CLASSIC SUSTAINABILITY MAGAZINE MOTHER EARTH NEWS KEEPS PLUGGING AWAY IN THE 21ST CENTURY.
But did you know they operate out of Topeka?
By Megan Helm
THERE AREN’T MANY PLACES IN KANSAS OR MISSOURI OR even the United States for that matter where conservatives and liberals agree besides the pages of Mother Earth News, an iconic magazine that started off as a voice for the “goin’ up the country” post-hippie crowd back in 1970. Many people, and not just locally, are surprised to find that today it’s headquartered in Topeka, Kansas. Through the nineties and early years of the new century, old Mother Earth issues were a perennial at garage sales, next to old paperback favorites like the Population Bomb, Your Erogenous Zones, and CDs by the grunge band Seven Mary Three (their one CD that is). So when I first heard Mother Earth now operated close to the Brownback governor’s mansion, I decided to find out more about their choice of locale and how Mother Earth, which still sports its core themes of building an earthy, sustainable life (by hand when possible), has changed to serve a new generation of readers.
First the back story. John and Jane Shuttleworth created the magazine from their kitchen table starting in 1970. They described it as “edited by, and expressly for, today’s influential ‘hip’ young adults. The creative people… Heavy emphasis is placed on alternative lifestyles, ecology, working with nature and doing more with less.” Even though the magazine has been bought and sold more than once over the last 45 years, it has managed to stay true to its mission in addition to becoming more and more politically inclusive. Early themes focusing on how to live off the land, reduce the need to consume mass produced food and other products, and maintain the home crafting and animal husbandry skills formerly handed down through the generations have remained and, notably, seem to cross political ideologies.
The year before the magazine launched could be considered the apex of the hippie movement. 1969 was the year of Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and the Manson family murders. The desire to drop out and get back to nature was partially a way to elude law enforcement and government interference and partially a way to thwart what the hippies felt was an evil corporate lifestyle takeover. Utopian vibrations percolated. Making an independent living off the land was a major theme in the seventies and has come back around today in aspects of the Food to Table, CSA, urban farming, and sustainable housing movements.
The early issues of the magazine (which I actually found at a library on microfilm – remember microfilm?) channeled the creativity of the Shuttleworth’s and the motley crew of young contributors they assembled to write about themes of the time: the struggles to make it when unemployment was going through the roof and an OPEC oil embargo was taking down an economy that wouldn’t fully bounce back until the 1980s. Titles like “Building a House of Straw,” “Curing Pork,” and the “The Herdsman’s Handbook” call to mind a certain fairy tale quality juxtaposed to the vexing issues in the mainstream news. “Corn Cob Pipes” and “How to build an Ice House” are reminiscent of a certain snowman, and “Witch for Water” and “Harnessing the Wind” conjure an Ozarkian magical realism. While browsing the early archive I half expected to find articles like “How to make a trail of breadcrumbs” and “How to build a house of candy.”
Other alluring articles promised a way to strike it rich. “Be an antique picker,” “How to retire six months every year” — as well as stories about how to sell your original music and art — all fueled the dream of working for oneself and leaving “the man” behind. Cottage industries are still a huge draw for audiences. Learning how to keep goats and make cheese or beer or pickles or pasta sauce are in nearly every issue.
Founder John Shuttleworth was a bit of an “eco-prophet.” In a March 1975 article he lamented, “You’ve got to be collectively crazy when you belong to a species that can casually assemble enough nuclear weapons to totally destroy all the life on earth a hundred times over. Or breed and stockpile more than enough special strains of anthrax and God knows what other super-diseases to do the same thing. Or completely—and, again, casually—exterminate other whole species for the manufacture of lipsticks and rectal suppositories. Or ransom the lives of the next 20,000 generations with atomic waste just so this generation can continue doubling its consumption of electricity every 10 years… Civilization, it seems, is just another word for ‘lunatic asylum.’”
The Shuttleworth’s started the magazine in Ohio but turned it over to Bruce Woods, a long time editor. He and two other employees bought the magazine in 1979 and moved production to the 600 acre research center or “EcoVillage” in North Carolina where thousands of people came each summer to take classes in the experimental gardens and studios. Paid print subscriptions passed a million, a radio show had hit the airwaves, and according to an article by former contributor Sara Bacher in the March/April 1990 issue, “we began to exert real influence on environmental legislation.” Mother Earth News was now a bona fide player on the fringes of mass media. Bacher was hired for her travel expertise to develop one of the first ever incarnations of Ecotourism, via a Mother Earth trip that took readers to the Alps, Nepal, China, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Scandinavia and Kathmandu, to name a few locales, to see sustainability and ecological issues first hand. Then the Reagan years hit. Ronald Reagan wasn’t big on environmental policy. His Secretary of the Interior James Watt once said, “My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures, which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.” These years took a toll on the magazine. Subscriptions plummeted, the staff was whittled, and the EcoVillage closed. In 1985 the magazine was sold to New York publisher Owen Lipstein. 16 years later, the magazine was again sold, this time to Bryan Welch of Ogden publishing.
Thus, at the turn of the millennium in 2001, the staff and offices of Mother Earth News were relocated to Topeka, where it remains in operation to this day, though Mr. Welch passed the reigns to Bill Uhler last April in order to lead B The Change Media, a new multiplatform media company. In an article written by former publisher Bryan Welch for his blog Beautiful and Abundant in January of 2014, the unifying principle of self-reliance is the key to Mother Earth’s success. After Mediamark Research & Intelligence, an audience analysis company specializing in the advertising industry, evaluated the demographics of Mother Earth over the last 10 years, surprising new data emerged.
Mother Earth News had quadrupled the size of their audience. At a time when print media was suffering a slow death, when newspapers all over the country were firing reporters and limiting coverage, when everybody and their brother had a blog or a YouTube channel showing people how to do things no one ever thought they wanted to do, Mother Earth almost doubled newsstand sales.
In addition they improved their layout, designed an interactive website, added videos, blogs and extended their outreach with annual “fairs” at select towns around the country as well as gaining a prominent social media position. Their readership continues to feel included and important. In fact, according to the article, readers tell the editors what to cover. “We send 10 to 50 email surveys to various groups of readers every week.” They established an advisory group that anyone can request to join on the website.
The Mother Earth Fairs are where the readers really interface. Events and workshops, vendors and activists field questions and provide solutions. I attended the fair in Lawrence two years ago where Temple Grandin was a keynote speaker, Hilary Brown was launching a new veggie burger and my son and I learned about tea and how to raise goats and make cheese. Current Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long admitted there are sometimes interesting political questions at the Q&A’s after various sessions but says “the focus is on how to do things. People come with their notebook in hand ready to learn.” This year’s Midwestern fair was held in October in Topeka.
But perhaps the most surprising statistic to come out of the Mediamark research was that only 10 percent of the audience responding to the survey considered themselves “very Liberal” and 21 percent identify as “very Conservative. “ Bryan Welch puts it this way, “… political differences apparently don’t extend to your feelings for gardens, tomatoes, farmhouses, pure food, a healthy human habitat or great grandchildren.” Which is inspiring. The words “global warming” are rarely used and the magazine makes a concerted effort to avoid partisan buzzwords. They work hard to not alienate readers. It is understood that people on both sides of the political spectrum agree that our planet is beautiful and should be protected for future generations.
According to Bryan Welch’s blog, “We used to refer to our readers as ‘environmentalists.’ Now we know many of you don’t see yourselves that way. You prefer to be characterized as ‘conscientious.’ Or maybe you just prefer not to be characterized at all–which is fine with us.”
He likens the tone of the magazine to a dinner party where the conversation is “interesting, varied and provocative. But we don’t want any of our guests to feel insulted, and we try to make sure that no one is offended, even if they are challenged.” Consensus exists where it overlaps with the American ideal of self-reliance and independence. Conservatives don’t want government interference. Liberals don’t want corporate manipulation. Americans want to be free to live healthy, affordable lives they create for themselves. In that we can agree.