February 28th, 2013 11:42 am | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Schools, Media

HotSeat: Eric Utne

utneEric Utne - University of Minnesota
Eric Utne founded the Utne Reader, a print forerunner of content aggregation sites such as the Huffington Post, in 1984. The magazine, published bimonthly, pulled in excerpts and reprints from a range of media sources. It's mission is to bring readers "the best of the alternative press."

In 2000, Utne walked away from the magazine that still bears his name and took a job teaching at a Waldorf school in Minneapolis. Utne, 66, is currently working on two books and also writes a column for the Utne Reader. He's giving a talk on Education and Parenting in the Age of Technological Change at Portland Waldorf School, 2300 SE Harrison St., Milwaukie, on Sat., March 2 at 5 pm. Admission is free.

WW spoke to Utne about the shape of today's news media and why he gave up publishing to become a teacher.

WW: You were an aggregator before we knew that term. Now we have sites like the Huffington Post. How do you feel having been there before Ariana Huffington, before other aggregation sites?
Eric Utne: Aggregation sounds so massive. We were much more a kind of custom filter is the way I might define us.

Ariana Huffington got paid lots of money by AOL for Huffington Post, for an idea that the Utne Reader put forward earlier. When you look in the rear view mirror now, how do you feel about the money she got and where you are?
Well, I congratulate her. I think she did a brilliant thing. Yes, we were I think responding to the same need, and I don’t think that need has diminished. If anything it’s gotten more acute.

What’s your outlook for the future of newspapers and magazines?
I am so grateful that Ogden keeps publishing Utne Reader. They’re the company that bought us back in 2006. They publish Mother Earth News and ten other titles. I don’t know how most print publications can do it. Until there is an ethic of paying for info online, I think it’s a very tricky proposition.

Can the Internet replace the traditional press?
I don’t think so. What press does is it creates a common source of information. It’s the thing that people turn to, and then turn to each other and discuss. According to Thomas Jefferson, in a democracy the majority rules when the majority is an informed majority.

Without that discussion and debate, one is not informed, and the information just sort of washes over you and you don’t really take it in. When we don’t have a common medium, when everybody’s getting their own sort of individualized information and are just talking to people who agree with each other, then we have atomization and alienation and we don’t really have democracy.

Do you blog and tweet?
I will by the time my new books come out. But I don’t. Writing has always been like bleeding on paper for me, so I don’t jump at the chance to have a soapbox. More recently I am finding I have things I want to say, and it is a little less painful to say them.

Why did you leave the Utne Reader?
I was burned out. I had been both publishing and editing the magazine for 16 years. I turned to exploring other things that led me back to a book that I had bought 30 years before by Rudolph Steiner [an Austrian who founded Waldorf education.] The first time I tried to read it when I was in my 20s. I found it absolutely impenetrable. I thought, “What is this?” Thirty years later, I picked up the book and they words leapt off the page.

We were talking about one of the classes having lost a teacher and how were they going to replace him. Two days later, I found myself saying, “If you’d have me, I’d love to do it.”

You’re doing a lot of public speaking these days. Please provide me the Utne Reader-style condensed version.
I think there’s a crisis, not just in American education, but in American society, and it’s related to screen time and communication and what it is doing to people’s attention spans and their ability to communicate and our sense of community.

Disclosure: WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss' three children have all attended Waldorf schools.
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