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Connecting the Agents of Change
An Interview With Natural Life Founder & Publisher Rolf PriesnitzRolf Priesnitz

In 1976, at the age of 29, Rolf Priesnitz founded The Alternate Press, now the book publishing division of Life Media. A plumber and steamfitter who also taught apprentices, he soon found himself publishing Natural Life magazine. For the next three decades, his career as a plumber, steamfitter, and plumbing and trades professor developed in tandem with the publishing business, which he shared with his wife Wendy. He and Wendy have two grown daughters. This interview was conducted in 2006.

NL: Why did you start Natural Life? What did you see as its purpose or mission? 

Rolf: I wasn't aware of any magazine in Canada that covered the issues in which I was interested, in a way that was useful for people in northern climates. And don't forget, this was before the easy availability of information over the Internet. I had set up a business distributing other magazines, all American, like Mother Earth News, East-West Journal, the Rodale publications Prevention and Organic Gardening & Farming. There was some neat stuff coming out of the U.S., but little for northern climates in the way of gardening, housing, well-being. 

I was very aware of environmental issues even then. I remember working at a job building an oil refinery and one of the operators dumped some concoction down a drain, saying, "There are no environmentalists here to worry about it!" I told him, "You never know - stop doing it." I wasn't interested in having a successful publishing company; I wanted to change the world, one person at a time. It's like Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." I wanted to engage people who could share their experiences, transferring information from the older generation to the younger one - traditional things that were being neglected and that I thought could make a positive change. 

I didn't see Natural Life as a back-to-the-land magazine exactly. I didn't think it was necessary to be self-sufficient physically, but that one needed to think self-sufficiently, to be self-reliant. I've always seen it as a lifestyle magazine. But I remember going to the library and researching the term lifestyle and finding out that it wasn't in vogue in the mid-70s; it was actually a bit kinky! So we didn't use it to market the magazine. This was a time when the Cold War was on, when we still perceived the Soviet Union as a threat. I'd grown up with frequent air raid drills, being told in school in case of a nuclear attack to stick my head between my legs under my desk - and not feeling that was a sufficient response. I felt that people could change their behavior if they had the right information, rather than just reacting. It was very clear to me that everything all the topics we covered in Natural Life tied together and that by trying to unite all those forces, there'd be a better chance of succeeding to change things. 

NL: Why did you feel you could be a magazine publisher with no training or experience in the field? 

Rolf: I had successfully taken over my dad's hot water heating and plumbing business at age 17, after he became ill. And I had successfully become a licensed pilot at age 17. So I didn't doubt my ability, even though I failed high school English! That was mainly because of the literature component, which I didn't think was relevant to my life; I wanted more practical things. 

I wouldn't have gotten into publishing if I hadn't met Wendy with her literary skills. In fact, my first publishing venture preceded Natural Life magazine. I had set up The Alternate Press to publish a book of Wendy's poems called Summer Love, Winter Fires. I didn't think it would be difficult to publish a magazine because I wasn't setting anyone up as an expert, especially not myself. I was seeking knowledge rather than imparting it. I felt that publishing 50,000 copies of that first issue would get the ball rolling regarding the exchange of information. And it did. 

The technical aspects of publishing were pretty crude in those days, and easy to understand, like how the typesetting was done line by line and then pasted up on a board. And I knew enough about data collection. It was a time when a lot of change was happening - a blossoming of alternatives, of small presses. There were lots of things in favor of starting such a magazine. 

NL: Once you decided to launch Natural Life, what happened next? 

Rolf: I quit my high-paying job as a steamfitting foreman, by which I was supporting a wife and two kids. Heidi was four and Melanie was three at the time. However, I didn't really feel that was a risk, because I knew I could always go back to construction if I needed to. 

Then I rented the Canadian subscriber lists from Organic Gardening & Farming and Country Journal magazines and a list of all the general practitioner doctors in Canada. That was a strange mix, I guess, but it worked - some had ideas, others had money! 

I commissioned a company called Rural Graphics to design a logo and the covers for the first issue. There were two images: an old fashioned log cabin and farm windmill on some acreage for the front cover, and the same location but with a futuristic geodesic dome and wind turbine for the back. We had the covers silk-screened as posters, ordered a bunch of books on the topics we were going to cover in the magazine, and rented a booth at the Down to Earth Festival in Aberfoyle, just outside Guelph, Ontario. That event was a good springboard for the magazine. It was a gathering of like-minded people interested in wellness, renewable energy and so on. We sold many books and made many connections, relationships that would last for decades in some cases, people who became friends, like David and Susan Estabrooks who owned Mandala Books and later took over our mail order book business. 

I financed the first issue – the list rental and postage for mailing out 50,000 magazines, not the printing, which we were billed for later – by a $5,000 advance on my VISA card. Subscriptions and book orders financed the rest. Book orders out-numbered subscriptions at first, because in our inexperience we didn't make it very easy for people to subscribe or even to find the subscription information! We ran it as a home-based business, which meant we didn't have to make an investment in office space or a long-term lease. It literally took over our townhouse in Jarvis, Ontario. 

I tend to do things by doing them rather than having the financing and other things in place. I just bulled my way through. But there was lots of support from acquaintances and friends. I remember four-year-old Heidi helping sort magazines that were stacked in the bathtub. After all, 50,000 magazines are a lot for one small townhouse without a garage! And there were some great publishing industry people helping along the way too, like circulation software expert Rolf Brauch and what is now Magazines Canada but was then known as the Canadian Periodical Publishers Association (CPPA), which started up around the same time. 

NL: What was your expectation for the magazine in terms of scope, longevity, etc.? 

Rolf: Well, I wanted it to be national or international in nature, rather than local. But I hadn't thought in terms of longevity. If I'd thought that way, I might not have started it! There was some desire not to rely on construction work, and a desire to be with our home-educated daughters more. So I wanted to make a living at it, but not just by the magazine. I always had the expectation that part of the revenue would come from ancillary products that went along with the lifestyle. So the first issue had Natural Life Books and we sold the posters as well as t-shirts some with the Natural Life logo, some with solar, wind and wood energy designs. There were Natural Sprout t-shirts for children. 

NL: Did the experience turn out the way you expected? 

Rolf: I found it surprisingly easy to get the magazine on the newsstands and into Publishers Clearinghouse mailings. But it was difficult to keep up a monthly publishing schedule. The cash flow was just not there quickly enough so we switched the schedule to bimonthly. 

NL: Do you think the magazine has made the difference you were looking for? 

Rolf: Yes, far exceeding my expectations. It has affected tens of thousands of people's lives over the 30 years in small ways. We have also received hundreds of instances of feedback that it's made big changes in people's lives. We've heard from people who have started clinics, health food stores and other businesses because they were encouraged by the community that was present and obvious in the magazine, giving them enough confidence that there was a large enough community to support their efforts. But it was the small changes that people can make in their everyday lives that I was looking for. So the big changes are always quite a surprise. 

Natural Life has been on the ground floor of a number of movements and helped get them moving more quickly by bringing like-minded people together through the pages of the magazine. For instance, we most certainly gave the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) organization a start-up boost through an interview with the founder Peter McQueen, along with contact information (which has become one of our signature features), in the first issue, which, of course, was mailed to 40,000 or so Canadian organic growers. We also helped kick-start the homeschooling movement through the pages of Natural Life, again by connecting people with each other. 

We started publishing at a time when people were moving out of the 1960's protest mode and starting to do something in the 70s, starting to work toward change. And they needed a way to connect up with each other. Natural Life provided that. 

NL: What has been your biggest reward from publishing Natural Life

Rolf: I wasn't looking for rewards. I thought somebody had to do it and I could. So I did. I do find satisfaction in helping people, in being part of something that helps create change. 

NL: What has been the biggest challenge? 

Rolf: The financial aspect is always the hardest. The huge early acceptance of the magazine, with tens of thousands of subscribers and good newsstand sales in both Canada and the U.S. within the first two years, was a surprise. The speed of growth was so phenomenal that I didn't have the model to understand what was going to happen, with how to deal with that many subscribers. We quickly went from Cheshire cards to nine-track tape on a big IBM computer just to keep track of people. Starting the magazine was actually quite easy; sustaining it was what turned out to be more difficult. 

NL: Is there anything you would have done differently, perhaps with hindsight? 

Rolf: I wouldn't have let it grow to 96 pages in the first couple of years. That was a mistake. We should have published more often instead, but there was so much need and so much material to cover in so many areas. We also undervalued the cover price at $1 and didn't really look for advertising. I wanted to address the needs of the readers; servicing them was more important and we did that partly by offering products from books to juice strainers and hand plows directly through the Natural Life General Store. It also would have been better if I'd worked for another magazine publishing company for six months before starting Natural Life, just to understand how the industry works. However, I probably wouldn't have started the magazine if I had! 

NL: Is the Internet making print publishing obsolete? 

Rolf: No. But it has changed the character of it. Books and magazines have to be of higher quality now to compete with the information exchange on the net. It's the best place for people to deal directly with each other, but the intelligence of the discussion boards and lists varies with the participants. 

The Internet has also created a shift in how we do things. In the early days of Natural Life, the letters section where people exchanged information about sustainable living - we called it Natural Lifeline - took up easily a third of the magazine. Now, that exchange is better done online so we are presenting a different kind of information. We were actually on the Internet before the World Wide Web part of it began. Our content was picked up electronically by libraries around the world through data pack lines. 

NL: Will Natural Life still be needed in ten years? 

Rolf: Yes, there will always be a need for change agents. I don't think that concept is well recognized by people. People who've made large changes haven't done it to highlight themselves; they've done it because they saw the need. As more people see the need for change, there will be more change agents. So not only do I see a need for thoughtful, in-depth, dark green publications like Natural Life, I hope they start up in places all around the world. I wouldn't mind helping every town in the world start a magazine like Natural Life, either in print or electronically. My intention would not be to have them all called Natural Life, but to create a similar exchange of information at the local level. My method is to model the way, rather than to expound on the virtues of my way; people may find other ways. But I see that the need is there. 

I actually assumed that we'd put ourselves out of business in 25 years; that hasn't happened, but the business model has changed. Now there are hundreds of magazines, as well as radio, television, newspapers and websites covering many of the same topics. There has been a real shift, a sea change, in fact toward sustainable living and health awareness and, consequently, much more information is available than there was 30 years ago. 

NL: What is your favorite reading material? 

Rolf: I'm not a big reader at all. In fact, if I didn't proofread Natural Life, I probably wouldn't read it! English is not my first language and I still have trouble with number and letter sequences. In German, number words are spoken in a different order – for instance, you'd say nine and 50, instead of 59. So as anyone who's got me on the phone to take their credit card number for a subscription will know, I often mix things up.

I do like to read about what makes people tick - how they think, what they did and why. That is, I think, best accomplished through the interview format. So I hope that this will be the first of an ongoing series of interviews in Natural Life, interviews that bring out the personality of ordinary people doing ordinary things, showing the way to the future. I want to continue to reinforce the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are making the changes we see around us. I like knowing there are people out there who think critically. Only a small percentage of people do, but those are the people who make a difference. I'm interested in reading and thinking about concepts, not whether Pluto is classified today as a planet. 

NL: Are there other publishing or related projects in your future? 

Rolf: Probably. We've already published a number of other magazines over the years: the Home Business Advocate, Green Business, Natural Foods in Canada, Childs Play, and Life Learning, which was launched in 2002. I wouldn't mind doing one on apprenticeship after I retire from my job as the Director of Apprenticeship at the local college. 

NL: What will retirement look like for you? 

Rolf: Retirement would mean dabbling in all sorts of things, just like I do now. Maybe it would mean changing the emphasis, the amount of time I spend on the various things I like to be involved in. I don't see myself just sitting around reading books and magazines. That would be awful!

This is one of a limited number of articles from Natural Life Magazine presented on this website for free. To read more, please subscribe.

     

 

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