New 'Positive Change' Magazines Thrive In Fertile Bay Area Soil
When the editors of the monthly news magazine Ode moved from the Netherlands to Mill Valley three years ago, they gained more than a view of Mount Tam. They gained proximity to innovation and to readers who crave it.
"Most of the positive change in the world comes from California," said Ode's editor in chief, Jurriaan Kamp, a 48-year-old journalist with a visionary bent. "This part of the world looks toward the Asian basin, the basin of the future. The Atlantic is the basin of the past."
The Bay Area has been a podium for alternative viewpoints since at least 1876, when the Wasp was founded in San Francisco as a weekly political satire magazine. Among the scores of progressive publications incubated here in the ensuing century, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones are perhaps the best known. But the 21st century crop has a different emphasis.
Today, Ode is among a new generation of "positive change" magazines that, by focusing on problem solving, tap a burgeoning readership seeking to act upon its convictions - or at least read about those who do.
Positive change might sound New Agey, but it has proved to be an increasingly popular and profitable approach for print magazines, even in the midst of the digital revolution.
San Francisco's Yoga Journal, which was founded in Berkeley in 1975, claims a circulation of 350,000 and won the 2007 National Magazine Award for Best Consumer Publication.
And San Francisco is one of the largest markets for Utne magazine. The 27-year-old, Minneapolis-based stalwart of the "progressive lifestyle" category, with a circulation of 225,000, recently updated its name (formerly Utne Reader) to emphasize its commitment to action and change.
Other successful long-running national magazines in the genre are Body & Soul, founded in 1974 as New Age Journal, and E/The Environmental Magazine, an 18-year-old bimonthly.
"These are magazines for people who give a damn," said Samir Husni, the University of Mississippi journalism professor known as "Mr. Magazine." "They are in the business of activating the human being to enjoy their surroundings."
Husni believes the recent growth in magazines focused on "sustainability and community" is tied to 9/11, as well as political and environmental concerns such as the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and global warming.
Another factor driving the proliferation of positive change magazines is advertising dollars from companies selling hybrid cars, organic beauty products and eco-fashion.
Advertising revenue has more than doubled in a decade, from $11 billion in 1996 to $24 billion in 2006, according to the Magazine Publishers of America; in the same period, the number of subscriptions grew by 7.4 percent.
Among the new local crop of progressive lifestyle magazines is Terra Marin, a quarterly guide to sustainable living that reflects one woman's vision. Editor Karen Peterson, a former Chronicle reporter, printed 6,500 copies of the first issue (August/October 2007) and distributed them to Marin bookstores and groceries.
"It's not even a mom-and-pop," said Peterson. "It's just a mom!" She funded the enterprise with proceeds from a newswire she produces on the clean-tech energy sector ( www.scitech21.com), and assembled a small team of writers, designers and photographers. The newswire served as her inspiration: "There are amazing solutions coming out of big business and industry," Peterson said. For example, "It's just good business to use solar."
Another recent title is Greater Good magazine, a 3-year-old quarterly published by the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being at UC Berkeley. Among its current cover stories are "Gratitude: How 'thank you' brings health and happiness" and "Barbara Ehrenreich invites you to dance."
Conscious Dancer is another new Berkeley-based quarterly, which focuses on the "ecstatic dance" movement. With articles on Burning Man, tantric tango and the history of Sufi dancing, the publication presents "conscious dance culture as an environmental movement," according to founding editor Mark Metz.
He came up with the idea this spring while up to his neck in hot water at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat north of Napa. "When you find community through dance, it creates sustainable people one at a time," he said.
The most commercially successful of the new lot is Ode. Founded by Kamp in 1995 in the Netherlands, Ode is distinctive for its news orientation and for the 20-year journalism pedigree of its founder and editor.
With a circulation of 130,000, Kamp's magazine - "Ode: For Intelligent Optimists" - takes the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's as its models, reporting on global innovations in science, business, agriculture, health and energy.
"Say you want to improve schools," Kamp said. "If someone in Australia finds a way to make schools more inspiring, it may be useful to a headmaster right here in Marin."
The September issue includes a profile of the founder of the Slow Food movement, a report on research showing Omega-3 curbs depression and violence, plus excerpts from a forthcoming documentary on the Dalai Lama.
"We are not a 'green' magazine," Kamp said. "We are a news magazine with a twist - we are looking for solutions to problems. Look at the front page of any newspaper - 95 percent of what is reported is what went wrong yesterday.
"I'm not saying there are no problems. But it is our ambition to look for solutions."
Kamp is betting that his approach to the news will draw readers turned off by mainstream media.
"Magazines are still recognized as something that give a sense of community," said Bill Mickey, senior editor of Folio, which covers the magazine industry. "They draw a group of like-minded folks together around a theme."
But a magazine startup generally takes three to five years to become profitable, said Mickey. "It's a very long growth curve. The passion may be there but the business sense might not be. Folks may confuse one for the other."
Ode's editor in chief - who calls himself "a born optimist" - believes he and his staff have both traits. (Of the magazine's financing, he would only say it took "a lot of money from a small group of people.")
"We journalists need to ask - do we serve something else beyond ourselves? More than ego? More than working for money?" Kamp said. "I didn't start this business to make money. I started it to make a positive contribution."
His favorite inspiration is something he calls the Gandhi test. "A businessman asked Gandhi for advice - how to make a decision - and Gandhi said, 'Think about the poorest man or woman you know. If it's going to make his or her life better, do it,' " said Kamp.
"I don't think Rupert Murdoch would pass the Gandhi test."
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle