Since 1900, the Princeton Alumni Weekly has been, as its title page states, a “magazine by alumni for alumni.” What exactly that motto means is now the subject of discussions between the University administration and the magazine’s independent board. As the board’s chair, I want you to know that the future and character of your alumni magazine are at stake, and I invite you to make your voices heard.
This spring, University administrators informed PAW’s board that Princeton intends to change its relationship with the magazine to secure PAW’s financial health, to assure that PAW operates under the same rules as other University departments, and to protect against the magazine creating legal liability for the University. Princeton proposes to take on the entire cost of producing and distributing PAW, eliminating the burden on classes that until now have helped pay for the magazine. At the same time, Princeton has not guaranteed the continued editorial independence of the magazine.
PAW’s board welcomes proposals to secure our future as a trusted source that informs, educates, entertains, and brings alumni together with news, features, class notes, letters, memorials, and advertising for Princetonians of every era.
Our central obligation as a board is to assure that PAW remain an independent voice that reports on the life of the University without fear or favor. PAW has never been a flamethrower; rather, it serves Princeton by using its independence to shine a light on the core issues on campus. PAW is a forum for alumni, students, faculty, and staff to share their lives and thoughts; a magnifying glass for ideas and innovations born at Princeton; and a showcase for great writing and reporting about Princeton and Princetonians. PAW’s independence makes it possible to attract a strong editorial staff, and it allows editors the freedom to cover the most interesting and important stories rather than the ones most tied to fundraising initiatives.
Whether Princetonians express themselves in class notes, letters, advertisements, articles, or personal essays, their reports and opinions are now welcome regardless of the University’s own positions — and the board hopes this will remain true. PAW maintains and strengthens alumni engagement with Princeton through respectful and open discussion of University events and policies — an especially vital role in this time of national and campus debate about the nature of free speech.
We’re pleased that University representatives say they share our goals and do not seek to change the content or character of the magazine.
“Princeton is committed to providing substantial support so that the PAW continues to thrive and maintains its unique character as a beloved publication for alumni,” says a University statement I requested for this letter to readers.
The Princeton statement also says that “the University has a responsibility to ensure that the PAW — which is a department of the University staffed by University employees — operates in a manner that is consistent with University policies. Addressing both the PAW’s financial and operational issues concurrently in a thoughtful and sustainable manner is essential to the continued success of the magazine.”
A bit of background: Under PAW’s current business model, our revenue comes from three sources — advertising, including advertising from the University; class dues or other class funds; and a University subsidy. Under the new model, the University would cover all of PAW’s costs, relieving the classes of a burden many find to be onerous.
PAW is a University department; its employees work for Princeton. But PAW is a distinctive animal, and its board — made up of alumni (mostly employed in journalism and publishing); Alumni Association and faculty representatives; and two University administrators — plays a central role in hiring and evaluating the editor, overseeing and approving the budget, and setting editorial policy. The University is considering changing the PAW board’s role from operational to strictly advisory.
Many of Princeton’s peer universities have in recent years taken a direct role in supervising their alumni magazines. Some turned their magazines into promotional publications, with content approved by university officials. Others found ways to assure editorial independence even as the university supports the magazine financially. An independent board has proven to be a vital guarantee that a magazine’s editor, not university administrators, directs coverage.
Our discussions with University officials have been friendly and candid. I write to you now so that you are aware of the issues and so that together, we can assure PAW’s continued vitality. It’s in all our interests to protect PAW’s role as “a magazine by alumni for alumni.”
I welcome your comments or suggestions. Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line PAW Future.
Marc Fisher ’80, chair of the PAW board, is a senior editor at The Washington Post.