Unabashed Booster

Burt Cohen brings his unflagging optimism to the board of trustees

In the corner of Burt Cohen’s art-strewn office is a 40-year-old manual typewriter.

"That’s the prop," Cohen says pointing to his desktop computer, "not this."

Cohen began composing on a Royal typewriter as a high school freshman and still uses one today.

"This typewriter has not been shut off in 40 years. It never goes down. It doesn’t run out of memory. It doesn’t eat paper," Cohen explains. "Every two years, everyone in the office junks their computer and gets an upgrade at a cost of thousands of dollars. Once a year, I buy a new ribbon for $3.50 — the cost has gone up, they used to be $2.50."

Cohen’s love of anachronistic technology may seem strange in a man whose professional life in publishing is built upon the ability to "know what readers want just before they know they want it." But, of course, many consider magazines — Cohen’s bread and butter — to be just as obsolete as the typewriter.

"There have been lots of predictions about media over the years — all of them incorrect," says Cohen, president of MSP Publications, which publishes such popular local magazines as Mpls./St. Paul and Twin Cities Business Monthly. "Television supposedly signaled the death of radio, and radio and television, each in their time, were thought to mean the end of newspapers. The Internet is the latest ‘kiss of death’ for print journalism, but that isn’t true."

Magazines will continue, Cohen thinks, because they are easy to carry around, convenient and disposable ("which brings its own problems") but, most importantly, because they are put together by editors to whom readers relate.

"There is more information on the Web than you could ever possibly read. What we need is not more material but better selectivity. We want someone to sort through that incredible mass of material and present to us just what we want."

Sifting through information is the role of an editor — and a talent that Cohen brings to the table as a member of the St. Thomas board of trustees.

"I’m on the board of 14 different cultural and social service organizations right now," he says, "and I’ve been on many, many more. I funnel information through my own life experience and offer a broad community point of view."

Like Sinclair Lewis’ George Babbitt, Cohen is unabashedly proud of his home community.

"I am a booster, and I say that with no hint of embarrassment," he explains. "We have the most wonderful state filled with the most wonderful communities and the most remarkable cultural and educational organizations. Why we wouldn’t be popping our buttons when we say we’re from Minnesota is beyond me."

A lifelong career in magazine publishing has given Cohen a very public — and financially successful — soapbox from which to promulgate his good-news approach to journalism. Take Twin Cities Business Monthly, the regional business magazine that Cohen launched in 1993, as an example.

"My partners and I perceived that there was room in the marketplace for a different type of business publication. At the time, both daily papers and the existing business magazine had a very negative view of the corporate community. We wanted to show business in a positive light."

The new publication "took off like a rocket" and has become one of MSP Publications’ most successful magazines. Since Twin Cities Business Monthly debuted, Corporate Report Minnesota has gone out of business ("something I hated to see") but Cohen has observed a change in business coverage on the part of Twin Cities’ newspapers.

"They are doing more personality profiles and the types of stories we do," he says. "I feel good about the newspapers’ different attitude toward the corporate community. It’s good for Minnesota."

Publishing was "the family business" for Cohen, whose father and uncle started a Minneapolis-based company that put out medical journals in the 1920s. He joined the business in 1955 after earning a B.A. in journalism from the University of Minnesota. In 1971, the older generation of Cohens sold the company to The New York Times and retired. Cohen continued to run Modern Medicine Publications until 1978, spending six years in New York with the Times organization.

At that point, Cohen and his wife, "Rusty," decided to return to the Twin Cities. He purchased the failing Mpls. Magazine for $300,000 and set about to change it.

"My first idea was to change the name to Mpls./St. Paul, a brilliant move that I thought would surely double our circulation," he remembers with characteristic humor.

The magazine needed some kind of boost: Circulation was only 9,000, "and most of those subscriptions were in arrears," says Cohen. Since then, revenues have improved dramatically, and circulation stands at 68,000 educated, affluent, involved readers.

"Burt is the consummate publisher," says Gary Johnson, Cohen’s friend and business partner of 24 years. "He lives the life that his publication expounds and that’s why the magazine is so successful."

Just as with publishing, colleges and universities should "stay true to their niche," according to Cohen. Differentiation of mission is why he finds no conflict in serving on the boards of both the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota Foundation.

"St. Thomas is what it is. The U is what it is. Is there overlap? Yes, both offer courses in political science and other subjects. But beyond that, the ambience, the educational process, the culture is different, one school to the other."

Even with his extensive board service, Cohen finds something special about the St. Thomas board of trustees.

"I have never seen the intense level of commitment that these trustees have for St. Thomas. Not a meeting goes by where I don’t remark on the incredible time, energy and resources that these folks are willing to contribute."

To what does he contribute this level of commitment? "The high pay," he quips.

"Seriously," he continues, "what appeals to the trustees — and what appeals to me — is the opportunity to work with an organization with exceptionally high educational and ethical standards. Today, when so many companies are taking short cuts or cutting corners, it is almost ennobling to be associated with people and an organization that holds and acts on high principles."

Does he find it a little strange to be a Jew on the board of a Catholic university?

"It’s not as odd to me as perhaps it seems to people on the outside," he says. "I’ve led a very ecumenical life. I have never let labels influence where I volunteer or contribute. We are all part of one family, so the fact that St. Thomas is a Catholic school is almost irrelevant to me."

Back to the art-filled office and the seminal painting that best describes Cohen’s passionate appetite for life: a numbered print in pop artist Robert Indiana’s "EAT" series. "All that’s missing," says Johnson, "is the exclamation point."

Burt Cohen and St. Thomas• Joined the board of the St. Thomas-published Cathoic Digest, the largest-circulation Cathoic publication in the country, in 1994.• Elected to the board of trustees in 1999, and serves on the Audit/Finance Committee.• Sees accessibility and adequate funding for higher education as key issues for the future. "We need to keep our best and brightest students going to school in Minnesota. That's what will keep us strong."