Five Questions for the Editors of Utne Reader

Each year, the Utne Reader, the twenty-nine-year-old magazine that publishes work from the best of the alternative press, recognizes another publication with its Utne Media Award. This year, Orion was a finalist in the award’s general excellence category. We asked Utne editors Christian Williams, Suzanne Lindgren, and Sam Ross-Brown about the magazine, the award, and what it’s like to maintain the greatest library of independent magazines under one roof.


For those who may be new to the Utne Reader, can you tell us a bit about the magazine? What do you aim to do with each issue?

Editor-in-chief Christian Williams: When Eric Utne printed the first issue of Utne Reader back in 1984, he called his digest of reprints and excerpts “the best of the alternative press.” His goal was to shine a spotlight on the groundbreaking ideas and visionary voices flying under the radar of mainstream, print-based media. Simply put, if it was surprising, cutting edge, or thought provoking, Eric would share it with his readers.

While we have a much larger well of information to work with now thanks to the internet, we’re carrying on Eric’s mission twenty-nine years later. We know we don’t have the magic bullet answers to the problems that this world faces, but the first step toward finding solutions is thinking about all of the angles of a particular issue and engaging one another in thoughtful, respectful conversations. Our aim with every issue of the magazine is to provide the fuel for those conversations, and to emphasize the active role that all of us need to play if we hope to leave this world better than we found it.

The Utne office must have a tremendous magazine library. What are some of the publications you love to read and recommend to others?

Christian: We do have a tremendous magazine library and I often wish there were more hours in the day for me to read everything we receive. Each of the three editors on staff has brought a variety of interests to the position, and naturally, those interests are reflected in our favorite publications. For instance, my primary interests are arts and culture, food, and spirituality, and I often find my curiosity piqued most by the magazines that cover those subjects well, such as Oxford American, Tin House, n+1, Sojourners, and Gastronomica, just for starters.

I’m also a musician, and two of my favorite music magazines are Razorcake and Relix. And I’d be remiss not to mention a few university-based magazines that consistently surprise me with great reads: Conservation (University of Washington), Stanford Magazine, Notre Dame Magazine, and University of Chicago Magazine.

Assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren: The magazine library is tremendous, and lets us in on some of the most relevant cultural dialog out there. I seek out Adbusters and Cultural Survival Quarterly for distilled critiques of consumer culture and updates on the resistance movement. For inspiring, solution-focused pieces I go to YES!, while Sacred Fire, Spirituality & Health, and Reality Sandwich remind me that life itself is improbable, full of mystery, and must be lived with intention. There are so many publications worth mentioning; Bitch and High Country News are both doing important work. And of course, Orion, which is beautifully made and brimming with thought-provoking analyses from people who care deeply about the fate of our planet.

Assistant editor Sam Ross-Brown: I have a new favorite magazine every week, but I have a special place in my heart for Geez, Adbusters, and The New Inquiry. On top of their critical, passionate coverage, there’s a wonderful art-project quality to these sources, a sense that everything right down to the layout can change along with the ideas inside each issue or story.

Every year, Utne awards the Utne Media Award to a worthy publication. How did this tradition start, and why continue it?

Christian: I can’t speak to the origins of the award, other than to say Eric and his fellow editors started it in 1989, and it’s been running in one form or another ever since. I can tell you, though, that we’ve continued the tradition simply because we love spreading the word about the outstanding publications we come across on a daily basis. We’re also humbled by how appreciative the nominees and winners are of the recognition; they truly consider it a badge of honor. It makes everyone feel good and until it doesn’t, we’ll keep finding a way to keep it alive.

Tell us a bit about the current roster of award finalists. What do you admire or find worthy about this particular group?

Sam: Awards in the past have focused a lot on print, but there are so many exciting things happening online these days. From Colossal’s gorgeous street art coverage to the unbeatable activism reporting at Waging Nonviolence, many of our finalists are pushing the limits of what web journalism can do.

Suzanne: Hope and tenacity. At the core of most of these publications is the message that we must engage fully with our lives and the world around us. There is important work to be done, namely about planetary destruction and the cultural inequalities and paradigms that have enabled it. To do that work, we must connect and, ultimately, act. It’s an empowering message and tapping people in—not just to that message but to each other, in conversation—strikes me as essential.

For decades, Utne has been a hub and an indispensible gathering force for alternative, independent media. What’s valuable about this kind of storytelling, and what do you see in its future?

Christian: With the immense amount of information and static out there, I think Utne Reader is more necessary than ever. While online content aggregators and algorithms are handy at giving someone a lot to read, nothing beats a staff of intelligent human curators with a nuanced perspective on the readers and the issues they’re most interested in. Over its twenty-nine years, Utne has become more than just a source for what’s percolating beneath the mainstream; it’s now a resource that inspires active involvement in the world we live in. Where Utne served as a bellwether for the Baby Boomers in a new information age, I hope the magazine will serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for the younger generations coming of age in these uncertain times.