August 19, 2022

Former Utne magazine owner recounts publication’s struggles

ROCKPORT – Sometimes a great idea, even when it’s well executed, is doomed to failure – at least in financial terms.

Nina Utne, who took up the reins of Utne magazine from her husband, Eric, in the late 1990s, sold the publication in June after more than 20 years of family ownership. The magazine – born as the Utne Reader in 1984 – is highly regarded as a compendium of writing from alternative publications throughout the world.

Nina Utne spoke Friday at the Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility’s annual fall conference at the Rockport Opera House.

The sale of the magazine is hardly a failure, and in fact, Utne said, is actually a success in that it shepherds the publication into a more secure future. But throughout its run as an independently owned endeavor, Utne magazine made money in just one year – and only when Nina Utne drastically cut expenses, she said.

For a self-described “accidental business person,” it’s been a good run.

Eric Utne, “a magazine junkie,” hit upon the idea of gathering essays, journalism and other writings from obscure publications around the world, and presenting them in a bimonthly, nationally circulated magazine, she said. Issues usually have a theme, and while not partisan, the magazine has a decidedly progressive take on the world.

“He started thinking about what the world really needed,” Utne said of her husband, and he hit upon the notion of harvesting from the wealth of good information being published in small to really-small newsletters, newspapers and magazines; sort of a Readers Digest for the Volvo, vegetarian and Noam Chomsky crowd.

Utne was able to talk some 2,000 publishers into giving him free subscriptions. The couple and their friends would dive into reading whatever struck their interest – the help was key, since Eric is “one of the world’s slowest readers,” Nina said – and then at a potluck dinner in their Minneapolis, Minn. home, the group would nominate pieces for inclusion.

“It grew quite rapidly,” she said, winning readers, “because we could be trusted to do the dowsing and winnowing.” The goal was simple, yet lofty: “To inspire people,” she said.

At its peak, the magazine’s circulation hit 305,000, reaching an upscale, educated readership. Circulation eventually settled at 225,000.

Even with the sought-after reader demographics, the magazine could not earn enough from advertising. Utne charged higher subscription rates than most magazines because of the dearth of advertising revenue, but eventually had to drop rates to stay in the game.

While Eric ran the magazine, Nina raised their children, and started a Waldorf school. After a dozen years, Eric was burned out on the work, and Nina – who had just inherited some money – decided to take over, eventually becoming CEO and editor-in-chief.

Feeling as if she were always on the verge of figuring out how to make the magazine financially sustainable, but finding herself instead with her finger, and then her arm in the dike, as she put it, Utne reluctantly entertained a buy-out offer.

Leveraging all the inherited money had kept creditors at bay, but profitability remained elusive. She had considered non-profit status – which advertising competitor Mother Jones relies on – but could not find the right terms.

The bottom line pressure increased.

“We had a CFO who I swear had to take a Valium every time she had to talk to me,” Utne joked, describing a cash-flow nightmare.

Then, at a board meeting, she received an email from the firm that managed her inherited funds.

“You’re tapped out, and you’re cut off,” she was told.

In January, Utne agreed to the offer from Ogden Publications Inc., publisher of Mother Earth News and other magazines, and the deal closed June 1.

Ogden noticed that Utne had a circulation staff of three to handle the one magazine, while Ogden had three people to manage circulation for 14 publications; that confirmed for Nina that profitability may have always been out of reach.

Utne recently stepped down as editor, but remains involved in the magazine.

And the magazine is still thriving, she said.

“It helps people re-order their lives, and re-imagine their lives,” she said.

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