Utne Re-Reader: A "progressive brand" reclaims its roots--and name

Given how media shakeups have been racking up headlines of late--from the sales of both metro dailies to editorial oustings at City Pages and The Rake--it's no surprise that progressive stalwart Utne has kept a low profile about change of its own. With its November/December 2006 issue, the magazine quietly rolled out a new tagline and a new--or, rather, old--name. Its cover once again bears the title it did when it was founded 23 years ago, Utne Reader. And "Understanding the next evolution" has been replaced with the simpler, "Thinking ahead."

Editor in chief David Schimke says the decision has a lot to do with another big change, last spring's sale of the magazine to Ogden Publications, the Kansas-based company that prints Grit, Steam Traction, and Mother Earth News, among others. With so many other upheavals, including two new editors in two years and a complete redesign of the publication last year, he says he didn't want to confuse readers or suggest that the sale had altered the essence of the magazine.

In fact, the change signals a return to the very heart of where Utne Reader began.

While Utne Reader remains "one of the top recognized progressive brands," according to Schimke, the standalone Utne never caught on.

The revised masthead signals a shift away from Utne's lifestyle focus of recent years. When Eric Utne retired from the magazine and his wife Nina took over, she concluded that in an internet age, the function of culling the best of alternative media might not be as relevant, so she dropped Reader. But Schimke and the new owners had a different idea. "Because of the internet, there’s even more need to cull, digest and filter," Schimke says. "And it seems like nobody in print is applying journalistic standards to the stuff that's turning up." The full title references the magazine's informal motto from years back: "The Reader's Digest of the alternative press."

Refocused, the magazine will also tackle political issues more directly and reduce the personal growth emphasis of recent years. Schimke says the old theme of "good news for bad times," used in Utne's publicity materials, will take on a "news that matters" feel, focused on giving exposure to under-represented ideas and news.

"We don't want to be just another progressive magazine," he says. "We want to use the alternative press to create an engaging conversation. We don't want to be didactic. We want to draw from libertarian sources, from liberal sources, from conservative sources.”

He adds that of the two places readers usually find Utne on a newsstand--beside Yoga Journal or next to Harper's--he'd prefer ending up beside the famed political magazine.

Utne Reader has seen its share of financial ups and downs, but these days its story seems a bit more like that discarded publicity slogan: its stability after the Ogden sale is a case of "good news for bad times." Bucking industry trends, Utne's subscriptions are holding steady at 225,000 and newsstand sales have increased slightly to 40,000 copies per issue.

"Given all possible scenarios, we couldn't have hoped for a better situation," he says of the Ogden sale. "They believe in the magazine, and if anything, they want us to be more aggressive and more topical. Of all the media upheaval in the last year, locally, I think we fared the best. I don’t want to gloat about it. In fact, I'm humbled by it. But the owners are smart. They get the magazine. And they're willing to give us the time to establish ourselves again."

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

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