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.”
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.