Glossy Life Lessons  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 2003

Glossy Life Lessons   

A Northwestern University program gives magazine students firsthand experience in launching a new title.

By Sofia Kosmetatos
Sofia Kosmetatos is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


A cutthroat magazine industry isn't stopping graduate students at Northwestern University from creating prototype titles--and even hoping that a publishing company might buy the creations.

Each fall and spring quarter, 18 students participate in the Medill School of Journalism's magazine publishing project. In 12 weeks, with little experience, they attempt what can take the experts a year or more in the real world--making a magazine from scratch.

The project began 23 years ago when Bernard Gordon of Cahner's Publishing approached the school with the idea, and it grew under the direction of Abe Peck, a professor and chairman of the magazine program at Medill.

Of the 44 prototypes that students have created since 1980, three have been sold: Raising Teens (a 1996 project), Camp Management (1994) and Contract Health Care (1986). The revenue from the sales gets invested back into the program, though the school won't say just how much that is.

Meredith Corp., which bought Raising Teens, launched a test copy that didn't pass advertising muster. Meredith also hired two Medill students who created the magazine. Contract Health Care was sold to a venture capitalist who changed the model. A faculty member who is also CEO of a marketing and technology firm bought Camp Management. He launched it with several students from the prototype team.

Medill professor David Abrahamson says that while the sales are "quite extraordinary" and a "real credit to the students," the focus of the program is showing students how a magazine is born. "We have to make sure that [focus] remains the tail and not the dog," says Abrahamson.

Students decide on a concept and design, create an editorial vision, analyze circulation and advertising markets, come up with a five-year business plan and write and produce a prototype. The process helps them see how business and editorial fit together.

Former students say understanding this relationship is important in the real world.

"As a writer, you should be aware of how your business makes money," says Joanne Gordon, a staff writer at Forbes who graduated in 1997. "You're crazy if you don't realize what's holding up the house." During the program, Gordon was publisher of the creation Today's Smart Parent, an educational magazine for mothers of elementary school kids.

Another real-world lesson students can't help but learn in the project is how much work goes into making a magazine. Twelve-hour days and six-day weeks are common. Friends and loved ones are ignored. Bills go unpaid. Just like in real life!

"It was awesome and painful and stressful," says Ericka Mellon, an assistant editor at Chicago magazine who graduated in 2001 and worked on a title called Urban Classroom, a trade magazine geared toward inner-city teachers. "It's not as easy to put together a magazine as it looks on paper."

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