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A showcase for Berkeley's best
A conversation with California Monthly's new editor, Kerry Tremain

| 01 September 2005


Although a redesigned California Monthly won't appear until January, the magazine's new editor, Kerry Tremain, has already made his mark on the California Alumni Association's membership publication. The one-time executive editor of Mother Jones is infusing the Monthly with a sense of mission and purpose that closely tracks his own diverse interests.

In the nine months that he's been editor, Tremain has impressed on Berkeley deans and faculty his interest in highlighting their best efforts. With the publication of "Berkeley's Big Bang Project" in the Monthly's September/October issue (see "If Moscow's nuked, go to Plan B") - based on the premise of a nuclear bomb detonated in Moscow by terrorists some years hence - Tremain saw his get-acquainted tour of the campus bear almost immediate fruit.

"I went to talk to Steve Weber [director of the Institute of International Studies and co-principal investigator of the "Big Bang" project] about what we're doing with the magazine," he recalls. "He casually mentioned that they were convening a conference to address the scenario of a terrorist nuke exploding in Moscow, and of course my ears went up like a coyote's." The resulting story - crafted by Mark Dowie, a veteran writer/editor associated with the Graduate School of Journalism - is, says Tremain, "the first of what I hope will be many examples to come of the way that cultivating a campus relationship can deliver a cover story for the Monthly . . . even if it's accidental."

The Monthly circulates to 95,000 dues-paying members of the CAA - a fraction of Berkeley's 408,000 living alumni. Last fall the campus paid to have nearly all alumni receive the November 2004 issue, highlighting the appointment of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and familiarizing a larger number of alums with the magazine. CAA Executive Director Randy Parent says he's eager to have more nonmember alumni receive the magazine, "so we can do some research and see what impact it has on development, on involvement, on CAA membership."

The notion of increased cooperation between the independent, nonprofit CAA and the campus is a controversial one for many. But there appears to be no dissension among the association's leadership about the steps Tremain has taken to strengthen the magazine. The business plan that he and an advisory group of publishing consultants presented at a crucial CAA board meeting in June, says Parent, was a "vision for excellence [that] answered all the questions and concerns the board had." At last week's follow-up board meeting, Tremain's presentation on the state of the magazine was met with no questions whatsoever - confirmation, in Parent's view, that with the appearance of the current issue, "the proof is in the pudding."

The Berkeleyan sat down with Kerry Tremain last week for a talk about the California Monthly's future and the way his thinking about Berkeley - and the campus's potential contributions to public discourse on challenging issues - will shape that future.

Steve Weber says that the "Big Bang" study highlighted in your current issue is, among other things, a possible model for a new way of doing multidisciplinary work at Berkeley.
I think that's right, and it's also a paradigm for the magazine. I was at an event that [journalism Dean] Orville Schell convened with a visiting Chinese academic delegation here. At one point [engineering] Dean Richard Newton got up and said, "What we've found at Berkeley about how to get people to work together is that you define some kind of very big problem that needs to be solved, and attack it from a range of viewpoints." And I find increasingly that the campus - with the Health Sciences Initiative, the recently approved faculty research initiatives, and so on - is attempting to define big, important problems.

In my wildest dreams, what this magazine would do on that front, and on all the others where Berkeley is working on the toughest issues of the day, is begin to construct the terms for public debate. Particularly in the sciences now, what's critical in discussing new technologies - in biotechnology, say, or genetic research - is finding a way for a truly interdisciplinary debate to occur. If you're talking about stem-cell research, you involve ethicists, you involve patient-advocacy groups, you make sure that various people and perspectives are brought into it.

There's a catchphrase in the magazine business for a publication that attempts to do things like this: people say it's a "thought leader." Is that your goal for the Monthly?
Absolutely. If you cut to the chase, Berkeley is and has been for many years, if not the intellectual leader in the West, certainly the leader of the pack. At the same time, California is not only the biggest and most important state in the country, but a place where a lot of the most crucial problems that are going to face the country and even the world are going to manifest themselves as challenges. Not all of them are problems; some of them are just developments. Take the rising power of China. We're the state, more than any other, that really faces China: as a trading partner, as a place that welcomes Chinese entrepreneurs, and so on. Take as well new technologies - like stem-cell research and biotech in general, or nanotechnology. California has a convergence of academic institutions and private-sector companies unmatched anywhere else. The "exceptionalism" of California that [social critic and former Nation editor] Carey McWilliams talked about still obtains. And Berkeley is where a lot of these challenges, and the solutions to them, will be debated and acted on.

How will you reconcile the outwardly focused mission you're taking on with the more specific demands of an alumni publication?


California Monthly's Kerry Tremain (Deborah Stalford photo)
Those two key functions will be represented in the magazine when it's redesigned in January. In magazine terminology, there will be a distinct "front of the book" and "back of the book." The back section will be about the connection among alums: "the Cal part" of the magazine, if you will. That section has to have the same kind of intense editorial attention and excellence and wit that we want to bring to the rest of the magazine. That's important for the alumni and the university alike. The second, front part of the book will be Berkeley's outward face: to California in particular, but also the Pacific Rim.

With our core readership about 90-percent alums, we'll always continue to be focused very much on them and how to engage them as readers. We don't want them to throw the magazine on the recycling pile when it comes in the mail, thinking, "Oh, this is just the university advertising itself, trying to stick its hand in my pocket." We want them to see that this is a magazine that's truly invested in their education ... a way for them to be re-admitted to the university, exposed to the intellectual fervor that the campus represents.

For the part of our mandate that involves the outward look - and Berkeley has always been facing outward - we feel it's key to invest in the quality of the publication. We need to address the big topics; we need to use first-class writers to do that. Writing about science topics in a smart, thoughtful, ahead-of-the-pack way is not something a first-year journalism student can do. We think we can attract big writers because this region has enormous writing talent.

What constraints are you facing - financial and otherwise - as you try to grow the magazine?
If I can be very frank, the relationship between alumni magazines - and in particular, good alumni magazines - and university development efforts is an absolutely established fact. Historically, the California Alumni Association hasn't been a formal part of the university, and for a long time that was a comfortable relationship ... in part because alumni support of the university's excellence wasn't as critical to the university in terms of its future finances.

But that's no longer the case: With the decline in state funding, and increasing competition for top faculty and students, the university really, I think, more and more needs a strong relationship with its alumni through the alumni association, and it needs a first-class magazine to help represent the university to its various publics. And that's what I intend to do.

How do tensions between the CAA and the campus affect those intentions?
There have been been differing opinions on the CAA board about the overall direction of the organization, it's true. To put it in historical perspective a bit: There have been these two institutions that are independent but have evolved in kind of a marriage. There have been institutional tensions over the years: everything from how student demonstrators were handled during the FSM to the campus starting its own magazine to compete with the Monthly [in the 1990s]. What Randy Parent is trying to do, and that I support, is to recognize our greater goal, which is to support the excellence of this university. Doing so requires not a relationship in which one organization is subservient to the other, or under the other's control, but one that is cooperative: We recognize our common goals, and work together to achieve them. I think that that sense of maintaining our independence, but cooperating fully with the university in an increasingly important time for alumni relations, is a worthy goal.

You've spent a lot of time early in your tenure touring the campus, reaching out to departments and people. How have you been received?
I'm inviting people to help me make a better magazine, and they're responding. Some people on campus, when I've explained what I'm doing, just get it; they light up. It's an invitation, and they're very interested. My entire career here, however long that might be, will involve talking with and reaching out to people: that's how we'll get our stories, how we'll publicize what Berkeley is doing, and encourage people to contribute in any number of ways.

Your predecessor, Russell Schoch, was editor of the Monthly for 30 years. He was criticized by some on campus for his choice of topics to cover - and not cover - in the magazine. But he was also seen by some as an editor who resisted the supposed homogeneity of campus messages. In both those contexts, some of his editorial decisions became controversial in their own right. What's your view of controversy in the pages of the Monthly?
No magazine of any significance, in my view, avoids controversy. We're interested in controversies. I think for me the important thing is that we deal with controversy responsibly, and with a steady hand. That means a couple of things: First, that we pick things that we think are important; that we make sure we've done our homework, reporting-wise; and that we've been fair in our coverage, even if we come down on a particular side.

Is the magazine's image in need of some repair work?
Absolutely. No matter what you thought about the magazine prior to my tenure, the controversies the previous editor chose were ones that alienated a lot of the scientific research community at Berkeley, among others. The bottom line on the most singular controversy of that period - Peter Duesberg's findings on AIDS - is that demonstrably we were on the wrong side. So that's what I hope will be different: If we take something on, we'll be pretty sure we're right, and careful to get different points of view. That's what controversy is: It's not just stirring things up, but finding something that people take different positions on.

An editor in a place like this has the opportunity to share things of personal interest with his or her readers. Are there topics of interest to you that you want to pursue in the Monthly?
I generally have a soft spot for the biological sciences, which are a huge focus of attention on this campus, with the Health Sciences Initiative and other things. I'm also very interested in health care, and have written considerably about it from a policy perspective. The U.S. is a leader in medical technology and research, but it falls down on the job in its medical delivery systems, and particularly in the way that chronic illnesses, the big killers, are managed. My mother died of diabetes, in part, because of poor chronic-disease management. Dean Steve Shortell and others at the School of Public Health are trying to figure out ways to redesign health-care systems that address this gap: between the acute-care model that most hospitals and doctors work on and the chronic diseases that most people suffer from, that are the most serious things we spend money on, and that need to be addressed.

And finally, the question on everybody's mind: What will become of "Twisted Titles"?
My original idea - because there are a lot of "Twisted Titles"-haters out there, if you want to talk about a controversy! - was to move it to the web. Well, I got a deluge of mail about it, and since I listen to my readers, I put it back on the page, where it will stay.

California Monthly is online at www.alumni.berkeley.edu/Alumni/Cal_Monthly/main.asp.