Michigan Out-of-Doors: A magazine with a mission since 1947
By Chris Lamphere
Just ask anyone who’s paid attention to the evolution of Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine over the last 75 years. They likely could rattle off a list of assets that have contributed to the publication’s longevity.
They include strong writing and photography, thought-provoking editorials and a single-minded focus on Michigan that is unique among journals of the same ilk.
In addition to those assets, however, Michigan Out-of-Doors has something that most other magazines don’t, and it’s arguably more important than anything else — a mission.
The first 18-page issue of Michigan Out of Doors came out in January 1947; from its inception, the magazine has been the official statewide publication of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and has been mailed to various members since.
Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine started as a 5-by-8-inch publication. Over the years, it has taken numerous other forms, including newspaper style, as a 50-page bimonthly and what it is today — a 100-page quarterly with a firm-bound edge.
While the magazine has changed a lot in 75 years, the topics of many of the articles in the first issue will seem familiar to modern-day readers: “Michigan Bear Hunt,” “Review of the Hunting Season,” “Winter Comes to Michigan,” “The Legislative Program,” and “Michigan’s Public Enemy No. 1 — Pollution.”
These topics were important to readers and MUCC members in 1947, and they remain important today, so it’s no surprise that Michigan Out-of-Doors writers are still covering them.
Then-MUCC President P.H. “Hy” Dahlka spelled out the magazine’s priorities in the first issue.
“Its sole purpose is to bring all of us into closer communication with one another,” he wrote. “It will be, first and foremost, a medium of exchange whereby news, views and opinions can be put in circulation among the member clubs of the MUCC, and among the individuals composing those clubs … Your magazine is launched with the fervent hope and earnest expectation that it will help to diminish any threats of friction, and build up the spirit of good fellowship and cooperation which is the most valuable asset of the MUCC.”
Nick Green, the current editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors, said the magazine has always been deeply intertwined with MUCC, which is a big part of why it still exists today.
“It’s important to have MUCC as the magazine’s foundation,” Green said. “I think that when we’ve lost our way, it was when we were trying to build Michigan Out-of-Doors into its own brand instead of one of MUCC’s mission delivery vehicles.”
Looking back at the magazine’s history, a few individuals stand out for their outsized influence in shaping the publication into what it is today.
One of those individuals is Ken Lowe, who was editor of the magazine during the apex of its circulation from the 1970s into the 1990s.
Bob Garner knew Lowe well and interacted with him frequently as host of the Michigan Out of Doors television program.
Garner said part of the reason the magazine was so successful during Lowe’s time as editor is that it was the height of the environmental era when there was a broader readership than just the “moose and goose” crowd.
That’s not to take anything away from the job Lowe did as editor, however, as people genuinely enjoyed reading the magazine.
“When he took the job as editor, the magazine took off,” Garner said. “He was a tremendous journalist.”
But Lowe’s journalistic ability wasn’t the only aspect of his personhood that made him a good fit for the position: Garner said ethically, he was “top of the line” and in cases where he believed he was in the right, he wouldn’t budge an inch.
A story illustrating how seriously Lowe took his ethical responsibilities occurred before he was editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors when he was editor of a newspaper in the Upper Peninsula. In the 1940s or 1950s, Garner said Lowe refused to run pro-apartheid editorials written by a prominent person in town, and in return for his ethical scruples, he was fired.
Garner described Lowe as an eccentric who had detailed knowledge of some of the most obscure subjects. He also was an avid outdoorsman who particularly loved to bird hunt.
Former MUCC employee Dennis Knapp worked with Lowe in the 1990s toward the end of his tenure with the magazine. He remembers his determination, which bordered in some cases on outright stubbornness.
“It was not going to deviate from that style,” Knapp said regarding the direction that Lowe had been taking the magazine for decades. “He wasn’t big on change or suggestions.”
And why should he be? Knapp said Michigan Out-of-Doors at that time was a “product that worked … a known entity inside and outside of Michigan.”
It was during Lowe’s time as editor that MUCC created a sister magazine called Tuebor Terra (Latin for “We Will Defend the Earth”), which dealt strictly with environmental issues.
Green said from the time Michigan Out-of-Doors was first published and into the 1970s, environmental issues were a shared concern among most segments of society. Eventually, however, as progress was made on the environmental front — leading to a narrowing of interests among activists — and as politics began to seep more and more into the movement, MUCC felt it would be appropriate to separate environmental issues from conservation efforts.
Knapp said Tuebor Terra played the role perfectly, featuring hard-hitting stories on a number of environmental concerns.
However, within a few years, Knapp said MUCC ended the magazine’s run, as there wasn’t enough advertising base to support both Michigan Out-of-Doors and Tuebor Terra.
When Lowe died in 1996, MUCC chose Lansing State Journal outdoor editor Dennis Knickerbocker to succeed him as magazine editor.
Garner knew Knickerbocker before he was tapped as the magazine’s new editor. Like Lowe, Garner said Knickerbocker was a gifted writer who maintained a stringent ethical code.
“… while conducting the editorial business of the magazine with a steady hand, it was also done with the highest of integrity,” Garner wrote when Knickerbocker announced he was retiring. “You could almost always buy an advertisement, but you could never buy an editorial! … I do hope the next editor and those who follow will understand, as Dennis does, hunting and fishing and the environmental principles, the quest for cleaner air and water, that make up our conservation heritage. I am sure they will have the writing skills to do the job. But more important traits will be of wisdom and integrity. Dennis Knickerbocker had those traits in spades.”
When he was editor, Knickerbocker oversaw the modernization of Michigan Out-of-Doors. Overall, however, Garner said he stuck pretty closely to the basic editorial playbook that Lowe had established for the magazine.
“He recognized the genius of Ken Lowe,” Garner said
Around 2000, Green said MUCC underwent a significant staff downsizing as the organization cut away the fat of superfluous programming.
This was a tumultuous period not only for MUCC but for Michigan Out-of-Doors, as well.
Green said the magazine’s staff at some points in its history was as high as four to six people. Over the last couple of decades, it has dropped to three, then two and then one — the editor — and that’s where it remains today.
Knickerbocker ran the magazine for almost 10 years, retiring in 2006.
“To step up to the task of being in charge of Michigan’s largest conservation publication was tough, but Dennis did it and never missed a beat,” Garner wrote.
By the time Green became editor in 2017, however, the magazine had lost a significant portion of its circulation, both as a result of things staff had no control over, and a few things they did.
“There were some hard truths we had to face,” said Green, who explained that many of the articles running in the magazine were regurgitated versions of the same stories that had been running year after year. “The magazine had become lazy and rudderless,” he said.
Green immediately set about restoring that focus and rebuilding the magazine’s reputation.
Part of that process involved listening to what readers were saying and taking their feedback seriously, becoming less politically partisan in the framing of stories, and becoming more representative of groups that traditionally haven’t had much of a presence in the hunting, fishing and trapping community.
“This community has not always been open and inviting,” Green said. “And the magazine was a representation of that. We needed to make our tent bigger.”
Green said connecting with young people, women and minorities opened up a new audience. As a result of this new spirit of inclusiveness, along with a return to the magazine’s roots as essentially the public communications wing of MUCC and its return to newsstands, there has been about a 25% circulation increase over the last five years.
Green said one of the things he appreciates about his position is the freedom he has to assemble the magazine every three months without the publisher looking over his shoulder and micro-managing the process. Former MUCC Director Dan Eichinger and current Director Amy Trotter both adopted this hands-off philosophy, and Green said it has allowed him to steer the ship unencumbered.
“The editor is in the driver’s seat, as far as I’m concerned,” said Trotter. “The strength of the magazine has always revolved around the strength of our editors. They need that desire to take stances and push the organization to ensure we do right by our members.”
Trotter added that to be the editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors, it’s crucial to have a passion for the outdoors.
“It would be too much work otherwise,” Trotter said. “I’ve witnessed Nick’s passion for the outdoors grow immensely in the last five years.”
From her perspective as the publisher, Trotter said there are a couple of things that set Michigan Out-of-Doors apart from other outdoor journals: they include the magazine’s compelling mixture of highly personal hunting, fishing and trapping stories alongside works of straight, impartial journalism; the broad range of topics discussed in the magazine, as opposed to other publications, which often are species- or activity-specific; and the pictures that accompany those stories — a virtue of the magazine that has been in place since the very first issue.
One aspect of the magazine that has changed in recent years is the timeliness of the information presented. Due to the speed of news coverage in the 21st Century, Trotter said Michigan Out-of-Doors and MUCC now rely heavily on digital mediums such as email and social media to spread information. In contrast, in the past, they would have just waited until the next physical issue.
Trotter believes the magazine’s digital footprint will only continue to expand in coming years and may eventually include videos and online-only coverage and detailed analysis of breaking news events.
A trend that Trotter has been disappointed to see in recent years is a decline in letters to the editor. She theorized that could have something to do with social media making it easier for people to get their opinions out in the world, lessening the need to utilize traditional media outlets.
“I would encourage more of that,” Trotter said regarding letters to the editor. “I think it’s important and healthy we hear from people on all sides of an issue.”
The fact that the magazine has persisted for the last 75 years despite all the technological and societal changes during that time, however, is a testament to the value people place on quality information from a trusted source, Trotter said.
“We have our bias, and that’s (being advocates for) hunting, fishing and trapping,” Trotter said. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not. We explore all facets of the outdoors because that’s what our members are interested in.”
Knapp said he can recall several examples of how the magazine’s coverage shaped conservation-related policy, including stories on Prop D and Prop B, sand dune protection efforts, the Pigeon River, and the campaign to pass a bottle bill in Michigan.
Ultimately, Knapp said the thing that sets Michigan Out-of-Doors apart from other magazines is this bone-deep connection with MUCC and statewide conservation advocacy.
“We’re not just users of the resources; we’re stewards,” Knapp said. “You can’t have one without the other. That makes the magazine different from other magazines of its kind.”