At 10, Utne Reader's mid-life crisis

April 15, 1994|By Wilma Randle | Wilma Randle,Chicago Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS -- If we really could hear people thinking, one would hear a collective hum when walking the halls at Utne Reader magazine.

The sound would result from a convergence of minds thinking and obsessing.

And as one passed the office of magazine founder and guide Eric Utne, 47, the din would become noticeably louder.

Thinking and obsessing -- that's Mr. Utne's trademark phrase.

Ask anyone on the staff, "So, what have you been thinking and obsessing about lately?" and the first reaction is likely to be a good-natured laugh, followed by, "Oh, you must have been talking to Eric."

Put the question to Mr. Utne and he'll tell you he has been thinking about the future of the magazine, which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Surviving a decade is cause for celebration in any business, and even more so in the crowded and competitive field of consumer magazines.

And the Utne Reader, a magazine founded as an alternative Reader's Digest for the Baby Boom generation, certainly has a lot to celebrate. What began as a small newsletter 10 years ago has grown into a thick, sophisticated and graphically enticing magazine.

Its name -- as well as its publisher's -- rhymes with chutney and is Norwegian for "far out," says Mr. Utne, a St. Paul native and the son of Norwegian immigrants.

The Reader collects articles that first appeared in other publications, from such well-known periodicals as the Village Voice, Atlantic Monthly and People to dozens of special-interest journals that focus on everything from politics to science and all subjects in between.

Record-breaking circulation

Every year the Reader, which bills itself as the "best of the alternative press," breaks its own record for increases in circulation, growing from 50,000 seven years ago to more than 350,000 in 1993. At the same time, its advertising, practically non-existent 10 years ago, has exploded to more than 50 pages an issue. It has been operating in the black since 1991.

The magazine's subscribers are educated, affluent and well-traveled -- just the kind of readers advertisers seek out.

L So with all this success, why are the folks at Utne worried?

It's because, as the magazine enters its 10th year, it finds itself facing a very middle-class dilemma: mid-life crisis.

Having made it through those crucial early years, Mr. Utne wonders whether his progeny will survive another 10. "We're asking ourselves that question and, frankly, we don't know," he said.

One concern is that stories and topics once deemed too radical or risque for the mainstream press -- the very material that gave the Utne Reader its edge -- today appear in just about any newspaper or magazine a reader picks up.

"Many of the writers, cartoonists, illustrators and photographers who used to be at home only in the alternative press can now be found in Newsweek and Time," explained Mr. Utne.

Too mainstream

TC Another concern, ironically, is a fear that Utne itself will get too mainstream as it tries to appeal to the middle-aged tastes of its readers.

The magazine's survival and its stellar success are no small accomplishments, said Samir Husni, assistant professor of magazine journalism at the University of Mississippi. Each year he compiles a list of the new magazines on the market, "Samir Husni's Guide to New Consumer Magazines."

Since 1950 the number of magazines published in the United States has grown from fewer than 7,000 to nearly 11,000, according to the Gale Directory of Publications, which tracks magazine circulation nationwide.

Last year, said Mr. Husni, there were 789 magazines launched, an increase of 112 from the previous year.

About half those new magazines will fail by the end of their first year, he said. And for every 10 that make it through that crucial first year, only three will ultimately survive.

The Utne magazine that exists today is not what founder Utne originally had in mind. He planned on publishing a newsletter summarizing articles on various topics.

"After four issues of the newsletter, it became clear that people didn't want abstracts, they wanted articles," Mr. Utne said.

"I realized that there were already too many [magazines] out there to keep up with . . . to try to digest what was already there."

More digestible

And, he said, "That little word, 'digest,' set off a light bulb in my brain, and I thought, hmm, maybe it's time to have a Reader's Digest for my generation, the Baby Boom generation."

So in the fall of 1984, with $150,000 in financial backing from eight investors, most of them friends, a revamped, magazine version of Utne Reader made its debut. And, if timing is indeed everything, Utne Reader hit pay dirt.

This, more than anything, has been the biggest contributor to the magazine's success, said Mr. Utne.

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