Jim Moorhead launched Renew in the right town. When his magazine starts to grow he'll want to add writers and editors. And there's no shortage in Chicago of first-rate, experienced journalists in recovery.
Not that a history of substance abuse is a requirement for working at Renew, but it helps in journalism to know the kind of life you're writing about. "I am a high-functioning, high-low alcoholic," Moorhead's first editor, Kelly O'Rourke Johns, wrote in Renew two issues ago. (She's since moved on. Her successor is also in recovery.) "It took me a long time to admit such a thing and certainly to admit it to a doctor." A "high-low," Renew informed me, is a drunk who has trouble recognizing that she's hit bottom because it looks so much like a top. "Never subjected to DUIs or jail time or any real, harsh consequences," Johns continued, "high-lows often take a long time to recognize they have a problem and have a tough time convincing others once they do."
Written for addicts in recovery, Renew could be described as niche journalism except that "niche" profoundly understates the potential audience. According to studies I was shown by professor Deborah Hasin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, there are some 23.5 million substance-dependent Americans who have stayed clean for the past year or longer. Moorhead tells me that according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, 20 million Americans are in recovery and another 23 million need help. What's more, says Moorhead, "for every addict or alcoholic there are four other people affected by it."
Who doesn't have a drunk or substance abuser somewhere in his life? The market is all of us.
Alison True, the former editor of the Reader, knows Moorhead through the Near North Montessori School, where her husband teaches. Moorhead's daughter is a student there. (Her teacher, incidentally, is my daughter.) True is familiar with Moorhead's plans and she thinks Renew can succeed for the same reason the Reader did. "We used to say, 'Who reads the Reader? Reader readers are people who read the Reader,'" True tells me, sharing an insight that might sound like a mindless tautology and is anything but. "He can't capture the 20 million people in recovery. He can capture the people in recovery who want to identify as people in recovery." In other words, Renew can create the audience waiting to be formed as soon as a magazine came along to form it.
And think of those hard-charging high-lows. The advertising Renew carries after a mere year of existence is largely for treatment centers. "It's the low-hanging fruit," says Moorhead. But Renew is a slick, oversize, coffee-table sort of magazine, and he covets the sort of high-end ads that celebrate desirable lifestyles. Right now he prints 20,000 copies of each issue, distribution is primarily through treatment centers, and he has about 5,000 subscribers. But he talks about 100,000. And he believes that when advertisers look twice they'll recognize that these are consumers redefining their lives and willing to spend money to do it. "Entering recovery is no different than getting married, or having a first child," says Moorhead. "It's entering a new life stage. My experience is that when you turn your life around you start to reevaluate everything. You make decisions that support your new life, whether it's exercising, or eating well—it goes on and on."
Moorhead publishes Renew every two months and his goal is to make it a monthly. He wants his website, RenewEveryDay.com, to become the go-to site for anyone in recovery—the place to find a therapist or an AA meeting, or to organize a softball team, or to locate a restaurant that won't seat you in the bar or drench your dessert in liqueur, or to turn to for help if you've got a teenager at home who's in trouble.
As folks in recovery are wont to say, Moorhead's solution to his problems growing up turned out to be a bigger problem. He was a shy and lonely teenager in Lake Forest, but the summer before his junior year of high school he went to a party, got drunk, and woke up the next morning "with this exhilarating feeling that it had been a great night even though I couldn't remember much of it. Fast forward. I suddenly became very popular. I started dating the captain of the cheerleading squad."