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Publisher uprooting Utne Reader from Twin Cities to Topeka

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN
  • Star Tribune
  • December 6, 2011 - 12:33 PM

Imagine Garrison Keillor moving "A Prairie Home Companion" to Des Moines or the Guthrie shuffling off to Omaha. The equivalent of those improbable scenarios is happening in the publishing world: The Utne Reader, a landmark magazine based in the Twin Cities, will shut down its local editorial offices and relocate in Topeka, Kan.

"It's a bummer," said editor-in-chief David Schimke. "Everyone around here is in shock."

The literate-minded magazine, envisioned as a sort of Reader's Digest that compiled "the best of the alternative press," was purchased by Topeka-based Ogden Publications six years ago. The company hopes to save money by consolidating operations at its national headquarters, where it oversees such titles as Mother Earth News and Motorcycle Classics. None of the seven Minneapolis-based staffers is expected to make the move. Schimke said he thinks Ogden wants to cut the editorial budget from about $500,000 to $250,000.

Publisher Bryan Welch, based in Topeka, said the biggest factor was the desire to have everyone under one roof, so the 30 Ogden employees who work on other magazines can share space and workload. Utne was the only Ogden title not produced in Kansas.

"Being separated from its roots is not something we desired, but in weighing all the various factors, this seems to be the best move forward," Welch said. The magazine has yet to be financially successful under Ogden's ownership, he added.

Eric Utne, who founded the magazine in 1984, said being based in the Twin Cities was essential to its early success.

"We know we're not in the center of the universe, so we can watch what's happening in the rest of the world from a certain distance," said Utne, who still writes a column for the magazine but no longer has a financial stake in it.

The Utne Reader has struggled in the Internet age. "It's harder and harder to get people to pay for print," Utne said. "They can get any kind of information online for free."

The number of subscribers has declined to 115,000 from its peak of more than 300,000 in the mid-1990s. Back then the magazine also sponsored 500 "salons" -- intellectually driven gatherings of readers -- nationwide. One of those introduced the future members of Blue Man Group to each other, Utne said.

Utne's desire to operate in the Midwest drew early skeptics -- including his "East Coast snob" father-in-law.

"We were at an early salon and he was saying that I couldn't possibly publish a national magazine from Minneapolis," Utne said. "I pointed out that among those attending the Minneapolis salon was a guy running for U.S. senate, a woman returning from mystery centers in Crete, a guy who had reported on organic farms in South Africa, and Jerry Brown's energy czar."

Then his father-in-law pointed to a guy in a camel-hair jacket. He's got to be Princeton stock, right?

"No," Utne told him. "He's an Iowa hog farmer, but when he's slaughtering the pigs he does listen to Brahms."

Schimke said the staff will work on two more issues before the offices are shuttered. He hopes that someone will take another chance on launching an ambitious publication from the Twin Cities.

"A cool national magazine could evolve out of this," he said. "Someone could step up and do it. There's no reason they shouldn't."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin

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