In Fords in Four, we ask an alumnus four questions; he shares insights and stories. In this blog post, we interviewed two alumni, Erich J. Prince ’13 and Henri Mattila ’13, co-founders of the publication Merion West. The two men recount memorable experiences and lessons learned from their time at Haverford; discuss what led them to found Merion West, a nonpartisan publication that was started to bring a new and independent voice to the current media environment; and give advice to current students about how they can best serve the world.
What lessons from Haverford do you carry with you?
Erich: Two things, perhaps more than any other, come to mind for me. The first is that Haverford gave me and Henri an opportunity to start our thing, so to speak, very early on. As early as Form II, under the guidance of Dr. Jay Greytok ’83, we were able to begin forming our own student chapter of the organization People to People, with Haverford’s imprimatur. This was my and Henri’s first occasion collaborating together, and it was, in many respects, a precursor to the sort of back-and-forth that he and I would come to develop while running Merion West. The second is perhaps a more practical point, but it is no less important; Haverford drilled grammar into us very effectively, beginning as early as fifth grade. Needless to say, it wasn’t always fun at the time; however, it’s an invaluable skill to know the grammar rules inside and out, particularly, of course, when one is in the business of running a magazine.
Henri: Haverford ingrained in me a sense of civic responsibility from early on, which I didn’t fully appreciate until I became older. Whether it was participating in a School-wide campaign to help the children of Haiti reeling from an earthquake, listening to an alumnus’ story of his decision to serve on the front lines in Iraq, or helping to organize weekend trash clean-up trips in Fairmount Park, there was no shortage of opportunity to serve the wider community in some form. And I think this is really quite special, because we are living in a time emphasizing the “me” and “I”; whether it be in one’s professional or personal life, I think it’s important to remember that, as the saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected. That certainly rings true for me, and I am grateful for Haverford for instilling in me this mindset.
Tell me about your career path and what led you to starting Merion West.
Erich: The initial genesis of the project was in looking to provide an alternative to the hyper-partisan media that has proliferated in the post-2010 era. It soon became much more than that though. In addition to standing out in the media landscape for providing a range of ideological perspectives, Merion West also distinguishes itself by trafficking in long-form commentary; many of our essays run closer to 3,000 words, a far cry from your typical 750 word op-ed. Many of our pieces are also somewhat timeless in that being less “news-pegged,” the general principles they discuss can be read even years later and be no less impactful. In addition to editing Merion West, I also contribute op-eds regularly to a number of outlets, including The Hill and RealClearPolitics, along with various print newspapers.
Henri: As anybody who went to Haverford with me knows, I’m from Finland, yet I became naturalized as a U.S. citizen during Form V. As is true of many others who have become American by choice rather than birth, I feel an extra bit of gratitude toward this country and the principles it has long strived to defend. Needless to say, it has greatly saddened me to see what has become of the civic environment in the last five years or so. In 2016, when Erich and I both realized that the media ecosystem was a major driver, rather than a byproduct, of the dysfunction prevailing across society, it became clear to me that this is an area where we actually have a chance to make an impact for the better.
What is one achievement or recognition you are most proud of for Merion West?
Erich: Although at first thought I might be tempted to focus on the various commendations we have received for offering unbiased coverage or the increasingly frequent notes from our readers thanking us for providing the type of journalism that we do, for me, I’m most proud of our long-form one-on-one interviews with political figures, members of Congress, governors, and more. Unlike so many news outlets that focus on baiting officeholders into making headline-grabbing statements or rhetorically smacking their opponents, we focus on deep dives into the issues, whether that is veterans’ health care, the role of community colleges in higher education, or bringing better internet access to rural areas. Obviously, this isn’t mutually exclusive with the interview being interesting or engaging, but the focus is always on offering substantive solutions as opposed to the scoring of rhetorical points.
Henri: As far as incentives are concerned, it didn’t take long for us to realize why the media ecosystem is broken. Simply put, as a media outlet you attract more eyeballs—and therefore more money—the more extreme your headlines are and the more you cater to the interests of a narrow, already-galvanized audience. Case in point: few people get a dopamine boost reading a sober analysis from someone with whom they’re likely to disagree. Despite these enticing incentives, at Merion West we’ve made it a part of our mission to play the game differently: to provide a range of thoughtful opinions from across the ideological spectrum, despite its short-term costs. In that vein, I’ll commend Erich here, as he once put it to me regarding our commitment to publishing a wide range of views: “If I don’t regularly publish something that I personally disagree with, then I’m not doing my job as editor-in-chief.”
I have to add, it has been rewarding to see our work recognized. A leading media watchdog group has consistently ranked Merion West among the least biased in online media sources, while scoring at the top in terms of factual accuracy.
What advice do you have for current students or fellow young alums?
Erich: Given that most of those reading this will likely not be going into journalism themselves, I’ll provide a word of advice for readers and consumers of news: There are certain narratives that predominate in our media landscape. Some of this is attributable to the fact that a handful of companies control the distribution of news. However, there is also a general lack of intellectual courage—across journalism—often even to entertain interpretations that deviate from said narratives. When readers of news realize that the narratives being pushed are either incorrect or agenda-driven, they need to have the courage to call a spade a spade. The legacy brands are not what they once were, as outlets and agencies from the Associated Press on down fall victim to promoting ideology instead of reporting the news.
Henri: A lot of the problems ailing our society is owed to a widespread loss of faith in the country’s institutions. So who’s going to help in rebuilding faith in these institutions? Somebody else will figure it out, I’m sure, is what I’m used to telling myself. While most of the national conversation revolves around meta-institutions such as a branch of government, “the police,” or “the media,” these may seem impossible to effect for the sole reason that they are so enormous, you wouldn’t even know where to start. One tempting solution is to go to social media to express your outrage, or take to the streets and burn down something symbolic. Or rather, as I’ve been all too slow to discover in my own life, it’s more useful to start small and get involved in your own community tomorrow. Not when you’ve made enough money or reached the next big milestone, but now. If you have a problem with the government, attend your next town hall meeting and ask the tough questions. If you have a problem with the media, put your money where your mouth is and support the organizations you trust. If you think there’s a malnourishment problem among Philadelphia’s less-well-off, go and talk to Mr. Maley and he’ll tell you how you can help. This to say that we don’t have the privilege of throwing rocks from the sidelines, but rather, it is on us to be the change we want to see. If not Haverford men, then who else?