'Hope' Has Hard Sell in the Magazine Market

Jon Wilson knows there are three big uglies still loose in the world: selfishness, greed, and despair. Add a dash of cynicism to this Darth Vadar mix of dark confetti, and then ask Mr. Wilson if a little ray of hope has a future.

His daring answer hits the newsstands and mailboxes six times a year. Wilson edits and publishes Hope magazine, a 2-1/2-year-old venture from the heart that focuses on people, ideas, and programs that offer plenty of reason for hope.

"A lot of what we publish is troubling news," he says, seated in a messy office with a view of sparkling Blue Hill Bay here. "But what we do is publish it in a way that the reader can feel a sense of possibility. Maybe what we have to do is look a little closer, a little longer, and this problem might have a solution."

Most of the 13,000 subscribers to Hope know the magazine is unsentimental. It offers some 85 or 95 pages an issue that suggest the enduring possibilities for progress through essays, features, photo essays, interviews, and reviews. No forced smiles.

What readers get is a forthright exploration of today's issues as seen in the lives of undefeated people. There are no apologies for finding kindness or a positive view of life popping up in troubled places - such as gardens in Detroit for gang members, or classes for sex education in northern California.

A recent issue included a pull-out guide to socially responsible companies, plus an article on how small loans help at-home entrepreneurs. In the same issue, an ex-prostitute goes back to the streets to help other women get off the streets.

It was a stark photo essay in Newsweek in l985 that gave Wilson the idea for Hope. "In the photos a Sandinista sympathizer was being forced to dig his own grave in El Salvador," Wilson says. "Then he was killed ... and dumped in the grave."

Wilson admits he was apolitical and barely aware of the causes of the war. The issues had become objectified to him, with no connection to human beings, he says.

"But seeing the extinguishing of a human life that way just roared through me," he says, "and I began to sob." His feelings were transformed into a mission: launch a magazine that explored human realities but focused on the best in human beings, to help dissolve despair and offer possibilities.

At the time, he was the founder and editor of WoodenBoat magazine. Through hard work and self-admitted innocence, he brought that special-interest magazine - still published today - to a circulation of more than 100,000 in 10 years.

"The success of WoodenBoat was a great gift to me," says Wilson, who remains affiliated with it. "And Hope is an expression of gratitude."

But unlike WoodenBoat, with a cultural base of wood-loving sailors and builders to appeal to, Hope has proved a hard sell. "When I started WoodenBoat in 1974," Wilson says, "there were 1,200 magazines out there, and now there are around 4,000."

Instead of turning to nonprofit status, or seeking outside investors, Wilson wants Hope to succeed despite a name that appears softer than established magazines like Wired, Adventure West, or Discovery.

"I think we should be able to make this magazine matter to the people who also look at fashion magazines and read the tabloids," he says. "If it can't work that way, then I'm not interested in another way."

Recently, Hope was named one of the 10 best new magazines by the Utne Reader. But about a year ago The Wall Street Journal, in profiling Wilson, Hope, and other "positive" publications in a front-page article, concluded in a headline that "Good News Faces a Sad Future." Hope doesn't sell, said the Journal, because "hardly anybody is buying the stuff."

Wilson shakes his head. "I felt we were greatly trivialized by the article," he says. He fired off a letter to the Journal criticizing it for "discouraging the sense of the possible" and for "smug cynicism."

Still, Wilson and his staff are disappointed that paid subscriptions for Hope have reached only 13,000 after two years. More than 70 percent of readers are educated women, mostly in the suburbs.

Recently the price of an issue was reduced from $4.95 to $3.95. "Subscriptions are creeping up," Wilson says, "but the success of WoodenBoat continues to subsidize Hope, and I am reluctant to put colossal amounts of money into this and jeopardize WoodenBoat."

The staff says discussions often focus on the implications and image of the magazine's title. "It can give off a saccharin flavor," says Francis Lefkowitz, assistant editor, "or maybe a too-wholesome image. We talk about how to make Hope hip, but we are all committed to the name and we all trust Jon in this."

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