Staff Q&A with John Prendergast

John Prendergast

Peter Tobia

The incredibly diverse mix of stories in Penn's alumni magazine isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s what Gazette Editor John Prendergast sets out to achieve in each issue.

Open up the recent issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette and you’ll see a story about Penn scholars in Egypt during that country’s uprising, a long piece about James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and a founder of Penn Law School, and a profile of alumna Vanessa Bayer, a regular on “Saturday Night Live.”

This incredibly diverse mix of stories isn’t unusual for the University’s alumni magazine. In fact, it’s what Gazette Editor John Prendergast sets out to achieve in each issue.

“Our overall approach is to try to put together a varied issue every time,” says Prendergast, a 1980 graduate of the College. “Hopefully there will be something in it that will appeal to everybody. If not, they’ll get another one in two months.”

The magazine is one of the best ways that more than 250,000 Penn alumni both near and far stay connected to the University. Their readers, says Prendergast, “are open to things that they’re not familiar with. I think [the magazine is] one of the things that, particularly for alumni who have been out for a while, is a reminder of a time in your life when new ideas were popping up and new things affected you.”

The Current recently sat down with the editor behind Penn’s alumni magazine to talk about some of the best stories and issues during his time at the helm, how, so far, the Gazette isn’t feeling any heat to migrate to an online-only format and how working at Penn has changed—and deepened—his connection to the University.

Q. You have a smart audience. How does that inform the decisions you make about what stories to include in the magazine?
A. We get stories from a lot of different places; there are a lot of people here on campus who will send us suggestions, which we’re always happy to get. Or you will hear somebody talking about something and they will mention something someone else is doing. So it’s both a very elaborate and amorphous way that stories come to us. These kinds of publications—alumni magazines—are among the last that have a really varied audience in terms of politics and age. Certainly, there are some common elements across the generations as well. It’s not like our audience has nothing in common, but they are also very different in terms of their age and background and experience, familiarity with technology.

Q. Have you felt any pressure to move away from print and to an online-only edition?
A. We haven’t. We have other options and we’ll always continue to expand those and to offer those, but so far, there’s very little indication that our readership doesn’t want to keep getting the print version of the magazine. We do have what we call the digital edition, which people can register for, and we’ve done a fair amount of advertising for that. We do have other options for people. We have the website, of course. We’re in the process of putting together an iPad app. We’ve been adding electronic content through a couple of regular blogs that we have, Facebook, Twitter, we probably have a YouTube channel. ... To the extent that we can gauge reader interest, they really still seem to want and like the print version of the magazine and we will be ready when that changes, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now.

Q. Because you have a built-in audience and you don’t have to fish for readers, does it allow you to take more risks with your content?
A. That’s tough, because on the one hand, we do have a built-in audience, but it is an audience that spends a lot of time with the magazine, that feels a strong sense of interest and sense of ownership in it, so they’re definitely paying attention.
If we can give people a mix of things that are happening on campus and student stories, and some sense of the variety of work that’s being done and experiences that are being had in the alumni community, then I think we’re doing our job.

These kinds of publications—alumni magazines—are among the last that have a really varied audience in terms of politics and age."

Q. I imagine you’ve interviewed quite a few people over the years. What are some of your most memorable stories?
A. The current staff was pretty much here when the Gazette celebrated its 100th anniversary. We had a very nice party where we read excerpts from not just the staff, but a lot of friends on campus, and people who have written for us came back and read excerpts that ranged across the history of the magazine. That was a real revelation because up until then, the past issues of the magazine had just been these dusty old books that were sitting on our library shelves. They’re still dusty, but we’ve at least looked into them.
I will say that I tend not to think of the stuff that I write for the magazine, because a lot of times, that’s not really the signature stuff that we do. I’m much more focused on putting it all together. But over the last year, two sort of contrasting stories [stand out]. One was a cover story that we did last September/October that was about a writer and the mother of an autistic child. That was a very beautifully told, but also very inspiring and a moving story for people who are in the same situation, and for anybody who faces any kind of life challenge.
More recently, Sam Hughes was the writer on this, we did a massive story on Alzheimer’s research here, focusing a lot on [researchers] John Trojanowski and Virginia Lee, but also spreading out from that to all the different centers and groups and researchers who are working on that. In some ways, that’s the range of what we do. That’s a very scientific story, it obviously has big societal implications, and a lot of it was focused on the hard science and the very technical work that’s going on. And on the other hand, we also try to address the human stories.
Another story I really liked was on the band called Wax, which was the 1970s band that was poised for stardom. They recently had a bit of a reunion and they’ve released an album of recordings that they made back then. That was a fun story in a lot of ways ... the way that the Penn connection lasts over the decades and the strange ways that it can bring people back together again.

Q. How did you get started writing? Was it something you always wanted to do?
A. I went to school here in the ’70s and at some point we were digging through old stuff in our basement and I found—because we don’t throw anything away—a thing from freshman year where I was asked what my ambition was and I believe I wrote that I wanted to be a professional writer. I was an English major here at Penn and I guess probably at the time, I thought that I would write and teach. But at some point, I shifted to magazine work. I worked here at Penn for the Wharton magazine, which was a quarterly that was published for a while here. ...
You get a job in one thing and then you get the next job and the next job and then here you are.

Q. What would you say are your goals for the Gazette?
A. Publications everywhere are sort of trying to figure out what the next thing is going to be. I think for us, the print edition of the magazine will always—meaning for the next 20 years—be the centerpiece. I think we have begun to and need to think a lot more about how we can supplement that, add value to that with online things through blogs and all the other social networking technologies, and we’ll be looking at those with an eye to figure out what readers are wanting or how we can serve them better.

Q. As an alum yourself, have your views about Penn changed after working on the magazine?
A. I think it certainly has deepened the connection and it certainly has made me, I think, much better informed and much more aware of the size and scope and variety of the place. When you’re a student, you’re living the life of a student, you know the administration [departments] that give you a hard time, or collect your money, or help you. You know the buildings that you go into for your classes and you know the places that you like to eat and drink and hang out and everybody has their own experience of the place.
But working here, it has been an education, certainly. It’s a different perspective, let’s say. I had a great time as a student so I’d never want to say it’s more fun.

Originally published on June 9, 2011