Utne Reader: What Are YOU Looking At?

Sarah Kosch

I may be sentimental to an obscene degree, but I think most of us can agree that Susan McCarty’s “Services Pending” from our Fall 2010 issue and Danielle Deulen's “Aperture” from Spring 2011 are two essays that sucker-punch one somewhere under the ribcage and leave—if not full-on tears—at least a pause. It was no surprise to me when Lynne told me Utne Reader had reprinted the former and was also interested in reprinting the latter. I didn’t know what Utne was all about, but I was already convinced of their superior taste.

Then Lynne handed me an issue to look through, and Hugh Hefner gazed back at me and asked the question:  “21st Century Sex: What are you looking at?”

“I’m not really sure, Hugh,” I said. “But I’m intrigued to find out.”

I read about modern sexual fantasies, exorcisms, debt, etc., etc., and was glad I had been asked to interview the Editor-in-Chief, David Schimke about the behind-the-scenes workings of the magazine. I had a lot of questions.

The Library

It is a real, physical space where several bins of books and magazines are catalogued and shelved by a real librarian every day.

It started twenty-seven years ago when Eric Utne, fascinated with alternative presses, began collecting journals and magazines. He began putting out a flyer of publications that became so popular that it transformed into a magazine.


Today the bi-monthly magazine requires the five editors do a lot of reading. They read through all their sources looking for articles that catch their eye, and once they’ve found enough stuff that they love, they create a “pitch packet” that everyone then goes off and reads before the final debate and selection.

“The magazine is really invented in the meetings,” said Schimke.

Sometimes topics that they’re passionate about make it up on the big board in the office, and then they look for content to fill the theme, but a lot of things they reprint are articles that they simply found surprising of compelling, no matter what the subject matter. They try to be a topical news magazine, but sometimes they’re able to look ahead and guess what the hot topics will be. The main goal is to stay a step ahead of the mainstream media.

Some articles might not get reprinted, but their topic creates fodder. “Someone will pitch the topic of El Salvador, and we’ll end up at the Chinese economy,” said Schimke. “Somehow we got there.”

About forty percent of the magazine’s content comes from the editors creating their own essays based on what they’ve read. In this way they can create multiple-source essays. If budget allows, they occasionally commission a free-lance or guest writer (for example Dave Zirin, the political sports writer), but a lot of the time the editors supply their own content or feature “shorts”—short synopses of magazines that act as an appetizer for readers.

“We want to features as many publications as we can,” said Schimke.

 Utne publishes only non-fiction, since the editors consider themselves well- read and qualified in that area. “Fiction is a different animal,” said Schimke.

Not a Rerun

The Utne Reader’s website describes the magazine as a “reprint-driven publication,” but Schimke stressed the active role the editors play in arranging the content.

“We think of ourselves more as curators than a pure reprint vehicle,” said Schimke.

They believe in shortening and tightening up—working with the author or whoever owns the rights of the piece. For example, if they publish a book excerpt, the editors have to pick and choose parts and work with the author to put something together that has a specific thesis and gives a broad view of the work in a short amount of space. The result is not just a reprint, but a reedit.

Utne is fairly unique in their mission. Schimke knows of only one other reprint-driven magazine, and it was started by a former Utne editor.

A Round of Applause

Besides helping to increase the audience of alternative presses by compiling a wide range of titles and topics in one publication, Utne Reader also commends the work of alternative presses with the Utne Independent Press Awards. To date, it’s been awarded annually twenty-two times.

“It’s important in our mission that we award alternative presses and give them energy and positive feedback,” said Schimke.

There are a lot of outstanding magazines that don’t get reprinted in the Utne Reader, and the awards are a chance to give them recognition. The only criteria for a nomination is that the magazine be mission-driven and not part of a bigger group (for example, The New Yorker is ineligible).

Click here for a video of the Utne staff talking about some of their favorite independent magazines and the process of selecting the award winners.

“In this business, it’s good to get a pat on the back sometimes,” said Schimke.

We at The Iowa Review couldn’t agree more. Here’s one your way, Utne.


Sarah Kosch is The Iowa Review's intern. When not making herself indispensable at the TIR office, she can be found changing the marquee at the Englert Theater.