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That Would Make a Good Story

The seeds of articles in each issue sprout up everywhere -- from Class Notes to random conversations

Photo: Art Streiber

SHARPER IMAGE: Our Chandler story came into focus when the L.A. Times was sold.

By Mark Robinson

It's a question I love to answer, and it came up again just this week. We were in my office here on the second floor of Bowman Alumni House interviewing a candidate for editorial assistant. The applicant, one of those terrifically impressive Stanford seniors, was giving us a pretty good pitch. She scored extra points when she said how much she liked the range of stories in the magazine -- science, humanities, personal essay, student life -- all linked by having some connection to Stanford. She was either skilled at flattery or unusually perceptive. Probably both, I figured. Then came the question: "Where do you get the ideas for the articles?"

Ah, so glad you asked. Because the stories behind the stories are worth telling in themselves. In this issue, for example, we found ideas staring back at us from the front pages of national newspapers, lurking in past issues of Class Notes and popping up as an offshoot of another story altogether.

Consider the piece on Otis Chandler (page 58). The last time this magazine profiled him -- in the fall of 1978 -- Chandler, '50, was nearly finished turning the Los Angeles Times into one of the best papers in the country (my favorite photo from that article shows Chandler, an avid big-game hunter, smiling slyly in front of a dozen stuffed trophies). When his family's paper was sold to the Tribune Co. this spring, it sparked headlines around the country. We had a perfect excuse to revisit the subject. Chandler has a reputation for being media-shy, but when Alex Beam requested an interview, Chandler didn't hesitate. Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe and one-time Knight fellow in journalism at Stanford, couldn't wait. He even offered to stay at a friend's house in Los Angeles to save money on the hotel bill (I took him up on it). My favorite photo in this article? Chandler on his ranch-house porch under a giant pair of longhorn antlers.

Then there's the cover story on Lewis Terman (page 44). We got interested in him after noticing that a fair number of obituaries in the Class Notes section mentioned that the deceased had been a "Termite." It turned out that the term described participants in the famous psychology professor's study on intelligence. In the 1920s, they had all scored high on a newfangled test that measured something Terman called intelligence quotient. He began tracking their progress and in the process created the first long-term social science study. For most of the participants, being a Termite became a badge of honor, sometimes a critical piece of self-identity. The story was irresistible to us, especially because Terman's son, legendary engineering professor and provost Fred, '20, Engr. '22, was himself a Termite. But when writer Mitch Leslie began looking more deeply into Lewis Terman's life and work, he soon ran across a chilling part of the tale: in the first half of his career, Terman was an advocate of eugenics, the social theory that called for selective breeding to improve the human race. "It makes him a more complex person, more like a fallen hero," Leslie says. "But it was hard to look away from his failings." It makes an even better story than the one we'd found in the obituaries.

We latched onto East Palo Alto's remarkable Eastside College Preparatory School (page 52) when a staffer was researching another piece altogether. Former editorial assistant Jen Davis, '99, was reporting on Zoë Bradbury for our May/June package on the best student jobs. (Bradbury, '01, got to ride her bike around Jasper Ridge as a part-time ranger.) Jen discovered that Bradbury was working with a fledgling high school in East Palo Alto, bringing the students to Jasper Ridge to learn about biology and ecology. As so often happens, there was a Stanford connection: the school's founder (now principal), Chris Bischof, was a member of the Class of '92. His classmate, Helen Kim, was vice principal. Even better, the first graduating class of eight includes one student who plans to attend Stanford. We had another good idea to chase.

And the terrifically impressive job applicant? She patiently listened to my recitation of the roots of our stories. Look for her name in the masthead of the next issue.

Send your story ideas to Mark at

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