Twenty years ago, give or take a few weeks, the first issue of Utne Reader sailed out of our tiny Minneapolis office and into the hands of a few thousand readers. I was not on hand for that joyful event. I was working at Better Homes & Gardens as a travel editor, but excitement was still in the air when I joined the staff eight months later as executive editor.
Many people (including close friends of mine) thought our excitement was naive, if not foolhardy. Ronald Reagan, after all, was at the height of his popularity. A wave of resurgent social conservatism was flooding America. All the idealistic experiments of the 1970s and 1960s looked dead. It hardly seemed the time to launch a new magazine devoted to 'the best of the alternative press.' But that's exactly what founder Eric Utne, his partner and wife Nina Utne (now CEO and co-chair), associate publisher Julie Ristau (now co-chair), and office manager Nancy Nance did with a lot of help from friends, family, neighbors, and talented freelance writers and editors.
Today, with a staff numbering 28 and a much bigger office, we supply a few hundred thousand readers with fresh ideas, smart analysis, and inspiring stories. I am deeply proud of the role I have played for 19 and one-third of those 20 years in helping broaden people's sense of what's possible in the world. To celebrate two decades of bringing you new perspectives on every subject under the sun, we are planning a special anniversary issue for September/October.
More than anything right now, I'd like to declare that the same sources of energy and creativity across the land we've tapped to build a successful magazine have also sparked a sweeping transformation of American society, from Pennsylvania Avenue to the block where you live. Of course that sounds ridiculously untrue. Republicans (hard right-wingers) control both houses of Congress, which never happened under Reagan. Grim-faced crusaders of social conservatism are more resurgent than ever. Pollution, sprawl, violence, and greed seem to be gaining ground across the globe.
Yet I still hold hope for the future. Utne magazine's 20th anniversary stands as one sign of a wide (if still small) uprising of new values, new dreams, and new actions. The continuing vitality of the independent media (the new, expanded term for alternative press), where we find so much information and inspiration, offers a reason for optimism even in these difficult times.
My father, a devoted student and teacher of history, loved to remind people, especially his impatient sons, that human events follow no prescribed path. His favorite examples were the Populist movement of the 1890s and the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs, both of which seemed for many years to have left little mark on America's national politics. Then came Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, which enacted a minimum wage, Social Security, people's right to unionize, the 40-hour workweek, and other commonsense solutions first proposed by old radicals like Debs and the Populists.
I believe that some of the bright ideas we've championed in the pages of Utne -- ideas widely discredited as imprac-tical or radical in today's culture -- will be revived and someday seen as essential ingredients of American life. That's my dearest wish as we blow out candles on Utne's birthday cake.
But none of this is likely to happen until we bring new leadership to the White House, Congress, state capitols, and local governments. The year 2004 marks the most decisive American election since 1936, when Roosevelt's New Deal policies were overwhelmingly affirmed by voters in a hard-fought campaign. That's why we chose to focus on this year's election for our cover section.
The articles gathered here make a convincing case that 2004 may prove disappointing for George W. Bush and the corporate power brokers who stuff his campaign chest and draft his policy proposals. As mainstream journalists grow obsessed about 'swing' voters, generally well-to-do people who favor Republicans' economic plans and Democrats' milder views on social issues, we take a look at the folks who will really 'decide' the election (see page 53). Single women, immigrants, and rural folks will flock to Democratic candidates if the party takes a strong stand on issues of economic justice. To reach these voters, however, Democrats need to make some changes -- in their political priorities, their campaign strategy, and the way they talk about America's future.
In an effort to help boost democratic participation across America, we have teamed up with several partners (National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, World Caf?, the Conversation Caf?s) to launch Let's Talk America. It is an ambitious project aimed at getting Americans from all walks of life to sit down together and discuss what really matters to them this election year. (For more information on how to get involved, see page 60 and www.letstalkamerica.org)
This is the first project of the new Utne Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting independent voices in the media and new ideas in the broader culture. For more information, see www.utneinstitute.org
This issue also marks the addition of a new Utne department, Focus, which offers alternative views on issues and opportunities we face in everyday life. The focus this time is on creating a more natural, satisfying way of living. Next issue will look at travel and outdoor adventures, and later sections will focus on energy issues, health and food.
With a mixture of sadness and admiration, I announce that executive editor Craig Cox has left Utne to pursue his lifelong dream of running a newspaper. His new Minneapolis Observer covers the politics, culture, and overall spunk and spirit of our town.
Craig made a name for himself as editor of the Twin Cities alt weekly City Pages and the national magazine Business Ethics, before joining us in 1994 as managing editor. Without his calm strength, hard work, and quick mind, Utne would not be the magazine it is today. He has always stood as a firm voice reminding us that we are a marketplace of ideas for everyone, not a boutique of fashionable trends for the cognoscenti. While I truly miss his talents and wry sense of humor around the office, I can't wait to see how The Minneapolis Observer will shake things up around town. (For more information, see www.mplsobserver.com)