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Look Into the Sun

Does the "sad magazine" have anything to teach the miserable newspaper?

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The Sun arrived at our house as a Christmas present some ten years ago and we've been getting it ever since. I still don't know what to make of it. It has a tone unlike the tone of any other magazine I've read. I think of the Sun as the sad magazine.

Though journalism likes to strike attitudes, there are few of those in the standardmedia spectrum. This story makes you feel sophisticated, that one savvy. Others set your blood to boiling or bring a cheap tear to your eye.

The Sun doesn't toy with your waterworks, but it knows that to be alive is to suffer. It's a not-for-profit monthly of stories, poems, and essays written in a minor key. A feature called "Readers Write" reminds me of a department I remember from Reader's Digest when I was a kid: readers sent in funny, heartwarming anecdotes and each month the Digest published a collection as "Life in These United States."

But the contributors to "Readers Write" aren't sharing chuckles. The Sun proposes a theme, readers respond, and the Sun chooses. "Faith" was the theme for the April issue, and here's how some of the submissions end:

"I lay in the dark crying and singing, singing and crying."

"I eventually lost faith in the Catholic Church, but I have not lost faith in my mother."

"I cry, and Jesus cries with me, and I know, without a doubt, that my sister is wrong."

As you might surmise, the Sun and its 75,000 readers aren't casual acquaintances. The relationship's so intimate, in fact, that in this catastrophic era for printed journalism I bring the Sun to your attention not for its cathartic value but as a business model. Sy Safransky, the Sun's founder, editor, and publisher, doesn't worry about advertising falling off because the Sun carries none. The readers, almost all of them subscribers, pay the freight.

The Sun Web site offers a taste of the contents, but it's more of a meeting post than an e-version of the magazine. "Eventually, we'll make available a digital archive of all our back issues, though we haven't figured out the logistics yet," Safransky tells me. But as for a total commitment to the Web, "I'd no sooner abandon print than throw someone I love overboard in a storm-tossed sea."

In 1974, Safransky, then 28, was a former Long Island newspaper reporter who'd done drugs, wandered the world, and gone to North Carolina to live collectively. That didn't work out, and his thoughts turned back to journalism. Says a brief history posted on the Sun site, "He wanted to start a magazine that would present courageous, honest writing and respect readers in a fundamental way." He borrowed $50, stapled together 200 copies of the Chapel Hill Sun, and after trying to hawk them for a quarter each eventually gave most away. His advertisers were local merchants.

The magazine slowly grew, and in time became simply the Sun, but serious expansion seemed to require national advertising. Safransky was bothered by the ads he already had, particularly the ones from folks he considered new age hustlers. "Since we also occasionally printed interviews with philosophers and spiritual teachers," he says, "I didn't want someone to take a casual look at the magazine and conclude that it was just another new age magazine."

In 1990 he spent $30 on a set of instructional tapes marketed for socially progressive businesspeople. They turned out to be useless, and his anger at this turned to reflectiveness. "I realized that in condemning such businesses I was condemning the men and women who ran them for being human. But who was I to judge how close or far away from God they were?" In one sweeping epiphany he discovered that he could not only forgive advertising but forget it! "It wasn't something I thought through. It was a leap," he says. He'd put the Sun's fate in its readers' hands.

"According to conventional wisdom," says the online history, "it was a move that would spell suicide for an independent magazine. But Sy wanted the magazine to be like an intimate conversation between reader and writer, and he didn't want that conversation to be interrupted by a sales pitch."

Ads define the magazines they run in, one reason Safransky didn't want any. "It's hard for people to describe the Sun in a few sentences, and without any advertising that became even harder, which was fine with me," he says. Besides, "I don't want a reader finishing a deeply moving story, only to turn the page and see an ad for a soy burger."

A few readers "send us letters that say 'Get off it. Start taking ads.' But most seem grateful for a publication that isn't constantly encouraging them up to buy something, go somewhere, or become a better person."

Do you know of another magazine whose editor regards the idea of becoming a better person as suspect? In the Sun optimism has some explaining to do. One short story in the April issue begins, "She stopped taking the medicines when it had become clear they were no longer of any use." The other begins, "My wife, Rayleen, got it into her head that our luck died with our dog, Buddy. 'We buried it in a hole in the ground' is how she put it."

The Sun has a motto, "What is to give light must endure burning." It's from Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor.

It's easy to think of the Sun as too sui generis to set an example for anybody. But its singularity is its example. It's an argument for the survival of a journalism that consists of not-for-profit outposts sustained by partisans. In his most recent letter asking readers for money (over and above the $36 annual subscription), Safransky surveyed the present journalistic moment: "These are brutal days in the world of publishing: old, respected newspapers teetering on the edge; major book publishers laying off top editors; independent magazines folding right and left.

"So when our associate publisher Krista Bremer had an opportunity recently to attend a conference on the future of publishing... I decided to keep an open mind. After she returned, I asked if there was one moment that stood out for her. Yes, she said: her exchange with a well-known editor who had formulated the 'golden rules' for selling magazines on the newsstand. When selecting photographs for the cover, he instructed his audience, 'Young is better than old. Rich is better than poor. Pretty is better than ugly. And a dead celebrity is best of all.'"

This other magazine, which Sun readers could feel so grateful the Sun was not, was People—also launched in 1974, and as dependent on newsstand sales as the Sun isn't.

Safransky went on, "I'm sure that the editor's golden rules are a godsend for publishers whose magazines are sustained by advertising. If yanking people toward the newsstand by their reptilian brainstems results in selling more copies, publishers can charge more for ad space and earn bigger profits." That brought Safransky to his message: in 2008, for the first time in years, the Sun had operated in the red. A reserve fund cushioned the blow, but the magazine needed help.

"The truth of the matter is that for many years the magazine was really teetering on the edge," Bremer says. "Seeing how long it took the Sun to be modestly successful, I think, 'This is what success looks like. This is what it takes to make something work. It takes a lot of perseverance.'"

It also takes a definition of success that print journalism in its heyday would never have recognized. Success in the mainstream media until a couple years ago looked like 20 percent profit margins and fat executive bonuses. The Sun defines it as nobody getting rich but nobody disgusted at what they do for money either, the books more or less balanced but the wolf always at the gate if not the door.

I told Bremer I thought of the Sun as the sad magazine. "There's a lot of suffering in life," she replied. "Those experiences are universal, and you don't see them written about in a thoughtful way in a lot of the mainstream media."

Will that change? Perhaps with regard to the contemplation of suffering, the mainstream media are just now coming into their own.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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