From the Editor

Backhanded compliments

Blog posts about the alumni magazine.

In 2007, a law professor in San Diego blogged about a short article of ours on Yale’s research into duck sex. (That article got a lot of attention.) But what interested us was that he started with a disclaimer. “I must say I have come to enjoy” the Yale Alumni Magazine “quite a bit,” he said, explaining that even though the magazine covers only Yale, “somehow it manages to do that in a way that is not offensive, but actually fairly interesting.”

That deft little backhanded/underhanded compliment made our day. For a while, “Not offensive, but actually fairly interesting” was a standing joke around the office and our unofficial motto. It also became the first item in a folder of alumni blog posts I keep on my computer, labeled “Can’t blv I liked an alum mag.” They’re not all as entertaining as that first one. But there’s a distinct theme.

Here’s a screenwriter, posting on our article about an actress/director: “When I started this blog . . ., I doubt I ever thought I would post something from the Yale Alumni Magazine.” 

Here’s a graduate student at Oxford, on our feature about the 1970 protests at Yale over the Black Panther trial: “Let me defend the practice of referring to one’s alumni magazine as a credible source. Although I never would’ve guessed it before graduating, YAM is far more than a fund-raising vehicle. It is a journal of ideas for the Yale community and has fairly rigorous intellectual standards.”

You see the pattern: pleasure mixed with a tinge of slightly defensive surprise. It warms our editorial hearts. Anyone who puts out a magazine is working to win over readers. To us, these blog posts by enthusiastically surprised alumni are like miniature blue ribbons. 

But we understand the surprise. Alumni magazines have a poor reputation, because almost all are run by communications or fund-raising departments. To be sure: those departments are essential. US universities could not survive without them. But their publications operate for purposes that, when editorial decisions are made, must generally trump the purpose of serving the readers.

Our directive? Serve the readers. We’re not published by Yale, but by a small alumni-based nonprofit. We are alumni-run and alumni-funded, free to deliver to the alumni all the news and information about Yale that is important or interesting. We can seek the highest quality. Stories of ours have been covered on the front pages of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and we regularly publish Pulitzer and National Book Award winners. 

One critical benefit is that we can report fully and fairly on campus controversies. But also—and our surprised alumni probably don’t realize this—there is a straight line from editorial independence to good reading. Editorial independence gives us the freedom to be irreverent or probing; to include a variety of opinions and individual voices; to use humor and creativity. And as all Yale alumni know, the Yale campus without variety and creativity wouldn’t be Yale.

Here is one more blogger, an academic in music: “What do you get . . . as an alumnus of Yale? . . . You get invited to pay $7,000 to join annual alumni trips to the Galápagos. You understand the withering reference to Bridgeport, CT, in Franzen’s new novel. And you receive—and here’s the real, honest-to-goodness perk—the Yale Alumni Magazine. Pick it up, flip past the predictable references to the Whiffenpoofs, and there’s almost always, in fact, something rather riveting.” 

Thank you. We aim to rivet.


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