It was 20 years ago today…

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)

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