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Published: Tuesday, 1/10/2012

Penn St. looks at dark days

Alumni magazine tackles scandal and ripple events

BY JONATHAN D. SILVER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State University's alumni magazine, showing up in nearly 130,000 mailboxes this month, has dedicated its latest issue to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, from a funereal all-black cover lamenting "our darkest days" to several photo montages to 38 pages examining the most traumatic event in school history.

For the glossy bimonthly magazine, it became increasingly clear as events unfolded that tackling the arrest of the high-profile former football coach on charges that he molested young boys would require devoting an entire edition to the ugly situation.

"It was just too big not to cover thoroughly," Tina Hay, editor of The Penn Stater and a 1983 university graduate, said Monday.

Influencing that decision was the fact that the fallout from the scandal far exceeded Mr. Sandusky's alleged crimes. It encompassed claims that other administrators knew about the sexual-assault allegations but failed to report them, national media attention, the toppling of former Penn State president Graham Spanier and the ouster of legendary football head coach Joe Paterno.

While some university publications tend to act as boosters, Ms. Hay took pride in producing an issue that she felt honestly covered a divisive, controversial, and incendiary topic.

"This is a big issue in our field. Editors talk about this all the time: wanting to be able to report candidly about what's taking place on their campuses. And some alumni magazines are more capable of doing this than others. There are some courageous alumni magazines out there and others that wouldn't touch this with a 10-foot-pole."

Ms. Hay considers The Penn Stater to be in the former category. She acknowledges that the magazine is not totally independent; it is published by an alumni association that reports, in part, to the university.

But no content was censored other than a single essay that the administration said had factual problems, and no one, as Ms. Hay said, "interfered."

"Penn State felt comfortable taking this issue on headfirst because we have a great deal of confidence in the institution and its future. I think it's a reflection of wanting to have some honest, accurate portrayal, not be disingenuous about it. It's part of moving forward and being confident in what this institution is all about," said Rodney P. Kirsch, senior vice president of development and alumni relations, who ultimately oversees the magazine.

When news of Mr. Sandusky's arrest broke Nov. 5, editors were tinkering with the idea of a cover story on great concert memories at Penn State. That quickly changed.

Ms. Hay and her staff of seven hammered out a plan to create an issue that was "thoughtful," "reflective," and "even-handed." While lacking a newspaper's hard edge, the magazine confronts the scandal and tries to remain pertinent despite not having the latest twists and turns in the saga.

Staffers solicited "mini-essays" from alumni and faculty members, eliminated most regular features and broke down the issue into five sections that covered topics such as "Understanding Child Sexual Abuse" and "What Joe Paterno Leaves Behind."

Following a letter from Ms. Hay introducing the issue -- "Like everyone else," she wrote, "we were revulsed by the news, horrified by the prospect of young boys harmed physically and emotionally" -- there were three pages of alumni comments, a timeline of the scandal and 22 short articles.

Before anyone even gets to the content, though, there is the arresting cover -- a jumble of black letters (as if the letters in "The Penn Stater" had collapsed) on a black background surrounded by a black frame with the words "Our Darkest Days" in white.

Carole Otypka, the magazine's art director, came up with the concept.

"I think she was trying to capture symbolically what a lot of alumni were feeling, especially in those first few weeks, which was a sense of collapse, murkiness, confusion, and a need to rebuild," Ms. Hay said.

"In fact, I said to her at one point, 'People are going to have a hard time seeing the letters. They're going to have to hold it to the light.' She said, 'That's my point. It's a confusing situation.' "

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jonathan D. Silver is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1962.



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