Independent Magazines and the Power of Connection

The President and Publisher of Mother Jones speaks to the Utne Independent Press Awards about the power of small magazines in an era of struggle for the journalism industry. Remarks delivered on May 16, 2007, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

| Wed May 23, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

When I run into other editors and publishers these days, it seems we are obliged to spend at least a few moments pondering what to make of this new media world we're in. With all of the change – reflected certainly in this year's list of nominees – it is hard to know what kinds of efforts the Utne Independent Press Awards will be honoring five years from now, how far the metaphor of "the press" will stretch, but it seems undeniable that the radical shifts we're seeing in media habits will continue apace. We all will need to surf that change.

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Indeed, in some corners the speed and magnitude of change has folks leaping to the notion that print is no longer relevant in a 24/7 wired world, that print is "old" media, that young people don't read (pick one): newspapers, magazines, books, at all. But I have long felt these assertions stop short of real insight into what is really going on. I believe it will be better for everyone – the digital future crowd and print's true believers -- if we can engage the print-is-dead meme seriously. My premise is that those of us who witness day to day how our audience engages with our content in various ways, through various media, have an obligation to aikido that thinking into a smarter analysis. Not by denying the sea change, but by looking at what independent magazines and our related media have and do that is unique, deeply valued and, in their own ways, very leading edge.

To make my point, I want to tell three quick semi-personal stories. One is about me, the former campus activist, the former marketing kid for a creative and scrappy indy book publisher, who went to work for Newsweek and the Washington Post to learn what the Big Guys knew about publishing. So it came to pass that 23 years ago, while working for Newsweek in New York, I responded to a piece of direct mail promotion promising a magazine that would filter, digest and reprint the best articles in the "alternative" press, and a few weeks later I started receiving the proto-Utne Reader. I loved it, I showed it around, and when I moved to Hong Kong for Newsweek in 1986, I paid the extra money to have the magazine airmailed to me.

My work life in Hong Kong was intense, very corporate and nearly all-consuming. I had been sent there to launch a new magazine – an Asia edition of Travel & Leisure – and the nature of my work was both exhilarating and confusing. The exhilaration part was what everyone could see – living high, jetting around to the capitals of Asia, staying in fancy hotels, taking power meetings with the caretakers of global brands – but privately I was unsettled, uneasy with a life that had quickly become too much about keeping advertisers and the bottom-line dudes at the Post company happy. One weekend in a restless bit of self-examination, I was pondering why I was even working; the next week the Utne Reader arrived with a cover package titled "Why Work?" Two or four months later I was crashing against the rocks of some other internal conflict, and, damn, if they didn't do it again.

It was uncanny! It was profound! It was weird. That Christmastime I sent twenty of my friends in the States gift subscriptions. Eric Utne himself sent me a thank you note – and an Utne Reader T-shirt. As far as I knew, no one had ever sent 20 gift subscriptions of Newsweek all at one time; I'm virtually certain that if they did, the editor-in-chief did not send a personal thank you.

Scroll forward a couple years to 1991 and, with the helpful gleanings from Utne in the back of my head, I took the plunge, moving from Newsweek International to Mother Jones. Reentry – HK to the U.S., Newsweek to MoJo – was strange and challenging in many ways, but I've come to believe that the biggest challenge was unlearning the practices of big publishing. It's not that what I learned at Newsweek was wrong; they – we – were good at what we did. But the relationship with the Mother Jones audience was different, often night and day different, in ways that had profound implications for how I thought about "the business" of non-profit Mother Jones.

I remember, for instance, being puzzled when MoJo subscribers who were suffering seemingly random small abuses from our fulfillment company – the kinds of slights that I knew from Newsweek experience just happen when you're dealing with a sizeable file – would send long, impassioned letters about their subscription problems. They sounded hurt sometimes (Mom, how could you do this to me??), off-the-charts offended and ferocious others. My initial take was, in effect, "Jesus, for $12 a year, what do you expect?" It just didn't make financial sense to spend extra to provide Cadillac, hand-tooled service when we were charging Chevy rates. And I should know, dammit, I have an MBA.

But slowly I started to put the pieces together that their expectations of this relationship were different, and that had an upside as well. Not long after I got to Mother Jones, the folks in circulation had organized some evenings when all of us on staff called subscribers and former subscribers to try to understand, first hand, more about some renewal problems we were seeing. So one evening I called a fellow at home at around 8 pm – it's a completely cold call – and he answers with what feels to me like daggers in his voice – cold, sharp, palpable hostility – until, that is, I introduce myself as being from Mother Jones. "Oh," he says, brightening right up, "I thought for a minute you were some telemarketer. I'm happy to talk with Mother Jones." Out of the blue one day, I got a thank you letter from a woman who was a librarian in Brownsville, Texas, writing just to say, in response probably to some piece of direct mail with my signature on it, that Mother Jones was her lifeline, a touchstone for her self and her values in a town that was often hostile to them. The picture was getting clearer.

And then Molly Ivins came to town.

In the spring of 1992 Molly, who was a columnist for us at the time, came to San Francisco to be part of a fundraiser for the Mother Jones Investigative Fund. Molly's book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and she was a big star for a little magazine that had seen some hard recent times. So we were grateful – enormously, fawningly grateful – to her just for agreeing to show up.

But she didn't just show up.

Mother Jones' editor Doug Foster had asked if she would come by the office before the event to spend some time with the staff, and Molly being Molly, so she did. We passed a sizeable piece of the afternoon crammed into our windowless conference room, listening to her tell stories – from her days at the Texas Observer, from her stint at the New York Times, from her encounters with the Texas Lege – and through her stories and her generous spirit flowed an elixir more potent, more rejuvenating to the staff, than any drug ever imagined by Big Pharma. She plugged all of us back into the juice of great American independent journalism, reminding us that this work we were doing -- kick-ass, truth-telling, nail-the-bastards, damn-the-consequences reporting – put us on the side of the Freedom Fighters, the Muckrakers, the heroes and heroines in towns red and blue across the country who stand up for justice. Of course, she was also fall-on-the-floor funny, profane, optimistic and confident. We walked out of there with our feet a mile off the floor, and I had received a lesson that can't be found in marketing text books about the power that lives in a righteous cause.

My point, if it's not obvious already, is simply that independent magazines – the winners we're celebrating today from Raw Vision to High Country News, from Genewatch to New Mobility, to all of the nominees and beyond – connect their people into communities that can be and often are fundamental to their sense of who they are – who we are – and where our lives get their meaning. There is nothing more potent or personal. Try saying that about Entertainment Weekly.

Let me tell one more story as a means of bridging to today's media environment – a lot has changed in the 18 years these awards have been given out.

A few years back, near the height of the first dotcom boom, I was invited to attend a small breakfast in Silicon Valley with ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and about 20 high-tech execs and media folk. Jennings was charming, quick-witted and at the same time amusingly quaint. He claimed he felt more at home in Pakistan where he'd been an overseas correspondent than he did in Silicon Valley. His opening remarks said, in effect, "I am a stranger in your land. I come in peace. Tell me of your customs."

And the high-tech crowd unloaded on him.

The ABC News is a dinosaur! Don't you see, Peter, that on any topic that ABC might skim the surface of in a two-minute report, the average consumer will be able to "drill down" via the Internet to exactly the depth of information she desires and get those results anytime, anywhere on her cell phone?

Jennings gamely parried back. What about the notion, he asked, that there are issues that people don't know they need to know about? What about the Nightly News as the starting place of our democratic conversation about the issues of the day? What happens to our society if the news is so highly individualized that there is no common ground?

Pish, say the execs. How 1960s. Get over it.

And that, more or less, was that.

As that conversation has percolated with me over the subsequent years, I've come to believe that neither side got it right that morning.

On the one hand, it does seem ever more laughable that a guy (or Katie Couric) in a $2500 outfit and a $500 haircut could, in just over 20 minutes, summarize the world's events in a way that is adequate to the needs of our jobs as citizens. (Factoid gathered from I don't remember where: There are more words on the front page of today's New York Times than there are in an entire ABC Nightly News broadcast.)

On the other, where exactly did those high tech execs think this richness of Internet-delivered news was going to come from? Alberto Gonzalez's PR guy?

Our society has benefited, in ways that aren't widely enough acknowledged, from a commercial news-gathering system that has been funded in significant measure from profits derived from the government-protected oligopoly of broadcast TV licenses and de facto newspaper monopolies in our major cities. There have been flaws, often deep flaws, in the resulting coverage, but the investment in daily reporting has certainly provided a baseline of public intelligence. With those profits now under threat, the response from the public companies that dominate the traditional news business has been to chop costs – and reporting staffs, and the public interest, have taken huge hits.

What exactly will take the place of the mainstream reporting that is being disappeared? This is a hugely important question with no one answer. But it seems to me that this is an enormous opportunity – almost a calling – for the independent press.

So what should the Utne Awards of the future expect from independent publishers?

To set the stage, I predict there will be a significant shakeout among the providers of generic news. Who survives? Time or Newsweek? NBC/ABC/CBS? AP/Reuters? I really have no idea, but I wouldn't want to be in any of their boats.

Further, the old days in which a news media elite at the Times, the Post, and the TV networks "set a national agenda" will never be the same. Rather than a hierarchical system – or perhaps in addition to -- news will indeed become more personalized, but I believe that much will be organized and channeled through "communities of interest." Our networks and communities will have an ever larger role in determining what we learn, what we believe and what we act on. And what are our publications but communities of often intense interest? Yes, the mix of media we employ will shift over time, and that shift will pose its own challenges, but if we listen to our people, they will give us clues – or perhaps, as in the case of Mother Jones' readers, strong opinions -- about the smart and sustainable way ahead.

The way we serve our communities will not be bounded by any one medium, but I firmly believe that there will be a continued appreciation, even a new vogue, for these print artifacts we produce: the printed magazine is not going away and its unique values will become more apparent. Yes, magazines are conveniently portable – you can read them in the bath tub. And they're tactile – reading award-winner Bidoun, for instance, is a multi-sensate pleasure. But far more than that I think the pleasure of a physical magazine incorporates a temporal dimension as well – a magazine is a medium that lends itself to self-pacing, thinking, admiration and engagement, to stories that stick, and change lives.

Each of us everyday is exposed to a fire hose of information, a torrent of blather. What's rare and precious – and that is to say, worth paying for – are opportunities for reflection, for context and connection, for connecting the dots. In my own ruminations about this talk, I had the pleasure of reading through selected issues of most of the winners, and here's what N+1 had to say recently about the blogosphere: "So much typing, so little communication . . . it's incredible. A bottomless labor market exists in which the free activity of the mind gets bartered away for something even less nourishing than a bowl of porridge . . ." Yes, our writers and editors will have to compete, in effect, with infinite free blah, blah, blah, and in dark moments I worry that it's a battle that could be lost. But the Utne winners today show how it can be done, and in their richness they give their audience deep satisfaction.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the towering matter of trust. I'm not saying we live in a cynical age, but after nearly seven years of the Bush Administration, my B.S. detector may be permanently stuck at Threat Level Orange. My kids are even touchier than I am. "That's biased, Dad!," "How do you know?" We all want to know where our news is coming from but, because we can't check it all, we will gravitate to sources, probably multiple sources, we decide we can trust. And how will we decide? I posit that our publications, whose life blood is that kind of connection, can thrive by being not merely smart and creative, but also, at our deepest levels, honest and authentic, worthy of trust.

A little over ten years ago, for Mother Jones' 20th Anniversary issue, we asked the environmental writer Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, to look out over the next twenty years to see what he saw coming. He wrote that the greatest threat to the planet may derive from a consumer culture where "market forces pushing convenience, individualism and comfort are still stronger than the attraction of community, fellowship and connection." It was clear that, in his view, the fate of our children and grandchildren rested on our success in turning that tide.

But how can it be turned? The problem on its global scale seems so enormous. There is no global authority to enforce the change top down, and there is huge cultural momentum in the wrong direction. And yet, in the extraordinarily diverse communities represented by these award winners, "community, fellowship and connection" are flourishing, and it is with them and others like them that our hope for the future lies. In other times, confronting previous threats and injustices, human societies have shown that they can evolve with startling speed. But fundamental change has rarely started at the top. And so this tide will turn one community, and one independent magazine, at a time.