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Local magazine morphs from humble roots to Martha Stewart

WATERTOWN -- Eric Utne, a cofounder of Watertown-based Body + Soul magazine, likens spotting a recent issue on the newsstand to bumping into a distant relative.

''There is some part of its genetic material that's got to be in there," Utne said from his Minnesota home. ''It's more like seeing a distant cousin who's somehow . . ." he paused, ''been sent away to various finishing schools and now is overly pampered, maybe spoiled."

Utne and former wife Peggy Taylor cooked up the idea for a holistic health-centered publication more than three decades ago. Since then, Body + Soul has morphed from a cash-strapped independent -- originally called New Age Journal -- to a member of the Martha Stewart family.

Body + Soul's affluent readership -- the target audience is women with a median household income of $80,000 -- appealed to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as it aimed to expand into other markets. Stewart's company bought the magazine from New Age Publishing last August for $6 million. By spring, when the magazine unveiled its new look, ad pages had increased from 40 pages to 60, and circulation was up 25 percent.

Janesse Bruce of Newton, who was chief executive officer of New Age Publishing, has stayed on as publisher, as has editor-in-chief Seth Bauer of Needham.

Over the past year, the staff has worked closely with its corporate parent not only to redesign the magazine's look, but also to shift its focus from a niche to a mainstream audience. No longer, for example, would a cover blurb refer to ''echinacea;" rather it would tout ''herbs that combat colds."

''When we did research, we learned that people didn't know the terms," Bruce said. ''We needed to do a better job of explaining them."

Body + Soul's new cover, which made its debut with the April/May issue, is matte instead of glossy and touts above the nameplate: ''New from the publishers of Martha Stewart Living."

In keeping with the self-improvement titan's other lifestyle magazines, the August issue features do-it-yourself articles such as one that includes recipes for summer soups that ''soothe your skin" and another that advises how to revive ''the lost art of letter writing." The issue's main story sets out to debunk popular myths surrounding water contaminants. ''Americans spend more than $8.3 billion a year on bottled water, but what they're drinking may not be any safer or better regulated than tap water," writes Julie Stauffer.

Bruce, who frequently travels to Martha Stewart headquarters in New York, said Body + Soul will continue operating in Watertown. She described the parent company as a mentor.

The Stewart organization ''brought the tools to us," added Bauer, referring to design help and other production resources.

Founders Utne and Taylor recall the days long before organic food and holistic health became a multibillion-dollar industry, when the New Age movement, with its emphasis on mind-body healing, was considered little more than hocus-pocus.

Taylor said the term ''New Age" always had a ''flaky" connotation to it. ''We did not see ourselves as flaky," she said.

'' 'New Age' connoted little ladies in white stockings selling supplements," said Utne. ''[New Age] also meant Shirley MacLaine," of past lives fame.

Originally they decided to call the magazine New Journal, but a friend who was a publisher suggested the name New Age Journal. The title stuck, though Utne and Taylor had qualms about it throughout the magazine's lifespan. New Age Journal was renamed Body + Soul in 2001.

With $4,000 and the optimism of two 28-year-olds on the brink of ''something unseen," said Taylor, they published the first issue in October 1974. After working out of Cambridge and then Brookline, they landed in Watertown, which Taylor likened in those days to Berkeley, Calif., as a locus for the artsy and health-conscious.

Utne recalled that the collective vision of the dozen original staffers did not translate into cooperative action. ''Naïve idealism" turned into ''group tyranny" as expectations clashed. ''No one would let anyone do anything," he said.

After the second issue, Utne asked everyone to resign. He and Taylor soldiered on, running out of money before the first year was out. They tapped rental income from a six-bedroom apartment in Newton Centre to keep the then bimonthly afloat. They sold the magazine on newsstands, in independent bookshops and grocery stores, and by word of mouth, Taylor said.

Utne called the first five years ''tumultuous."

When the couple divorced -- ''Don't ever start a magazine with your husband," Taylor advises -- Utne left the publication. In 1984, he founded Utne magazine, which archives and reprints articles from the alternative press.

Taylor stayed at New Age Journal. ''I felt if the magazine went under, it would be the end of the world," she said.

Rex Weyler, who worked with Taylor from 1979 to 1982 as a publisher and editor, recalled with pride the magazine's exposes of fraud in the spiritual movement and breaking stories about cancer research.

''I don't mean to romanticize the effort; we sometimes fell short, but we intended serious journalism," Weyler said in an e-mail. But as the magazine shifted away from investigative and political pieces, he grew disenchanted.

''I felt that the emphasis turned to futons, vitamins, stress-reduction, and soft personal development ideas, the sort of disembodied New Age spiritualism I objected to," said Weyler, who now lives in Canada and last year published a history of Greenpeace.

Taylor said that the switch in direction was necessary for the journal to ''stay alive."

''One of the biggest problems when I was running the magazine was we were trying to put out a Porsche-level product with a Volkswagen budget," she said.

And eventually, the young working mother grew tired, as her first seven years with the magazine ''nearly did [her] in."

Strapped with mounting bills, Taylor sold New Age Journal in 1982 to David Thorne of Thorne Communications and New Age Publishing Inc. Thorne Communications also published Dr. Andrew Weil's Self Healing Newsletter, which was purchased by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia along with Body + Soul.

After a seven-year hiatus, Taylor came back to Body + Soul as an editor before moving to Seattle, where she helped found a youth arts group.

She said she still reads Body + Soul ''once in a while," adding that she would like to see it tackle ''more serious topics."

Utne, who no longer edits Utne magazine, last summer launched Cosmo Doogood's Urban Almanac: Celebrating Nature & Her Rhythms in the City. The almanac contains a daily planner, a field guide to urban flora and fauna, poetry, and a dream journal.

Utne said he doesn't read Body + Soul. ''I don't really think of it as mine anymore," he said.

Still, he added, ''we're part of the family tree."

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