went over presentation skills, critiquing videos of kickstarter campaigns for Darling Magazine, The Holborn Magazine and Chance Magazine, as well as Demo Day presentations at Matter, a local start-up accelerator for media ventures.
One week before Pitch Day, the teams each did a dry run of their presentations. The Powerpoint presentations were full of typos. One student drew a happy face on the board to represent a person who was supposed to appear on the screen. I began to wonder if bringing in professional judges was such a good idea.
And Then, Pitch Day
Pitch Day was a rare scorcher in San Francisco. No matter how many windows I opened, the room was hot and stuffy. The judges arrived early. The students, frantically putting the finishing touches on their presentations, arrived late.
But once we got started, everyone got into it. The presentations were far smoother and more professional than the week before. The judges were so full of questions and comments, the students so eager to talk about their magazines, that we continued for an hour and a half longer than we had scheduled.
And the winner? Liquid Bread. Judges liked the concept and the look of the magazine, as well as the passion the team brought to the project. One judge emailed a student the day after the pitch, suggesting the team consider applying for a spot in a local startup accelerator’s next class.
Whether or not I come to find Liquid Bread or any of the other magazines at my local bookstore I’m confident my students are now ready to enter the magazine world, not just with skills but with ideas. They know how to think through a project and how to present a concept. And if one of them ends up in an elevator with a venture capitalist, well, watch out.
For more information about The Contemporary Magazine course, including syllabus and assignments, go to the course website.
Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.