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 magazine’s title became a strategy for connecting with readers.
Utne: I thought if I stuck my name on the magazine, people might imagine that there’s a real human being behind it instead of some trite editorial forumla.
Walljasper: The entire time I worked here, I think there was one focus group ever. And it was not very illuminating. We were doing a lot of this intuitively.
Schimke: And that’s a good way to go. Nowadays, media is all driven by “What does the reader want? What does the listener want? We have to find out what they want, and then give it to them.” And this magazine has a different proposition. It’s not “What do people need to know.” It’s “What would fascinate people? What would interest them?”
Utne: A couple of years into it, we actually asked our readers to rename the magazine. We had a contest offering a lifetime susbscription to the winner. We had thousands of suggestions, but over half said, “Keep the name. We like imagining real people behind the magazine.” The winner was a Unitarian minister who renamed the magazine the Universal Teleological Network for Epistomology—the acronym for which was UTNE.
In the mid-1990s, the magazine sponsored a nationwide network of “salons”—intellectually driven gatherings aimed at connecting readers.
Utne: One of my proudest moments was the salon issue—and the Salon Movement that came out of it. We asked our readers if they wanted to meet other Utne subscribers in their zip code. We got over 8,000 people. Eventually, 20,000 people joined what we called the Neighborhood Salon Association. We set up over 500 salons all over North America.
The fate of the famed Utne library—the magazine’s 28-year archive of small-circulation periodicals—remains uncertain.
Olson: I miss the stacks! And I mourn the fact that that resource might go away. It’s the best indie press library in the country.
Schimke: It’s definitely the deepest. I bet we’re the only people beside Punk Planet to have a Punk Planet archive. They’re gone. And that was a very cool magazine.
Utne: I was a magazine junkie who couldn’t keep up with his reading. I figured there must be other people out there in the same boat. So I made a list of all of the magazines I wanted to look through, and I came up with about 2,000 of them. So I wrote each, asking them for a free subscription. I told them Utne would be a Reader’s Digest for the next generation. To my amazement, all but six gave me a subscription. That was the start of the library.
Schimke: We did a count recently, and I think we’ve got about 900 publications in house.
Walljasper: There was a magazine called Processed World. A lot of the people there ended up at Wired. It was this magazine for temp workers in the Bay Area. It had a really interesting kind of anarchist critique. It was at a time when people didn’t realize how much of the workforce had turned into temp work.
Danielle Maestrelli (Librarian, 2006 – 2011): Meatpaper was a good one. It was this heartfelt and literary homage to meat. In each issue, there would be this two-page spread of some kind of salted meat. Total carnivore porn.
In 1998, the Utne undertook a sweeping assesment of the masterworks of human history.
Walljasper: There had been these huge debates, called “The Canon Wars,” over what actually were the “great works.” So we decided to take that idea and run with it, come up with the “Utne Reader Canon": music, self-help books, operas—but also ancient literature. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever worked on in my life. New editors coming in had to give up that concern about, “Well, who are we to say this?” [Laughs.] It was more like, “Alright, we’re going to pick the 10 most progressive cities in the nation!” Some would call it hubris. Some would call it chutzpah. It’s just like, “Hey, we can make these kinds of statements.”
In an ode to the Utne, National Review columnist Reihan Salam contrasted the magazine’s salons with Facebook’s “manufacturing [of] that feeling of togetherness and solidarity.”
Utne: Some people suggested that Utne presaged the idea of social media. I have a rant about that. Online clusters of people are not communities. Community, for me, is not a bunch of people who simply share the same point of view and agree. A real community has diversity.
Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.