I could tell my father was disappointed by how deliberately he removed the cigar from his lips and placed it in the ashtray. I studied the glowing tip for a long time before raising my eyes to meet his gaze. Why was I walking away from my job as a newspaper reporter in New York City, he wanted to know. Why turn my back on a promising career? I explained that I wanted my work to honor the human spirit, not make readers feel alone and afraid. As the smoke from his cigar curled lazily to the ceiling, my father just shook his head.
The following year, when I called from North Carolina to tell him I was thinking about starting a magazine, he thought I’d gone nuts. This was 1974, and we were in the midst of what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. The conventional wisdom was that it took a million dollars to start a magazine; this was exactly a million dollars more than I had. I told him I didn’t care about the conventional wisdom. The conversation didn’t last long.
Nonetheless, at the age of twenty-eight, with idealism as a business plan and hard work as collateral, I put out the first issue of The Sun. And against all odds, this independent, nonprofit magazine has survived for thirty-five years — the office no longer a dormer room with one desk but a handsome old house with a dozen people working beside me — and now reaches nearly seventy thousand subscribers around the world. If my father had lived long enough to see how The Sun has evolved, I suspect he would have gruffly acknowledged that challenging the conventional wisdom hadn’t been such a bad idea.
I’m still wary of the conventional wisdom, but 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 — a conference I knew would be top-heavy with industry insiders — 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.” Later Krista caught up with him, introduced herself, and told him she worked for a magazine that had been violating those rules for thirty-five years. His bushy white eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Try doing it my way,” he replied, “and see if you don’t make more money.”
Though I’d never met this editor, I felt an odd connection with him. He had launched a national celebrity magazine with an initial press run of more than a million copies in 1974, the same year I was peddling the first issue of The Sun (press run: two hundred copies) on the streets of Chapel Hill. And here we were, thirty-five years later, both doggedly sticking to our ways. I’d just approved the cover photograph for our latest issue: an old man’s deeply wrinkled hands folded across his stiff denim work shirt. That the man was neither young nor rich nor handsome nor famous had never crossed my mind.
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. Meanwhile readers are exhorted on every other page to buy something or go somewhere or become an enlightened master during a weekend workshop.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with some advertising, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with a traveling salesman knocking on your door. But you probably wouldn’t invite the salesman in if you and a friend were having an intimate conversation. In a magazine that strives for emotional candor and a reader’s quiet respect, a sales pitch is an unwelcome distraction. I want to place one simple demand on a reader’s attention: the content. Nothing else.
To publish a monthly magazine without advertising, we’ve always had to be frugal, but last year was especially challenging: for the first time in recent history, we ended the year in the red. We’re scrutinizing our budget to see where expenses can be cut. Although we’ll still pay writers and photographers fairly and continue to give away free subscriptions to prisons, community-college libraries, and shelters, I’ve put a freeze on salaries and halted our search for much-needed additional office space. If necessary, we’ll be more frugal still.
In years past we’ve set aside part of our budget in a reserve fund to help us weather hard times to come. This made it possible to deal with our shortfall last year. Our situation would have been more dire, however, were it not for the ongoing generosity of readers who respond to our annual fundraising appeal. So once again I ask for your help as a Friend Of The Sun. Your tax-deductible donation will keep the magazine independent and free of advertising during this difficult time. Perhaps you can view a contribution to The Sun this year as a wise investment — not in some feckless mutual fund, but in a magazine that pays dividends when it arrives in your mailbox every month.
I’m confident The Sun will endure, not because I can predict which way the economy is going, but because I trust that there will always be a need for writing that keeps us alive intellectually and emotionally — writing that celebrates real beauty, not prettiness; real lives, not celebrity fictions; real wealth, not mere riches; real vibrancy, not just another unblemished face. During good times, such writing reminds us there’s more to life than money. During hard times, such writing reminds us there’s more to life than money.
When I was a young man and the magazine had fewer than one thousand subscribers and we couldn’t pay the bills on time, I believed that if my colleagues and I worked hard, met our deadlines, and stayed true to our intention, The Sun would survive. Despite the conventional wisdom, that’s what happened. More than three decades later, with the magazine sustained by a community of readers more loyal than that young man could have imagined, it’s still what I believe.
Editor and Publisher
P.S.: You can send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. You can also donate online at www.thesunmagazine.org. Your donation is tax- deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.
If you’re a subscriber, you may already have seen this letter in your mailbox. We publish it in the magazine for the benefit of our newsstand readers.