Mad Cowboy Interview 01: Joe Connelly
(Part 01 of 03)

[Part 01] [Part 02] [Part 03]

MS: 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 factor.

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?

JC: 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 society.

MS: What was the moment or push that tipped the scale?

JC: 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.

Just 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.

MS: And then there's also production values that are relatively minimal.

JC: 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 to top]


MS: Was there skepticism from people? Did you find overwhelming support? Where there people who just didn't think it could be pulled off?

JC: (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."

MS: (laughs)

JC: ...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 try it.

MS: I remember reading somewhere that you started without any money?

JC: (laughs) We still have no money!

MS: (laughs) Donations are certainly accepted and there will be contact information for y'all when this is transcribed...

JC: 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.

MS: I hope you kept your Gandhi books.

JC: 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.

MS: I'm glad you used a Mac!

JC: 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?

JC: 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.

MS: So you basically didn't know what couldn't be done? (laughs)

JC: "Exactly... 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..."

MS: "That's all it takes to change the world, isn't it?"

JC: "...not 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 to top]


MS: Looking back, what do you think was your biggest surprise in starting and doing VegNews?

JC: 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 Robbins.

MS: Wow...

JC: ...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?

JC: 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.

MS: 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.

JC: 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]


MS: It's all volunteer for the most part??

JC: It's completely volunteer.

MS: Omigod...

JC: 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.

MS: You're also breaking some stereotypes, too.

JC: Yes, you mentioned earlier that we have a lot of advertising in the paper.

MS: Oh, it's amazing. And what surprised me is that it's national, too, not clustered in some part of the country.

JC: 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 Saunders.

MS: 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 occurrence.

JC: Exactly. So it's all been positive, very positive. [go to top]


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?

JC: 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...

MS: ...you couldn't prove concept either. You had no track record.

JC: 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 to top]


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 or environmental?

JC: I turned veg in '90 and vegan a couple of months later in early '91, so 12 and 13 years now.

MS: Was it spiritual, animal rights, environmental?

JC: 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...

MS: (laughs) As long as you're not using old VegNews papers....

JC: (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 paper.

MS: ...ironically, I did the same thing, which is why I'm laughing!

JC: 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 to top]


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?

JC: 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 to top]


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?

JC: 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.

MS: So you have no problem getting out of bed in the morning?

JC: I have problems going to bed at night, actually.

MC: How does Colleen put up with you?

JC: 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.

MC: (laughing) Does she have a sister?

JC: (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.

MS: What does your family think about the success of VegNews and you're being a vegan?

JC: 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.

MS: (laughing) Have you influenced any of your family members directly or indirectly to become 'v-people?

JC: 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 to top]

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