U-M student publication's secret to 20 years of success: It's not a magazine, it's a media company.

In the age of blogs, social media influencers, and podcasts, it's easy to say print media is dead.


But the University of Michigan (U-M) student-run magazine SHEI has a different answer: through unique content and strategic use of other media platforms, print still lives for consumers. SHEI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and continues to put out a print magazine multiple times a year.


SHEI was originally created as an Asian culture magazine, but as interest grew on campus, it transitioned to focusing on general fashion and pop culture six years after its creation. Because the magazine wasn't part of U-M's Office of Student Publications, SHEI had to sustain itself almost entirely on magazine sales or fundraising. Sagar Deshpande, SHEI editor-in-chief from 2010 to 2011, says SHEI raised most of its funds through its magazine release parties and annual fashion show.


When Deshpande first joined SHEI in 2007, the magazine didn't even have a website. In 2009, SHEI began to use Wordpress as a platform to share some of its stories with a wider audience. As the online tools began to be easier to use, more of SHEI's content was posted on the site.


"(Online) was better because anyone could see our content without a physical magazine," Desphande says. "It became clear to (the rest of the team), and they wanted to start putting more things on the website."


SHEI also began to utilize social media in the late 2000s. Facebook was a useful tool for organizing the events SHEI held, and editors began to try out Twitter and Instagram as those platforms were launched.


Today, SHEI's organization has grown to include 140 students creating content for the publication's various platforms. SHEI's website is the primary access point for readers, where monthly digital editions are posted, as well as the print edition's feature stories, photography, and videos. SHEI publisher Serena Pergola estimates SHEI reaches over 2,000 readers online.


"I consider SHEI to be a media company instead of a magazine," Pergola says. "We have various branches of content and each has a different goal."


Pergola says SHEI will launch a new form of content next semester: an online newsletter covering lifestyle-based topics. Instead of high fashion and lengthy features, readers will see street-style fashion and pop-culture stories that lead to SHEI's site.


Current editor-in-chief Liv Velarde says SHEI's brand awareness has grown on campus in her four years at U-M. She attributes most of this success to social media strategies the SHEI team has implemented.


"In the past few years, I've noticed a lot more passion for the magazine and for fashion in general," Velarde says. "With Instagram and things like that, (U-M) is becoming a more fashionable campus because people have access to what those trends are."


For most of SHEI's lifetime, generating ad revenue wasn't a main focus since the magazine's reach wasn't substantial enough to interest businesses. But with a larger audience built up from SHEI's social and digital platforms, the organization has been able to sell more ads on its website. Starting in 2019, Pergola and Velarde say SHEI's business model will transition to rely mostly on those ad sales instead of charging $3-7 per print magazine.


"We're distributing magazines for free...which is a huge change for us," Pergola says. "We've seen a lot of success in our advertising, so we want to be able to emphasize that a lot more. We see this as more sustainable for us in the future."


The organization also joined the Office of Student Publications in 2013, which has allowed it more access to university funding.


In addition to SHEI's online content, Pergola and Velarde are dedicated to distributing a print product twice a semester. Velarde says the focus of the print edition is to promote SHEI's brand, interesting students and driving them to SHEI's website and social media accounts, where ads are posted. As SHEI's following continues to grow, Pergola and Velarde hope to sell more advertising in the print magazine.


"People are really passionate about print. I love print," Velarde says. "The only reason large companies transition away from print is for financial reasons, and we've actually worked out a way where we can print more (magazines)."


With all of these changes in SHEI's business model, Pergola thinks SHEI will continue to be a part of U-M's student organizations for years to come. The real-world experience students gain from working with SHEI sets them up for success for future interviews and jobs after college, she says.


Regardless of SHEI's business model, Deshpande agrees SHEI provides students great portfolio pieces for future jobs. The variety and uniqueness of content are what will keep SHEI successful, he says.


"It's a nice medium for creative expression and not something that goes out of style," Deshpande says. "Students are always going to want to have an outlet for creative expression."


Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at emily@emilybenda.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.