Shelf Life: Inside Our Reader’s Digest

As the media universe expands, Utne Reader and bring you more of the indie press

| January-February 2008

About once a week, I hear from someone who’s seeking a copy of an article she or he read in this magazine 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The details people remember always surprise me: One man recalled “a beautiful story of love between two people in the twilight of their lives,” and one woman cited an article about crows “called something like ‘We want to be your favorite bird.’ ”

It’s gratifying that even years after these stories were published—and in an age when it’s easier to just do a quick Google search and find something else on love stories or crows—they remain profoundly embedded in people’s memories. (So much so that the smudgy black-and-white photocopies I send are received with delight.) We take these connections seriously, which is why we are so passionate about this magazine and its mission. Representing the best of the alternative press has meant telling the most compelling, provocative stories. The fact that they stay with people, that our readers return to them years later, tells us that we’ve succeeded.

There is a wealth of great stories out there, but a dearth of mechanisms to sift through them. That’s why we’ve undergone a considerable shift over the past year, moving closer to our roots as a digest of the independent press. We’re taking pains to draw from an ever-broader swath of the alternative-media landscape, and we’re stumbling across more impressive, surprising items to reprint. Case in point: We found our last issue’s cover story, “All the Rage,” buried in the depths of a Catholic university’s alumni magazine, the always worthwhile Notre Dame. We’re making a bigger deal of the Utne Independent Press Awards (see page 48). We’re expanding the collection of ethnic media we draw from, adding stalwart titles like the Washington Informer and Pacific Citizen.

We’re pleased with each issue we’ve put out, but it has long troubled us that so much of what we read and discuss doesn’t find a place in the magazine. Back in 1984, just a few months into publishing his Utne Reader, Eric Utne faced similar growing pains: The magazine’s original format, a 16-page newsletter, was abandoned after just four issues. “We’ve grown frustrated,” Eric wrote in the brawny Summer 1984 edition, “trying to fit ‘the best of the alternative press’ into so few pages.”

So have we. Last October, we relaunched our website to allow for daily updates, online salons, and a vastly more appealing design. Because we have a colossal indie-press library ten feet from our desks, the tactile Utne Reader remains heavily print-driven. The website, though it’s more flexible than the magazine in form and content, is still more print-influenced than most; its mission, like the magazine’s, is to steer people to the alternative stories and voices that get edged out by so much clutter, and many of them aren’t available online. We add our own disparate viewpoints to these discussions with daily blogs and original reporting, and we hope you’ll add yours as well. Weigh in on what we’re doing, and where we’re going, at or write to