Re-Imagining the Future of University Research Magazines


Next week the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will be hosting the annual conference of the University Research Magazine Association (URMA). The association is comprised of editors and staffers at magazines that cover the research and scholarly activities of universities, nonprofit research centers, and institutes in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Europe.

Depending on your field and professional background, you may or may not be familiar with publications such as Yale Medicine, UNC's Endeavors, the HHMI Bulletin, Florida State's Research in Review, and Arizona State's Research Stories and magazine for kids Chain Reaction.

The URMA conference this year takes a look at the future of these magazines, examining the transition to new online media tools and social media technologies, and strategies for engaging general audiences.

What do readers think? What should be the role and function of university research magazines in the new world of digital media? What are the stories that these magazines should tell and how can they expand their reach and value in a competitive media environment? How can the content of these magazines and their Web sites be integrated with other university-based communication, media, and community engagement efforts?

These are some of the issues I will be addressing in a presentation on the second day of the conference. In preparing that presentation, I am interested in what readers think.

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I do really like the podcast at Imperial. We're lucky because we have a radio presenter who works as a lecturer, which makes it easier to blur the boundaries between internal college information, PR, research notices and a more "public engagement" piece. It's never going to serve all those aims perfectly, but I think it does a good job at trying, and it's so much better than most equivalents.

One of the librarians on ScienceBlogs called (once, somewhere--i don't have a link) for a shift in how libraries function: rather than going out into the world and collecting stuff and bringing it back, libraries should collect local stuff and promote it outwards. University magazines (on-line versions) would be perfect for this.

As a journalist, I get heaps of these things. Honestly: who reads them?

That's not to say they can't have interesting content. But they feel so much like advertorial, and are so directed to covering whatever their overlords demand they cover, rather than being *interesting* (as is the mandate of all for-profit magazines) that I can hardly be bothered.

@Christopher: At the Washington State University magazine, we're take pride in having the editorial independence to concentrate on interesting stories. It's a great and essential formula if you want to be read.
We just had a one-time online-only issue and made the most of it by pondering the future, digitally-influenced life of magazines in general and the role of the university library in the digital age. Check it out:

@Eric: That's pretty rad. Technology Review also has editorial independence (having started as the alumni magazine of MIT, 100+ years ago) and it works for them, for similar reasons. Certainly, there's a fantastic role to be played by university publications that aren't narrowly focused on their sponsoring institutions. But then the problem becomes: why should the university sponsor something that's not about itself? It takes some far-sighted minders to realize the potential of something that's not limited to its host institution.

@Christopher gets to the heart of this problem. As an editor and writer for Terra magazine (, I push for authenticity and good reporting. We're judged, however, on how well we present the institution and contribute toward its goals: reputation for leadership, student recruitment, partnerships with business. At URMA, Curt Suplee emphasized yesterday that university science mags are primary science media, not just marketing tools. As budgets tighten at our institutions, this tension will only increase.