Utne Bids Adieu
On the eve of the reader’s departure to Topeka, Kansas, a nostalgic look back at one of the most influential magazines to ever come out of Minnesota
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The headlines weren’t alarmist, but maybe they should have been. When the announcement came last December that the Utne Reader—the first and best national magazine ever produced out of Minneapolis—would decamp this spring to Topeka, Kansas, the news clanged loud as a death knell. The budget? Halved. The staff? Resigned, en masse. For 28 years, Eric Utne’s digest of alt-press journalism, which curates indie content from zines all over the country and runs original essays from heavy-hitter progressives, has stood as a torchbearer for the lefty literati, read by everyone from Bill Maher to Lisa Simpson. Now its future is uncertain. On the cusp of the office closing, we rounded up Utne staff, past and present, to look back over three decades of mindful muckraking.
Despite a modest budget, the Utne managed to publish top talent, like David Letterman, Bill Moyers, and Outland cartoonist Berkeley Breathed.
David Schimke (Editor, 2004–present): [Matt] Groening did this cover for us—for like nothing. I was somewhat shocked. We called him, and The Simpsons was in the middle of its anniversary year, so they were super busy. But he loved Utne.
Karen Olson (Editor, 1999–2005): Didn’t he get launched in Utne?
Jay Walljasper (Editor, 1984–2004): I don’t know if we launched him, but we published a lot of his Life Is Hell work in the early days.
Schimke: When I came in, I was blown away by the reputation of the magazine. Huge names in both the artistic and editorial world would say, “I’d love to work for you. I’ll do it for cheap.” Groening basically charged us like $500.
Olson: Wasn’t Lisa Simpson a reader of the magazine?
Schimke: My icon on Twitter is the dog from Family Guy reading Utne. He’s drinking a martini and reading the magazine.
Eric Utne (Founder): The New York Times crossword puzzle has used “Utne” as an answer 38 times in the last 16 years. Now that’s cultural impact.
Brash and provocative covers boosted newsstand sales, landed Utne on Business Insider’s “13 Coolest Magazine Covers” list, and ruffled a lot of feathers.
Schimke: This cover caused the corporate office of Walmart to call a meeting and forever ban Utne from its stores.
Schimke: Apparently, it was in some store in Arkansas or something, and the manager was upset because one of the customers grabbed about five of these off the newsstand and threw them at him. I had to do a conference call. They brought the manager on, he was very upset, hysterical on the phone, and he had this deep Southern accent—it was hard not to laugh about the whole thing.
Walljasper: You’re lucky you didn’t get fatwa-ed, because Osama’s drinking a beer.
Schimke: I was just satisfied with the chips. And by the way, this was all about these tapes—there were actual tapes that this researcher found, where Bin Laden and his people are just talking about everyday things. Just hours and hours of tape of their mundane lives. But this photo! My circ guy, who is a serious Republican, he was like, ‘Get a picture of Bush on the cave wall! It’ll be great!’
Eric Utne cites Poor Richard’s Almanack and Reader’s Digest as the Utne’s progenitors.
Utne: My intent was to offer an alternative to the negative, problem-oriented perspective of most mainstream media. I wanted to help people see a more complete picture of themselves and the world—not just what was breaking down, but also what’s breaking through. That was actually the motto of the Green Party in Germany.
For each issue, editorial staff pored over thousands of periodicals looking for themes.
Schimke: It’s kind of like going to graduate school. Everyone puts together “pitch packets.” Everybody reads all the time, pulls things they’re interested in, makes a packet. So everybody takes everyone else’s packets and goes away and reads all of it. Then it’s a week of meetings where we sit around the table and discuss and argue and debate. It’s like a think tank.
Walljasper: This famous cartoonist named Robert Grossman did the “Punk America” cover. He did a lot of covers for Time. Early at the magazine, a lot of us had our view of the world shaped by the 1960s and the 1970s. And here it was the age of MTV, it was the age of Reagan. So what are kids today thinking? Sometimes we would begin with a question like that, and then search for the articles. I think the lead article is from the Chicago Reader about the “New Generation of Radicals.”