Shelf Life: Inside Our Reader’s Digest

As the media universe expands, Utne Reader and Utne.com bring you more of the indie press

Shelf Life

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About once a week, I hear from someone who’s seeking a copy of an article she or he read in this magazine 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The details people remember always surprise me: One man recalled “a beautiful story of love between two people in the twilight of their lives,” and one woman cited an article about crows “called something like ‘We want to be your favorite bird.’ ”

It’s gratifying that even years after these stories were published—and in an age when it’s easier to just do a quick Google search and find something else on love stories or crows—they remain profoundly embedded in people’s memories. (So much so that the smudgy black-and-white photocopies I send are received with delight.) We take these connections seriously, which is why we are so passionate about this magazine and its mission. Representing the best of the alternative press has meant telling the most compelling, provocative stories. The fact that they stay with people, that our readers return to them years later, tells us that we’ve succeeded.

There is a wealth of great stories out there, but a dearth of mechanisms to sift through them. That’s why we’ve undergone a considerable shift over the past year, moving closer to our roots as a digest of the independent press. We’re taking pains to draw from an ever-broader swath of the alternative-media landscape, and we’re stumbling across more impressive, surprising items to reprint. Case in point: We found our last issue’s cover story, “All the Rage,” buried in the depths of a Catholic university’s alumni magazine, the always worthwhile Notre Dame. We’re making a bigger deal of the Utne Independent Press Awards (see page 48). We’re expanding the collection of ethnic media we draw from, adding stalwart titles like the Washington Informer and Pacific Citizen.

We’re pleased with each issue we’ve put out, but it has long troubled us that so much of what we read and discuss doesn’t find a place in the magazine. Back in 1984, just a few months into publishing his Utne Reader, Eric Utne faced similar growing pains: The magazine’s original format, a 16-page newsletter, was abandoned after just four issues. “We’ve grown frustrated,” Eric wrote in the brawny Summer 1984 edition, “trying to fit ‘the best of the alternative press’ into so few pages.”

So have we. Last October, we relaunched our website to allow for daily updates, online salons, and a vastly more appealing design. Because we have a colossal indie-press library ten feet from our desks, the tactile Utne Reader remains heavily print-driven. The website, though it’s more flexible than the magazine in form and content, is still more print-influenced than most; its mission, like the magazine’s, is to steer people to the alternative stories and voices that get edged out by so much clutter, and many of them aren’t available online. We add our own disparate viewpoints to these discussions with daily blogs and original reporting, and we hope you’ll add yours as well. Weigh in on what we’re doing, and where we’re going, at www.utne.com or write to editor@utne.com.

 

From the Stacks...

 

Bejeezus is the first magazine we’ve snagged from Kentucky in more than a year! The square-shaped, lushly designed “guide to unpopular culture,” based in Louisville, exudes a hometown devotion so genuine that I’m considering moving south. Issue #9 (Autumn 2007) is a colorful mishmash of local art, writing, and ideas; in one of my favorite features, the editors ran a bunch of cool artwork and asked the artists to comment on one another’s pieces. It’s snappy and energetic, like pretty much everything else in this magazine. The issue’s music section includes both a funny vignette about a Toto concert—you know, “Hold the line, love isn’t always on time”—and a tear-jerking tour through one woman’s favorite mourning music after her husband’s death. $15/yr.
(4 issues) from Box 4156, Louis­ville, KY 40204; www.bejeezuszine.com.

 

Long, wonky reports are often difficult to digest, but then again, so are the dense summations of them that appear in newspapers and magazines. Enter City Limits Investigates, a New York–based magazine of urban affairs that lets a single lengthy, approachable report stretch out comfortably over as many as 30 pages to fill each issue. The Fall 2007 installment, “Awaiting Justice,” tackles New York City’s bail system, a “middle ground between freedom and guilt” that often gets short shrift in discussions of criminal justice. The investigation finds that judges are increasingly setting bail for low-level crimes such as marijuana possession or trespassing, filling the city’s jails with pretrial detainees who can’t afford bail. Previous issues reported on the city’s “silent sewage crisis” and lack of affordable housing. $25/yr. (4 issues) from 120 Wall St, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10005; www.citylimits.org.

 

n+1, a thoughtful biannual journal of culture, literature, and politics, has issued the charming pamphlet “What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions,” which is much more entertaining—and much less curmudgeonly—than it sounds. The premise is simple: Writers sit down to chat about the books they read, or wish they’d read, in college. Wisdom ensues. Interns transcribe. Some hilarious, brilliant moments, particularly striking for those of us who’ve seriously questioned the utility of our liberal arts educations, are captured here. One panelist astutely refers to college as a “hiatus”: “I did stuff before college and I did stuff after college, but what the hell did I do in college?” For undergrads: useful, but disillusioning (not necessarily a bad thing). For just about anyone else: fun. $9/pamphlet from 195 Chrystie St. #200, New York, NY 10002, or “free for college freshmen and other 18-year-olds (with ID),” from college pamphlet@nplusonemag.com.

 

I plucked Opium from a crowded newsstand last summer, irresistibly drawn to the yellow and green spine of its “Life Coach” issue. When the new one (Winter 2007) showed up, my first instinct was vindicated: This is an awesome lit mag! Opium is incisive throughout, an impressive feat for a magazine that has published just five issues. It’s almost comically user-friendly, with a lovely, clean design and an estimated reading time at the beginning of each story or poem. This issue includes finalists for the magazine’s 500-word-memoir contest (which, if you think about it, is an ideal length for most memoirs). $18/yr. (2 issues) from 166 Albion St., San Francisco, CA 94110; www.opiummagazine.com.

 

Asian pop culture and arts pioneer Giant Robot recently published its 50th issue, celebrating with a kaleidoscopic retrospective of its 49 previous covers—which, considering the many talented artists whose work has appeared on the cover over the years, will keep you busy for at least an hour—and an “oral examination” of Asian pop culture in the United States. It’s a conversational history of the phenomenon, driven by a group of artists and activists who move through the years from Godzilla and the Honda Super Cub (1950s) to Gwen Stefani and Kill Bill (2000s). Along the way, they touch on die-cast toys, anime, Star Trek, ramen, Chinese punk music, and myriad social and political trends. $24/yr. (6 issues) from Box 641639, Los Angeles, CA 90064; www.giantrobot.com.

 

Go to www.utne.com for regular From the Stacks dispatches.