Former Alt-Weekly Publishers Form Dragonfly

Three publications focus on New Age subjects

january 28, 2003  05:36 pm
“Dragonfly is a result in one sense of a personal journey that I’m on,” says Ron Williams, co-founder of Detroit’s Metro Times and former owner of Alternative Media, Inc. (AMI), which linked the Detroit paper with alt-weeklies in San Antonio and Orlando. “Ecology, environment, wellness, body/mind/spirit connections, spiritual growth: These kinds of issues are increasingly energizing me.” So, Williams adds, if his journalism career has now veered in the direction of New Age publications, “it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.”

Williams began his latest publishing venture, Dragonfly, in March 2001 with AMI compatriot Monte Paulsen, founder of the recently shuttered Casco Bay Weekly in Portland, Maine; Williams’ Metro Times partner Laura Markham is a consultant. In January 2002, the group purchased its first monthly, Conscious Choice in Chicago, which bills itself as “The Journal of Ecology and Natural Living.” Through 2002, Dragonfly also bought Whole Life Times in Los Angeles (“the world's largest regional monthly holistic publication”) and a 30-percent stake in Vancouver-based Shared Vision.

Paulsen, Dragonfly’s COO, is focusing on each publication’s business side, while Williams, Dragonfly president and CEO, sets editorial direction. The company was named after the insect said to travel freely between the earth and less corporeal spheres in Native American and Central American mythologies.

Dragonfly’s three publications, Williams says, “are primarily interested in a group of subjects that the alt-weeklies pay scant attention to.” Coverage of environmental issues is perhaps the largest overlap between Williams’ old publications and the new. AAN papers most often ignore New Age subject such as spirituality and personal growth, he says.

“We are at least as interested in personal development as we are in public improvement and activism,” Paulsen says. “We started wondering how we could enjoy alternative publishing at a lower, simpler level. When many of us started alternative weeklies, we spent three or four nights a week out listening to music and drinking beer. I loved this part of my life. I’m very rarely out that late anymore. I probably spend more of those hours in meditation, yoga ....

“Twenty years ago I was very skeptical of all this stuff,” he allows. “We sat in our little hovel at Casco Bay Weekly and made fun of this stuff. But I’ve changed – I see things more interconnected than I used to.”

Dragonfly’s three magazines, Williams notes, are decades old -- “sleepy New Age magazines that have not experienced a lot of growth. They’re a niche -- you might even say they’re a sub-niche.” But, he adds, “I anticipate that the satisfaction and the meaning all of us at Dragonfly will get will eventually equal or surpass” their experience with AAN papers. “I like the scale difference.”

These new ventures are “candy shops compared to alt weeklies,” Paulsen explains, with lower revenues (around half a million dollars each), smaller staffs and lower circulations: Whole Life Times’ run is largest, at 58,000, Shared Vision is smallest, at 40,000. “They’re always going to be local, quirky things.”
“Alt-weeklies are very popular with people who are success-oriented. I think our readers spend a lot less on SUVs but more on eco-travel.”

Dragonfly is still a part-time venture for the pair at its helm. Williams works primarily from New York City; Paulsen has moved to Vancouver to be closer to his Alaskan roots, he says. And this spring he intends to follow up last year’s book “Beyond the Deep: The Deadly Descent into the World's Most Treacherous Cave” (co-authored with William Stone and Barbara Am Ende) with another deep cave expedition. But he still relishes working directly with the three Dragonfly publishers.

“It’s fun to join existing publications,” he says. “There’s a few little things we can teach them” -- and many important things they can teach Dragonfly, he adds.

“We’ve got some great, talented editorial folks at these magazines,” Williams says. “We would like to slowly and steadily improve the quality of the editorial product” in both design and writing – without alienating traditional readers.

“All of them are eager for that kind of help, so they can actualize their vision,” says Laura Markham of the magazine staffs. “The writers are not professional writers. These are folks who believe in [their subjects]. They’re drawn to write as a mission. I know that in AAN there were often debates about mission journalism. I know we were on the other end from many in AAN. I imagine after they work with Dragonfly after a while [the writers] will be at a higher level.”

Abigail Lewis, Whole Life Times editor in chief, has been with the magazine for 13 years. She sold WLT to Dragonfly, she says, partly to return to full-time writing, but also in the hope that a chain of New Age publications would have a louder voice than WLT alone. Ironically, creating more of a New Age ruckus involves focusing her content on increasingly local stories.

“Our coverage had become more general and national and now we’re going back to find the stories that are more relevant right here,” she says. “The mission of Dragonfly involves going back to the community.” While the alt-weeklies in LA “have some good stories still, a lot of times they get in a little bit of attitude, so the stories start to sound alike. And I also think they are more reflective of the culture than leading the culture.” The owners of Dragonfly, she concludes, “really see the possibility of the world changing and evolving and becoming a better place. It sounds sort of lofty but it’s real for me.”

It’s real, as well, for Williams and Paulsen.

“Our personal life paths have gone in more spiritual directions,” Paulsen says.

For example, earlier in January, Paulsen flew to the offices of one of Dragonfly’s acquisitions. His rental car was unavailable at the airport, and traffic made him even later to his scheduled meeting. “My gerbils were going at full speed,” he says, when he arrived an hour and a half after his appointment with the editor. But after hugging Paulsen in greeting and speaking for a moment, the editor said, “Monte, why don’t we take five minutes to meditate on what we’re about to do together?” And they did.

“And you know the rest of the work we did that day was so much more productive,” Paulsen recalls. “And I don’t recall ever when I worked for AAN showing up for a meeting and someone said, ‘Let’s meditate for five minutes.’”

Marty Levine is news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper.