The Winners of the 2009 Utne Independent Press Awards
Here at Utne Reader, we like independent-minded journalists who ask tough questions, upend conventional thinking, and challenge authority—the kind of journalists who might ask: What gives Utne Reader the right to hand out something called the Independent Press Awards—and what makes them such experts anyway?
Ahem. Well, we didn’t ask anyone’s permission to begin this 20-year tradition. We did it simply because no one else was properly recognizing the great writing, reporting, design, and storytelling being published outside the mainstream media. And since we were already receiving and reading thousands of alternative press titles in our library, we were well poised to take on the task.
A central part of our process in putting together Utne Reader is to winnow the best material by sharing our favorite magazine, journal, newsletter, and zine articles with our fellow editors and then getting together to debate, denigrate, celebrate, rant, and nitpick—often for hours. We critique reporting, assess literary value, parse arguments, deconstruct logic, and air our personal opinions as we figure out which stories merit the descriptor “The Best of Alternative Press,” the tagline on the cover of our magazine.
The Utne Independent Press Awards process is not markedly different: We simply consider each publication as a whole and expand the discussion: How well is it serving its audience? Is its execution consistent or erratic? Does its reporting hold up under scrutiny? And the most important (and subjective) questions of all: Do we like it? Do we need it? And will our readers love it?
If we’ve done our jobs, the answer to that last tough question will be a resounding yes.
This year we produced a short video because we wanted to let people in on our selection process. Watch the video and then read all about this year’s winners.
Virginia Quarterly Review
In 2008 every issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review found its way into our thoughts, our discussions, our issue-planning sessions, and, in the case of the salient, heartbreaking story of a soldier returning from Iraq, “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce,” onto our pages. VQR’s stories are deeply reported, exquisitely written, and elegantly edited—the sort of articles that make readers want to become writers. The magazine’s graceful design and sumptuous photographs bring the stories and voices to life.
The mere fact that VQR provides space for these tales, some of which stretch to 20 pages, sets it apart. Long-form narrative journalism is all but extinct these days, yet VQR has claimed the genre as its mantle. The Summer 2008 issue, “No Way Home: Outsiders and Outcasts,” hosts thoughtful essays on the people, places, and stories we miss in an ever shorter and faster news cycle, including J. Malcolm Garcia’s stunning profile of Jena, Louisiana, a place that fell off the radar once the mainstream media’s short-lived Jena 6 hysteria had subsided; David Enders’ piece on Iraq’s Palestinian refugees, an already-marginalized population before the war; and Natasha Trethewey’s meditative return to her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina.
Virginia Quarterly Review gets our general excellence award because we know that intelligent, curious people are starving for these stories, longing for this brand of storytelling. And no one is doing it with more heart or soul. (www.vqronline.org)
It is, once again, the year of the Walrus. Since launching in 2003, the Canadian general-interest magazine “with an international outlook” has nabbed three Utne Independent Press Award nominations, taking the prize in 2004 for best new publication. Five years later and counting, it’s been consistently delightful to read—and last year the magazine outdid itself, its sparkling articles and fluid essays orbiting high above the rest of us earthbound publications.
As a digest charged with reprinting “the best of the alternative press,” we were exceptionally grateful to have it at our disposal. We culled Moira Farr’s exquisite “Minor Keys” about the emotional power of music and Charles Montgomery’s droll and heartwarming “Me Want More Square Footage.” All year long, the magazine’s Field Notes bulged with unpredictable global vignettes, from a visit to Somaliland’s only mental hospital to the history of Paraguay’s 100-year-old colony of Germans.
Walrus writers have a knack for telling personal stories and infusing them with contemporary meaning, giving its global news a beating, human heart. In “The First Little Mosque on the Prairie,” for example, a family saga gives way to the history of Islam in Canada. “Fat of the Land” whisks readers along on a trip to Borneo, unraveling the human and environmental consequences of the trans fat ban. Pick up the Walrus and you will read about things you never knew existed; you will be delighted, challenged, and, above all, sated. (www.walrusmagazine.com)
Mainstream media can’t stop talking about parenting. Parents turned pundits and pseudo experts score book deals, print op-eds, and show up on morning talk shows and the evening news to share anecdotes, cite studies, and push products.
These bloviators are also overwhelmingly white, straight, and middle class. That’s why Tomas Moniz’s deeply felt zine Rad Dad is such a vital addition to the parenting lexicon: He brings together voices that are asking different questions and telling different stories about what it means to be a parent in a fractured, unequal, consumerist society. Rad Dad’s contributors are queer parents, parents of color, radical feminist parents, parents who are redefining what family means.
In one issue, that meant Moniz opening up about troubles with his teenage son, who was flunking school and headed for juvenile hall: “Had I hid behind a veneer of trusting his ‘choices’ when in reality I was just in denial, just at a loss for what to do? . . . Can a rad dad raise a high school failure?”
In the following issue, power and gender are major themes. One writer argues that it’s not enough for fathers to break the constraints of the stereotypical dad role; instead, all parents should work toward “a new model of parenting that is not gendered.”
Rad Dad is one father that doesn’t claim to know best—and that’s what we like about it. (http://raddadzine.blogspot.com)
BEST NEW PUBLICATION
The incontestable draw of Lapham’s Quarterly is perhaps best explained by listing just some of the journal’s contributors: Plato. Eldridge Cleaver. Rachel Carson. Ayn Rand. The Notorious B.I.G. Karl Marx. Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Younger. Dave Eggers. Chief Luther Standing Bear.
Each volume of this delicately curated quarterly hosts a conversation around a central theme—education, money, nature—with 200 or so pages of snippets, excerpts, and artwork gleaned from more than two millennia of human intelligence and insight. “The method assumes that profound observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete,” the journal’s website explains.
It is a project perfectly suited to Lewis Lapham, the eponymous founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and a 30-year veteran editor of Harper’s. We can imagine him dog-earing pages in a grand library, readying his literary arsenal for this project.
The journal’s education issue, “Ways of Learning” (Fall 2008), showed typical breadth: writings by Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Michel Foucault; Ibn Khaldun arguing vociferously against corporal punishment in Algeria, circa 1375; a sampling of questions from old U.S. Army IQ tests; William Deresiewicz decrying the modern-day “miseducation” of Ivy League students; and Seneca on the value of “liberal studies” in ancient Rome.
The exhaustive contributors’ page, with photos and bios, seems almost whimsical—where else would Salvador Dalí share space with Bertolt Brecht and Confucius? Ultimately, though, there’s method to this beautiful madness. As its mission statement explains, it’s to “set the story of the past in the frame of the present.” (www.laphamsquarterly.org)
The Fader is your cool friend who knows where all the best parties and nightclubs are, is constantly digging up great new music, travels the world at will—and stops by once a month to tell you all about it. The best thing is, he doesn’t lord his intercontinental fabulousness over you but instead shares it freely so you can appear to be half as cool as he is.
That, essentially, is the appeal of the Fader, a magazine grounded in music culture but also branching into art, design, film, and fashion. It sends its writers and photographers out into the streets, clubs, and underground scenes in the United States and beyond, capturing the youth zeitgeist by osmosis. We’re always looking for the next article from Edwin “Stats” Houghton, the globe-trottingest Fader correspondent, who drops into musical subcultures like a paratrooper and sends back dossiers on what’s moving butts. His vivid dispatch from the kwaito dance-party scene in Johannesburg, South Africa, was so good we published an excerpt as “Post-Apartheid Pop.”
Trendy is often a pejorative, but the Fader unapologetically traffics in trends, staying on the tip because that’s its beat. It covers music genres from emo to hip-hop, noise to bubblegum, freak-folk to funk, with forward-looking eyes and sound-hungry ears. Read incisive, scholarly criticism elsewhere; the Fader is all about capturing the scene by getting caught up in it. (www.thefader.com)
Alongside the always-excellent book, television, and music reviews in the back of the New Statesman lies a section called Travels. The beautifully written articles found there routinely peer into little-known cultural phenomena around the world, from the stunning but crumbling architecture of Cairo’s European quarter to a makeshift disco in an Australian Aboriginal community.
These illuminating vignettes are par for the course for the New Statesman, though politics remains the source of its international renown. Established in 1913 with a foundation in the radical British left, the magazine consistently adds historical and cultural context to the news. An exposé of private security firms infiltrating environmental protest groups, for example, dug deep to show both the background and the current realities of these mercenary armies. And a recent profile of two devout Muslim women rappers exposed the cultural boundaries and suspicion the artists are struggling to overcome.
Reading the New Statesman from this side of the pond is a surefire cure for American myopia. A diverse stable of columnists continually dole out surprising perspectives, and the editors often publish controversial viewpoints such as those of Chinese dissidents on the eve of the 2008 Olympics. Heavy hitters like Pakistani luminary Fatima Bhutto, contrarian Christopher Hitchens, and former prime minister Tony Blair have been known to grace its pages. The magazine may no longer exist on the fringes of radical politics, but readers can always find clear-eyed analysis of the world that’s too often absent from mainstream discussions. (www.newstatesman.com)
There are “green issues” galore on newsstands, rife with lightbulb tips and polar bear photos, yet the mainstream periodical press is frightfully short on hard-hitting, in-depth, enterprise environmental reporting. Mother Jones stands out in this niche, augmenting its political-social-cultural coverage with a hefty dose of green journalism that cuts through the enviro-chatter.
It was Mother Jones that gave us the cover package “How to Rescue the Economy and Save the Planet,” recognizing that the two goals are inextricably connected. It’s done stories that challenge conventional eco-thinking, writing about friendly lumber barons, the pros (and cons) of Wal-Mart’s green conversion, and the greens who’ve gone for “the nuclear option.” MoJo’s reporters get out into the field, ascending a 30-story redwood to interview tree sitters and visiting Louisiana’s cypress forests to find out where our garden mulch comes from.
When Mother Jones thinks big, it thinks really big: The special report “The Future of Energy” in the May-June 2008 issue filled up nearly 50 pages with original reporting, stat-crunching graphics and charts, and truly surprising green tips. While the magazine brings the facts and figures to its reporting, it’s unafraid to brandish some alt attitude: We loved its cover reference to tar sands oil extraction as “Canada’s oil orgy.”
We bestow this award on MoJo to reward it for work well done and to encourage it to continue calling out the clear-cutters, sewage dumpers, mountaintop removers, and greenwashers. (www.motherjones.com)
Canada’s Geez fancies itself a forum for “the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched, and maybe even the un-churchable.” And, as diverse and downright pesky as that demographic is, the quarterly finds ways to deliver the word in a truly inclusive way.
Consider the Summer 2008 theme issue, “30 Sermons You’d Never Hear in Church.” In a call for submissions, the editors wrote: “The pews are filled, the preacher is out of town, and the pulpit is all yours.”
The collection—with its atheist sermon, anarchist sermon, and, our favorite, a sermon on the true meaning of religion called “I Believe in Devilled Eggs”—was the highlight of an inspiring year, when every issue was as playful as it was profound.
That’s a balance Geez strikes consistently, no small victory at a time when global religious discourse has been hijacked by extreme believers and extremely angry atheists. By walling out those two forces, the editors have created a place where writing and reading about lives inspired but not overcome by religious doctrine can be accomplished in peace.
The recurring feature Experiments with Truth is an irresistible collection of action plans for responsible living. In 2008 we read about a five-day technology fast, a year-long consumerism fast, and a group of friends in Harrisonburg, Virginia, who instituted a voluntary gas tax as a fund-raiser for their favorite charities.
Unlike many magazines about spirituality and religion, this ad-free, nonprofit, volunteer-supported publication bypasses sentimentality for earnest exploration, and seems to have a hell of a time doing it. (www.geezmagazine.org)
The New Republic
“An ability to explain complex ideas in plainspoken English”; “an evenness of temper”; “a sincere liberal but without the temperament of an ideologue.” That’s how the New Republic characterized candidate Barack Obama in 2008. The magazine might as well have been describing its own remarkable attributes.
More than any other political periodical in 2008, the New Republic popped up during Utne Reader staff huddles, on its websites, and, inevitably, during heated arguments in the hall. The 95-year-old magazine’s opening section, The Mall—a spot most publications fill with half-baked snark and quick-hit analysis—was a prescient tip sheet for political junkies during the primary season and leading up to the general election. The correspondents were looking at the same mess as their peers, but they always seemed to dig a bit deeper and see a bit farther. The results included lucid columns on electoral politics colliding with religion, Israel lobbyists, and the cult of personality that surrounded the magazine’s preferred presidential candidate.
As important as the New Republic was to the horse race coverage, it was never lost in it. Features on the jihadist revolt against Osama bin Laden and the reinvention of the American city plus a steady beat of books and arts coverage kept the magazine and its readers engaged with the world beyond election-year politics. At a time of dizzying crises and global transformation, an intrepid companion like the New Republic is no small comfort. (www.tnr.com)
In the usual dispatches from the volatile and often misunderstood provinces of the Middle East, nuanced reporting on the area’s contemporary arts and culture is as elusive as peace.
This is why this year’s award for best social/cultural coverage goes to the über-chic New York–based magazine Bidoun. The quarterly features textured cultural snapshots that make you forget the headlines long enough to savor the region’s rich history and breathtaking beauty.
In the Spring-Summer 2008 issue we were especially drawn to stories about the white linen suit of Cairo’s Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and one man’s affection for an oil pipeline in Lagos. The newspaper-thin sheets of the fall’s Pulp Issue featured bawdy paperback covers depicting harem girls and Turkish sex slaves and introduced us to a Pakistani ice cream maker turned horror film director in Islamabad. In contrast, the stark, weighty pages in the Object Issue lovingly showcased each coveted item in graphic detail, exploring the symbolism behind Muammar al-Qaddafi’s sunglasses and the intrigue of an Afghan warlord’s clocks.
Bidoun’s goal is to entice readers to “take a fresh look at the Middle East and its peoples, too often presented as one-dimensional or stagnant.” The editors, armed with an unmatched cultural sensibility, pull it off by tapping contributors stashed in the region’s nooks and crannies, where other journalists often don’t have the time, inclination, or expertise to search for these deeply human stories. (www.bidoun.com)
Retirement accounts in the red. Flu bugs at the border. Politicians and priests literally caught with their pants down. The past couple of years have been brutal on America’s collective psyche, not to mention our fragile sense of self. Thankfully, Psychotherapy Networker—for “today’s helping professional”—has retaliated by combining accuracy, compassion, and zeal to deliver expert counsel to our counselors.
“It’s become evident that we can’t afford to pretend anymore that the troubles people bring to [therapists’] offices are purely ‘private,’ completely contained within their own individual psyches, uncontaminated by what’s going on in the outside world,” editor Richard Simon writes in the November-December 2008 issue. Simon’s holistic vision—one in which therapists “reconsider what expanded roles [they] can play . . . to meet the challenges faced by our troubled planet”—is transcendent, turning the vocational exercise of psychotherapy into lifelong pursuit of wisdom.
Does “mindfulness” fight depression? What are the politics of rising ADD diagnoses? In 2008 the Networker published missives from therapists who work in Rwanda and who endeavor to prevent human trafficking in Nepal. It taught us why Viagra doesn’t work for everyone (and a new way to think about sex); how to love an unpalatable parent; and the truly astounding secrets of sleep. Though the writing often targets professionals, this is a magazine with enlightenment to spare—and far more valuable lessons to share than the pop-psych prattle you’ll get from the average self-help gurus featured in mainstream media. In these unsettling times, Psychotherapy Networker is a stalwart, compassionate companion. (www.psychotherapynetworker.com)
Is America as dumb as some would have us believe—or perhaps just underinformed? Miller-McCune is betting boldly on the latter, charging forward on an inspired mission to bridge the divide between academic researchers and journalists, to bring some ivory tower to the people via the printed page.
“The academy and the press are natural allies,” editor John Mecklin writes in the September 2008 issue. “Unfortunately, neither knows very well how to be one.” Woe to the researchers who consider promoting their ideas pandering; shame on the journalists who treat academics like “dreamy eggheads.” Over the course of 2008, Miller-McCune proved that “solidly researched solutions for the country’s major problems” can grace magazine pages in an engaging, accurate, and accessible fashion.
“Is this the future of the war on drugs?” the November-December 2008 cover booms. The piece inside unpacks an unprecedented experiment in public health: a supervised injection site for Vancouver heroin addicts. Every article rivals the cover stories for bang and punch. The ethical differences between liberals and conservatives. Why global aging will extend U.S. dominance. The health benefits of designing nature-like spaces indoors. Miller-McCune uplifts public discourse with decidedly non-wonky panache. (www.miller-mccune.com)