Eight questions for Matt Jennings

Matt Jennings, editor at Middlebury Magazine, is a fixture of the CASE Editors Forum. Usually at the hotel bar. In some city a couple of years ago—Boston? Nashville? Boston, I think—he stole my dessert fork. As payback he had to submit to the UMagazinology ques-tionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

I’ve been editing Middlebury Magazine for 10 years.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

You know, there have been so many things I’ve had to learn and am still learning that it’s hard to pinpoint the most significant. I think that might be my answer, learning that the job of an editor is one of constant learning. Not just learning about fascinating subjects and people and issues, that’s obvious, but learning that there is no one best way to do something, to do anything. We should always, always be thinking about fresh approaches to everything we do. The minute we become complacent, the minute we think, “oh, I know how to do that” or “this is how we do this,” then our magazines are in danger of becoming static. Boring. Easy to ignore.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Working with young, extremely talented writers who also have a hunger to learn and be edited. I have a reliable stable of freelance writers, I have on occasion enlisted “big-name” writers to contribute to the magazine, and we have a talented editorial staff, and it’s a pleasure to edit all of them—but the biggest thrill has been working with these rising stars, this cohort of narrative journalists just a few years out of college. I almost think of them as a pack. They all graduated within a year or two of each other, all within the past five years; most, if not all, apprenticed here under Bill McKibben, and Chris Shaw and Sue Halpern; they come to me with these great ideas and the youthful freedom and energy to go anywhere and report for as long as it takes; and they can really write, but not just that, revise, take direction, fight and argue and do whatever it takes to really nail a story. Just this year, three of them won CASE Circle of Excellence medals for writing. Zaheena Rasheed won a silver, and Kevin Redmon and Sierra Crane Murdoch won golds. And that was Sierra’s second Circle of Excellence medal in as many years.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Oh, I don’t know. There might be some universal frustrations that are best shared over a cocktail at Fandangles than on a public blog. One evolving frustration has been creating a digital complement to our printed periodical. We’ve made strides in this area—I think we are producing dynamic, rich content for our digital magazine independent of or complementary to what is in our quarterly periodical, but we need a better platform to deliver this work. We made a giant leap a few years ago into a WordPress platform and that was such an improvement, but already it’s outdated. The digital realm moves so fast. I want us to be as innovative online and in tablet form as we are in print, like the collegiate version of what The Atlantic has been able to master with the print magazine, theatlantic.com, and The Atlantic Wire. Obviously, what we should be doing is on a much different scale, but the media philosophy should be the same.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies leave me incapable of being truly satisfied with anything. I am forever second-guessing decisions, redoing in my mind stories or story choices or cover directions. I loved Jeff Hagan’s description of not feeling relief when a magazine is on the way to the post office, but rather a feeling of “now comes hell.” I don’t think I have it that bad, though I recognize what he’s saying. Often I am pleased with what we have done, but being satisfied is different. Even if I am looking at a feature, say, that I really like, I’m still thinking, “but what if we had asked this question . . .”

What story are you proudest to have published?

My favorite story was a searing, heart-wrenching piece written by a Middlebury alumna, whose 2-year-old son was undergoing treatment for an extremely rare type of leukemia. We learned of the story through a class note, and Anne proved to be a really good writer and told a story that only she could. What I liked about it institutionally was that it showed that we care just as much about our alumni who are really struggling with a life-altering event as we do those who have achieved a large measure of success. We want to share their story just as much as we want to share the story of a geologist who helped discover the largest sub glacial lake on the planet (which is also very cool and in our next issue).

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

It’d have to be John McPhee. I would love to give him the keys to Middlebury, so to speak, and turn him loose.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

I so enjoy doing what I do, but if I had to do something different . . . I’d love to own an independent bookstore in a vibrant literary town.

One comment

  1. Zoe Hoyle

    Wonderful, thoughtful questions and answers that evoke the realm I would like to work in. Before I saw the answer to the next to last question, I too thought “John McPhee.”

    Thanks for doing this feature!

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