Gathering a New Tribe

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2009 © Chris Lyons /
Eric Utne

I recently gave the commencement address for the San Francisco Waldorf High School, class of 2010. I began by asking how many of the 600 or so people in the auditorium had ever heard of Utne Reader. At least three-quarters of the audience raised their hands. I then asked how many had ever read a copy of the magazine. Nearly as many hands went up. I got the same results when I asked who had ever purchased a copy of the magazine.

I decided to up the ante: “How many of you have ever subscribed to Utne Reader?” About half of the crowd raised their hands. “How many of you are subscribers today?” Only one person raised her hand.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” I shouted. “I’m here today to sign you up!”

I got a big laugh, but I was at least half serious.

Over the 26 years of its existence, more than 2 million people have subscribed to Utne Reader at one time or another. Over the past few years, as the economy has stuttered and the media landscape shifted, the magazine’s subscriber base shrank from its mid-’90s peak of over 300,000 paying readers to fewer than 100,000 today. Yet the newsletter turned bimonthly digest serves a unique and necessary mission, especially considering the mass media’s insistence on sensational headlines and he-said, she-said reporting.

All of us who are still involved with Utne Reader continue to take pride in focusing not on what’s breaking down, but on what’s breaking through. And I’m happy to say that editor David Schimke is putting together a magazine that’s crisply edited and more engaging than ever, with a staff of enthusiatic young people who are eclectic in their interests and incredibly wide-read, and who care deeply about celebrating independent voices, challenging conventional wisdom, and making the world a kinder, greener place.

In 2009, as a testament to that excellence, Ogden Publications, which now owns Utne Reader, improved the magazine’s paper quality, committed to producing a larger book, and underwrote an elegant redesign.

All of which raises the question: What’s it going to take for the magazine’s natural constituency to decide that Utne Reader, and all that it represents, is worth committing to?

I was pondering the gathering of a new Utne tribe while reading Richard Tarnas’ recent book, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. “It is perhaps not too much to say that, in this first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected,” he writes, “more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and . . . more able to think, feel, and respond . . . to the world’s swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible.”

Utne subscribers are the vanguard of this new humanity. They are some of the most interesting, civically engaged men and women on the planet. They vote, volunteer, and contribute money to causes at far greater rates than the national norm. They love great storytelling and abhor the mainstream media’s penchant for demonization and oversimplification.

Our readers are also spiritual seekers who know that improving the mind, body, and soul is an individual choice and a collective ideal. They meditate and do yoga. They eat locally and organically. They tend gardens, go camping, and travel both domestically and overseas.

Think what it would be like if everyone in your book club, knitting circle, study group, civics class, tennis league, neighborhood council, spiritual sangha, conversation salon, bowling team, or 12-step program subscribed to Utne Reader. Imagine the conversations it would spur, the ideas it would generate, and the community it would help create.

The magazine you hold in your hands is not typical. The editors are not interested in polemics or sensation; they are not in the business of preaching. They are cultural curators, on the lookout for people, places, and ideas that can help create the kind of conscious, sustainable, multigenerational communities, nation, and world we all long for.

If you haven’t yet chosen to become a member of the Utne Reader community, I hope you will soon.

Eric Utne, the founder ofUtne Reader, is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

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