Hi Joe! I've been a vegetarian for over two decades, and
a vegan for a few months now. I can remember back when you
couldn't find veg cookbooks or carrot juice, and tofu was
really radical. But to sit down with several issues of VegNews
over the weekend, and I was just totally amazed by the rich
tapestry of information, advertisements, dedication, and
fun in each issue I read. Just incredible piece of work.
It would have been a "dream come true" to see such
a publication twenty years ago.
In thinking about the history of social change and political movements, inevitably,
communication and a publication of some sort that arises is a major contributing
So I guess the first question is, and this is straight from Howard, you've gone
from zero to 100,000 readers a month in less than three years.... whatever gave
you the audacity to think that it could be done?
What gave me the idea that it could be done was in many
ways influenced by people like Howard, specifically Howard
as one of them. Gene
Bauston was another; people who
were movement leaders I happened to get to know back
in 1996 (some I knew longer). In 1996 I started my first
vegetarian organization, which was a local vegetarian
society in Syracruse, New York, and quickly, very quickly,
I saw that there was the potential to something on a
larger scale than a simple city or town-based vegetarian
What was the moment or push that tipped the scale?
Well, what tipped the scale was very much related to
Howard. Howard was speaking in Rochestor, NY on a Saturday
afternoon and he was speaking in Binghamton, NY on
a Sunday morning. To get from Rochester to Binghamton,
you need to go through Syracruse, so I called up the
leaders of those organizations he was speaking for
in Rochestor and Binghamton.,
and basically begged to have Howard stop in Syracruse
on his way through town and lecture
for us. This was about nine or ten months after I'd
started this organization.
what seems like one simple act, took a lot of coordination. A lot
of people say "okay, I'll allow Howard leave an hour early,
or he can get here an hour later or whatever" and he came
and spoke in Syracruse and I think we had about 125 people that
night, by far the largest vegetarian event that Syracruse had ever
seen up to that point.
It showed me that this was possible, networking, streamlining, doing things
in unison with other groups, co-promoting events... which really wasn't being
done that much, at least with the smaller groups at that time. There's always
been national animal rights and vegetarian conventions, but, never had a viable
local network really been built. That's the basis of why I started VegNews:
it was designed to be a unifying piece
for the vegetarian movement. Everybody produces their own newsletter, for instance,
and we're lucky if 300 people in each town see that newsletter. It's usually
a quarterly or semi-annually produced newsletter.
And then there's also production values that are relatively
Exactly. And another reason that VegNews was exactly
what you just mentioned in your original question,
is that Gandhi said 'without a paper, you cannot be
a united community.' Direct quote from Gandhi, who
should know about community, and we printed that quote
in our very first edition. [go
Was there skepticism from people? Did you find overwhelming
support? Where there people who just didn't think it
could be pulled off?
(laughs)... I broached this idea to Gene
Bauston. I was living in upstate New York, and
he was at Farm Sanctuary down in Watkins Glen, and
he originally advised or suggested that maybe we should
try it on a regional level.
We were going to do something called "Flavors," of all things, for
the "Finger Lakes Area Vegetarian Organization," which was kind of
a catchy name, but we never got a "taste" for "Flavors."
...and so I decided and went with the old cliche: "if
you build it, they will come." I had the opportunity
to move from New York to California, met my partner
Colleen, who's been wonderful and 51% of VegNews since
the beginning. We just did it... what the heck, let's
I remember reading somewhere that you started without
(laughs) We still have no money!
(laughs) Donations are certainly accepted and there will
be contact information for y'all when this is transcribed...
I started basically by selling everything I owned,
which wasn't a difficult decision because I didn't
have much anyway, and I was moving across company.
I hope you kept your Gandhi books.
I still have them. I took the couple thousand dollars
I made and launched VegNews, my dad gave me a couple
of thousand to buy some equipment, and I think we got
it off the ground with well under $10,000.
I'm glad you used a Mac!
We're totally Mac-based, so if Steve Jobs reads this
interview.... [go to top]
MS: Now what particular background or experience that you had in your life,
really made this work, aside from Colleen, who clearly is a major contributor?
Well, probably the best experience that both of us
had was none, we believed that we could do it. But
the only publishing I'd ever done was with the vegetarian
organization I was doing in Syracruse, called "SAVE," and
I published a quarterly newsletter for them. I've have
never taken any journalism classes.
So you basically didn't know what couldn't be done? (laughs)
I think the fact that we had just simply a belief in
what we were doing, and a feeling it was the right
thing to do..."
all it takes to change the world, isn't it?"
only does it take that, but it's the only thing. You
can study and go to classes or seminars, but if you
don't have that feeling in your gut, and if you don't
believe in what you're doing, you might as well just
pack it in." [go
MS: Looking back, what do you think was your biggest surprise in starting and
Oh, the biggest surprise, I guess, was one day when
we were relatively young, we were out on our morning
walk, and when we got back, there was a message on
the machine from John
...it was unbelievable. You can hear that even now
I'm kind of choked up just talking about it. To get
that kind of recognition, relatively quickly. John
had happened to pick up a free copy in Santa Cruz somewhere,
and gave us a phone call. To me, that was about the
highest recognition we could get in the vegetarian
community. [go to top]
MS: What would you say would be the greatest disappointment, aside from money,
in doing VegNews?
I don't think we've had any. We certainly haven't had
any professional disappointments. We're constantly
certainly frustrated by the lack of funds, and having
to squeeze blood from, well, we don't "squeeze
blood" in the vegetarian community... "squeeze
juice from the stone."
But I think that's also made the paper so much more real. Everybody who knows
us that we're doing this with the utmost sincere attention, and that we're
not making any money off it --- we're covering our basic living expenses, and
that's about it.
It's very clear to me from reading several issues in
a row, that there's a lot of heart and soul in VegNews...
it's obviously a labor of love.
Absolutely... but again, there are no disappointments
at all. It's been a 100% positive experience. It's
just the frustration that we could do so much more
if we could get it capitalized correctly.
And I don't mean that as a plea for money from people (certainly I'm not going
to turn away a check, either!), what I mean by that is we want VegNews to be
able to be self-supportive. We want to be able to pay our contributers. Many
people pick up the paper and think that it's a huge staff of paid employees...
well, that's not the case. [go to top]
A VOLUNTEER EFFORT
MS: It's all volunteer for the most part??
It's completely volunteer.
Everybody, including people like John Robbins and Howard
Lyman, who have gratiously contributed articles, have
not requested a writer's fee or... anything, really.
That's because they believe in what we're doing. And
while that's positive, I would love to be able to actually
commission a story and pay a writer a reasonable rate.
VegNews has many different reasons for existing --- many goals, if you may,
and one I mentioned earlier was uniting the vegetarian community. A second
one is to show that the vegetarian community is a viable economic force.
You're also breaking some stereotypes, too.
Yes, you mentioned earlier that we have a lot of advertising
in the paper.
Oh, it's amazing. And what surprised me is that it's
national, too, not clustered in some part of the country.
Completely national. We have in this issue I think
60 different firms advertising. That shows that "we're
here" and that the vegetarian community is now
big enough to support it's own newspaper. Everyone
of our advertisers is vegan/vegetarian. We'll accept,
for instance, a vegetarian restaurant... we're not
going to to say just vegan restaurants, but every cookbook
we review is vegan.
There is so much out there... just the other day I got a cookbook called "Vegan
Planet" by Robin Robertson, and another book (it's not a cookbook),
the "Vegan Diet" by Kerrie
It's ironic.... as someone who owns over 170 vegetarian/vegan
cookbooks, I remember over 20 years ago, if I saw a vegan
cookbook, I'd buy it immediately as it was such a rare
Exactly. So it's all been positive, very positive. [go
WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
MS: I guess, well, not to be on the downer side here, but it you had a chance
to do anything differently or advise anyone who takes on a similiar cause or
movement, what would you say?
That's kind of like Monday morning quarterbacking...
and I don't know if I was capable of doing it any differently.
I believe that if I built the product to the best of
my ability, we would attract people to it, and that,
for the most part, has been true.
Had I known what I know now, I might have tried to get a little more capitalization
under my belt beforehand. But that said... I don't know who would have...
...you couldn't prove concept either. You had no track
Exactly. Not only couldn't I prove that I would be
able to pull it off, it had never even been done before.
There wasn't even a model I could reach towards and
try to copy what they have done. It literally had never
been done before, so it would have been hard to raise
money. Or even back in the 'dot-com' boom, it would
have been difficult to sell the idea. [go
MS: Let's change gears here and focus on some personal questions. There's the
obligatory question: how long have you been a vegetarian and/or vegan. You
seem like a guy with a strong spiritual side. Is your veganism more spiritually-based
I turned veg in '90 and vegan a couple of months later
in early '91, so 12 and 13 years now.
Was it spiritual, animal rights, environmental?
The funny thing is, I don't have an answer for that...
it's what allows me to see all sides of the picture,
which I think is one of my strongest characterisics
or strengths. I certainly can look at my history and
say that there was a health component from the very
beginning because I never met my grandfather, my dad's
dad was dead before I was born and he died of colon
cancer. I knew from as early as I can remember, that
colon cancer was basically something that meat-eaters
get, so I had a health component right there.
I've been an environmentalist since before the first Earth Day, and even when
as a kid I wrapped my Xmas presents in the old Sunday comics...
(laughs) As long as you're not using old VegNews papers....
(laughs) There you go... and my siblings would make
fun of me, and we're talking with mid to late 60s here,
and I'm already wrapping my Xmas presents in the Sunday
...ironically, I did the same thing, which is why I'm
So I've always been very aware of the environment.
I believe that I got involved with the animal and vegetarian
movements through my concern for the environment. I
wanted to save the dolphins and save the whales, like
so many other people of my generation. And through
that, I saw the connection between diet and the environment
with "Diet for New America" and "Food
Revolution" (both by John Robbins). [go
TRANSITION TO VEGANISM:
MS: In going vegan, most of the people I've talked to, and in my own experience,
giving up cheese is the hardest thing to do. Was anything particularly difficult
to you? Or was it an easy transition?
No, it was an easy transition, but that certainly doesn't
mean that I didn't miss cheese. You know, I grew up
eating cheese pizzas in New York, which is the best
pizza in the country, and I used to eat a lot of ice
cream. But, you mentioned it at the very beginning,
that there's nothing today that you can't get.
That's not to say, if you're reading this interview and you're not vegan or
vegetarian, that's not to say the replica is an exact one. That's not the point.
The point is that you can still enjoy comfort foods on occasion, and you might
not remember it as the same, I'm not trying to be negative here, but everything's
available. You'll enjoy it so much more. I may not eat a nice New York-style
cheese pizza anymore, but I eat Thai and Vietnamese food now that I never would
have had if I had not gone vegetarian. For every door that closes, two open. [go
TIME MANAGEMENT, & FAMILY:
MS: This is my 16th issue of the Newsletter, and I'm still trying to get a
handle on getting it out regularly. In fact, we may switch to twice a month.
Then I think of the original inspiration for the Mad Cowboy Newsletter, Robert
Cohen's "NotMilk" daily column, wondering how he does it, and
I think of Joanne Stepaniak,
who must write recipes down with two hands while she sleeps, and then Alex
Hershaft (FARM)... who I'm not sure ever
sleeps. Given the challenge of producing VegNews regularly, how do you manage
your time and avoid burn-out? Is it a problem for you?
I manage my time, probably on the same principles of
the people you just mentioned.... I'm driven, and therefore
I've been able to create a situation where my work
and life are meshed. Which is probably the best thing
a person can ever do for themselves in terms of self-satisfaction
--- believing that their work and life are worthwhile.
The last thing I'd ever want to have to do is work
an 9 to 5 type job and do this work on the side.
So you have no problem getting out of bed in the morning?
I have problems going to bed at night, actually.
How does Colleen put up with you?
Colleen has tremendous talents and unbelievable resources,
but she does.... get... a little upset that I.... I'm
driven. Colleen is just as driven as I am, but she
also has much more balance in life.
(laughing) Does she have a sister?
(laughs).... She obviously will probably live much
longer than I will. But, she still goes to her yoga
classes, and she still goes her dance classes.... For
me, I certainly can work more hours... and I'm not
necessarily saying that's a good thing, in fact it
might very well be a bad thing, but no, not only don't
I suffer from lack of self-motivation, but I actuallly
have to not take projects on. I always want to do more
than I'm capable of doing.
What does your family think about the success of VegNews
and you're being a vegan?
I think they've come to accept it now, y'know... at
the beginning it was "Joe's a vegetarian" and
I got all the same ridicule and jokes that everybody
else has received, but my siblings will also tell you,
all my family will tell you, that when I make up my
mind, that's it.
I once ate with chopsticks every day for a year just so I could master it,
so if there are any psychologists reading this they may have a client on their
hands. It's just, that's just who I am.
(laughing) Have you influenced any of your family members
directly or indirectly to become 'v-people?
No, I have not and I don't try. I think I've influenced
them all to eat a bit healthier, and they certainly
are more open and willing to try things they might
not have tried before.
I'm also blessed with absolutely the most wonderful mother that anyone could
possibly have. She's was, and still is, an extraordinary chef, self-trained
and can whip up the most amazing dishes in the world. [go