In my first year of journalism school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while my classmates applied for summer internships at public-relations firms and in corporate newsrooms, I sent a handwritten note to the editor of an unusual nonprofit journal I’d recently discovered. Curiosity, not ambition, inspired me to write. This humble magazine was unlike any other I’d seen — authentic, intimate, and relevant to me in surprising ways — and I wanted to meet its creator. Since his office was not far from campus, a week later I rode my bike toward the low-rent part of town to visit him. I turned right at the tire shop and parked in front of an old house with a porch swing. Inside I found editor Sy Safransky seated at an oak desk beside a window. Like the magazine itself, The Sun’s office was quiet, uncluttered, and full of light. When Sy mentioned a project he could use help with, I leapt at the chance to volunteer.
In my journalism classes I’d been taught that magazines needed either ad revenue or major corporate benefactors to stay afloat. So I was baffled to discover that The Sun had neither. Didn’t the publication need the money? Weren’t readers accustomed to seeing ads? When I posed these questions to Sy, he ran a hand through his unruly gray curls, peered at me through his John Lennon glasses, and flashed his boyish smile. He wasn’t against ads, he said; he simply didn’t feel they belonged in such a personal magazine. (Nor did he object to mariachi bands, but he wouldn’t want one serenading him at his desk.) He wanted The Sun to be an oasis from the noise and temptations of a commercially driven culture, a place where readers were addressed as human beings, not consumers.
I nodded as if I understood, but I wasn’t sure. The way he spoke about publishing was entirely new to me. Later, after I was hired full time to help manage The Sun’s circulation, I often reflected on this conversation. When large bookstore chains said that thickening the magazine with ads would increase its “perceived value” for customers, and a consultant advised us to pluck the “low-hanging fruit” of ad revenue, I wondered if they might be right. I longed for a quick and easy way to improve The Sun’s bottom line.
But the absence of advertising, I’ve realized, enriches the magazine in ways that can’t be tallied in a spreadsheet. The writing in The Sun makes an impression partly because readers can give it their undivided attention. An interview that punctures a reader’s illusions isn’t followed by an ad selling a fantasy of the good life. An author’s quiet expression of truth isn’t drowned out by the siren call of a one-time offer. Because The Sun is entirely reader supported, we are also able to consistently print what is meaningful and enduring rather than what is merely marketable.
For a staff as small as ours, publishing a monthly magazine is labor-intensive: there’s only a handful of us to review thousands of manuscripts, polish every sentence, answer a high volume of correspondence, and monitor a budget in which each dollar counts. When we’re facing tight deadlines and less-than-glamorous tasks, it helps to remember that we’re not working hard to enhance the profits of a publishing conglomerate, or to sell products, or to advance the aims of a particular religious or political group. Instead we’re working for you. This formula isn’t taught in journalism school, but it’s proven more sustainable than the elaborate business plans of countless failed publications.
If you believe in independent, ad-free publishing, please make a tax-deductible contribution to The Sun. From the beginning, reader support has been the lifeblood of the magazine. In the early years, when The Sun teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, donations were life-saving transfusions. Today, in an environment that’s hazardous for independent publishers, your donations allow The Sun to thrive: to pay enough to attract talented writers and photographers; to give away free subscriptions to readers who are in prison or down on their luck; to get through the latest economic downturn without having to cut pages or lay off staff.
Each year I receive an alumni newsletter celebrating the achievements of my former journalism-school classmates who have risen to the top of their professions. Just as we were taught one publishing formula in school, we were taught one way to measure success: by the size of our salary, our office, our audience. But there is value too in staying small and independent, in maintaining our idealism, in defying conventional wisdom. The Sun’s very existence is a reminder that we can choose to follow our hearts instead of kowtowing to so-called experts — and that our impractical dreams may actually be achievable.
There are enough magazines bursting with photoshopped models, glossy ads, and larger-than-life personalities. At a time when corporate influence permeates so much of our world, The Sun remains a sanctuary where people come together each month to reflect on the human condition without distraction. Together we can keep it that way.
P.S. You can donate online at www.thesunmagazine.org or 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.