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BAM balances U. affiliation with unbiased reporting

When television pundit Bill O'Reilly aired a segment on Queer Alliance's Sex Power God party on his Fox News show in November 2005, Brown was suddenly in the national news, and many voices weighed in on the subject. One publication - produced by the institution it covers - was among those voices.

Officially, the Brown Alumni Magazine's "fundamental mission is to continue Brown's educational work by reporting about the workings of the University and the ideas and accomplishments of its alumni, faculty and staff," according to the Web site of the Public Affairs and University Relations, the office that oversees BAM.

So exactly how much say does the University have in a publication that is sent out to its alums - especially on a sensitive subject like Sex Power God?

"With that article, on the party and the publicity on Fox News, I wasn't really thinking about the issues. I was thinking about how to report it fairly and accurately so alumni could understand what happened," said Emily Boutilier, who covered Sex Power God for BAM and is now the editor of the Amherst alumni magazine. "I think of the magazine as providing a full picture to alumni that they wouldn't get on Fox News - something no other publication could provide."

When asked if she received pressure from the University to present stories in a certain way, Boutilier said, "As a writer I was pretty much given freedom to write, and I was encouraged to report fully."

Norman Boucher, the editor in chief of BAM, said the magazine has a long history of independence. BAM was first started in 1900 as the Brown Alumni Monthly and was sent out to alums on a subscription basis.

"In 1945, the University said they'd like to use the magazine for all our alumni. There was some concern at the time. There were those who were working on it that wanted it to remain editorially independent, so they set up this alumni board of editors," Boucher said. "This board would serve as the people who would ensure the editorial quality of the magazine."

The magazine is only partially funded by the University. It raises approximately 55 to 60 percent of its budget through advertising sales and "voluntary subscriptions," which is the term the magazine uses for reader donations. The University funds the rest of the budget. "The magazine is supported almost as much by alumni wallets as it is by the University's," Boucher said.

Benjamin Weiser '76, a reporter for the New York Times, serves on the 15-person board of editors for BAM. Some members are journalists like Weiser, while others come from magazines and many are from publishing companies. The board meets twice each year, once in Providence and once in New York City, Weiser said. "We brainstorm and we send in written critiques of each issue. It's all in the interest of making it better."

"We don't have a relationship to the University, we're just volunteers," Weiser said. "We give them other voices - not all the ideas originate from the cocoon of the office. We're from all around the country, and we all have different ideas."

Weiser has kept his interest in the University alive by serving on BAM's board. Given that he had been involved with WBRU while a student, he recently suggested a BAM story on radio stations at Brown.

Weiser said he believes that alums read BAM to stay in touch with the University because of its credible reporting. "Journalism is based on independence, and I would say that the BAM has a long and great tradition of journalistic independence," Weiser said. "I think that the University realizes that you get some credit for not intervening."

Michael Chapman, vice president for the public affairs and University relations, stressed BAM's independence despite the fact that it is organizationally located in his office.

"Norman reports to me, as a member of our office, and the staff is paid out of University funds, but the magazine's staff publishes the BAM themselves," Chapman said. "I don't have a role in the editorial decision-making process for the Brown Alumni Magazine."

When asked about responses from alums about controversial issues covered in the magazine, Chapman said, "All the responses to controversial magazines are all directed to (Norman)," though he added that "none of the coverage in the alumni magazine since I have been here has really caused any conflict with the administration."

Weiser said BAM's independence ultimately benefits the University. "Out of what arrives in the mailbox, mostly what alumni read is the BAM, although (the University) sends out fundraising letters as well," he said. "If the magazine ever lost its independence, it would lose reader interest, causing alumni to become less involved with the University."

Even Boucher acknowledges the benefit BAM has on the University's fundraising efforts - and the role independence plays in that effort. "We reach a greater number of people than any other traditional mailings that Brown sends alums," Boucher said. "They're putting us out because it works in terms of raising money. But if we suddenly became a spin magazine, with simple press releases, people who read us would be less inclined to contribute."

Occasionally, events at a university challenge its alumni magazine to adequately cover its campus. During the controversial presidency of Laurence Summers, Harvard Magazine, the university's alumni magazine, strived to fairly portray the opposition to Summers and comprehensively cover the events that led to his resignation.

"Harvard went through a great trauma in a leadership, and we reported more fully than anyone else, because we had the sources to do so," said John Rosenberg, Harvard Magazine's editor. "I think the story was very polarized, so we ran both letters that were both pro and con. It wasn't as though the university called up and said that 'you shouldn't do that.' I think that many appreciated the coverage."

Brown went through similar tumult when President Gordon Gee suddenly resigned in 2000 - after only two years as the University's leader - to take the top post at Vanderbilt University. Boucher covered that story himself.

"I talked to everybody on campus, and it was a moment in Brown history where everybody was just kind of open, people were pouring their soul out," Boucher said. "It was a traumatic episode for Brown. It was one of the most talked about stories and to this day, I still hear alumni magazine editors, who ask me, 'Did you get criticized for doing it?'"

"Nobody asked me to read that story ahead of time. They knew that BAM was doing the story the way BAM does stories, and although there was probably some anxiety about what the story was going to be, most people agreed that it was the best way for Brown to confront what had happened and moved on," Boucher said.

Boucher said he believes that BAM offered the Brown community a chance to come together. "It offered the opportunity to have everyone connected with Brown to really talk about what had happened to the institution," he said. "We served as the kitchen table for all the members at Brown to talk about all these episodes. It helped Brown move forward because it was the only place that everyone could get together to talk about what had happened."


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