Digitalizing Your School's Publications: The What, Why & How
Kate Persons

Ah, the practically-eternal debate — should we put our school’s publications online, stick with hard copy only, or do both? And if we go online, how do we manage it so it’s not a mountain of additional work?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but I’ll walk you through some key questions and considerations that will help you make an informed decision for your educational institution.

The What

First, let’s be clear about what I mean when I talk about online publications. I mean:

  • Web pages that create an engaging and interactive experience for readers that is distinctively different from hardcopy.
  • A set of web pages that are distinctive from the rest of your site. They render a group of related articles/content/features/profiles into topics, Issues, and Volumes.  A Publication is your school magazine, a student literary journal, a student newspaper, and the like. A Volume is a year’s worth of content. An Issue is one published edition (e.g., the Spring ‘19 magazine, the Fall ‘19 magazine).
  • A way for readers to easily access past issues.
  • A structure for gathering and displaying content that has a longer shelf-life than this week’s news story about the upcoming band concert and the 4th-grade field trip.

What I most definitely do not mean is a PDF of your hard copy magazine, annual report, student newspaper, or student literary journal. (More to come on the downsides of PDFs…)

Dive into this brief overview of Publications.


The Why(s)

Why use publication (in general):

90+% of the US adult population reads magazines (both hard copy and online), so there’s something undeniably compelling about gathering a group of related stories and essentially freezing them in time and rendering them as an Issue. And I’d place a sizable wager that 90+% of NAIS-member independent schools have at least one publication — likely a magazine, published once per year or more.

Not everything is a blog post. Not everything should disappear from a news feed or social media feed within a few weeks as newer stories replace it. Your school has history and big, deep stories that your constituents care about. You have an obligation to your institution to share and save its history.

Punahou Bulletin Magazine Cover

Why choose online publications:

  1. Your community is digital. Chances are you’ve got your phone within 10 feet of you basically all day long. Do you carry a magazine around all day long? Online is where we are. I get regular offers of $2/year (yes, per year, not month) for print magazine subscriptions. Doesn’t that tell you something about how desperate the world of print is to hold onto your eyeballs and that they’re aware you’re online instead?
  2. It is more trackable. Online publications can provide you with data about readership that no print publication can begin to match. You can know exactly how many times that feature article was viewed and what types of content are most popular with your community.
  3. It saves money. I know many schools who spend $20,000 or more in printing costs for every single issue of their magazine. With an online publication, you pay a reasonable annual fee for access to this powerful module and a one-time design fee for a spectacular structure you can re-use for issue after issue.
  4. You can easily fix mistakes! We all make mistakes. You know your print magazine or annual report is wrong the minute you send it to the printer. Those pesky inevitable typos can be easily fixed online (let’s pretend that misspelling of our major donor’s name never happened, ok?)
  5. Offer enhanced content that’s only available on the digital edition. Envision extended photo galleries with outtakes, video interviews, recordings of performances and speeches, etc.
  6. It offers modern engagement opportunities. Ability to reach more constituents who consume content in different ways — visual, text-based, auditory/podcasts, GIFs, and more.
  7. It is shareable. Give reader’s ways to bookmark, save, and share on social media their favorite stories. Give your stories the potential to go viral. 
  8. You can provide one-click access to previous issues. Good luck finding last year’s magazine on your bookshelf or in that recycling bin.
  9. Environmentally friendly. Save some trees.
  10. It is interactive. Not only can your readers share your content with friends, but you can engage with them through polls, forms, questionnaires, and calls-to-action (do you care about this scholarship program you just read about? Donate now!)

Why webpages and not a PDF:

True, “publishing” a PDF or flip-book of your hard copy magazine is a quick and easy way to post content online. But there are important considerations.

  1. A PDF is not typically ADA-compliant or accessible.
  2. An online PDF is just plain bad user experience. User studies have shown that users expect digital publications to work like websites. Have you ever tried to read a PDF on a phone? Pinch that screen. Turn your phone sideways. Give up and tell yourself you’ll read it later on a laptop. Bleh!  Real web pages size properly for your screen. Font size can be changed by the user’s browser settings for customizable readability. Web pages are searchable -- typical PDFs are not. Ever try inserting a call-to-action button in a PDF? I didn’t think so.
  3. A PDF is bad for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and goes against everything you’re trying to accomplish with your awesome content marketing strategy. Google can’t search the content of that PDF and can’t reward you in search results for that great content.
  4. A web page can be easily updated when that inevitable typo is found. Fixing, regenerating, and re-uploading that PDF is a pain.
  5. Web pages provide the best analytics. You want to know which stories are being read, right? Yes, you can see how many people looked at a PDF, but if it’s a 50-page PDF of your entire magazine, you have no way of knowing which content within it was consumed, for how long.
  6. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, a website simply has the potential to be more engaging. There are tons more options on a website vs. hard copy or a PDF for how the user can experience your content. A printed document is expected to be read in one direction and one order only. Online publications put the reader in control -- of what to read first, next, dive deeper into, skip, etc. And those poor PDFs -- no video, no spectacular photo galleries, no interactive polls.

The How

If you’ve read this far and I’ve won you over to the idea of a true online publication, let’s dive into how many schools are making it a reality and a success. The new Publications module within Composer is here to help.

Like other Finalsite modules (think Posts, Forms, News, Calendars), there is both a back-end module where content is entered and front-end elements you use to control the display and design of that content. Publications is an optional add-on on top of the Posts module. Within the module, you establish the name of your publication, the number of issues within each volume, and the date ranges for each issue. For example, the Fall 2018 issue can be set to include all posts with particular tags or categories published between July 1, 2018 and October 15, 2018.

Publications Issue Settings

The key Composer element is the Issue Element, which controls the gathering of a group of Posts into an issue, which sits inside a Volume, which sits inside a Publication. On the reader-facing Composer page, the issue element can be designed as a simple drop-down menu as shown in this example from Baylor School’s student literary magazine.

Baylor Issue Element on Website

You can also display your publications as a slideshow or grid with thumbnail images, or almost any way you and your Finalsite designer can envision.

The first impression of your new publication can be as stunning as any homepage or as simple as a standard Posts page. Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Profile Magazine provides ample inspiration.

LR Profile Cover

The true beauty of building Publications on top of the Posts functionality with which you may well be familiar is that you can maximize your use of any particular content. It’s easy to reuse articles original written for a general news section of your site or within a blog as content in your publication and vice versa. Want to announce to your community that the latest issue of your magazine is now online? No problem -- just pull the feature article headlines & thumbnail images into an eNotify template dynamically! What a time saver!

Schools like St. Louis University High, Punahou, Elgin Academy and Baylor are succeeding at creating beautiful, engaging online publications. Want to join their good company? Reach out to your Client Success Manager to discuss a plan for your school.

Request an Audit


Mia Major

Before joining Finalsite in 2012, Kate was a client for almost a decade, as a content manager for the advancement sections of her school's website. She's worn almost every hat in Advancement over sixteen years — alumni director, database manager, annual fund director, budget and hiring manager, envelope stuffer, party planner, chauffeur, you name it..

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