The Next Fifty Years
Editor Rob Bowers on the Future of The SunBy David Mahaffey, Associate Editor • January 22, 2024
Like many who find their way to The Sun, our new editor, Rob Bowers, took a roundabout route, from finance to farming to publishing. Even his journey since he joined the staff seems unlikely: the business manager, the publisher, and now the successor to founding editor Sy Safransky. Whose résumé would suggest that course? Rob has recounted some of his story in the magazine (you can read his letters here), but I thought readers might appreciate another opportunity to learn more about him, so I invited him to discuss his new role.
We took a break from the crush of late-December deadlines to talk about folk songs, small farms, and the fundamental essence of The Sun.
David Mahaffey: In his letter in the December 2023 issue editor emeritus Sy Safransky said he was impressed with your understanding of what belongs in The Sun. What belongs in the magazine?
Rob Bowers: Can we start with an easier one? [Laughs.] I’m kidding. The interesting thing to me about The Sun is that we can get a clear sense of the enduring qualities of the publication from its fifty-year history, even though those qualities are highly subjective and people experience them in different ways. We’re looking for writing that is honest, that is intimate, and that is expansive in its intimacy. We’re looking for writing that is welcoming and at times playful. On the other hand we also appreciate writing that is painful. These are seemingly contradictory, but they’re all fundamental aspects of the human experience. I think the power of the work we publish lies in this sort of tension between what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is profound and what is silly.
David: You and I are both fond of the musician Jeffrey Foucault, and what you’re saying reminds me of something he wrote: “What’s beautiful is broken, and grace is just the measure of a fall.”
Rob: Oh, yes. That’s a great description. Another feature of The Sun is that no one can claim a monopoly on what belongs in the magazine. I have my own sense of it. We have a staff, many of whom have been around a long time, and each of them has a sense of it. Our readers have their own sense of what belongs in The Sun.
There are certain pieces of music that just get to you, just absolutely pierce you. And if you try to label what makes them effective, they lose their ability to pierce. It sounds a bit like a cop-out—oh, I can’t name it, because then it loses its power—but there’s something like that going on here. The work we publish goes beyond excellent writing or honest writing, beyond welcoming writing or challenging writing. It’s all going to be experienced in a lot of different ways.
David: Over the last year you’ve worked closely with Sy to prepare for your role as editor. What have you learned from him about how to do this job?
Rob: What Sy didn’t say was, “OK, here’s how you do this.” He’s far more experiential than he is prescriptive, which I think can be felt in the magazine. And it was never really a job for Sy. It’s been his life. So when you ask for advice on running the magazine, you’re sort of asking him, “How do you live your life?”
A few weeks ago staff and friends gathered to celebrate Sy, and I said a few words, trying to talk about that aspect of him. I was reminded of a Steve Earle song with the line “throw your heart down like a glove.” The song, like The Sun, is a kind of challenge to the world, to include all of those contradictions and to honor the beauty and difficulty that emerges from them. But the important thing is to be in it wholly, every single bit of it. How do you fully embrace your life every single moment? It took me a while to learn that life is not a dress rehearsal.
David: If career advice isn’t what you got from Sy, are there things that you’ve learned about how not to do this work?
Rob: It’s important not to succumb to business and financial pressures and compromise what we’re offering our readers, in spite of the constancy of those pressures. This feels like an obvious thing, but we’re not going to start selling ads when we’re trying to offer the kind of experience that we do. Would ad sales make things easier? For a time, but probably not for the long term. We’d eventually be forced to make decisions that would cost us the trust of our readers.
That decision to forgo advertising was made in 1990, and it remains radical. It means we depend solely on our subscribers. In our culture it’s hard to tell any person, let alone a collection of people, that you need their support. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability. It takes humility. But at the same time it takes confidence that what you’re doing is important, because otherwise you wouldn’t ask.
Refusing ads is an example of the kind of constancy and faith that I think Sy exhibits—that ability to maintain conviction in the midst of uncertainty.
David: I’m curious how your past work experiences have shaped the way you think about your role as editor of The Sun.
Rob: I think in his letter Sy called my path to The Sun “circuitous.” I started in the pretty conventional world of finance and commerce, followed by consulting work with nonprofits. I felt a constant pull to find work that mattered. A confluence of events in my early forties—the death of parents, a new marriage, the birth of a child, a deepening Zen practice—made that pull more emphatic. So I decided to try something that I had always wanted to do, which was to grow food.
It seemed categorically like a good thing to do: grow really high-quality food to nourish people who want it. Hard to argue with that. I did that for ten years here in North Carolina, until I came to feel that my love of growing food was compromised by the pressure to exchange that food for money. But I’m glad I did it, because I didn’t want to turn fifty and be bitter that I hadn’t tried.
I had been reading The Sun all along my circuitous path, and while I was farming, the magazine sent postcards to local subscribers saying that they were still looking for the right person to be The Sun’s business manager. I thought, I’ve been working for myself for ten years; there’s no way I can possibly do this. When another card came, I thought that perhaps The Sun might be an organization I could work with and feel part of. That was eight and a half years ago.
Whether I’ve been trying to help nonprofits or trying to grow kale, I’ve always done it with all of myself but also tried to listen to everyone who cares about and has a stake in what I’m doing. What you hear, and how you act on what you hear, matters more than what you say. I’ve tried to remember that.
The transition from farming to The Sun has always made me chuckle, because the existence of a small farm these days is about as likely as the existence of a small, reader-supported magazine. The effort it takes to plant and harvest forty thousand strawberry plants is in some ways analogous to the work we do here. Each individual plant receives hundreds of touches over the course of six or seven months. That sort of sustained attention and focus is necessary to bring anything worthwhile to fruition.
This region is a late frost pocket, and there was a dicey period every April where we’d have a field full of strawberry blossoms, and there was nothing we could do except wait and see whether the frost would kill the crop. On mornings when there was a high likelihood of frost, I’d walk out to one of our fields and just sit there, letting whatever happened happen. If it didn’t frost, I’d watch the sun come up on all those plants, and it would bring me to tears to think how much work had gone into that.
David: The world has changed a lot in fifty years, and so has The Sun. But through it all we’ve had the stability of our founder’s editorial vision. How does The Sun endure for another fifty years without Sy’s singular perspective to guide it?
Rob: Many readers feel that Sy and The Sun are synonymous, but he has said to me many times that he is not The Sun. The staff has grown since Sy sold his first issue on the streets of Chapel Hill in 1974, and, like any collection of people, we’ve developed and matured and adapted. Through different challenges we’ve kept believing in the essential power of what we share with people. That’s the abiding essence of our work. I’ve found strength in that—and also in knowing that I’m going to get it wrong from time to time.
I think The Sun will endure for another fifty years through its commitment to celebrating our shared human experience in a way that nobody else does. Creating those opportunities for empathy—for ceremony, for miracles, for difficulty, for all of it—is important, and I think it’s only grown more important over the life of The Sun. We’re all bombarded with distractions, and it’s easy to lose track of our lives and what it means to be sharing this amazing experience.
We’re fortunate to have the foundation Sy created at The Sun. I think adherence to that ideal is the first step in our continued longevity. Some details may change, but faithfulness to what we’re trying to do is how we keep going. And it’s what the magazine has always done, I think.
David: We get occasional feedback from communities that are interested in the kinds of personal stories we publish but don’t always see themselves represented in them. Do you see that changing over time?
Rob: The version of The Sun that exists today represents the current organization. We used to have fewer people working on an issue. Our capacity to think beyond the next month was limited. We now have the luxury of planning further ahead and more thoughtfully without detracting from the work that’s right in front of us. Technology has also evolved to offer us new ways to consciously and deliberately seek work from marginalized voices. I think that we need to commit ourselves to creating access to opportunities for people whose experiences are different from our own, both on the masthead and among our contributors. The magazine will be better for that.
David: What are your goals for The Sun in 2024? Do you have any resolutions?
Rob: There are three things that I want for this year. The first is that we continue to delight and challenge our readers, to engage with them in an honest and human way—through difficulty, through joy, sometimes through playfulness.
My second goal is to introduce as many people as we can to the magazine. I’ve thought for a long time, even before I started working for The Sun, that this magazine is a really well-kept secret. We think what we do is worth sharing, but promoting it is tricky, because every media company in the world is trying to get people’s attention. We need to figure out how to do it in a way that’s consistent with our values and our ethos. It’s also important to find new readers just for our continuity—many loyal subscribers have been with us for decades, and we will need more who are just beginning their own fifty-year journey.
I have one more goal for The Sun, and that is for my colleagues at the magazine to thrive. We’ve worked so hard to move forward without Sy, and I want that process to be fulfilling, challenging, and ultimately enriching (speaking holistically, not just financially). We have people who have been at The Sun for a year and a half, and we have people who have been here for more than twenty-five years. I want everybody to feel like they’re a part of it and to have a voice in what we’re doing.
David: I’m grateful to work with you and with everyone—contributors, editors, our great reader-services team, and the rest of our outreach staff. I’m eager to see where the year takes us.
Rob: I think we’re just getting started, and I’m really excited about where we’re going to go.
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