When a local radio host with a passion for the written word asked to interview me recently, I was hesitant; I’m rarely comfortable in front of a microphone. But the man’s disarming candor put me at ease. Sheepishly, he admitted that he had stumbled upon The Sun only a week earlier — even though the magazine had been published right under his nose since 1974. He didn’t know what was more astonishing: that he’d managed to overlook The Sun for more than thirty-six years or that an independent, ad-free magazine had managed to survive for that long.
No apologies necessary, I told him. I, too, sometimes overlook what’s right under my nose, as my colleagues, friends, and wife (and surely my ex-wives) can attest. Last month it was a small bouquet my wife, Norma, picked from our garden. Last week it was an inspirational quotation I hung over my desk. For years I overlooked the existence of a resplendent, heavily wooded park in Chapel Hill even though I jogged right past it most mornings. A ninety-three-acre park.
Of course, each day’s headlines provide ample evidence of how blind many of us can be, with consequences far more serious (the poor getting poorer, the earth getting warmer) than a radio host’s or a magazine editor’s embarrassment. When I started The Sun, my intention was to shed light on those aspects of our existence that are often obscured from view: shining beauty we never notice, blatant injustices in our midst, the inevitability of our own passing, our lifelong potential for growth and change.
“But how do you pay the bills?” the radio host asked in a perplexed voice, as if I were a magician and an ad-free, nonprofit magazine an elaborate feat of legerdemain, each issue another rabbit pulled from my hat. He knew that most magazines depend on advertising for two-thirds of their revenue. He knew that, even in the best of times, a publication like The Sun faces formidable obstacles: rising costs for paper and printing; a postal system that favors big commercial publications; the disappearance of many small independent bookstores that carried The Sun. He knew, too, that because of the troubled economy hundreds of magazines have shut their doors.
But he didn’t know anything about the kind of people who read The Sun. Without their extraordinary allegiance and quiet generosity, there would be no top hat and no rabbits, just an empty stage. Together we manifest something out of nothing every month. Together we challenge the conventional wisdom that a magazine has to interrupt readers with siren calls to try a new skin cream or fly to the Bahamas. Together we make room for a respectful and intimate conversation, the echoes of which linger long after an issue is finished.
When I started The Sun in 1974 with a fifty-dollar loan, the country was in the middle of what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. (Sound familiar?) The magazine teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for years. Then, as our readership began to grow, we got out of debt, started paying writers and photographers and staff more generously, and even began to save for a rainy day.
Two years ago the rains came. Markets tumbled, the economy sputtered, and The Sun faced an unprecedented loss of thousands of readers who could no longer afford a subscription. We trimmed expenses, reduced payments to contributors, imposed a salary freeze — and still we were in the red. Sooner or later, I feared, we’d have to make deeper cuts, such as reducing the number of pages in each issue or laying off staff.
Yet as I sat at my desk pouring over numbers, I knew that a spreadsheet could tell me only so much. It didn’t reflect The Sun’s true wealth: writers who labor long and hard to create seemingly effortless sentences; photographers whose luminous images reveal the ever-changing countenance of the world; talented and dedicated staff members who unfailingly meet deadline after non-negotiable deadline; and a community of readers who understand that an ad-free, reader-supported magazine is a collaborative endeavor. The existence of The Sun has always depended on those who subscribe or renew even in a tough economy, or give The Sun as a gift, or send in a tax-deductible donation when we ask for help.
Thanks largely to the donations we’ve received in the past year, our situation has improved. Many subscribers who left have come back. We didn’t sell the inside cover to Calvin Klein or outsource Sunbeams to India. Yet, as 2010 comes to a close, I’m studying another tight budget and again worrying about whether The Sun will end the year in the red or the black. Your tax-deductible donation, as a Friend of The Sun, will help us close the gap.
My decision to start The Sun with no money, no office, and no staff struck more than a few of my friends as naive, if not delusional: an impossible dream doomed to fail. But thirty-six years and 420 issues later, the very existence of the magazine is a reminder that anything is possible. I don’t know which way the economy is heading, or whether capitalism has a future, or how much more anger and virulence our fragile democracy can endure. I do know that The Sun will continue to be a steady presence in the coming months and years. How can I be so confident? Well, I may not always notice a dogwood in bloom outside my window or pay attention to all the roses I’m regularly advised to stop and smell, but when it comes to The Sun, my eyes are open, and this is what I’ve seen: If we respect our readers (no small talk, no cynicism, no dogma, no ads), our readers are likely to respect and support us. That’s the magic, and it’s not a trick.
Editor and Publisher
P.S.: You can donate online at www.thesunmagazine.org. You can also send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. 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.