We are pleased to present a new recurring feature here at UMagazinology—“Eight Questions.” From time to time we’ll present the same octet of queries to a university magazine editor, sort of like Vanity Fair‘s “Proust Questionnaire,” but much brainier, of course. How often will the feature recur? Erm . . . whenever I get around to doing a new one, but let’s say at least every two weeks or so. The first respondent is the estimable Kevin Cool, editor of Stanford. Enjoy.
How long have you been in your job?
What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn?
How to calibrate and meet the expectations of our staff, our readers, and university officials. Although we are all committed to the same basic objective, which is to engage our alumni in meaningful ways, there are a hundred ways to disagree on how best to do that. I’m not the only one who has ever encountered this, of course. It’s to some degree inherent in a situation where you’re trying to balance constituent relations, corporate expectations, and professional integrity. Managing these interrelationships remains the single most difficult part of the job.
What has been your best experience at the magazine?
Simply the opportunity to work every day with a group of talented people in a place that hums with energy and intellectual curiosity. And the weather is nice.
What has proven to be your biggest frustration?
The biggest ongoing frustration is the partisanship of some segments of our readership. Anytime you’re producing a publication for 200,000 people ranging in age from 19 to 99, it’s fair to expect broad diversity in opinions, ideologies, etc. What is troubling is the level of hostility evident in some of the feedback whenever we do a story about a person in politics or engaged in some sort of advocacy role. I’ve been an editor for 25-plus years and the current level of incivility is off the chart.
What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?
We strive to have at least one must-read feature in every issue, but it’s an elusive goal. He hit the occasional home run, but we also hit a lot of doubles.
What story are you proudest to have published?
In 2009, we ran a cover story about Brooksley Born, a former head of the Commodity and Futures Trading Commission, who took on Alan Greenspan in the late ’90s by warning that lack of regulation in the credit markets was a disaster waiting to happen. When the mortgage crisis hit and banks collapsed because of exposure in massive derivatives contracts, Born was proved prescient. She was retired, living a quiet life in D.C., and already had rejected several media requests. For whatever reason, most likely her fondness for her alma mater, she said yes when we called. As a result, we were able to get what was essentially an exclusive. Our story was widely picked up in the blogosphere and mainstream media, and inspired a Frontline documentary about the origins of the financial crisis that featured Born as the protagonist. It’s rare that magazines like ours get to be first, and that, in combination with the quality of the piece, written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Rick Schmitt, was a source of pride for everyone on our staff.
If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?
Gene Weingarten. Every editor should read his collection of work, The Fiddler in the Subway. It’s all in there—the absurdity, the grace, the wonder of the human condition. His storytelling skills are just extraordinary.
If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?
Play-by-play broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals. That is, if they wouldn’t let me play centerfield.