Category: Eight Questions

Eight questions for Mark W. Derewicz

endeavorsMark W. Derewicz scribbles fine work for Endeavors, the research magazine out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC killed the print edition some time ago, a decision that was derided here, but the magazine still has digital life. UMagazinology remains proudly printcentric, but would be foolish to ignore the purely digital, which we might all be before I retire. So a pixel-stained wretch responds to the UMag questionnaire.

How long have you been a writer?

Professionally? Let’s see. Aside from a hiatus here and there, 18 years. Geez. It’s really been that long? I began as a reporter at a small weekly newspaper, The Free Press, in Quakertown Pennsylvania.

Of all the things you have to do to produce a story in the magazine, what do you enjoy the most?

Constructing a unique story arc. When I’m allowed to let the word count climb past 2,000—or heaven forbid, 4,000—I really enjoy crafting a story in a way that others might not have pursued. I don’t always do a great job. I might not be as creative as I could be. But I enjoy that the most. That, and getting lost in a conversation with a source.

What has proven to be your biggest challenge?

Grammar and bureaucrats and procrastination. And grammar.

For interviews, notepad or recorder? For writing, legal pad, typewriter, or computer?

I use a digital recorder, but I do take a few notes. For me, recording the interview allows the conversation to be as genuine and free flowing as possible. Sometimes I don’t even need the recording. But I like to know I have it, especially after interviewing scientists. For writing, I use a computer.

What do you wish you were better at?

Oh just about everything. If I had to pick one I guess it would be sentence construction. I didn’t go to school to become a writer; I often feel less than confident. Frankly, without guidance from former Endeavors editor Neil Caudle and current editor Jason Smith, I’d still be extremely limited as a writer as opposed to merely limited. Yet, I haven’t gone the extra mile to learn how to construct more complex, intriguing sentences and paragraphs. (I’m sure my copy editor would’ve preferred a different answer, but what can I say other than copy editing is for copy editors.)

What story are you proudest to have written?

Because I have problems with Islamophobia, fundamentalists, and snarky atheists, I think I’m proudest of “People of the Book,” a story I wrote based on the research of UNC’s Carl Ernst. His book, How to Read the Qur’an, includes a section about the construction of some Qur’anic chapters—how various verses within a chapter frame a central idea. A lot of the time the central theme happens to be the establishment of unity within a community of people who have disparate beliefs. Pretty fascinating stuff. Of all the stories I wrote, this will be the one I drag out of the closet to show my kids and grandkids.

Who among writers have been your exemplars?

Strange as this might sound: Michael Lewis, Jon Krakauer, and Elizabeth Gilbert. As a former employee of Baseball America magazine, I understand the arguments against the concept of moneyball, but I love the way Lewis tells his stories. He might write with too much certainty and hyperbole, but I still love it. Krakauer: man, I could read Into the Wild over and over again. His narrative style is gripping and his research, unparalleled. I envy him. As for Gilbert, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love. But her book, The Last American Man, is wonderful. She perfectly contextualized the life of Eustace Conway, and tells his story with an endearing and uncompromising truth.

If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be?

I had a fleeting notion, before I realized I was way too stupid, that I could be a pretty good history professor. Of course, if that would’ve come to pass I’m fairly certain I would’ve ignored my students and spent all my time writing books.

Eight questions for Tim Steury

Washington State Magazine is just a kid, born 12 years ago, but it’s an accomplished kid, one of my favorite alumni magazines. (Children grow up so fast, these days.) Editor Tim Steury graciously re-sponded to the UMagazino-logy questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

I’m a founding editor of the magazine. Our first issue came out in 2001. Before that, I edited Universe, a research magazine here, for 10 years.

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

Hiring well.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Realizing that I hired well.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Going four years without being able, in spite of their spectacular output, to even recommend any of our staff for a raise. Also, and excuse the banality, lack of time.

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

A certain lack of resolution, or fine-tuning, of the aesthetic and ethical. Sorry, I can’t really explain that very well. It’s probably more an existential thing than editorial. (A smattering mix of Keats and Joseph Brodsky is a dangerous thing.) Orion resolves it fairly well, with the unfortunate result of much sanctimony and hand-wringing. So maybe I shouldn’t worry about it.

What story are you proudest to have published?

One? That’s a really hard call. But candidates:

—“The First Casualty,” an essay by war correspondent Tom Tiede ’59 on the dishonesty of selective reporting and the sanitizing of warfare.

—All of the articles in our special issue, “The Beauty of Evolution,” including a really lovely essay by an evolutionary biologist on the grandeur and beauty of evolution.

—Also, our series, “In Season,” on the crops and food of Washington.

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

Lori Sudermann, Eric Sorensen, Larry Clark, Bill Morelock, Andrea Vogt, Will Hamlin . . . Oh wait, they already write for us! Otherwise, Diana Kennedy, to explore the influence of Mexican immigrants on the cuisine of Washington.

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

Dream job? Independent book author with solid contracts for a series of travel/food/culture books about Normandy, the Yucatan, Ukraine, and Argentina. Maybe a pig farmer/poet in Patagonia. Actually, I’m moving into another version of that dream job next year, leaving the university to farm, write, and ferment full time. I just wish the compensation were more promising.

Valedictory eight questions for Betsy Robertson

Recently the alumni magazine world was stunned to learn that Betsy Robertson was stepping down as editor of Auburn Magazine to join Lane Press. OK, that’s daubing it on a bit thick, but many of us were saddened to learn that she would be departing our ranks, and if Auburn has any sense  it knows what it’s losing. Before she swept her stuff into a box and stepped away from her editor’s desk, I prevailed upon her to answer the UMagazinology questions. Best of luck, Betsy. You will be missed.

How long were you in your job?

Seven years, 10 months.

What proved to be the most significant thing you learned on the job?

Patience! When I accepted the job as editor, I wanted to knock the ball out of the park on the very first issue with better writing and story selection, artful photography, sophisticated design, and a more intuitive architecture. I brought to the table a background in higher-education publications and news media—but because I wasn’t an Auburn alumna, I needed time to study the campus culture, the staff, and the alumni audience in order to make changes that would resonate not only with the CASE competition judges but also with our most important constituency, the readers. It took nearly four years before I felt our team had truly lifted the magazine to the next level.

What was your best experience at the magazine?

Privately, I always thought that if we could break into that elite group of alumni mags that were always winning national CASE Circle of Excellence awards, then we’d know for sure we had arrived. In 2009, I was notified that we’d won not one but two silver awards for writing; two years later we were winning golds for both writing and publishing improvement. That was my Sally-Field-at-the-Academy-Awards moment. At the same time, we were receiving ever more effusive praise for our efforts from alumni (as documented in our quarterly readership surveys). I think the whole team was proud that both the readers and our professional peers had validated our hard work.

What proved to be your biggest frustration?

Lack of focus. Over the years, my job had become less about publishing a great alumni magazine and more about online content generation and revenue streams. Understand this: In college, I majored in publication management and minored in business; I have no beef with the need to increase ad sales or deliver alumni magazines in some sort of electronic format for the small percentage of readers who say they want to receive their alumni publication online only. But I oppose the increasingly prevalent notion that the Internet is the solution to every communication need (because it’s free!!!). Done on a shoestring, these new delivery methods come with hidden costs, most notably in the area of storytelling. I’m convinced that “shiny object syndrome” (we need a blog! we need an app!! we need a Facebook page!!!) keeps communications staffs from communicating in authentic, meaningful ways, and keeps alumni magazines from being the best they can be.

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

Hmmm . . .well, of course, I always wished we had the money to hire seasoned narrative nonfiction writers to provide original reporting/writing (as opposed to repurposed news releases) for every section. Barring that, I would like to have published more provocative, well-written essays in our regular back-of-the-book department, “The Last Word.” I think those one-page essay sections are a great place to introduce thoughtful commentary on social issues designed to spark debate among alumni, but we typically settled for mundane columns that simply recounted readers’ campus memories. I should have been more aggressive about choosing courageous topics and soliciting strong writing from faculty and alumni for that part of the book.

What story are you proudest to have published?

A couple of years ago we sent one of our best freelancers, as well as our chief campus photographer, to Haiti for a profile on an alumnus who is trying to establish a tilapia-production industry that he believes will bring that country’s people out of poverty. Our readers continue to reference “The Fish Farmer’s Story” as a feature that sticks in their minds. We could not have done justice to the alumnus’ work had we tried to shortcut the reporting with a phone interview and a few stock images.

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

Back in 2010, when Auburn’s football team was headed for the BCS National Championship, I actually tried to hire Sports Illustrated‘s Gary Smith on a freelance basis to write the cover story for the issue that immediately followed the game. He wasn’t able to do it, but I was pretty proud of myself for having the nerve to pursue him for the job.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be? (You are absolved from the need to say “account executive at Lane Press.”)

Ha! OK, going completely off the grid: If I were any good at math, I’d go back to school for an architecture degree. I’m fascinated by architecture, especially the way in which the built environment influences individuals’ emotions and social behavior.

Eight questions for Lisa Lednicer

Lisa Grace Lednicer has been hard at work on an ambitious overhaul of Willamette Lawyer, the alumni magazine of Willamette University’s College of Law. By “overhaul,” I do not mean just tinkering with the list of recurring features or the graphic package. I mean a fundamental broadening of scope. Her goal was to bring out a new magazine that, as she wrote in the editor’s note of the first new issue, reflected “the intellect of a university magazine and the spark of a regional magazine of ideas.”

By doing so, Lednicer opened herself up to a whole new level of media scrutiny. Specifically, a modified version of the UMagazinology questionnaire. That’ll teach her.

How long have you been in your job?

I’ve been in this job two years and four months. In other words, long enough to gather just enough knowledge of the legal academy to be dangerous. Short enough to realize there’s a lot more I can learn and grow.

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

My background is in newspapers and magazines, and the most significant thing I had to learn was how to explain my vision to people outside the law school who don’t understand what I’m trying to do here. As a newspaper and magazine reporter you work with fellow reporters and sources who know the playing field and understand what it takes to get a story into print—why you have to ask certain questions, why a story has to be structured a certain way. You don’t have to think about what your readers need. In this job I’ve had to think a lot more about what I’m trying to accomplish and how best to serve the magazine’s readers.

You’ve just overhauled the magazine. Could you talk a bit about the thinking behind that and the process?

At the time I inherited the magazine, its impact on the outside world was minimal. Alumni never wrote in to comment. Lawyers, judges, politicians, and policymakers didn’t know we existed. Law is where the best and the worst of human nature intersect, and the storytelling possibilities are endless—but you couldn’t find that in our magazine. At the same time, media outlets throughout the Pacific Northwest were downsizing and re-deploying staff. There was, and continues to be, a glaring lack of coverage of legal issues in an area of the country that has been groundbreaking in its approach to the law: legalization of same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, judicial decisions that equate campaign contributions with free speech, a governor who refuses to sign execution warrants. Willamette University College of Law is located across the street from the state capitol, the department of justice, and the state supreme court, so we are uniquely positioned to lead the debate on the pressing legal issues of our time. As for the process, I had several conversations with the dean of the law school, our alumni relations folks, members of our board of trustees, faculty members, state legislative aides, lobbyists, and others I had written about when I covered politics for the local newspaper. I tested out my idea of turning the magazine into a thought leader on legal issues throughout the Pacific Northwest, and everyone gave it a thumbs-up. The impact has been immediate. The dean of one of our peer law schools wrote to our dean to praise the content; the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked for extra copies for their board members; lobbyists responded favorably, and an alum was moved to submit two law-related poems for the next issue.

What about the new magazine pleases you the most?

The content. Our aim is to become a must-read throughout the Pacific Northwest. Alums still will be able to read about their fellow graduates and the latest news about faculty. But they’ll also get the kind of compelling storytelling and analysis that didn’t exist in the magazine before.

What was your biggest frustration?

Lack of staff. Besides running the magazine, I also maintain the law school’s website, alumni Facebook page, and Twitter feeds; coach professors on how write op-ed pieces for local and national publications; deal with media inquiries; produce videos; and approve copy for brochures. I’d love to publish the magazine more often, but I’d need a managing editor. And a marketing assistant.

What part of your magazine still does not satisfy you, despite everybody’s best effort?

The recurring features, such as alumni news and Ethics Corner, a Q&A feature I introduced in which alums and a professor tackle a legal dilemma. I’m a big fan of the wonderfully written alumni news pages of Reed College and the University of Portland’s magazines, but I’m not sure the tone would work for Willamette Lawyer. As for Ethics Corner, I’d like our contributors to let loose a little more.

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

Calvin Trillin. He put boudin (French rice sausage by way of Louisiana) on the map, and I’d love to turn him loose on a food-related legal question. Such as: Do people have a right to an adequate food supply?

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

In my off-time, I sing in a women’s barbershop chorus that was asked to audition for America’s Got Talent (we’re waiting for the results). I also co-authored a food book a few years ago (Extreme Barbecue, Chronicle Books, 2007) and I occasionally cater weddings and other big events. So, any job that combines food and song would work for me.

Eight Questions for Brian Brown

I think of St. Thomas, edited by Brian Brown, as one of the stealth alumni magazines: It does not get a lot of attention from the alumni magazine editorial community, but it consistently does a fine job of exemplifying the University of St. Thomas, which you will find in St. Paul, Minnesota. Next March during the Editors Forum in Minneapolis, take a little time and swing by the St. Thomas campus. Brown tells me he will buy the beer. (Actually, he said just the first round.) (Actually, he didn’t even say that. I made the whole thing up. Somewhere, Jonah Lehrer has detected a disturbance in The Force.)

St. Thomas has an excellent football team that tomorrow will be playing in the national division III semifinals has advanced to the NCAA Division III title game this year. The team is known as the Tommies. Nearby Saint John’s fields the Johnnies. Imagine if this had caught on throughout the country. Swarthmore would be the Swarthies. Johns Hopkins would be the Johnsies. Wisconsin would be the Whiskeys. But I digress.

Brown graciously responded to the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

I’ve been at St. Thomas for 20 years (15 as a writer/editor). I have been the senior editor of St. Thomas since 2007.

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

I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that the only thing our 90,000+ alums all have in common is that they have diplomas from the same school. Political views, socioeconomic circumstances and connections to former classmates and faculty vary wildly decade-to-decade, alum-to-alum. Even the most benign story may trigger an angry response. I’m still learning to deal with that disappointment. To keep things in perspective, I have Jeff Lott’s answer to this question posted on my office door:

When bad things happen, move on. And yes, bad things will happen. You will publish factual errors, misquote professors, and piss people off. “Appalled” readers will go straight to the top with their complaints, which will rain back down on you from that unfortunate direction. Stories will be spiked by administrators who had previously given them the green light. Writers will fail to turn in their copy on time – or at all – leaving gaping holes in your next issue. Shake it off, look ahead, and keep your wits about you to fight the next battle.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Having the opportunity to tell the university’s story through features and profiles. Our talented photographers and writers have the ability to share these stories on a very personal level. I am often humbled by the deep and passionate connection so many students and alumni have with St. Thomas. And if the (unskewed) results of the CASE Readership Survey are any indication, the magazine remains one of the most valued benefits of being a Tommie.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Technology. (Insert idiom about leading a horse to water.)

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

The alumni news/notes section. Should we place class notes online or in print? Use submitted grip-and-grins that don’t match the quality of our feature photography? How many graphic identities for alumni programing is too many? Most of this content is provided to the magazine by other sources, and the end result often reflects that lack of editorial direction.

What story are you proudest to have published?

With every issue I am inspired by the research students and faculty are doing to make our world a better place. And I am touched by those who allow us to share their personal moments of pain and suffering. Two stories that best represent these experiences would be “John Abraham Takes a Stand,” a profile on a faculty member who has used science and civility to call a climate-change skeptic’s bluff, and “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts,” the story of a former dean who is documenting his life and death with ALS.

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

Norman Maclean would be a real “get.” But if we’re relying on the undead, I would choose someone only slightly less available: Cormac McCarthy—our country’s greatest living writer.

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

Guitarist for Arcade Fire with time to fly fish during the day.