John Shuttleworth: Editor/publisher of The Mother Earth News

The first Plowboy Interview with John Shuttleworth, editor-publisher of The Mother Earth News.
By the Mother Earth News editors
March/April 1970


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The first issue of The Mother Earth News as you'll recall, had no "explanation. " Just three and a half lines on the masthead that said, in essence, "Here it is. " That was done on purpose: MOTHER figured you could decide - without the flowers and the flags - whether or not you wanted her.

As it turned out, that bugged some people who wanted not only MOTHER . . . but some background information too. Here then, is the first (and, possible, the last) MOTHER EARTH NEWS Plowboy Interview.. John Shuttleworth, editor-publisher of TMEN is on the other end.

Plowboy: Just what is TMEN all about, anyway?

JS: The magazine is dedicated to only two things: Giving people back their lives and stopping the rape of the planet.

Plowboy: What do you mean by "giving people back their lives"?

JS: Just that. I want everyone to be their own man - everybody to have control and direction of their own lives. Abraham Lincoln said it best. "Just as I would not be a slave, I will not have one." I want to be free, therefore I am interested in helping others be free.

Plowboy: Everyone?

JS: Everyone and everything. Blacks, whites. Red, brown and yellow people. Men, women, children. Animals, birds and fishes. Plants. Every living thing. All life is sacred and of God. We've got to take the broadest possible view.

Plowboy: You sound like you're into some of the Eastern religions.

JS: Maybe so. I'm very ignorant about most man-systems. They always seem too arbitrary and irrelevant. I like my living first hand, not filtered through someone else's maze. The all-encompassing concept and reverent life-style of some of the American Indian tribes has always seemed an especially satisfying religion to me. But I've never really gotten into that, either.

Plowboy: How old are you?

JS: 32. I was born July 21, 1937 in the late evening if anyone wants to throw an astrology reading on me. I'm a Cancer on the edge of being a Leo. It's given me some rough internal battles.

Plowboy: Do you put much faith in astrology?

JS: Not particularly. But I do believe that which proves itself, and - until I was shown the astrological basis for my personal dichotomy - I couldn't understand what was causing all the inner turmoil. The Cancer-Leo idea seems to work, so I use it.

Plowboy: What is your educational background?

JS: Twelve years of Indiana country school. I graduated as valedictorian which wasn't all that great since there were only 12 people in the class. On the basis of a state-wide merit test, I received a four-year scholarship to any college in Indiana. I attended Ball State University (Ball State Teacher's College, at the time) since it was close to the family farm and I could live at home and help with the chores. After two years I dropped out . . . in 1958.

Plowboy: Why?

JS: For the same reasons that a lot of people are dropping out now: The establishment educational system trains great replacement parts for the military-industrial complex and it turns out wonderful consumers but it doesn't teach much about living a satisfying life or developing human potential.

Plowboy: And this was in 1958?

JS: Right. In the dead Eisenhower years. The Organization Man years. And it was a lonely thing to drop out at that time. I spent the next ten years rambling through 30 or 40 changes of address and 80 or 100 jobs. Finally, two years ago - when I was living in North Carolina - I met and married little (5 ft., 81 lbs.) Jane.

Plowboy: When did you first get the idea for MOTHER?

JS: That started a long, long time ago but didn't develop all at once. I've always kept files on alternate life styles and about five years back, I wrote more than half of a 200,000 word manual called The Beachcomber, Rambler and Wayfarers' Handbook.

Plowboy: What happened to that?

JS: I had an agent enthused but this was just before the big hip thing happened and I still thought I was one of the very few people in the world interested in dropping out. I got so down, working in a New York ad agency, that I burned the manuscript. Wish I had it now. There was some good stuff there.

Plowboy: And how did that mutate into MOTHER?

JS: Stewart Brand is responsible. I was inspired by THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

Plowboy: A fantastic publication.

JS: Yes. Mind boggling and tremendously useful . It just goes to show what the right man with an idea and $25,000 can do. And I don't say this facetiously. Brand has set a powerful example for all the self-important, blundering politicians in the country.

Plowboy: You're saying -

JS: I'm saying we need fewer politicians and more Stewart Brands. Fewer drones and more productive (in the most basic sense) members of society. I agree with Fuller: Politics are no longer relevant. In more and more cases today, in fact, it seems that politics and politicians not only contribute to the problem, they are the problem.

Plowboy: To get back to MOTHER . . .

JS: Well, over the years, I've gathered whole filing cabinets of material on people who have successfully walked away from the system and started living life on their own terms. I wanted to share that information. A publication that paralleled and supported the work of Brand's WEC seemed like a good idea.

Plowboy: Is that why you chose a title with the word "Earth" in it?

JS: No. I wanted to call the thing THE GREAT CHIEF JOSEPH NEWSLETTER. I still think Chief Joseph, of the Nez Perce Indians, is one of the few authentic heroes of the North American Continent. But Jane held out for THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS on the grounds that it was more universal and less political. As usual, she was right.

Plowboy: So the original idea was for a newsletter.

JS: Right. We had very little money to put into a publication and I envisioned a 10 or 12 page mimeographed sheet that I could run off at home. Then I kept wanting to add more and more information and we got into the numbers game and found we could print 64 pages on a webb offset 10,000 times for less money than a small shop would run 2,000 copies of a 24 page booklet. So we wound up with 10,000 copies of a 64 page magazine.

Plowboy: And then what happened?

JS: And then we looked at that stack of 10,000 magazines and wondered if we hadn't made a very large mistake. We only had about 100 paid-in-front subscribers at the time.

Plowboy: So what did you do?

JS: We mailed copies to our subscribers and to all the people who had requested a sample and to everyone else we could think of. I went through a large stack of underground papers and clipped all the head shop, organic food and newstand ads and we sent samples to them.

There were two weeks of unnerving quiet, and then orders for subscriptions started rolling in, dealers and distributors began calling and a few reviews appeared in the alternate press. One of the country's biggest magazines is now interested in an article, at least one FM station is giving us plugs and the Wall Street Journal interviewed me on the phone last week. It's all starting to break.

Plowboy: And what about the 10,000 copies?

JS: We're down to around 2,000 now. We didn't sell the other 8,000 by a long shot, but the free copies we passed out proved to be very effective advertising.

Plowboy: I understand you've turned down two distributors who wanted to handle TMEN nationwide.

JS: Yes. We even went to New York to talk to one. A very nice gentleman but we checked the numbers and decided we'd be better off to let TMEN grow organically the way WEC has grown. Here's why:

If we put TMEN into an established pipeline, we're just one more step removed from the people we want to stay close to. The pipeline takes a very large chunk of the money we are generating. That's money going out of the Alternate Lifestyle Movement. Besides that, we'd get into a cut off date when each issue would be scrapped, long waits for our bread and a lot of other hassles.

If we deal with Movement people, on the other hand, all the bread we generate stays in the movement. Boston Area Ecology Action, for instance, is helping finance a food coop with TMEN sales. We're much closer to the people. Since a lot of the information in TMEN is rather timeless we can stop dating the publication and just number it, and there're no hassles about cut off dates. We may wind up with 6 or 8 issues on display at one time in some of the head shops. We pick up a lot of free percentage if we stay out of the traditional magazine pipeline.

Plowboy: But you don't get that overnight national exposure either.

JS: No. But that's the dues we have to pay.

Plowboy: Are you getting any complaints from anyone on your cover price?

JS: We didn't get a single complaint on the first issue from anyone once they had seen the magazine. A few people kind of questioned the price before TMEN came out . . . but there were no complaints afterward. There may be some on this special issue, but we're trying to keep the advertising down and the money has to come from someplace.

Plowboy: It goes back to paying dues.

JS: Right. If the gang wants 60 or 70 pages of meat for 60¢ or 70¢, we're going to have to take on 20 pages of schlocky ads. And, sooner or later, TMEN will become just another advertisers' magazine. If we're going to keep it a people publication, the people will have to pay the freight. This is not to say that there won't be ads in MOTHER. There will be. But not many and we'll only carry paid advertising for products that we know are good . . . products that will definitely help our readers or save them a buck.

Plowboy: It's the difference between doing a service for MOTHER'S people and "delivering an audience" to any advertiser with money.

JS: Exactly. We've already turned down a lot of trash . . . and we're almost $4,000 in debt. We could use the bread.

Plowboy: You're close to $4,000 in debt?

JS: Yes. And Jane and I are working 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. So we feel that we're paying our dues.

Plowboy: Is TMEN going to make it?

JS: It's looking better all the time. Especially now that we've settled on a bi-monthly schedule.

Plowboy: MOTHER will now be issued once every two months?

JS: Yes. We can print a greater amount of worthwhile information every year if we publish six big - instead of twelve small - issues. With twelve, we spend half our time just fighting deadlines. We can do more productive work for more people this way. All the early subscriptions are being extended so no one is getting burned.

Plowboy: Why is No. 2 so late?

JS: Because one distributor had us jumping through hoops. He wanted us to republish a modified No. 1 and then go on a quarterly schedule. We wasted a lot of time on that before deciding to stick with our people.

Plowboy: What are your plans for the future'?

JS: Once MOTHER is really fat and sassy, we've got a number of spin-off ideas we'd like to try - all designed, again, to help set people free in both big and little ways. This is only the beginning, but we'll just have to take one step at a time.


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