My Advice to the New Editor of “Utne Reader”

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Some of my old editorial mantras come to mind. Like its progenitor, the new “Utne Reader” needs to “capture the zeitgeist” and “chronicle the emerging culture” by covering “not what’s breaking down but what’s breaking through.”

By now you may have heard that the owners of Utne Reader, Ogden Publications, in a move driven by budgetary concerns, have decided to move the magazine from Minneapolis to Ogden’s headquarters in Topeka, Kansas. When the news was announced, there was a lot of local commotion. In Minneapolis’ daily newspaper, the Star Tribune, columnist Neal Justin wrote, “Imagine Garrison Keillor moving A Prairie Home Companion to Des Moines or the Guthrie Theater shuffling off to Omaha. ‘It’s a bummer,’ said editor in chief David Schimke. ‘Everyone around here is in shock.’ ” Me too.

A few days after the announcement I met the Topeka-based, new editor of Utne Reader, 33-year-old Christian Williams. Most recently the Online Editor of Motorcycle Classics and the Associate Editor of Gas Engine Magazine, in charge of editing and laying out that bimonthly title, Christian earned his stripes by working for seven years at four different newspapers, starting as a general assignment reporter and finishing as a managing editor. Though working at Motorcycle Classics and Gas Engine Magazine may not seem like the obvious career track for the top editorial spot of my beloved offspring, Christian seems bright, talented, and fully cognizant of the task before him.

Christian reports to Bryan Welch, a seasoned publishing professional who has been a reporter, photographer, editor, and publisher of newspapers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Connecticut. Bryan started Ogden Publications in 1996 and oversees Ogden’s 10 titles, including Mother Earth News. Bryan initiated the purchase of Utne Reader back in 2006, and under his leadership Ogden has invested considerable resources to keep Utne Reader going, for which I’m sincerely and eternally grateful.

I told Christian and Bryan I think they should feel free to blow up the current magazine and reinvent it. The burden of trying to maintain a legacy, especially with a reduced editorial budget, seems impossible to me. But I think a great print and online magazine can be created within the new constraints. Utne Reader‘s usual mix of inspired, nonstandard, solution-oriented voices and visions is certainly needed now, perhaps more than ever before.

Some of my old editorial mantras come to mind. Like its progenitor, the new Utne Reader needs to “capture the zeitgeist” and “chronicle the emerging culture” by covering “not what’s breaking down but what’s breaking through.” I think Christian can accomplish this by focusing on “both personal growth and social change” while remaining “neither left nor right, but in front.”

I also told Christian and Bryan that I think the annual Utne Visionaries issue and its annual Independent Press Awards are two key assets of the Utne Reader franchise that they should preserve and develop. And I urged them to help every one of the Utne Visionaries get online and blog about current events. Many of them are authors who have important and enlightening perspectives to offer, but they rarely appear in daily newspaper opinion pages, or on TV, except to flog their books. But we should be hearing online from Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Eve Ensler, Paul Hawken, Billy Parish, Rebecca Solnit, and Van Jones, among many others, not just opining about issues in their areas of expertise, but also about Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring or the Fukushima meltdown or the European debt crisis when those stories are breaking.

If new editor Christian and Bryan and Ogden Publications pursue some of these ideas, and of course many others of their own, I think they will delight current Utne Reader readers and win many new ones.

So what will be my relationship to the ongoing Utne Reader? Will I lend my name to the magazine that bears my name? Absolutely! I’m going to keep writing this column, and to help Christian and Bryan in any way that I can. I hope you’ll hang in with us to see how things unfold.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.

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