Print Publishing Chases the Addiction Market

By Nina Emkin 09/08/11

America's 20 million recovering addicts are an increasingly sought-after readership.

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A sober pub joins the fray

Trek to any newsstand across the country and you’ll find dozens of magazines devoted to chronicling humanity’s oddest corners. There’s American Handgunner. Juggs. Cat Fancy. Teddy Bear Review. Woodcarving Illustrated, anyone? But surprisingly, until recently, there was no print magazine dedicated to the millions of Americans in recovery from various addictions.  

That’s where publisher James Moorhead, a veteran of medical and golf magazines and the publisher of Renew, comes in. When he got out of rehab in 2007, he began to wonder where the magazines were for people like him. “I told myself that if, after I’m sober a few years, there’s still nothing out there, I’m going to start one,” he says. To achieve his goal, he “broke it down into steps, applying what I had learned in the program to building my business. The first step was the business plan, which included a lot of research on this segment of the population.” Moorhead was immediately blown away by the size of the recovery industry. “There are approximately 17,000 treatment centers, 23 million addicts who need treatment, more than 20 million in recovery, and another four people for every addict who are affected by the disease,” he reports. Next he turned to magazine bigwigs and asked for their feedback. “I didn’t hear one person say, Don’t do it, it’s a bad idea, it will never make it,” he says. “They all agreed the time was perfectly right.” When Moorhead got out of rehab in 2007, he began to wonder where the magazines were for people like him.

When he set out to publish the first issue of Renew, Moorhead realized that the magazine needed an editor with a deft touch and a basic understanding of addiction. He reached out to an old high school chum named Kelly O'Rourke Johns for advice, without realizing that Johns, a longtime magazine editor, was also in recovery. The two met up in Chicago, just as Johns was trying to get sober. “I was just at the point where I was seeking help and actually went to my first AA meeting while I was in Chicago with Jim, Johns says.” And so Renew was born, in the fall of 2010, with the tagline, “Your life. Better.”  

Anyone with a television or a computer has witnessed the growing spate of recovery-and addiction-related fare (think James Frey, Intervention, Celebrity Rehab, and Lindsay Lohan's operatic travails). The burgeoning awareness of addiction and recovery helps addicts and alcoholics mitigate shed the shame they've held onto until relatively recently. The downside, of course, is that the face of recovery is oftentimes a has-been celeb who relapses as regularly as most people change socks. And that’s precisely what Renew intends to change.

According to Johns, the magazine’s mission is “to highlight people who have successfully transitioned to long-term recovery—from celebrities to an ad execs to chefs.” They aim to keep the focus on issues that directly affect the recovery community—and the recovery community only. Examples include recent articles on youth addiction, addicted soldiers returning from war and suburban addicts.

Not surprisingly, the magazine’s most popular features are their profiles of recovering celebrities; past cover subjects have included Lou Gossett, Jr., Buzz Aldrin, and former Miss USA Tara Conner. These interviews go beyond typical celebrity fluff pieces and head straight for the spiritual struggles at the core of recovery. But they’re also not afraid to spotlight the lighter side of the struggle: Conner admits that her bottom included a verbal lashing from Donald Trump; Buzz Aldrin talks about always feeling “different” in 12-step meetings since he’s always the only astronaut in the room. (For the record, AA purists needn’t get their feathers ruffled about anonymity issues; the magazine’s policy is not to include the last names of its subjects without explicit permission. Johns is clear, though, that part of the mag’s mission is to wring the shame out of addiction and alcoholism issues. As she says, “Our hope is that as recovery becomes something positive in the public consciousness, the idea of anonymity will not be as important.”)  

So what makes Renew different from the AA Grapevine or any other AA-related literature? For one, the glossy’s jocular but informative tone. It’s neither a gossip rag nor a dreary medical journal, neither dry AA tome nor sensationalistic addiction memoir. Its subjects range from fitness to travel to finance, all seen through the lens of recovery, and all written in an engaging, encouraging voice. 

And that voice is consistent for another reason. According to Johns, “The people we work with all have a relationship with the disease of addiction—whether they are in recovery or are related to someone who is. It’s important to us that they really know what they’re talking about. You’d hate to read Weight Watchers and find out that the writers are naturally thin. It’s important to us that our contributors really understand the issues.” The mag currently has a staff of six, along with two dozen contributors and freelancers, and has plans to add more employees after its second round of financing in October.

For the past year, Renew has been distributed primarily in over 100 treatment centers (which are also the magazine’s main advertisers.) But the magazine recently went on sale at select Barnes & Noble stores across the country. Moorehead vows that greater expansion is imminent: though it’s now bimonthly, the magazine is shifting to to a 10-issues-a-year cycle in 2013, and they’re hoping to expand their small circle of advertisers to include health products and energy drinks in the near future.  

Renew, in short, provides an antidote to the darkness that often surrounds addiction and recovery issues. Which is just how Moorhead intended it to be. “My goal,” he says, “is to change the public perception of alcoholism and addiction, to help people get into recovery, and to keep them engaged. I want the magazine to be viewed as a trusted resource—a source to help people recharge their batteries, like a two-hour retreat on your couch. I want them to look forward to receiving it in the mail—and to walk away from it feeling great.” 

Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence College and has written for DipDive and Citysearch. She currently lives in Los Angeles and also wrote for The Fix about relapse and coming out as an alcoholic, among many other topics.

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