The University of Michigan has a long history of producing cutting edge collegiate publications. Barb Cossman has run point on the content produced by U-M media relations since 2001. As editorial director she oversees the creation of media guides and programs, including the special commemorative editions like we saw for 2011 Notre Dame ‘Under the Lights’ game. During Barb’s tenure, Michigan pioneered moving away from printed materials when they went to an all-digital media guide for the 2009 season.
Over the past decade, thanks in large part to Cossman’s leadership, U-M’s publications have won multiple national awards. She was kind enough to chat me about the past, present and future of collegiate publications at U-M:
MVictors: Michigan was one of the pioneers to eliminate the printed media guide by going purely digital. What prompted the move to go with a paperless media guide in 2009?
Cossman: There were probably a few reasons. One of them was to save money, one of them, I like to think, was to save paper. And just the foresight that everything was moving to digital. The media guides, to that point, had served two purposes. Because of NCAA legislation they had to fulfill the demands of media and the demands of recruiting. The coaches used the media guides on recruiting trips to give to prospective athletes. That’s why we had nice fancy covers and a design theme inside.
MVictors: So I understand the media aspect, the guides have statistics and player profiles and all that. Why did they give the media guides to recruits, and how did the NCAA get involved?
Cossman: The NCAA mandated that you could only have one publication, and it had to fit certain criteria. For instance it had to be black and white inside, and they mandated how many pages it could be—they limited it to 208 pages if I recall. And for football that was a problem, not so much for other sports. The legislation is so complicated I don’t want to bore you with it, but basically the legislation came down to what you can give a recruit and what you can’t. Coaches gave the media guides to recruits to learn about the program.
MVictors: So basically the NCAA mandated that you had one document to meet this recruiting need, and for the media?
Cossman: Yes, the NCAA required that one document had to fulfill both needs. When U-M decided to stop the printing of media guides we did it jointly with Ohio State, there was an agreement between the athletic directors. Wisconsin, I think a year later, followed us. The big issue that our coaches had back then was that when you go to visit a recruit who is being recruiting by, for example, Stanford or Texas or UCLA and Michigan, they got something tangible to hold onto from those schools but got nothing from us. The coaches were concerned that we wouldn’t have anything to leave with them to keep Michigan fresh in their mind.
MVictors: OK, so the NCAA was thinking if they legislate the media guide, make it serve a dual purpose, and then they have some control over what goes out.
Cossman: Yes, then they are all equal and the NCAA said, for instance, it had to be black and white because that is cheaper to print. The theory behind the NCAA legislation on the media guides was cost savings to level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots. So that the schools with all these financial resources couldn’t just blow stuff out of the water.
But they haven’t legislated the websites, and at the time they didn’t legislate things like jump drives and CDs. What we did, when we stopped printing, was to split the media-driven content from recruiting content. We created web-based digital yearbooks which is what coaches would point their recruits to, and record books, which would be what the media would use.
We did (online) yearbooks for a couple years. They had a nice design, templated and appealing. We found a couple companies that did digital magazines—you could add video and embed hyperlinks and all that. Eventually we started thinking that we were doing a lot of repetitive work because a lot of the content was already on mgoblue.com in a different format. So now we’re trying to move to the next level and utilize mgoblue.com. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and come up with something that’s innovative, serves a purpose and is beneficial to everyone.
MVictors: So have the coaches complained about not having a physical document to give to recruits? Are they ok with pointing recruits to the web?
Cossman: No, they haven’t complained. And 17-year-olds really aren’t looking at printed documents. They are just not. All the coaches have to do is pull out their iPads on an in-house visit and show it to the recruits. And the NCAA isn’t legislating what is done online so that door is open, which is good and bad. It makes it difficult because you are recruiting against schools that are just blowing stuff out of the water with their online content. I’d guess that eventually the NCAA will probably restrict it.
MVictors: So you also handle publishing the football game programs. How many programs do you publish for a given game?
Cossman: It varies on the opponent, the time of the year, and the weather. Once it hits November and it’s raining or snowing, no one buys them because they’d get ruined. Typically the first game of the season is the biggest run and that might be around 10,000.
Every so often we’ll do a commemorative program and they do great. We did one for the Ohio State game in 2003. In addition to the regular content we had a special section up front that covered the history of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. I was out of town that day but I got a call before the game started that they sold out. We went back and reprinted.
MVictors: So do the sales of the programs cover your cost?
Cossman: Well, really we [the athletic department] have no cost. We have an agreement with our publisher that they cover the printing of the program but they retain all the advertising sales. In return, we retain all the vending. But if we do a special commemorative program, the special sections are out of our pocket.
MVictors: Do you see the program itself, or other services tied to the program, changing in the near future?
Cossman: We’ve talked about a lot of ideas. We recently talked to some folks about an Android and iPhone app that a lot of major publishing companies and magazines are currently using. We’re always trying to make technology work to our advantage at the athletic department. So I do see a future with digital content in some form.
MVictors: A lot people collect programs and Michigan, over the years, has produced beautiful program covers that are coveted by collectors. There is a nostalgic tie to the game programs for many fans—do you see them going away anytime soon?
Cossman: I don’t know, but I will be sad to see things like game programs go by the wayside because I am more of a traditionalist. I love bookstores; I love the feel of the cover of a book. I still feel there’s an audience and a need for printed materials like programs.
MVictors: Has anyone discontinued football game programs?
Cossman: Not that I know of, at least in football. Technically we discontinued programs for basketball games eight years ago.
MVictors: I’ve read that occasionally you’ve received, let’s call it, “input” on the content of game programs from head coaches.
Cossman: [smiles] We’ve had some input from coaches.
MVictors: At the beginning of the last century many of the programs were more like artwork—have you considered have original artwork on programs?
Cossman: A lot of the older programs had original artwork and yes, we have thought about having original artwork on the programs. We’re definitely open to ideas. I’ve had people email me with art samples, offering to design covers.
MVictors: Speaking of special sections, the Notre Dame program had that outstanding audio clip of Gary Moeller before and during ‘The Catch’ against Notre Dame. What made you think of doing something like that?
Cossman: When I was in high school I got a magazine called Interview, the Andy Warhol magazine. In an issue they had an ad for Absolut vodka, and it was co-sponsored by the World Wildlife Foundation. It was a picture of the Antarctic and when you played it, it said ‘all of the animals in this photo are in danger of going extinct..” I thought it was the coolest thing and played it until it died. It was phenomenal.
Seven or eight years ago someone from IMG talked to me about doing an audio chip. We talked about doing something with ‘The Victors’, or whatever. I thought that if we’re doing this commemorative section on Notre Dame, one of the most iconic images we have is of Desmond’s catch against Notre Dame. So we decided to get audio from that play and it ended up being a gold mine. We ended getting that audio from Gary Moeller’s headset [and others] from the play and I couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out. Later we decided to honor Desmond as the first Michigan Legend, so it all just kind of fell into place.
MVictors: Any surprises, like the Moeller audio chip, coming up in the game programs for the 2012 season?
Cossman: Well, I can say that one thing we are looking toward is the dedication of Crisler Center. I thought about doing another audio chip, and we had some ideas about that, but I said, ‘We already did that. What’s the next best thing?’ And I have an idea on what that next best thing might be..but we need to flesh it out a little bit more.
MVictors: Thank you!