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RH: When did you join up with Whole Earth, Mike?
MS: In '93, to work on the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.
RH: What was your role?
MS: Eventually I was managing editor. I had been teaching at World College West, a small college in Marin County that closed in '92. I started looking for a job and was networking and talking with people, including Jeanne Carstensen, who had been a student of mine, and Stephanie Mills, who also worked at the college for a while. Both of them heard that Whole Earth was going to be doing another Catalog, and they said maybe I ought to talk with them. I had never been that much of a huge committed fan of the Whole Earth Catalog, but I had been a fan of the magazines for a very long time. I had been using them a lot in the classes I was teaching, and I used to bicycle past 27 Gate 5 Road and think, "Gee, that's where the magic's happening, right there in that building." But I didn't give it any more thought at the time.
Then Jeanne and Stephanie both suggested talking with Whole Earth, so I called up and I met with Howard [Rheingold]. I had reviewed one or two books for the magazine, and he said that maybe I could do some reviews, because they really didn't have any positions open. For some reason, it just occurred to me to say, "Well, could you use a volunteer?" I was receiving unemployment checks and had also gotten severance pay from the college, so I was not desperate for immediate income. I figured that maybe if I started volunteering I would run into people who might lead me to something else - not to a job at Whole Earth, but to something somewhere else. Then, after I had been there for a few months, John Sumser, who was executive director of Point, offered me a job working partly on the Catalog and partly exploring the possibility of a publishing imprint for Whole Earth. I had not been doing that for very long before he made more staffing changes. Ruth Kissane had been managing editor for the Catalog. He made her editor of the magazine and then he made me managing editor of the Catalog. I carried on with that to '94 when the Catalog came out. By the time I started, Howard had outlined pretty much the whole Catalog and had begun to locate domain editors. That was all in place when I came in. My role was marshalling the thing through until it was published.
RH: What were you teaching before you came to Whole Earth?
MS: I was hired to teach writing and communications. Through a contact I'd had in graduate school in Chicago, I started working as a stringer for the New York Times. Then I got a job with the Toronto Star and worked there for a while. I was offered a job back in Illinois in the Lieutenant Governor's office and then I worked as a public information officer for the State Arts Council. I'd been in writing jobs of various sorts when this opportunity to teach at the college in California came up. Because the college was so small I taught many subjects. I taught communications to begin with, then we started a general studies program for freshmen and I directed that. Then a psychologist and I created a major which we called Meaning, Culture and Change, that combined psychology, literature, religion and philosophy. That was a lot of fun, and eventually I became academic vice president. That's what I was doing when the college closed.
RH: I guess your work with the Catalog was successful because you stayed on and started working for the magazine. Is that what happened?
MS: Not quite. After the Catalog was done there were no open positions on the magazine. But the Point board and the executive director came to a parting of the ways. They asked me to stay on, and eventually we created a new position called general manager, which was mainly running the business side of the operation. Then through the next year we tried to get money to keep going. Some people might have better information about this, but my sense is that the magazine was never self-supporting. It was always subsidized by income from the Catalogs, and then from the sale of the WELL. The advance we got on the '94 Catalog was covered eventually by the Catalog's sales but we didn't make a lot more than that. There was little income from royalties, and eventually we went through the money from the sale of the WELL and the magazine ceased publication in '96.
A couple of us were kept on staff, working with the board, trying to raise money to get going again, and that took more than a year. One of the things that ended up being a bit surprising and very exciting was that we sent out an appeal to readers. We wrote them and said, Look, we stopped publication, we're not able to go on, but if we can raise enough money we'll resume. And we got about $140,000 from the readers. At the same time, the board was able to raise money from about a half dozen foundations. Between that foundation money and the donations from the readers, we started publishing again in '97. That was when Peter Warshall came in as editor. I was quite eager to get back into the writing and editing side of the operation, and I accepted a position as managing editor of the magazine and did that for the rest of its life.
RH: How was Peter chosen to be editor? I'm not questioning the wisdom of that, I'm just curious because I never heard the process described.
MS: I don't remember. It was between him and the board basically. He had been one of the domain editors of the '94 Catalog, which was when I got to know him. Of course, he had done a lot for Whole Earth for many years, and was part of the group that had worked to revive the magazine. Danica was on the board by then. Ty Cashman was on the board. I forget who else was involved. Peter was still living in Tucson, so he worked half-time in Tucson and half in the Bay Area. He would do an issue, then go back to Tucson while we did preliminary work on the next issue and when we got to the production end of it, he'd come back. It was almost like six weeks on, six weeks off for him, for several years. What I don't know was whether the board considered other people. They were very enthused about Peter's coming, and it was a good thing to be enthused about.
RH: Because of the financial problems, was there a re-evaluation of the magazine's direction, or content, or staffing? Because there must have been a feeling that something had to change.
MS: A good question. I remember some meetings with the board and the staff where we batted around ideas, then they hired a couple of other people serially as publisher - Alex Gault for a while, and then David Bolling. There was certainly a feeling that there had to be more fund raising. There were some other things, too, but they weren't thought of as "This is what we need to do." At some point, we went into a bit of color. The inside pages of the magazine had never been printed in color before. The Catalogs were never in color. And they began taking some advertising. Not a lot, but it had been part of Whole Earth's philosophy not to take advertising. There had been classified ads, but display ads were a new thing, because the later publishers thought more income was needed. There were also appeals to readers, and various other things were tried to increase the readership. But there was never a strong sense that it's got to become a different kind of magazine. It stayed pretty much what it had been before. One difference was that Peter liked theme issues. He did one issue where the theme was "fire" and another where the theme was "soil." Kevin Kelly guest-edited an issue, which was a kind of mini-Catalog. Bruce Sterling guest-edited an issue. I don't know what kind of impact these changes had [color printing, advertising and theme issues]. Some readers seemed to prefer issues that were more eclectic, with a whole lot of different subjects. It's hard to know what made a difference. I think we did a pretty good job of holding readers, but we didn't ever greatly increase the readership.
And by that time, we were competing with the World Wide Web. Looking back, the "Internet: How to Use It" section in the '94 Catalog reflects a time that now seems very long ago: "This is a URL" "Here's how to use FTP if you have email, but aren't on the Internet." The Web got all of four paragraphs, which ended with "Using [the Web] comfortably requires high bandwidth connections that are currently beyond most home users." Before long that changed dramatically. That was difficult to compete with, because when you're doing a quarterly magazine that has a lot of reviews, the same products can be reviewed online three months before your issue comes out. But we persisted, while the board kept trying to do fund raising. They brought in some money, but it was hard. By 2003, when they finally stopped publication, we didn't have enough money to pay for the printing and mailing. We had actually written and designed an issue that never got published.
RH: You're saying this as if it was a surprise.
MS: It came as a surprise in the sense that we thought we could do it. We did everything we needed to do to get that issue out. We were always getting the printing done with the notion that the money would come in after distribution, to pay the last printer before the next issue. But the printer saw us scrambling to pay the bills and insisted on being paid in advance and we couldn't do that.
RH: Do you have any second thoughts on the use of color inside the magazine? I'm not an expert on magazine economics but I wonder if that decision was actually counterproductive in the sense that readers didn't really care about color and it increased the cost of production. When I interviewed Art Kleiner about the Whole Earth Software Review, he put a lot of the blame for its failure on the fact that they went to color.
MS: I wasn't publisher, so I wasn't looking closely at the numbers. It may have had some impact on costs, but it was probably a lot easier to do color in the '90s than it was during the days of the Software Review, and we weren't using very much color - maybe an eight-page insert in a 104-page issue - until almost the very end. I think there was also a feeling on the part of whoever was publisher at the time that color was going to make it more attractive to new readers. I don't think it made much difference, positively or negatively. We didn't get a lot of pushback on it. Not using color might have saved some money but there were some things you could do in color that you couldn't do in black and white and it also made us look more contemporary, for better or for worse.
RH: Did Peter's illness affect the production of the magazine? Did he leave because of his illness?
MS: Peter never talked about his illness with me. I think he left before it became a problem. He left a year before the magazine finished and I think it probably was more that he just did not want to keep bouncing back and forth between California and Arizona. It was more like "I've been doing this for a long time, I want to move on and do other things." So for the last few issues he was gone.
RH: I never met him but he seems to have done a great job reviving the magazine.
RH: Did you sense at the time that the magazine was failing anyway?
MS: Money was tight, but I had no sense that it was failing at the time Peter left. I did sense that maybe this focus on theme issues - a whole issue on soil, for example, which he was passionately interested in, and which was a very interesting issue to work on - for the range of readers that we had, maybe not all of them wanted most of an issue on soil. Peter was much more interested in the natural world, and less in technology, although he was not uninterested in technology. But other than that, he was brilliant and had a wide-ranging mind. And a lot of great contacts. With the people he brought in to write for us, like Andy Weil, Donella Meadows, Rick Fields and Bruce Sterling, some of whom had things in earlier issues, he brought in some exciting writing. And speaking for those of us who stayed after Peter left, the Whole Earth issues in the final year were good, too. But the reality was that the money was going out faster than it was coming in and we weren't able to overcome that.
RH: My sense is that the problem was not so much the content of the magazine but that the economic environment got tougher. And you mentioned competition from the World Wide Web.
MS: The Web and what was happening to magazine journalism over that whole period and since then. Look at the number of quality magazines that just went out of business. Whole Earth had a 35-year run and that was pretty extraordinary for a magazine that was always on the edge.
RH: Did you stay with Whole Earth to the end?
RH: And after that did you retire?
MS: I went on to another job. But after they laid us all off at Whole Earth, which would have been spring of 2003, I kept coming in part-time on a volunteer basis for several months, just to keep things going, get the rent paid and manage the mail that was still coming in, and also to try to help the board with fund raising, which finally they were not able to do enough. I had written a story for the magazine in 2001 or so about a very interesting project, STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) - fourth-graders who were doing habitat rehabilitation, initially to save an endangered shrimp, but then it became clear that the whole ecosystem was reviving and STRAW became a major program. It was a great project, funded by the Center for Ecoliteracy, which was founded by Fritjof Capra, Peter Buckley and Zenobia Barlow. The people from that project really liked the article I did, and about a year later, the Center called to ask if I would do a project for them on food systems. Which I did. And while I was doing that I was still partly volunteering to try to revive Whole Earth, going back and forth. The Center for Ecoliteracy offered me a job at the beginning of 2004, and I worked there until 2017, when I finally did retire. It was an innovative organisation, working with schools on a variety of issues regarding sustainability and ecological education.
RH: This 50th anniversary event that just happened in California - did that spark any re-evaluation of your time at Whole Earth or change your perspective on what it had been about?
MS: Not so much. It made me realize that Whole Earth was a bigger community than I had been in contact with. A lot of people came to the anniversary party that I knew, but there were also a lot that I didn't know. People from the WELL and other projects like the Hackers Conference. It made me appreciate how vital that community was, and how passionate. When I first heard there was going to be a 50th anniversary, I thought, "Well, that's kind of nice but who's going to come?" I was a little surprised that it was as large and as vibrant as it turned out to be. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but there had been so much of a hiatus between the magazine's last issues and that event. About 15 years. A lot of us had gone on to do other things, so the fact that there was still that much interest and so many people wanting to celebrate and reconnect, I was really impressed. I had run into someone on the Point Foundation board who said, "Oh, by the way, there's going to be a 50th anniversary thing." And I said "Right. Is Stewart going to be part of that?" He'd moved on and he's not always happy that people think of him and the Catalog as one and the same so many years after he left and went on to do many other things. So I was a little surprised when I saw that he and Ryan were part of the planning and Danica was, too.
The reunion and doing this interview and talking with you brought back good memories for me, and pushed me to go back and look at those publications again. I looked at those issues we did and thought, Boy, those were good! I think we kind of knew it at the time, but when you're in the middle of something and just doing the best you can to finish an issue and then it's time to start the next one, you don't have perspective. But with the passage of time, I think we put out some really useful and well done work from a lot of people. I was glad to be able to relive some of that. I'm really proud of the work that we did.