h1

The Chronicle of Higher Education Celebrates Its Milestone 50 – While Still Keeping An Eye On Washington & An Eye On Academia – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Liz McMillen, Editor, The Chronicle Of Higher Education.

November 15, 2016

che-anthology-cover

“I think we really had to have some soul-searching and grappling in the past year about whether or not it’s possible to produce a news publication in a weekly format. And we decided that it was not. That news, as conventionally understood, can’t be done in a weekly format anymore. So, what we’re trying to do with the print edition is make it something that’s not news, but that is still enormously valuable to our readers. For 50 years we’ve had to continually define what news means; what does the key news and information mean for our audience?” Liz McMillen

For 50 years, in the world of Washington D.C. and the realms of academia, there has been a “watchdog” standing on every corner when it comes to issues that pertain to higher education and policies of government that are relevant to that sphere – that keeper of checks and balances is The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education was officially founded in 1966 by Corbin Gwaltney and its first issue was launched on November 23, 1966. And although it was originally founded for those who were professionally connected to higher education, it was also then a prevalent point that many in the general populace knew very little about what was going on in the world of academia or the issues that were involved there.

Today, the Chronicle is celebrating 50 years of publishing excellence and is still keeping a close watch on the powers-that-be in Washington, namely our new presidential team, and on the diverse and often complex world of universities and colleges all over the nation. With the uncertainty of a new presidency and the current issues that campuses are experiencing, the Chronicle continues to maintain its journalistic principles of quality, while also never drawing a long breath, as its reason for existence is even more important today than it was 50 years ago in the mid-‘60s.

First issue of The Chronicle

First issue of The Chronicle

Liz McMillen is the editor  of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and for the last five years since assuming that role, Liz has been guiding the helm of the milestone publication, keeping it on track and on its 50-year mission of producing great journalism about every facet of American colleges and universities.

I spoke with Liz recently and we talked about the Chronicle’s past, present and future in this unprecedented era of ever-changing media and political upheaval. From the ‘60s to today, the publication has seen many presidencies and many academic changes that have made it reach and grow, both in print – with a recent redesign – and digitally, as it keeps up with the fast-paced world of real time.

I hope that you enjoy this look into the world of higher education and the political domains that tend to affect those hallowed halls as you read the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Liz McMillen, editor, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But first the sound-bites:

Liz McMillen photo by Jay Premack

Liz McMillen photo by Jay Premack

On whether she feels the The Chronicle of Higher Education has kept up with the times over its 50-year publishing history: There has been a remarkable amount of change and transformation in higher education over the last 50 years and we have tried to be there every step of the way monitoring what’s happening and trying to explain this complicated transformation, as well as a complicated sector of institutions to this audience, so it has kept us busy.On how they are preparing for the new presidential administration and the changes in education that may come along with it: We’ve seen a lot of presidential administrations; we’ve seen previous Republican administrations with the same kind of vow to do away with the Department of Education and other sorts of things. Like everybody else in the world, we’re trying to figure out exactly what shape this is all going to take. But we have very experienced journalists here who have covered policy and presidential changes for years. We have many, many years of experience. We once tried to put together the collective number of years that all of our reporters represented, and it’s well into the hundreds, so they know what they’re doing. And they have a plan for trying to have a very policy-based focused group of reporters for the foreseeable future, until things become clearer.

On whether she feels the role of “watchdog” that the Chronicle has always played is more important than ever in this digital age: Yes, absolutely. I keep coming back to this point about how diverse the institutions are that make up the higher education sector. And we have a lot of ground to cover. You’ve probably heard a lot in the last year or two about the problems with the “for-profit” sector. That just came up in the last couple of decades, the growth of those institutions. That’s something that we’ve had to pay a lot of attention to. And I mentioned the sexual assault problems that have come up. You’ve got so many different kinds of people; it’s our responsibility to try and find the common themes and the issues that are going to be relevant to them. So, I think that there’s so much information coming at people right now and they need a very trusted and reliable, authoritative source to really decipher a very changing sector. As this world has gotten so much more complex, our mission has become more important than ever.

The newly redesigned Chronicle...

The newly redesigned Chronicle…

On how she decides as an editor, what’s a print story and what’s a digital story: A very good question, and one that we’ve been working on for the last two or three years, in terms of what’s the right staff configuration for that. We have a newsroom of about 65 people: editors, designers, journalists; you can ask them all to do everything, and that’s not going to really work. Two years ago we actually went through a pretty serious staff reorganization, where we carved out a group of editors and reporters who are going to be very digital-first. And that was their marching orders, what they needed to do.On the differences in benefits between the sites licensed reader and the digital subscriber reader on the Chronicle’s online presence: In addition to creating a different sort of feel for print, we’re also trying to differentiate the individual subscriber and what that person gets, and there are a new set of benefits that that person gets, versus the thousands of people who read us on site licenses. And don’t get me wrong, site licenses are a fabulous development for us; it brings our content and the complete contents of the web to your entire university, so anybody on a university computer can be viewing the Chronicle. But we do think it’s important to put a certain kind of reader who counts first. And the readers who really count for us are the individual subscribers. There are a number of publications that have been pursuing this path and we’ve had loyal readers subscribing to us for 30, 40 and 50 years and they’re incredibly loyal, so we have steadily moved our business model to where we are focusing as much as possible on those subscribers.

On the biggest stumbling block that she’s had to overcome since becoming editor five years ago: I don’t know that it’s so much of a stumbling block per se, but I would say that it’s a continued challenge and sometimes we deal with it better than others. I have been referring to how diverse our audience is; you have faculty members at an Ivy League institution that have tenure and have full research budgets, complete with research assistants. Then down the road there is a community college with faculty who teach in a very, very different setting.

On her most pleasant moment since becoming editor: I would say that I experience a bit of it every day working with the people that I work with who are incredibly talented and very, very devoted. But I will say that just in the last week, just like every newsroom, on a Tuesday night at about 9:00 p.m. our breaking news staff had to turn on a dime and come up with a completely different cover plan about what a Trump presidency was going to mean for higher education. With the little knowledge that we have about what his platform actually entails.

On anything else she’d like to add: One of the things that we came to realize as we were doing our print redesign this year was the continuing evolving nature of what a news publication is. I think I mentioned at the beginning that there was no publication whatsoever, and we came out every other week at the beginning. We were an eight page tabloid newspaper, and over time we evolved into a weekly newspaper, and all through the ‘80s and ‘90s we were the only source of information and explanation for what was happening in the world. Of course, in the ‘90s the Internet came along and the whole notion of news became completely upended.

On how being within the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education offers a type of legitimacy to those people and topics featured: It’s a big responsibility as we edit our pages, but when we write about something, whether it’s a problem or whether it’s a solution or just an insight, we are giving legitimacy on our pages. That is something that we’ve heard over and over again. Colleges want to be in our pages; there is almost a kind of display prestige to it, so we’re actually trying to think more thoughtfully about that, and we’re adding more data to the print issue that shows, for example, how colleges compare on different measures.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: I can tell you that I have a very large stack of magazines in my living room; they’re always there and they cover the gamut with all kinds of interests. I’m a huge fan of magazines; I don’t think they’re ever going to go away, and I love reading them. I love the tactile sensation of them. But I’m also on the iPad, because at night you get the chance to kind of read around and see what other innovative outlets are doing. So, the iPad is a great thing for that.

On what keeps her up at night: Stepping back, when I was in college in the ‘80s, could I have predicted that we would be at this particular moment for media, or for that matter, for higher education? Who would have imagined when we were working on a college paper that so many publications would be struggling and gutting and transforming? So, I think we’re in a moment of continual change, continual evolution, and you just have to get comfortable with that and stay comfortable with it, because I don’t think that’s going away.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Liz McMillen, editor, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on the 50th anniversary of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in journalism today. As you reach this milestone, a lot of changes have taken place, both in academia and in the magazine business. As you were developing that 50th anniversary anthology; how did the Chronicle keep up with the times; or do you think that you did, indeed, keep up with the times over the years?

che-anthology-coverLiz McMillen: That’s a really great question. The Chronicle started in 1966 and you think about what the world of journalism was like and what the world of higher education was like then. There was no such vehicle; no publication that actually told people on campuses what was happening in Washington and what new policies were coming along, and there were a lot in the 1960s. And then of course, all the student protests and campus unrest started very soon after, so the Chronicle arrived at a very auspicious moment for a publication that was poised to cover this sector. That was very much our reason for existence for probably that first decade.

But at the same time through all of that unrest, the colleges and universities in this country were starting to expand exponentially, not only the number of institutions, but the number of students enrolling in college, and most importantly the kinds of students coming in to college. And we have really seen that trend accelerate over time, so that today when you think of the traditional college-aged, 18 to 22-year-old student living in a dorm at a private college, that is no longer the norm; that is actually the exception of what a college student looks like today.

There has been a remarkable amount of change and transformation in higher education over the last 50 years and we have tried to be there every step of the way monitoring what’s happening and trying to explain this complicated transformation, as well as a complicated sector of institutions to this audience, so it has kept us busy.

Samir Husni: And now you’re probably getting ready to be even busier with the upcoming changes that are coming to education based on our new presidential elections. How are you preparing for the future, based on your 50-year history; where do we go from here?

Liz McMillen: We’ve seen a lot of presidential administrations; we’ve seen previous Republican administrations with the same kind of vow to do away with the Department of Education and other sorts of things. Like everybody else in the world, we’re trying to figure out exactly what shape this is all going to take.

I think Mr. Trump was rather vague (Laughs) during the campaign about what he wants to do exactly with higher education. It never seemed like it was a very big priority, but he has made noises about really ramping back and simplifying the Department of Education. There has been a big push for all of these regulations that are coming out of Washington affecting colleges, some of the big ones that I’m sure a lot of people know about, including Title 9 about sexual assault. That is very much up in the air, whether that level of enforcement will continue in a Trump administration, at least from the federal point of view. I think colleges, and we were just reporting last week; colleges have a responsibility to deal with sexual assault and to take steps to mitigate against that, even if the OCR (Office for Civil Rights) and the Department of Education does not. So, I think that there are suggestions on where he might go, but no clear answers yet.

But we have very experienced journalists here who have covered policy and presidential changes for years. We have many, many years of experience. We once tried to put together the collective number of years that all of our reporters represented, and it’s well into the hundreds, so they know what they’re doing. And they have a plan for trying to have a very policy-based focused group of reporters for the foreseeable future, until things become clearer.

Samir Husni: Do you see yourself, especially now in this digital age, and your role at the Chronicle as more important than ever since the Chronicle has always been a sort of “watchdog” of academia and education?

The Chronicle before the redesign...

The Chronicle before the redesign…

Liz McMillen: Yes, absolutely. I keep coming back to this point about how diverse the institutions are that make up the higher education sector. And we have a lot of ground to cover. You’ve probably heard a lot in the last year or two about the problems with the “for-profit” sector. That just came up in the last couple of decades, the growth of those institutions. That’s something that we’ve had to pay a lot of attention to. And I mentioned the sexual assault problems that have come up.

We have so many different kinds of institutions and we have so many different kinds of readers. You’ve got everything from people who teach at community colleges, a very different kind of field, teaching 4/4 schedules and teaching under-prepared students, all the way through the big flagship institutions like your own, to the Ivy League. You’ve got so many different kinds of people; it’s our responsibility to try and find the common themes and the issues that are going to be relevant to them. So, I think that there’s so much information coming at people right now and they need a very trusted and reliable, authoritative source to really decipher a very changing sector. As this world has gotten so much more complex, our mission has become more important than ever.

Samir Husni: How are you balancing between the print side and the digital side of the Chronicle? As an editor, how do you make the decision of what is a print story and what is a digital story?

Liz McMillen: A very good question, and one that we’ve been working on for the last two or three years, in terms of what’s the right staff configuration for that. We have a newsroom of about 65 people: editors, designers, journalists; you can ask them all to do everything, and that’s not going to really work. Two years ago we actually went through a pretty serious staff reorganization, where we carved out a group of editors and reporters who are going to be very digital-first. And that was their marching orders, what they needed to do.

In the past, digital had been a bit of an afterthought, in the sense that we would just put what was in the print paper online. In 2014, we really kind of broke that attachment and said we are going to treat this platform, the digital-mobile platform, as an important platform in its own right. And we have staffed appropriately for it and we are going to emphasize breaking news and we’re going to tell our audience what they need to know in that moment. We’re going to explain things that are happening right then and there and we’re going to have the metabolism of a very fast newsroom.

On the other side we created a group of people that we call the weekly team that are really working at a longer pace, which gives them the opportunity to do pieces that have a lot more depth; a lot more context; they take some of the same issues that the breaking team has done and sort of spins them out forward. What does that decision over at that institution really mean for other colleges like it? I think we have two really strong tracks of reporters pursuing different angles on similar issues. So, that’s the first thing we did.

In the last year or so we’ve created a digital products team, which works as a group of people from editorial and tech, marketing and business to come together and figure out how we’re going to keep our website evolving continuously and making it better for readers every single day. We never had anything like that before. Technological improvements used to take what felt like years to accomplish. And it probably was years. (Laughs) But now we have a dedicated group that can just say if they want to have a better data presentation or want a certain page to have a different header, or different calls to action on another page, we have the people in place to really make that happen.

And the final evolution, I would say, was that we’ve gone from taking the print publication 20 years ago, and just putting it onto the web, and there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put to that, to thinking that we would do a lot of digital-first stuff and put it into print, but that wasn’t a good solution. So, right now, at this moment, we’re launching, since it’s our 50th anniversary, we are trying very hard to think about both print and digital very intentionally, and to plan and cater to the strengths that each has to offer.

The newly redesigned Chronicle...

The newly redesigned Chronicle…

So, we’ve launched this redesigned print edition recently that’s really attempting to emphasize problem-solving journalism. This is something that we heard loud and clear from a number of subscribers – that they’re dealing with so many different things and that they are looking for insights and ways to deal with student retention issues or how to educate first generation students. They’re looking to find out what other institutions are doing; what works and what doesn’t. So, we’ve developed a whole new stream of content that attempts to answer those questions. And that’s something that print can do and do very well. Print can do context and depth and deep, explanatory reporting. And that’s what people are getting now; they’re getting a revamped print edition that we’re really happy with.

Samir Husni: I understand there is a difference between your individual subscribers and the site licenses that also exist, in terms of coverage. Can you talk a bit about that?

Liz McMillen: In addition to creating a different sort of feel for print, we’re also trying to differentiate the individual subscriber and what that person gets, and there are a new set of benefits that that person gets, versus the thousands of people who read us on site licenses. And don’t get me wrong, site licenses are a fabulous development for us; it brings our content and the complete contents of the web to your entire university, so anybody on a university computer can be viewing the Chronicle.

But we do think it’s important to put a certain kind of reader who counts first. And the readers who really count for us are the individual subscribers. There are a number of publications that have been pursuing this path and we’ve had loyal readers subscribing to us for 30, 40 and 50 years and they’re incredibly loyal, so we have steadily moved our business model to where we are focusing as much as possible on those subscribers. We’re not forgetting the site licenses, but the subscribers are really the people who are most loyal and those are who we want to serve as best as we can.

And there may be some changes coming to the site licenses as well down the road; there may be new features that we can offer those readers, but our first step was to figure out what we could do to bring more value to the individuals who subscribe to the Chronicle.

Samir Husni: Since you became editor five years ago, what has been the major stumbling block that you’ve had to overcome?

Liz McMillen: I don’t know that it’s so much of a stumbling block per se, but I would say that it’s a continued challenge and sometimes we deal with it better than others. I have been referring to how diverse our audience is; you have faculty members at an Ivy League institution that have tenure and have full research budgets, complete with research assistants. Then down the road there is a community college with faculty who teach in a very, very different setting.

And at each institution you have administrators who are often seen as being at odds with faculty, so how do you write about and cover the major issues of the institution and not feel like you’re alienating one audience over another? If we write about an issue like the plight of adjunct faculty, which there are now millions in this country, that’s an issue that administrators have to deal with and if we take any kind of an advocacy type role in reporting about the adjunct faculty members, it doesn’t always sit quite the same way with administrators who have to manage a faculty workforce. These are complex issues and the academy is often a much politicized environment, as you probably know. You can write about a simple thing and find that you’ve fallen into a landmine.

And there are some issues like that. We just did a survey as part of the anniversary for our subscribers, asking should we being doing away with tenure, that kind of bedrock piece of academic freedom we have in this country that protects the academic and intellectual rights of faculty? Well, as you might imagine, 62 percent of the presidents that we talked to said that we should do away with tenure. I think it was 20-something percent of faculty. So, right there you have people at odds; you’ve got a very tight financial situation and there’s not a lot of new money coming into the system, so it’s strange. And I think that various constituent groups can be at odds, so navigating that as an editor and trying to find out what’s fair and useful; what’s going to serve readers of all sorts and over the course of a year can we feel like, yes, we have provided coverage that speaks to the issues of the executives at a campus, and yes, we’ve spoken to the issues of graduate students as well. So, there are a lot of different types of people to help.

Samir Husni: And what has been the most pleasant moment since you became editor?

Liz McMillen: I would say that I experience a bit of it every day working with the people that I work with who are incredibly talented and very, very devoted. But I will say that just in the last week, just like every newsroom, on a Tuesday night at about 9:00 p.m. our breaking news staff had to turn on a dime and come up with a completely different cover plan about what a Trump presidency was going to mean for higher education. With the little knowledge that we have about what his platform actually entails.

And they worked pretty much the entire night; they spun out a series of good stories, sketching these issues out, and then we followed in the next few days with some really good interpretive, explanatory journalism. Colleges and universities are now seen as part of the elite, and this election is kind of a repudiation of elite, so where does that leave us? What does that mean for core academic values and how are institutional leaders going to deal with that?

So, we keep looking for new angles to report that story and that all comes down to the smarts of my staff and the incredible expertise they have. They know this world; they don’t cover it the way a daily newspaper covers it. We dig in deep and we’re authoritative and we use data in the best way. My staff continues to impress and astonish me.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Liz McMillen: One of the things that we came to realize as we were doing our print redesign this year was the continuing evolving nature of what a news publication is. I think I mentioned at the beginning that there was no publication whatsoever, and we came out every other week at the beginning. We were an eight page tabloid newspaper, and over time we evolved into a weekly newspaper, and all through the ‘80s and ‘90s we were the only source of information and explanation for what was happening in the world. Of course, in the ‘90s the Internet came along and the whole notion of news became completely upended.

So, I think we really had to have some soul-searching and grappling in the past year about whether or not it’s possible to produce a news publication in a weekly format. And we decided that it was not. That news, as conventionally understood, can’t be done in a weekly format anymore. So, what we’re trying to do with the print edition is make it something that’s not news, but that is still enormously valuable to our readers. For 50 years we’ve had to continually define what news means; what does the key news and information mean for our audience?

And the Anthology that we’ve done for our 50th anniversary represents some of our finest reporting and writing, but also we were looking for issues that had a lasting meaning for the audience who picks this up, so I hope that it achieves that. I think that we covered a lot of bases with it and it was almost impossible to do. How many bound volumes that we went through over the summer.

Samir Husni: You know the thing about the Chronicle to me is that I’ve been featured and profiled many, many times, whether it has been the media-related reporting or the mass newspapers, but your piece (Liz McMillen was a reporter at the Chronicle in 1992) about me appeared in the March 4, 1992 Chronicle, it gave legitimacy to what I do, among my colleagues and my administration. Suddenly, it legitimized my niche in the profession of teaching in higher education as true academic work and research, although, it’s dealing with popular culture in magazines. The impact that you had on my career, from that headline to the front page quote, about my hobby becoming my education and my education becoming my profession; you captured it very, very well. For that, I thank you.

Liz McMillen: You speak to something that we know very well. It’s a big responsibility as we edit our pages, but when we write about something, whether it’s a problem or whether it’s a solution or just an insight, we are giving legitimacy on our pages. That is something that we’ve heard over and over again. Colleges want to be in our pages; there is almost a kind of display prestige to it, so we’re actually trying to think more thoughtfully about that, and we’re adding more data to the print issue that shows, for example, how colleges compare on different measures. We’re not talking about the rankings; we’re talking about which campuses have the most sustainable practices or which campuses have the most diverse faculty?

And we’re also introducing for the first time ever a weekly index, so that you can see if a campus has been written about in the issue. So, we’re very aware of what you just talked about. And we’re grateful for it, of course.

Samir Husni: If I showed up at your home unexpectedly one evening, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; reading your iPad; having a glass of wine; watching television; or something else?

Liz McMillen: I can tell you that I have a very large stack of magazines in my living room; they’re always there and they cover the gamut with all kinds of interests. I’m a huge fan of magazines; I don’t think they’re ever going to go away, and I love reading them. I love the tactile sensation of them. But I’m also on the iPad, because at night you get the chance to kind of read around and see what other innovative outlets are doing. So, the iPad is a great thing for that.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Liz McMillen: Literally, I have two dogs that are convinced that they are hunters in the night. And they often wake me up thinking there’s a critter in my yard. (Laughs) And that’s not fun. But really, not too much keeps me up at night. I’m a pretty good sleeper.

Stepping back, when I was in college in the ‘80s, could I have predicted that we would be at this particular moment for media, or for that matter, for higher education? Who would have imagined when we were working on a college paper that so many publications would be struggling and gutting and transforming? So, I think we’re in a moment of continual change, continual evolution, and you just have to get comfortable with that and stay comfortable with it, because I don’t think that’s going away.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: