Eclectically Yours

Happy 10th, Utne Reader! It’s hard to believe I’ve seen that little perfect-bound mag tucked under friends’ arms for a decade now. It seems like just yesterday when Scot DeGraf, membership manager at Sojourners, started passing his copy around the office with a post-it note attached suggesting specific articles for certain people.

I’ve at times been curious at the reader response of Sojourners’ staff to Utne. Although an overlay of "progressive" politics defines its coverage, the Utne Reader’s perspective has always been elusive, likely intentionally so. Its appeal, I suspect, is related to its invitation to anyone not too closely allied to the mainstream.

Chicano assistant editor Aaron Gallegos—who admits up front to reading Utne with some regularity—says, "The Utne Reader does not take positions. It tries to touch on all systems of values without basing itself in any one tradition. It offers no critique. Maybe that’s good for some people."

Laura Zylstra-Garth, new director of member development at Sojourners, counters, "The Utne Reader reflects an opinion that isn’t the predictable mainstream. Other mags make me feel manipulated, but Utne challenges me to think on my own, question my own opinion, and re-evaluate it."

Scot, a 15-year staffer, pushes this thought a step further. "There is a value in having a place to see different people and perspectives without saying these folks are right or wrong. I don’t have natural avenues to pick up a lot of the material that Utne provides," he says.

Twentysomething handywoman Kari Verhulst explains it this way: "It errs on the side of making no statement at all rather than making a dogmatic statement. Because it’s not the only thing I read, I don’t need it to. But it only provides fuel for a certain part of our being." (Kari also says, "I do not read it religiously; I read it periodically." Seems like a good idea for a non-religiously based periodical.)

SPEAKING of religion, associate editor Jim Rice says, "They really don’t cover the Christian Left very well. It always seems a bit of an afterthought." Although Utne does reprint with some regularity articles from progressive Christian mags, including Sojourners, these articles tend to be more political in nature. Traditional theologies seem to be less acceptable spiritual material.

Still, Scot and others voiced their feeling that the variety of subject matter makes for an interesting read. Readers get a quick glance at a lot of material. Kari offered a slight concern about this: "They edit people’s articles down to the point where they offer an overly simplified argument from the Left."

Early on, I thought that Utne might offer a creative space for the coalescing of different progressive constituencies. Its seeming increased inability to discriminate between the odd and the important causes gives me pause on this point.

My other major concern is about style. Does anthologizing the field of progressive magazines support those mags by introducing them to new people? Or does it undercut the alternative press by replacing busy people’s subscriptions to them? I’d like to know the impact of Utne Reader on the magazine public, and thereby the magazine industry.

Jill Carroll Lafferty, our twentysomething news intern, offered some insight here. "I pick and choose from the articles. It is more of a skimming mag. If I am interested in an article, I will search out the original article."

Practically, as Jim relates his brother-in-law saying, "It’s easier to find [on the newsstand] than other alternative pubs." And Jill reminded me of that ever-important point—"It is affordable for those who can’t afford all the mags."

Art director Ed Spivey Jr.’s reaction: "Are we sure we want to give them so much positive space? I mean, they are good...but we don’t want to lose any subscribers."

No, we don’t, but we do want to wish them well for the next decade. Here’s to good discernment!

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