Eric Utne Created the Impossible: a Reader's Digest That Both Baby Boomers and Highbrows Can Love

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's called the Utne Reader, and if you've never seen it before, its name might confuse. What, for example, is an Utne? And why should you read it?

A first clue is provided in a playful note at the bottom of its masthead. "Utne rhymes with 'chutney,' " it informs, "and means 'far out' in Norwegian." More specifically, Utne here refers to Eric Utne, 43, founder (in 1984) and still the guiding light of a bimonthly magazine published in Minneapolis that is unfailingly earnest, decidedly cerebral but never dour.

Peruse the contents pages of some recent issues, and you'll find a little of this ("The promise of economic conversion") and a little of that ("The baby boom yearns to settle down"). Most of the two dozen or so articles in each edition are condensed pieces reprinted (with permission) from somewhere else (Boston Phoenix, Worldwatch). Utne describes his magazine as the "Reader's Digest of the alternative press," and his publishing credo reflects an eclectic outlook and a highly personalized approach. "We edit the magazine for ourselves," says Utne, speaking for his staff of 18. "We assume that enough people out there are like us, and if an idea interests us, it will interest them."

Evidently so. From its first appearance six years ago as a 12-page newsletter, the Utne Reader has fattened to a standard 144 pages per issue. Today it is one of America's fastest-growing periodicals, with a circulation doubling over the past two years to 215,000-plus and a claimed readership of 1.5 million. In 1988 it was a nominee for a prestigious National Magazine Award.

"We're getting the opinion leaders of the baby boom," says Utne of his magazine's subscriber demographics (married homeowners, ages 25-44, college grads with an average income of $50,200). "We ask questions, provide some points of view, but we don't dictate solutions. We want to stimulate discussion."

Those who know both Utne, the magazine, and Utne, the man, find little to separate the two. "Like the Utne Reader," says his friend and Spy magazine publisher Tom Phillips, "Eric is somewhat of a surprise, a man of many contradictions, light on the surface but weighty underneath." Utne, for example, professes to hate TV but enjoys thirtysomething. At the office he seeks editorial consensus while insisting on absolute financial control. And although he's generally liberal in outlook, he still says, "Yah, I enjoy being a capitalist."

Born in St. Paul, Eric Utne was the second of four children of an insurance company VP and his homemaker wife, who were divorced when Eric was in his teens. A mediocre student, he majored in architecture at the University of Minnesota for two years before dropping out. "I was a good designer," he insists, "but I couldn't pass mechanics and materials." (Or as his wife, Nina, 36, puts it: "He could build them, but they wouldn't stay up.")

Utne, however, always connected well with other people. "Even as a child he had a nice touch," says his father, Bob Utne. "People of all ages cottoned to him." As an archetype of the baby boom generation, Eric tried everything from antiwar protests to managing a natural foods warehouse to studying Eastern philosophy and macrobiotics in Boston. In 1974 he and a dozen friends sat down at his kitchen table and started the New Age Journal, an alternative magazine delving into such matters as ecology and holistic health. After a failed first marriage (from which there is a son, Leif, now 18), Utne worked as a New York literary agent before returning to his Minnesota roots.

A self-described "magazine addict," Utne jokes that Utne Reader "started as a way to keep me off the streets." He settled on the excerpt format in order "to digest everything that's out there," and over the years his definition of alternative press broadened to include such periodicals as New York Woman and Washington Monthly. Among eight original investors, Utne alone holds controlling interest. Financially, he says, the magazine now "dances on either side of the red line."

Because Nina, his second wife and a Rothschild, has an inheritance, the Utnes have a comfortable, though not lavish, life-style no matter how the Utne Reader fares financially. The Utnes and their two sons share a big but simply furnished house in Minneapolis and get away to a 100-acre Wisconsin farm for weekends. "We try to live conscientiously," says Eric. "We try to use what resources we have—time, talent, money—wisely," adds Nina, who joins her husband, other editors and guests in discussion salons on such weighty topics as "the meaning of glasnost to the federal budget." Many of their future goals, including an Utne Reader for TV on PBS, revolve around the magazine. "It's a wonderful vehicle for exploring ideas," says Utne's Utne. "What would I do without it?"

—Dan Chu, Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis

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