Independent Magazines and the Power of Connection

Remarks at the Utne Independent Press Awards May 16, 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesot

| May 2007

On Wednesday, May 16, members of the independent media gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to celebrate the honorees of the 18th annual Utne Independent Press Awards. To mark the occasion, Mother Jones publisher Jay Harris gave the following speech about his experiences with Utne Reader, magazine publishing in general, and the future of the independent media.

When I run into other editors and publishers these days, it seems we are obliged to spend at least a few moments pondering what to make of this new media world we're in. With all of the change -- reflected certainly in this year's list of nominees -- it is hard to know what kinds of efforts the Utne Independent Press Awards will be honoring five years from now, how far the metaphor of "the press" will stretch, but it seems undeniable that the radical shifts we're seeing in media habits will continue apace. We all will need to surf that change. 

Indeed, in some corners the speed and magnitude of change has folks leaping to the notion that print is no longer relevant in a 24/7 wired world, that print is "old" media, that young people don't read (pick one): newspapers, magazines, books, at all. But I have long felt these assertions stop short of real insight into what is really going on. I believe it will be better for everyone -- the digital future crowd and print's true believers -- if we can engage the print-is-dead meme seriously. My premise is that those of us who witness day to day how our audience engages with our content in various ways, through various media, have an obligation to aikido that thinking into a smarter analysis. Not by denying the sea change, but by looking at what independent magazines and our related media have and do that is unique, deeply valued and, in their own ways, very leading edge.

To make my point, I want to tell three quick semi-personal stories. One is about me, the former campus activist, the former marketing kid for a creative and scrappy indy book publisher, who went to work for Newsweek and the Washington Post to learn what the Big Guys knew about publishing. So it came to pass that 23 years ago, while working for Newsweek in New York, I responded to a piece of direct mail promotion promising a magazine that would filter, digest and reprint the best articles in the "alternative" press, and a few weeks later I started receiving the proto-Utne Reader. I loved it, I showed it around, and when I moved to Hong Kong for Newsweek in 1986, I paid the extra money to have the magazine airmailed to me.

My work life in Hong Kong was intense, very corporate and nearly all-consuming. I had been sent there to launch a new magazine -- an Asia edition of Travel & Leisure -- and the nature of my work was both exhilarating and confusing. The exhilaration part was what everyone could see -- living high, jetting around to the capitals of Asia, staying in fancy hotels, taking power meetings with the caretakers of global brands -- but privately I was unsettled, uneasy with a life that had quickly become too much about keeping advertisers and the bottom-line dudes at the Post company happy. One weekend in a restless bit of self-examination, I was pondering why I was even working; the next week the Utne Reader arrived with a cover package titled "Why Work?" Two or four months later I was crashing against the rocks of some other internal conflict, and, damn, if they didn't do it again.

It was uncanny! It was profound! It was weird. That Christmastime I sent twenty of my friends in the States gift subscriptions. Eric Utne himself sent me a thank you note -- and an Utne Reader T-shirt. As far as I knew, no one had ever sent 20 gift subscriptions of Newsweek all at one time; I'm virtually certain that if they did, the editor-in-chief did not send a personal thank you.

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