Conscious Choice Publications: the Latest Victims of Changing Media Landscape
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Last week I received word via a long-winded mass-email missive by a former co-worker that CE Media, the parent company of Conscious Choice (Chicago & Seattle), Common Ground (SF) and Whole Life Times (LA), had finally shut their doors, making them the latest victims of the tumultuously shifting media and publishing landscape. The company had been struggling for years ever since these unique, pioneering publications were bought up and corporatized in the middle part of the decade.
It was, for me, a deeply personal and ambivalent revelation. This was my former employer. I was for one brief, vainglorious year, the Editorial Director of the company and the Editor-in-Chief of Conscious Choice. I was let go under very hanky circumstances after CE Media was sold to Gaiam, Inc in July of 2007.
At the risk of appearing to engage in a little schadenfreude, the truth of the matter is that I was not at all surprised at CE's demise. Yet I was quite saddened. These magazines had persisted in the face of great adversity for over 20 and 30 years. And now all that time had been washed away in an instant, the victims of corporate greed and managerial incompetence. It was the end of an era, and a further reflection of just how bad things had gotten out there in the world of print media.
Of course the trouble in the industry had been brewing for quite some time, beginning years ago with the dot.com bubble (and what a quaint little bubble it is now in hindsight). But the real precipitous slide began with the collapse of the American economy. Then came "Black Wednesday" in December, three months after the stock market crashed. On this infamous day scores of editors from major houses were perp-walked out the door in a series of massive layoffs.
The contagion spread fast and infected newspapers, magazines internet sites, and retail booksellers. Book returns hit 90%, scores of major city newspapers either went into bankruptcy or folded. Foundation endowments collapsed, and the steady stream of subscriptions and donations made to the teaming mass of not-for-profit publications dried up. The death toll was astounding. (You can view some of the body counts in a trio of really good pieces, one by longtime editor Tom Englehardt and a companion piece by Jill Fraser of the Nation Institute, and a departing editor's missive from Colin Robinson in the London Review of Books)
The story behind CE Media's demise, however, is a bit more arcane.
Each magazine ( Seattle's Conscious Choice began as Evergreen Monthly) began as an independent publication founded in the 1970s and 80s by ex-hippies and new agers. Their content was varied, but it mostly focused on the emerging markets of "environmentalism and natural living." As they grew over time, each publication found its own specific voice. Conscious Choice had a distinct green flavor with stories about conservation and food policy. Whole Life Times was more New Age, with astrology and personal growth columns. Common Ground had been around since 1971 as a popular listings circular.
These were essentially Mom & Pop operations, driven by ad revenue from other Mom & Pop operations--holistic doctors, New Age bookstores, yoga and meditation centers, organic produce markets--and at the time, they were some of the only places you could find these types of stories or businesses.
Then in 2001 Ron Williams, the founder of the Detroit Metro-Times, bought Conscious Choice from founders Jim Slama and Ross Thompson with the idea that it would become the model publication for a media company that would expand to more magazines over time. Their plan was to buy one publication a year for four years. Williams named his creation Dragonfly Media.