Utne

My hard drive decided to divorce the computer that houses it late last week, taking with it hundreds of creatively procured MP3s as well as a document containing ideas for this fine column ("do the people in those Conde Nast ads buy their magazines dinner before they grope them?"). Since then, I've been doing an awful lot of reading: mags, books, product manuals, takeout menus, etc. What I've learned is that I'd rather lose an ear than 24/7 computer access. Separately, I'd no sooner buy another Dell than French-kiss a rotary drill.

So severe was my desperation that I ventured into the smart-and-socially-conscious section of the magazinatorium and grabbed a copy of Utne. The few times I'd encountered it, the publication's self-righteousness had turned me off. I also didn't get the "understanding the next evolution" cover motif. Had I taken more than a few seconds to think about it, it might have dawned on me that the first letters of those words form an UTNE acronym.

After giving the February 2006 Utne a thorough once-over, I realize that what might appear on first glance to be self-righteous verve may instead be a carefully thought-out, coherent editorial mission. There are so few magazines nowadays with the latter that I can't be blamed for the miscategorization. Anyway, whether or not you heed Utne's calls to action, you can't deny the skill with which the magazine articulates its live-well philosophy, nor the subtlety with which it presents its case.

Utne is one part The Week and one part a left-leaning thought journal. Like the former, it cites news and trends first reported by other publications (everything from Ad Age to Chow), recapping the earlier reports and adding a dash of commentary. Both the "Mindful Living" and front-of-book "Emerging Ideas" sections largely adhere to that formula, offering short takes on skateboarding moms, Wikipedia and varying alcohol content in wine. Utne also does a solid job of aggregating statistics and content from disparate sources, such as apocalyptic precursors (mine, in six words: Mariah Carey, Secretary of the Interior) and analyses of global-warming coverage (guess which group was more likely to conclude that it isn't a figment of the imagination, the mainstream media or the scientific community?).

The longer, more thoughtful pieces separate Utne from the deep-thinker pack, however. The February cover concept may not be the most original--ways to remain grounded amid threats of terrorism and flu pandemics and such--but the mag assesses the situation from several perspectives. It presents an essay, a Q&A with an organizational consultant who doubles as a shaman, and first-person pieces in which five activist types share their secrets for staying cool, calm and collected. Utne surrounds the subject and, in doing so, offers an action plan for those inclined to follow it.

I don't buy the story that purports to reveal the dark side of the chocolate business--it reads like a faux-serious SCTV skit--but the "Beyond Organic" spread more than compensates. In it, the mag presents portraits of organic growers and a local-food manifesto alongside a Q&A that explores the pitfalls of industrial farming. It's essential reading for anybody with even an inkling of interest in nutrition and/or the world around him... and I say this as a guy who has been known to inhale cheeseburgers for breakfast.

I wish the Utne folks would have gone much, much further with the "Top 10 Censored Stories of 2005" item flogged on the cover of the February issue. Instead of delving deeper into, say, the post-tsunami installation of a U.S. military presence in and around Thailand, Utne merely lists this and nine other tantalizing tidbits that I hadn't heard about elsewhere. Go research and report the darn stories yourselves, you plucky muckrakers, you.

A few other elements of the February issue bugged me a bit, like the plugs for Utne's online store--I'm sure there's a better way to say "I'm totally simpatico with the world around me, dude" than by toting a non-leeching stainless steel Utne travel mug to and fro. Nonetheless, I thank the publication for temporarily rescuing me from my no-computer purgatory. I hate describing anything as "worthy"--that's a personal judgment call; my "worthy" assessment plus two bucks gets you a glass o' suds, though not in Manhattan--but Utne's thoughtfulness and measured approach makes it one of the few truly worthy titles out there.

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