It’s hard, as students, to lift our noses out of our textbooks and stay interested in the world around us. There often is enough drama around campus to keep us satisfied that the world is indeed, still spinning. The Vassar Bubble was not an issue for Max Kutner, who graduated in 2011. Since his humble beginnings as a campus blogger, Kutner has spent his life digging for more information on topics ranging from Lana Del Ray to archaeology, captive tigers, railroads and derailments, or farm labor camps, purely for the sake of knowledge.
Kutner’s earliest work came in the form of mere hundred-word posts on his blog, Mads Vassar. Kutner started the blog out of his dorm just two weeks into his freshman year. “It was 2007, and blogging was sort of the thing to do then. Perez Hilton had just gotten big, as funny as that sounds now, Twitter wasn’t around, people were using Facebook differently, and at Vassar, the online Misc only updated every two weeks with the biggest stories from the issue on a Thursday,” Kutner said. “And so to get campus news, you kind of had to wait for the physical Misc to come out every week, and then that was it.”
Mads Vassar was an idea Kutner and some of his friends came up with on a bored afternoon. There was a void on campus when it came to getting information around, and, using Perez Hilton as their inspiration, Mads Vassar took off. “It is the, you might want to fact check this, but it is the Danish form of Matthew,” Kutner explained about the “Mads.” He wanted something with both an ethnic sounding name and the Vassar name, like “Perez Hilton.” A brief inspection of Google Translate confirmed that Mads was, indeed, Danish.
Kutner continued, “And then, as the semesters went on, probably three semesters into doing this blog, it became clear that people were interested and people started getting in touch with tips, and it really improved.” In 2010, Mads Vassar Blog went on to receive eCollegeFinder.org’s Freshmen Advisor Award, recognizing it as the one of the top fifty Internet-based resources offering young students advice toward advancing their college-life. “That [blog] was, I think, my first experience. And then, after college, into university, it kind of made it more into journalism,” Kutner went on to say.
Mads Vassar offered everything from the latest campus gossip among students to more serious topics of speakers coming to campus or even off-campus news. In 2008, Kutner wrote pieces both on the vanishing Class of 2013 Facebook Page and kept a live update of the election. The only post that was more popular than Obama’s victory was a debate to remove Coca-Cola prodeucts from campus. In May of 2011, Kutner’s senior year, the blog is filled with senior bucket lists and “The Top 10 Things Only Seniors Remember.” With Mads Vassar, Kutner created a personalized social media, now with an archive of nearly three thousand posts, to keep the Vassar student body in the loop.
Even two years out of Vassar, Kutner was still drawn back periodically. “It took awhile to get comfortable with not blogging anymore,” Kutner said. “Every time there’s a national news story about Vassar, I want to blog about it again, and I’ve had to get out of the habit of doing so.” Two years ago, Kutner had the chance to create another blog when the incident with the Westboro Baptist Church prompted his creation of the Tumblr, MadsAfterVassar.
“And everyone was talking about it, it went viral, and I thought, well, I need to do something,” Kutner said of the church protesting the gay population at Vassar. “So I started a Tumblr called Mads After Vassar. It would be similar to how I blogged, but kind of, a little bit different. And then I kept that going until I started at Columbia.”
While at Vassar, Kutner was a film major with a focus on documentary films. He never saw much connection between his blogging and his documentaries, however. “I never really thought of myself as a journalist until after school,” Kutner said.
After working freelance jobs, he went back to school at Columbia journalism school to study documentary-making. “It definitely felt like a weird time to be going to journalism school, and its something that came up every day,” Kutner said. “You’ll find magazines are closing, magazines are downsizing.”
He ended up taking a course on magazine writing while at Columbia, however, that changed his life forever. After Columbia, he went back to writing freelance. “Until about a year ago, I just wrote for wherever I could. So that’s Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, so many different places. I wrote for this one called The Date Report, which now I don’t even think exists anymore,” Kutner said. “I had a feature in Boston Magazine, also. I guess in my early years of doing this it was just about getting my work out there.”
In the end, his strategy worked. Kutner explained that, even writing for free, you can still exhibit your work. “I find, first of all, its much easier to see your work pay off, or the fruits of your labor, in magazines,” Kutner said. “Because even if you’re just freelancing, you can just write this story, and within a couple of weeks you can see it on newsstands.”
He added, “Which is what I found with my first Newsweek cover story, which was “Death on a Farm,” which I wrote when I was still a student as a freelancer. And I got very, very lucky and I’m very gracious for having that piece out there.”
“Death on a Farm” was a story inspired by a documentary Kutner worked on the summer of 2009 before his junior year. “Farmer’s markets were becoming more popular, now obviously they’re everywhere, but five or six years ago it was still kind of a new, interesting thing. And there was this really wet summer and the recession had just happened, and I thought, I wonder how all these things all affected farmers? So I just drove out east on Long Island, where I’m from, and just spent a couple of days with them and did this documentary,” Kutner said.
The piece became something that Kutner found himself returning to time and time again. “And then, I think, a few months later at Vassar when I read about this farmer’s suicide, which was he killed fifty-two of his cows before killing himself, which is a really traumatic incident, that story stuck with me,” Kutner said. Four years later, he was able to write “Death on a Farm” while at Columbia, which was the first of his many Newsweek cover stories.
“And now, kind of, what I’m finding in journalism, is that once you do one story, especially one big feature, then you always go to that subject area again,” Kutner said. “So I’m now the agriculture guy at Newsweek.” Just three weeks ago, he wrote another Newsweek cover article about sex trafficking on farms and farm labor camps as a follow-up to his “Death on a Farm” piece.
Kutner writes about topics that he is interested in knowing more about, himself. “The stories I do now, some are assigned by editors, especially if its a breaking news story, but a lot of it is just what I would want to know about, and just what isn’t being covered,” he explained. “My favorite thing is when I have a story idea and then I go to Google it, and no one’s ever done it before.”
Many of the topics he picks up come from snippets from his own previous articles. “So there’s always a moment when you Google it and see no results and think, there’s no story there. But, maybe you’ll see a line in another story or source that tells you a tip that you have to follow up on that lets you know that it is out there somewhere.”
Creating the types of features that Kutner does is an extended process, but not one without its rewards. “This sex trafficking story that just came out, I spent seven months working on. For a typical feature like that, like “Death on a Farm,” I’ll talk to a hundred people and spend just months and months and months working on it and traveling around,” Kutner said. “There’s a fun moment that I’ve come to as a magazine writer that, when you’re interviewing experts, once you interview a certain number, then you start to realize that you know more than they do.”
“And then, after the story comes out, people will have you as an expert on NPR, or I just did a radio interview last week that’s going to be on seventy stations or something,” Kutner added. “MSNBC had me on a few weeks ago to talk about tigers, so its fun. You become the expert.”
Kutner has put all of this focus on magazine writing, and has not gone back to his blogs since he left school. “Blogging now is kind of thought of as something, I’ve learned academically while in journalism school, that blogging is something that was very much tied to the 2008 election,” He said with a touch of irony. “You had these sites like Blogspot, which is what I used for Mads Vassar coming up, whereas in the years after, it became more about microblogging, and more about Twitter and Tumblr.”
He added, “And now, its even more micro than that. And what I hear from my current Vassar student friends, that you’re all, I’m going to sound like an old man when I say this, but you’re all on all these apps and stuff now. And even just four or five years ago when I was in school, very few people even had iPhones.” For all that the forms reporting has taken have changed, Kutner feels comfortable where he is. “But pretty much for the first time since graduating in 2011, I feel like I’m at the start of my career. Whereas until now, its felt like I’m working towards that start,” He said.
He still finds himself back where he started, though. “Some people have emailed me in recent years, the SEO [for Mads Vassar] as they call it is very good, so it always comes up on the search website,” Kutner said, “So some of the posts will come up from its very early days when it was a little more gossipy, and people are asking me still now to take those down because if someone Googles their name, it’ll be a post about them at a Noyes party, and we’re all trying to be adults now.”
Kutner also reported on the Wesleyan MDMA scare. He easily could have covered this same piece at Vassar, he said. “I immediately thought, that would’ve been a story that I covered six or seven years ago at Vassar, and now I was able to cover it for millions of online readers,” Kutner said. “I even hit up some of my old Wesleyan sources that I had used when I was at Mads Vassar, and they remembered me. So still doing that same sort of news.”
Despite the ever-changing and always uncertain industry that he works in, Kutner is happy where he’s at. “But I had a professor, and now a mentor, who told me that, and told us that, you can’t really think about the industry at large, or even your company at large. You just have to think about writing good stories and doing good work,” Kutner said. With a long list of achievements already behind him, Kutner certainly has compiled some good work.