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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

An Inside Look at Middlebury Magazine

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MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Magazine: You see it around campus sometimes. You never signed up for it, but somehow it got to your parents’ doorstep and now they’re texting you about some speaker who came to Middlebury two months ago. You get regular ‘Middlebury News’ emails in your inbox with links to articles in the magazine and you never fully understand where they come from. And you’ve probably wondered about all these things, but never cared enough to find out.

Well, now is your chance: here’s a look into the mystery behind Middlebury Magazine.

Over the past week, the magazine’s staff have spent hours proofreading and tweaking the last details of their January issue — one of four issues each year — which will be distributed to its 50,000 readers within the next month. Over half of those readers will be alumni of the college, and the other half will include parents, current faculty and staff, those who choose to subscribe for free and anyone who decides to pick up a copy around campus. You are not alone, however, if Middlebury Magazine often seems to operate in an alternate sphere from your daily student life on the hill. 

The magazine’s central audience is alumni of the college and its central mission is maintaining those former students’ connections to Middlebury. This means that much of the magazine features life updates from alumni and changes on campus that seem like old news to current students. But even though the magazine is run entirely by college staff, students can always make submissions and take an active part in the magazine’s representation of the college. 

The Campus took a look into the alternate universe of Kitchel House, the building across the street from Twilight that holds Middlebury’s Office of Communications and the staff of Middlebury Magazine. The magazine staff were eager to give students a glimpse into their work.

“Not that we’re intentionally opaque, but I think people don’t understand how stories get in the magazine, how stories are created, where they come from,” said the magazine’s Editorial Director Matt Jennings. “Who knows, maybe after this I’ll be hearing from people all the time.”

Jennings has been the Editorial Director of the magazine for the past seventeen years, and his main responsibilities involve writing features, editing pieces and overseeing the magazine as a whole. The past week was a busy one for him because the magazine’s key feature piece came in later than normal. At this point, he had already received the issue’s final edits, which were FedExed back to him all the way from Portland, OR, by the magazine’s remote proofreader Nina Maynard. Though he has never actually met Maynard, Jennings has worked closely with her for the past seventeen years and described her work as “invaluable.”

Back in 2002, Jennings was originally hired to work for the magazine full-time, but this only lasted about six months, he said, before he was given other non-magazine communications projects to oversee as well. 

This situation is true of most of the other magazine staff members, which is pretty unique; Dartmouth, for instance, has an entire staff solely devoted to its alumni magazine. Middlebury Magazine has only five in-house staff members — most of the magazine’s stories are written by freelance writers or alumni — but everyone’s job also includes outside responsibilities unrelated to the magazine. 

Jennings is in it for the magazine. “I’ve never seen another job here or anywhere else that I wanted to do more than I do now, and the magazine is a big part of that,” he said. “I’m happy overseeing other publications that we do, but my first love is this.”

Other staff members felt similarly. Pamela Fogg is the creative director and has been with the magazine for twenty years. Her job mostly revolves around design — though she and Jennings usually collaborate on the cover. 

“I love working with illustrators and photographers, giving them the synopsis of the story and working with them to figure out the best approach for visuals that will be engaging when you tell the story,” Fogg said. She pointed out the colorful draft pages that line her walls, which she hangs up so that she can look at them with fresh eyes again and again. By last week’s point in the process leading up to publication, the designs were finished and Jennings brought Maynard’s final proofs to Fogg’s office for her to read and offer input. 

Fogg estimated that working with the magazine is about half her job, while the other half involves designing for Admissions and Advancement materials. For Fogg, too, the magazine has more appeal than her other tasks. She described the familial nature of the magazine staff, particularly evident in their weekly meetings.

“These meetings are quite special in that we all operate like a big family — slightly offbeat, quirky,” she said. “Many inside references that we draw on that crack us up, we finish each other’s sentences, talk all at the same time and, in general, it’s an exhausting, exhilarating and oddly productive one hour per week.”

Just like a big family, there is even some drama present among the dogs that frequent Kitchel House: Jennings brings his fluffy goldendoodle Tom to the office nearly every day, who is perpetually friendly until Fogg’s German Shepherd Schröder shows up and Tom retreats to his owner’s office. The cycle of fear continues when copy editor Jessie Raymond’s poodle/terrier mix Thor arrives, at which point Schröder avoids all eye contact in fear of the tiny dog. 

Jessie Raymond has worked part-time as copy editor since 2016, and though copy editing for the magazine is only about 10 percent of her job, she and her dog are part of the family too. During the past week leading up to print of the January issue, her job became magazine-focused, but her responsibilities are usually more heavily focused on copy editing all the other publications that come out of the Communications Office. 

Sara Marshall, the alumni editor, works in an office downstairs from the rest of the team. Though she also has tasks outside of the magazine, her central responsibilities revolve around the network of Middlebury alumni, tasks that she finishes up before many other sections. Marshall writes and edits the magazine’s Class Acts pages, communicates with the class correspondents who gather those updates about alumni and organizes all the photos that alumni send in of weddings and other celebrations.

“I love working with the alumni,” Marshall said. “We get a lot of alums who react to things in the magazine and send in letters and that’s another connection. It’s a great way to keep that alumni base involved with the college.”

Though one might expect an alumni magazine such as Middlebury’s to conform to portraying a certain image of the college to its former students — many of whom donate large sums of money to the school — the magazine staff consider themselves proudly independent. 

“What I love about it is that we can just tell our stories,” Marshall said. “There’s no pressure on us from anybody to make sure that you make Middlebury the focus of the story so we can make money.”

Jennings echoed this sentiment. “We report on the same people who publish us,” he said. “But I feel that it’s incumbent upon us to be portraying the college in an accurate light, but also in an honest light, and that means telling complex stories sometimes… and it’s okay if someone doesn’t like something.”

He cited in particular the magazine’s Spring 2016 issue entitled “Let’s Talk About Race,” the cover of which a reader ripped off and sent back to Jennings with an attached sticky note that read, “This is bullshit.” Jennings has received countless such “angry letters” from disgruntled alumni in response to the stories the magazine publishes. Some letters arrive in the form above, while others are longer and well-researched. Regardless, Jennings tries to respond to every one.  

“What I love about the angry letters is that it really shows that they care about the place,” he said. “I know that there are institutions out there that would not have been confident enough to have students and faculty talking very candidly about negative experiences at Middlebury, but that was happening. We felt like our alums needed to know that was happening.”

Raymond, an alumna herself, agreed that though the magazine has to walk a fine line because of its audience, it also has the power to complicate Middlebury’s story. “I think the magazine is a good place for people to see the different sides of their little college on the hill, which is actually a little bit more than that,” she said.

For full staff issue coverage, click here.