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Utne -- the magazine that comes with an action plan

Nina Utne went to nursery school on a farm, so she “made the connection real early between the animals you see and the meat you eat,” as she likes to put it. Result: Utne became a vegetarian before she was old enough to spell the word.

But a couple of years ago, at age 48, she began to feel she’d become “moralistic, self-righteous and rigid about not eating meat,” and she was appalled to discover those qualities in herself. She was also starting to work harder than ever, to lead “a more intense life,” and she realized she needed “a different kind of fuel.”

“So it made practical, personal and spiritual sense to change. I started eating meat again.”

Utne’s discomfort with dogma, her open-mindedness and her willingness to examine, and re-examine, her own motivations and behavior are a refreshing antidote to the blind, partisan rigidity both sides inflicted on us in the just-concluded presidential campaign. But they’re about what one would expect in the chair and chief executive of a bimonthly national magazine that embodies those very qualities.

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Utne magazine -- know as the Utne Reader until last year -- is now celebrating its 20th anniversary as what I’ve long considered the Volvo of the magazine world: a serious, earnest read for the Birkenstock generation.

Stories from the 20th anniversary issue:

“Good Intentions: They have more power than you think.”

“Organic Labeling: What you need to know.”

“Outsourcing the Public Good: For-profit companies are taking over government jobs.”

Utne, which bills itself as both “a progressive lifestyle magazine” and “a different read on life,” is an odd hybrid. It combines original reportage with heavily edited excerpts and reprints from a selection of more than 2,000 other alternative publications, most of them pretty obscure: Ode. Spineline. The Algonkian. Terrain. Utne also combines serious public-policy discussions with articles on personal health and development so that it sometimes reads like a cross between the Atlantic Monthly and Yoga Journal.

“No other magazine makes those kinds of cross-connections,” Nina Utne says.

But what really animates Utne -- both Utne the magazine and Utne the CEO -- is activism.

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“We try to give information in a way that’s empowering,” she says. “We try to frame our stories with possible action, something you can do in response to otherwise depressing news.”

Thus, the 20th anniversary issue features a story on “The Radical Middle” -- not “the mushy political center” but people so “fed up with partisan gridlock” on both sides that they’ve “stepped outside old ideological boxes to fight boldly for the common good.”

To help them in that fight, the story is accompanied by what Nina Utne calls “a resource box,” a brief companion article telling readers how they can take action against the ills or problems described in the main article.

In this case, the resource box -- titled “A Declaration of Dialogue” -- tells readers how to organize and participate in “Let’s Talk America,” a series of “cross-spectrum political dialogues in neighborhoods across the country.”

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Nina Utne may be a naive idealist -- naive idealism sometimes seems hard-wired into the DNA of her magazine -- but she is convinced that conversations of this sort are the best way to begin to heal the deep divisions exacerbated by the recent, hotly contested presidential election.

“The media have done an egregious job of demonizing one side to the other during the campaign,” she says. “The riskiest, most radical thing you can do now is to try to reach across that divide and try to put things back together.”

So far, 2,300 people have registered online (www.letstalkamerica.org) for the conversations, and more than 150 “Let’s Talk America” neighborhood conversations have been arranged.

“Let’s Talk America” isn’t just relying on the goodwill and initiative of its readers, though. Utne representatives offer to train folks in just how to conduct these constructive, bipartisan conversations. Utne staff members will also be trying to encourage bipartisan dialogue by placing articles on the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers and offering commentaries to local radio stations.

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A ‘Reader’ no more

It was largely this desire for active participation that led Utne to drop “Reader” from its name.

“It just seemed too passive for what we wanted our magazine to be,” Nina Utne says. “It suggested sitting on the sidelines and, well, reading. We want active participants. We want our magazine to be not just a magazine but a platform, a delivery system, a movement.”

Nina -- her blue eyes flashing, her hands chopping and weaving through the air as she speaks -- is surprisingly passionate about the enterprise given how late she came to it. Her husband, Eric, founded Utne in 1984, five years after the couple moved from New York to Minnesota as what she calls “a summer lark.”

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“Eric came from Minnesota and wanted to go back for a visit,” she says. “I never thought we’d stay, but we did.”

Minneapolis was (and is) an unusual place for a national magazine, but then Utne has always been an unusual magazine.

It began publication in cramped office space above a food co-op and soon developed a reputation for spotting emerging cultural trends and phenomena before the mainstream media. Utne wrote about the Buddhism movement in America in 1984, for example, 13 years before Time magazine did a cover story on it. Utne published a cover story on the men’s movement and profiled Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” both in 1986, both a year before Newsweek.

While Eric ran the magazine, Nina raised their three sons, went to graduate school and worked on a local, independent school movement.

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In 1996, Eric pulled back from day-to-day involvement, and the magazine “began to flail around, rudderless,” his wife says. He returned two years later with her as a reluctant, skeptical partner, and a year or two after that, he pulled away again, and she began running the increasingly cash-strapped operation.

“I had no background in business or journalism, and I thought I’d just be a temporary steward,” she says. “But we tightened our belts, cut costs and appealed to our readers for contributions.”

To her surprise and delight, the readers responded. She put some money in herself -- “I’ve got family money but not enough to support a ‘hobby’ like this all by myself,” she says with a throaty laugh -- and business soon picked up.

Circulation is 225,000, with 48,000 of those sold on the newsstand. Utne readers are spread throughout the country, though its three largest markets are all in the West -- Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. (Los Angeles ranks ninth.) The average annual household income of Utne readers is $93,400 (U.S. average: $59,100). More than 80% of Utne subscribers are college graduates (U.S. total: 24%).

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Many of these readers are eager to talk about how Utne has made their lives -- and their communities -- better, and the magazine is happy to distribute these testimonials under the heading (surprise) “Utne Inspires Action.”

A man in Massachusetts credits Utne with the creation of a new public park in his town. A reader in Boulder, Colo., says Utne helped “propel” a nonprofit, energy-efficient skating rink that doubles as “a community gathering point.” And a woman in Walnut Creek speaks of learning in the magazine about treatment possibilities for her twin grandchildren who were diagnosed at birth with “autism, mental retardation, attention-deficit disorder.” Now they lead normal lives, she says, and “I owe it all to Utne.”

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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