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In Sync With Maturing Baby Boomers

The Utne Reader - America's fastest-growing magazine - is finding a niche as a `Readers Digest' for thirtysomethings

IT'S magazine quiz time. What United States magazine has: A greater percentage of baby boomers reading it than People magazine?

Better-educated readers than the Atlantic?

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Subscribers in more professional/managerial positions than those at The New Yorker?

Readers with higher incomes than those at Esquire?

The answer - Utne Reader, the nation's fastest-growing publication.

From its headquarters above the trendy Loring Caf'e in downtown Minneapolis, the magazine has increased its circulation since June of 1988 by 113 percent. A circulation of a quarter-million is projected by the end of the first half of 1991 - not bad for a publication just less than seven years old.

Sometimes referred to as the ``Readers Digest of the '90s'' or in jest as the ``Thirtysomething Reader,'' the magazine has in the past few issues provided baby boomers with a potpourri of cover stories on spirituality, the sexual politics of housework, television, a search for home, and feminism.

On every cover the Reader proclaims that it includes ``The best of the alternative press,'' even though 20 to 30 percent of the editorial content is commissioned from outside sources or is staff-generated.

Editor Jay Walljasper admits that with occasional inclusions from mainstream publications such as Esquire and the Guardian, the Reader includes ``not just the alternative press. The word alternative we apply on the individual article level more than on the publication itself.''

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Regardless of the articles' origin, subscribers' letters indicate that they usually like what they read. And they are not usually put off either by the magazine's sometimes preachy tone or its progressive/ Greenish political proselytizing.

``I love it,'' says Nancy Roberts, an authority on the alternative press and Mr. Walljasper's former journalism teacher. ``The Utne Reader fulfills a real need. There's a lot of good stuff that gets printed in small and alternative publications. People would miss this if it weren't in the Reader,'' says Ms. Roberts, associate professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Reader's editorial staff regularly scans 1,000 to 2,000 publications for possible stories. Its library is chock-a-block with such publications as American Demographics, Old House Journal, Architecture, The Disability Rag, New Age, WJR, Off Our Backs, Religion Watch, and The Sun.

Publisher Craig Neal says the Reader is popular because it brings up issues that people from their late 20s through the mid-40s want to read about - and it brings up these issues ``in a real and significant way.''

Mr. Neal says he dislikes it when people stereotype baby boomers, and he takes issue when the Reader's subscribers are characterized as ``yuppies with a conscience.''

``The baby boom is the single largest population blip in the history of this country. It's going to have an impact on the culture, politics - everything. It already is. The baby boom isn't cute. It's not an army of likeminded people,'' says Neal, who, in his mid-40s, is one of the oldest of 16 staff members whose average age is about 30.

Although the Reader's subscribers may range anywhere from ``granola crunchers'' to unrepentant hippies to middle-aged urbanites with BMW's, they have certain similar characteristics, says Carolyn Adams, the circulation director. The typical profile would be of a college graduate working in a professional/managerial position who is 38 years old, who reads and travels a great deal, is mail-order oriented, and who votes and is politically active.

Approximately 10 percent of readers pay the hefty $4 price tag per issue at their local newsstand, with the remainder shelling out the $18 annual subscription fee for six magazines.

Even though the Reader's subscribers fit a demographic profile that would make most advertisers salivate, it often has been difficult to interest potential advertisers to buy space in the publication, according to the advertising director, Michael Tronnes.

`MY biggest problem,'' Mr. Tronnes says, has been ``convincing advertisers of the varied interests of our readers - interests which are not reflected in the magazine because we are a general-interest publication not designed to sell ads. Rather, we're designed for readers - designed to disseminate information and articles that don't talk about products.''

Despite the Reader's burgeoning circulation, each issue of the approximately 150-page publication has somehow been able to maintain a small-time, homey, friendly flavor. But if the circulation swells to half a million in the near future, as Neal predicts, the nature of the magazine could change.

While the magazine's founder, Eric Utne, jokes that he is having ``an identity crisis'' since he gave up the title of publisher and took on the dual mantle of president/editor-in-chief, he denies that the Reader is in danger of losing its own identity as it continues to grow and to take on national ads.

``My concern is that the presence of national ads may make people think that we've lost our identity,'' says Mr. Utne, whose latest Reader carried its first automobile ad. But ``the Reader is not advancing a platform. We are exploring a range of questions. Where we can be most useful is to pose good questions. As a strategy to get those ideas a hearing, I want the presence of recognizable ads.''

According to Neal, ``Success will ruin the Utne Reader only if we buy into the great seductivity of believing that we have the answers. Once you stop asking the questions and start giving the answers, then that's when the tide will turn.''

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