The Agenda

Neal Justin on the Utne Reader’s Move to Topeka

Though I’m not an avid reader of the Utne Reader, it was on my radar when I was much younger. While never achieving mass-market success, it did flourish as a guide to the best of the left-leaning alternative press in the pre-Internet era, when combing through city weeklies and micro-circulation magazines was a difficult and expensive proposition. Now, however, as curation and aggregation flourishes on the web, the Utne Reader has struggled to find an identity, and as Neal Justin of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, its Topeka-based owners have decided to cut costs and move the magazine from the Twin Cities to Topeka, where it share space, staff, and resources with a number of other publications. I enjoyed the following passage from Justin:

Eric Utne, who founded the magazine in 1984, said being based in the Twin Cities was essential to its early success.

“We know we’re not in the center of the universe, so we can watch what’s happening in the rest of the world from a certain distance,” said Utne, who still writes a column for the magazine but no longer has a financial stake in it.

The Utne Reader has struggled in the Internet age. “It’s harder and harder to get people to pay for print,” Utne said. “They can get any kind of information online for free.”

The number of subscribers has declined to 115,000 from its peak of more than 300,000 in the mid-1990s. Back then the magazine also sponsored 500 “salons” — intellectually driven gatherings of readers — nationwide. One of those introduced the future members of Blue Man Group to each other, Utne said.

Later in the article, Utne recalls puncturing the assumptions of his father-and-law, who assumed that a nattily-dressed salon attendee must be an Ivy Leaguer:

“No,” Utne told him. “He’s an Iowa hog farmer, but when he’s slaughtering the pigs he does listen to Brahms.”

As a believer in the power of the new communications technologies to improve our lives and our neighborhoods, I’m not generally one for nostalgia. Yet institutions like the Utne Reader remind us that in the pre-Internet days, it was print magazines that created “virtual communities” for like-minded readers. National Review was an early example, having marked its subscribers as slightly different from their neighbors, who weren’t quite as captivated by the debates between Wm. F. Buckley Jr., James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Willi Schlamm about the fate of western civilization in a nuclear age. I recall seeing a fellow student reading NR in one of the dining halls when I was an undergraduate and knowing that there was a decent chance that we’d become good friends. (And that is precisely what happened.)

Something similar obtained for pop culture magazines, like Sassy for ’90s teenage girls of a feminist bent and short-lived magazines like Dirt and Big Brother for teenage boys who were enthusiastic about skate culture, “alternative music,” and much else. (Half-remembered facts from my childhood: some guy named Spike Jonze was on the editorial board of Dirt. A beautiful girl a few years older than me named Chloe Sevigny was an intern at Sassy; despite her fussy WASP upbringing, she was a charming bohemian who made her own hats.) A friend of mine mentioned that she was, as a high school basketball player, an enthusiastic reader of Brooklyn-based SLAM Magazine, which reflected the fusion of hip-hop culture and basketball fandom. This wouldn’t have been quite so unusual had she grown up in, say, the suburbs of New York, but she was reading SLAM as a young teenager in a Montana mountain town with fewer than a thousand people. 

I had the good fortune of having parents who indulged my interest in small-circulation magazines, and comic books, so I had access to a good-sized periodical library of my own. It hadn’t really occurred to me at the time that there weren’t many other people reading such things in my school or my neighborhood, in part because these magazines made me feel as though I were part of a large community of like-minded people, even if it only existed in my head. 

And this is part of what is special about these magazines as physical objects. To see another person in New York city reading National Review is to know, somewhere in the back of your mind, that on some level that person is “part of your tribe.” Those Utne Reader salons served a similar function. Now, of course, manufacturing that feeling of togetherness and solidarity is an enormous multi-billion dollar enterprise, which has fueled the growth of for-profits like Facebook and activist groups like MoveOn. In this process of the routinization and bureaucratic rationalization of social serendipity, much has been gained, mainly in the volume of serendipitous encounters with the like-minded. Yet no doubt something has also been lost.  

(Thanks to @phoebedoris for the link.)

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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