Beautiful and Abundant

Publisher Bryan Welch on philosophy, farming and building the world we want.

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5/15/2012

Like every commercial business we also consume resources in ways that are not repeatable forever. We burn petroleum products and print on paper. We’ve traded for carbon-offset credits to replace the coal-generated electricity we consume with power from renewable sources. The benefits of carbon-offset trading are debated, but we believe it’s at least a gesture in the right direction. In fact, most of the things we do to conserve resources and protect the environment are subtle: 

• We’ve added insulation to our building.
• Installed skylights to replace electric fixtures.
• Installed the most efficient fixtures, ballasts and bulbs we could find.
• Assigned prime parking spaces to commuters who arrive via carpool, bicycle or motorcycle.
• Bought passes for employees who come by bus.
• Switched to postconsumer recycled copy paper, note pads and other office papers.
• We reuse nearly every box and all the packing material in our warehouse.
• Replaced office Styrofoam with washable mugs and glasses.Reduce Reuse Recycle Logo
• We try to buy the most energy efficient models when we need new equipment.
• Set all computer power settings to the most efficient settings.
• Provided a recycling bin at every employee’s desk, and placed recycling separator bins in public spaces.
• We try to recycle any recyclable materials that pass through the organization.
• We compost coffee grounds and food waste taken from the break room.
• Sponsor recycling drives for employees who bring in recyclables like home computers and worn out tennis shoes.
• Print most of our magazines on 100-percent post-consumer recycled magazine paper, all chlorine-free. When we use paper made from virgin pulp, we make sure the paper is certified by a reputable conservation agency, usually the Forestry Stewardship Council.
• Use inks that are 29 percent soy, rather than petroleum.
• Try to eliminate unnecessary steps in all our transportation, communication and production activities to save fuel and reduce the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.
• Try to eliminate promotions based on paper media – direct mail, insert cards, etc. – and substitute digital promotions. We have a long way to go on this one.
• When we promote on paper, we use recycled paper for the promotional pieces.
• We offer auto-renewal subscriptions that eliminate the need for mailed renewal notices.
• We keep looking for new ways to do better.
 

And we remain acutely conscious that all this, combined, still doesn’t make us a truly sustainable business. We have a long way to go. But we’re trying to get there.

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.


5/8/2012

One of the best-proven characteristics of our system of business is its contagiousness. Generation after generation, entrepreneurs have invented new enterprises across hundreds of nations and myriad cultures. The system has proven itself repeatable and contagious across both time and space, across centuries of time and every continent. 

For better and for worse, some cultures have proven themselves more adept than others at the pursuit of capitalist success. Those less adept have been exploited and sometimes erased by the more successful. 

Nonetheless there is hardly a corner of the world where money is not changing hands right now, or where someone isn’t socking some of it away for a rainy day or some future investment opportunity. 

Our particular business was built mostly on the practice of publishing magazines – printing stories and photographs on glossy papers, selling subscriptions to readers, and selling advertisements to businesses who wish to put their products in front of those readers. The capital with which we started the businesses and expanded was provided by a family whose seminal business was publishing newspapers – printing stories and photographs on inexpensive paper daily for local audiences. As I write this the media are full of speculation about the future of these two businesses – magazine publishing and newspaper publishing – or the lack of a future. Some experts believe the digital media will completely replace newspapers and magazines. Readership and revenue are falling. Cooler heads predict a realignment but not an extinction. 

Bryan Welch at the Mother Earth News FairMy colleagues and I see it as neither. We believe our core business – building audience around content – is merely shifting its emphasis from one medium to another. It’s true that today about 80 percent of our publishing revenue is generated, one way or another, through the printed products. About 20 percent is generated online. But just five years ago our online revenues were less than 4 percent of the total, and total revenues have grown by about the amount of the digital business. So in one way of looking at it, our printed business has been static, but it has provided a platform for a growing digital media business. 

Strategically, we try to look at the business in abstract terms. We’d rather not describe it as a publishing business or an advertising business. We say we’re in the audience aggregation and content generation businesses. The core of our enterprise is built around audiences. Readers come to Mother Earth News for information on a specific set of topics: self-reliance, sustainable lifestyles and rural lifestyles. For 40 years the magazine – as well as its books, radio shows, newsletters and websites – has been fascinated with that specific set of topics. It has shared that sense of fascination with millions of people. Likewise, GRIT has shared stories of rural American life and attracted rural American audiences since 1882. Farm Collector shares its fascination with agricultural machinery. 

How long will we print our stories on paper and distribute our magazines through the mail? Who knows? Technology and consumer preference are difficult to predict. Will we be able to run businesses based on the distribution of engaging content to passionate audiences? We think the answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” It seems likely that we should be able to continue attracting audiences with our stories – if we tell them well – regardless of whether we deliver those stories at the campfire, in a printed magazine or on an electronic reading device. And if we hold readers’ attention, it seems equally likely that we, and our advertisers, will find ways of selling valuable things to those audiences. 

And, in fact, over the past couple of years our audiences – both print and electronic, have grown nicely. 

In business, contagiousness is one of the critical indicators of success. Businesses aspire to expand and grow. The day our enterprise is not contagious is the day we admit failure. 

It is repeated in nearly every country, so let’s call our free-enterprise model contagious across time and across space. 

Could it be more contagious? 

Well, every stage of commercial success is a step toward greater contagiousness. If we grow and become more profitable, we can do more of the things we do. We can promote to larger audiences. We can proliferate our messages across new media. So we are working all the time toward greater commercial contagiousness.

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.


5/2/2012

After pay, benefits are the second-most-obvious element in a compensation package. In the United States today, no mindful individual can feel financially secure without health insurance. Most employers have acknowledged this fact and make group health insurance part of their standard compensation packages. Likewise vacation time, sick leave and some form of insurance against disability are important to peace of mind. Holidays and some flexibility in scheduling enhance family life and help employees create balance in their lives. 

Beyond salary and benefits are the more abstract but equally important elements that make an employee feel valued. Does the staff have access to management? Do managers listen effectively? Does the management, in turn, share meaningful strategic information with the staff? Are all employees aware of the company’s philosophies, strategies and tactics? Are achievements acknowledged and celebrated? 

More controversially, are standards for productivity and demeanor established and upheld? Nothing undermines the morale of dedicated employees more insidiously than a general tolerance for a lack of dedication. Great team members want to be held accountable. And they want to work with other people who feel the same way. 

In discussions of compensation we shouldn’t neglect the shareholders. The business’ owners, whether they are scattered across all the equities markets around the world or in the office next door, need to be fairly compensated for putting their capital at risk. How do managers and stockholders define a fair return? Generally, it’s defined by what the shareholders require. 

For better or for worse, the question of whether a business is fairly compensating its stakeholders – owners, employers, suppliers, etc. – is determined by whether those stakeholders FEEL they are being compensated fairly. Compensation is a compilation of many different resources transferred through a business. If the employers, managers and owners – all the stakeholders – feel good about their participation, then I think the compensation can be judged fair. 

Some managers will succumb to the temptation to create this sense of fairness by overpaying shareholders, employees and suppliers. One can often silence criticism, at least temporarily, by paying a little more. A lot of people have ruined businesses that way. When costs run amok and a business fails, none of the stakeholders is pleased with the outcome. 

My colleagues and I have to define fairness in our own business through the traditional process of negotiation. We are called upon to negotiate rates of pay with our employees, to resist demands for raises unless there is evidence those raises create value for the enterprise, to negotiate aggressively with suppliers to get the best possible prices and to persuade our shareholders that ongoing investment in the business will create more value in the long run, even when it reduces dividends this year. The definition of fairness is renegotiated every day in uncountable different conversations all over our offices and boardrooms. 

In this process and in the very fundamentals of capitalism, some people find a kind of violence. When we’re negotiating, we are attempting to move resources from one place to another through force of personality, intelligence and strategy. It can be compared with war, although my colleagues, suppliers and competitors are generally not killing each other. 

Money by 401kcalculator dot org via Flickr under Creative Commons licenseCapitalism distributes power in the form of money. People with money have more power then those without. It’s not the only source of power in our society, but it may be the primary power source. 

So if we compare our capitalist society with a model society in which power is distributed equitably, then we are disappointed. The distribution of power and money is not perfectly equitable. There is even a kind of violence in the way entities compete for money and power. 

But where can the historian find a perfectly equitable social structure? Small tribes may have been run by consensus, here and there, and some people may idealize the stone-age lifestyle, but if you were a member of a competing tribe and happened to stumble into their circle of firelight some evening you might find the welcome less than equitable. 

Communism and socialism are idealized, too. The fair and equitable distribution of resources is the unifying tenet of communism and socialism. But in practice people in socialist societies have competed for party rank and favored positions within the bureaucracies. They have redistributed resources based on rank and position. They have harmed each other to achieve rank and position. Where human beings compete for power and resources, fairness is always questionable. I challenge any student of history to cite a perfectly fair and equitable human society at any time since Adam and Eve. 

Our form of capitalism is, at least, dynamic. It provides the opportunity for enterprising people to improve their lives. It is not unique in this quality, but its potential is proven. So if our specific capitalistic enterprise is not fair in every detail, it at least provides us with tools for pursuing fairness. When an individual or an organization asks, “Is it fair?” the answers can provide a bunch of opportunities for constructive engagement. 


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 



4/24/2012

It is, perhaps, the principal philosophical quandary of the Industrial Age, “Is capitalism fair?”

Resoundingly, our experience sends back the answer: “Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.”

I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s speech in which he acknowledged that democracy could be said to be “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Capitalism may be an unfair economic system, but it may also be the fairest that’s been tried. It can, at its best, reward ingenuity and hard work. At its worst it provides a rationale for the routine subjugation the powerful have always exercised upon the weak.

I’m not remotely prepared to argue the abstract virtues of capitalism against any other economic system. I am prepared to assert that capitalism has been a highly successful philosophy in recent centuries. If you want to get anything done in the world today, you had better know how to engage with capitalism.

A long time ago I decided that capitalism could be fair, and so it was a good enough place to exert our efforts. I don’t consider business a superior enterprise to government or charity work. Nor do I consider it inferior. When an individual or a company engages with a system like capitalism, we tap into its power. Capitalism is enormously powerful. It has tremendous potential to spread opportunity in the world by stimulating and rewarding innovation. The fact that some of its products fall short of that potential does not diminish it.

Capitalism can, for instance, be very generous to its storytellers. Capitalism rewards them even when they are disrespectful of the capitalist institutions on which they depend. NBC pays Jay Leno very, very well even when he’s spending his time ridiculing NBC. Producer Oprah Winfrey, comedian Larry David and New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman are likewise paid (well, very well or unbelievably well) for communicating messages that are sometimes critical of the capitalistic institutions they serve and sometimes derisive in their tone. They are allowed this privilege because they attract audiences, and audiences pay money – both directly through their subscriptions and indirectly through advertising revenue.

Our business works the same way. Our writers sometimes criticize the system, but everyone understands that the system makes our existence possible. And the more successful our company is within the system, the more influential our work becomes. When our stories are interesting, we and our colleagues prosper. If we fail to compel an audience, the enterprise fails.

That’s fair, I think.

So our business competes in the marketplace – for audience, for advertisers, for people and for allies. When we are successful, we can create prosperity and personal growth for the people associated with our enterprise. The stakes in this game are pretty high. We’re trying to make sure they are won fairly and distributed fairly.

The distribution of resources is, perhaps, the most complex problem in any business that employs more than one person. Some managers like to claim that it is simple. They’ll assert that you just have to pay the market rates for payroll, goods and ser vices. Surpluses are distributed to shareholders. Easy as pie.

Wall Street by Mathew Knott under Creative Commons LicenseBut what is the market-rate compensation for a highly motivated, creative and disciplined manager? At a small manufacturer in the Midwestern United States that number might be 1 or 2 percent of the market rate for the same individual at a Wall Street investment bank. I believe I’ve known highly intelligent individuals working and succeeding at small enterprises across the country who would compare favorably in every criterion – intelligence, creativity, work ethic, loyalty, dedication – to other friends of the same age and same qualities working on Wall Street. Nevertheless, the factory manager in rural Minnesota makes 1 percent of the Wall-Streeter’s salary.

Can that possibly be fair?

My friends in Kansas and New Mexico and Utah seem to be at least as happy, on the whole, as my friends working in the skyscrapers at the southern end of Manhattan Island. They are, from what I can tell, very engaged in their pursuits of building agricultural scales, mining potash or raising dairy cows. And they are conscious that they could have, if they had wished, pursued more remunerative careers. Why didn’t they? For that matter, why didn’t I?

For some, there were geographic considerations. Most people don’t want to sever their geographic and familial roots. Others discovered a sense of purpose or a personal passion for a vocation such as farming or engineering or journalism. But all of us share one characteristic that determined our fates, economically speaking: Money isn’t the most important thing we want from our careers. Our career choices weren’t determined by rates of pay, mostly, or we would have chosen differently.

Sometimes when we’re struggling to pay the rent it’s hard to remember, but most of us chose careers that we knew weren’t likely to make us rich.

So is it fair that we didn’t get rich? Sigh. Yeah, probably. If our stars align so that we make some money, do we feel gratified? Of course. Should we wear our affluence as a badge of superiority? Certainly not. If we don’t get rich, will we judge ourselves failures? Hell, no.

The question of whether Wall Street bankers are paid too much is a question, I think, of efficiency, not fairness. Maybe entrepreneurs should open more investment banks in South Dakota and Idaho to see if some down-to-earth organizations can’t supply the same services at a lower cost.

With all this in mind, how is an employer to decide whether he is compensating people fairly? I believe that, first, every employer should define compensation more broadly than pay. The payroll check is only one facet of a large, intricate compensation formula.


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 



4/18/2012

 

We try to help people create abundance by both possible methods: by conserving existing resources and by propagating new resources. In other words, the two basic tools at our disposal are conservation and innovation. We try to promote uncomplicated sources of pleasure that give our audiences tips for a fulfilling life created from relatively simple things. And we support new technology that generates energy – that most fundamental of all assets – from more ubiquitous and renewable sources. 

Photo of baby carrots from the Ogden Publications garden by Emily GloverYou might even say that the creation of abundance – or a sense of abundance – is right at the core of our mission. We advocate the creation of abundant food from our gardens, abundant pleasure from simple projects like the construction of a bench or the renovation of an old tractor, a sense of abundance in the realization that we are born on a planet rich in resources and diversity, both human and biological. 

The question of creating abundance, in the global sense, is more relevant for us than it might be for most businesses because the issue is woven into our subject matter. But every business is dedicated to the creation of abundance – ideally for its owners, its employees and its customers. 

In business, just as in the rest of the world, abundance is created both through conservation and through innovation. 

Most business managers seem to be more reliant either on conservation or innovation. Many entrepreneurs build careers on their ability to invent and innovate, but never master the techniques of cost control. They find it difficult to run a stable, profitable business. Other businesspeople are overly reliant on frugality and fail to innovate. They may watch their highly efficient businesses decline and fail because, when the environment changed, they were unable or unwilling to gamble on new sources of revenue. 

Like businesspeople everywhere, we try to find a balance between these two approaches. We try to invest wisely and manage our money frugally while remaining alert for new opportunities. We balance our efforts between conservation and innovation.  


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 



4/10/2012

There is no objective standard for beauty, in a farm, a magazine or a website. 

So maybe we should rephrase the question: “Are we aspiring to beauty?” 

In every media business, managers have to decide how much to spend on aesthetics. The movie director makes decisions about the costs of sets and lighting. The magazine publisher decides how many art directors to hire and how much to spend on photography, paper and printing. 

We spend a lot less on our appearance than the big fashion magazines. A bit more, probably than some of our competitors who publish magazines about solar energy or farm machinery. We try to strike a balance. For us, we must admit, contagiousness – and its product, profit – are higher priorities than “beauty.” But that doesn’t mean we don’t aspire to be beautiful. 

The photographs we feature in the magazines and on the websites must be beautiful to our audiences. The subject matter is the principal element of beauty. Our production values need only be beautiful enough. One reader might find a Scottish Highland bull quite beautiful. Another admires a Minneapolis Moline tractor or a classic BMW motorcycle. 

Photo of garden at Ogden PublicationsIt’s our job to reproduce photographs, art and video footage beautiful enough for our audiences to appreciate. We recalculate that balance every day. 

We also have an office, of course, where we have the opportunity of enhancing appearances. We could hang more art and cultivate more houseplants. We could maintain the outside of the building a little better. Our building is a very simple commercial structure in a very plain industrial subdivision, but every little bit helps. This year a group of my colleagues planted two plots of vegetables in front of the building and they made us much more beautiful. Someday we might even renovate a more elegant older commercial building, make it energy-efficient and invest more in aesthetics. Someday, maybe. 

In the meantime, yes, we aspire to beauty. And we create some beautiful things, judging with our own eyes and the eyes of our audiences. But of course it’s only through the ongoing daily aspiration to beauty that beauty is achieved. So, we keep it up. 


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 

 



 


4/3/2012

In 1996 we moved our family to Kansas when my employers acquired a small company in Topeka and asked me to run it. At that time it included Capper’s magazine, GRIT magazine and Capper’s Insurance Service, which sells insurance mostly to the subscribers of the magazines.

My colleagues and I hoped the small, unconventional company would provide a platform for something bigger – something that could grow. In fact, it has. Today Ogden Publications employs about three times as many people as worked in the business when we started. I feel very fortunate to have shared this business adventure with my colleagues.

Ogden Publications logoOne of our first – and best – ideas was that a media company could focus on the idea of sustainability. I thought that the converging interests of the baby-boom generation, which had always been interested in protecting the environment and the millennial generation born 30-40 years later would create a new surge of interest in lifestyles that preserved valuable traditions of self-reliance while minimizing humanity’s negative impact on the environment. I was working on that theory in the form of a business plan when we had the opportunity to acquire Mother Earth News near the end of 2000 and my colleagues and I put the theory to work.

Success in business is always relative. By some standards Ogden Publications has been very successful. Our company is a solid, growing business, but our growth rate pales in comparison with the juggernauts of Silicon Valley. Our business has supported itself, grown and returned benefits to its shareholders. Today we have nine magazines, our websites are the fastest growing aspect of the business and our properties are arguably the largest media presence in the field of sustainable lifestyles. That category makes up about 80 percent of our media business.

Today the magazines are Mother Earth News, Natural Home, Utne Reader, The Herb Companion, GRIT magazine, Capper’s magazine, Motorcycle Classics magazine, Farm Collector magazine and Gas Engine Magazine. There are some smaller entities – magazines, books, websites, e-commerce enterprises, merchandise – but those nine brands make up the bulk of our business. We have offices in Kansas and Minnesota, plus fulltime colleagues in Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and New York.


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 









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