Whither the Grapevine?

The rise of digital media has presented the print publishing industry with daunting challenges. AA’s Grapevine is by no means immune.

grapevineThe AA Grapevine, Alcoholics Anonymous’ international monthly journal, has played a monumental role in the fellowship’s history. Established in 1944, just five years after the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous was printed, the Grapevine began as a basic correspondence between New York City groups but eventually achieved an international readership.

During AA’s formative years, the Grapevine often contained articles and editorials written by the co-founders. Between 1944 and his death in 1971, Bill Wilson published about 150 articles in the journal. The co-founder’s “Twelve Suggested Points for AA Tradition,” printed in 1946, introduced the fellowship to the principles that remain the group’s guidelines today. The familiar AA preamble also originates from its 1947 publication in the Grapevine.

Since its beginning, the Grapevine has contributed greatly to the vitality of the AA fellowship. But with publishing in general decline, can the journal flourish?

Following trends in the rest of the industry, the Grapevinesubscription count began plummeting in recent years. According to the AA Service Manual’s 2011-2012 edition, the average monthly circulation then was around 94,500. As of May 2013, that figure stands at just 73,500.

In the last year alone, subscriptions have declined 9% while circulation has dropped 8%. In January 2012, the General Service Office estimated the fellowship to contain 1,423,468 people in North America, including those in correctional facilities, internationalists and lone members. This means that in the month of January 2012, for every 18 AA members there was just one copy of the Grapevine.

So, what is AA doing to try to address this decline? The answer is not a simple one.

The service position of Grapevine Representative (GvR) has existed in many groups for years. The GvR’s duties include maintaining the group’s subscription as well as sharing the current edition of the journal with group members. The Grapevine’s website has for more than eight years now contained a section dedicated to encouraging groups without a GvR to establish the position.

The GvR is also discussed in the Service Manual for 2011 to 2012: “It is anticipated that each AA group would have a [Grapevine Representative] and a subscription to at least one of the magazines.”

However, the current disparity between group and subscription counts suggests that many groups neither have a subscription, nor this service position.

The literature chair of one prominent AA meeting in New York City tells The Fix that her meeting doesn’t have a Grapevine Representative or a subscription. Nor does her meeting integrate the Grapevine or any of its publications into its format—and no one has requested a copy of the journal since the beginning of her six-month term.

According to GSO’s January 2012 estimate, there were 65,403 AA groups in North America. The number of North American subscriptions to the Grapevine as of the same month was 62,437.

To the casual observer, these figures are similar. But considering the expansion AA groups have seen in membership since 2012, the declining number of subscriptions becomes more notable.

By May 2013, subscriptions had fallen to 55,856. There are no numbers yet available from GSO to estimate the present number of North American groups, but current trends suggest that this number has increased at least marginally since January 2012. (Also, this analysis does not include the individual members with subscriptions, such as those confined to their homes and unable to attend AA meetings.)

This disparity between the number of AA groups and Grapevine subscriptions was the likeliest motivation for the motion at last year’s 62nd General Service Conference that sought to incorporate the duties of the Grapevine Representative into the responsibilities of the General Service Representative. This motion suggested that the duties of GvR are not being carried out in many groups, and that the message about the Grapevine and its contents is therefore being lost.

No action was taken on the motion, with many Areas split on the issue. Dissenters cited the already-expansive responsibilities of the GSR and the loss of a service opportunity for the newcomer that the official elimination of the GvR position would entail.

The decline in subscriptions and circulation also raises the issue of money and the Seventh Tradition. The Grapevine office currently employs 12 full-time workers, three part-time workers and a varying number of freelancers. The magazines are not priced to earn a profit, but they do need to cover staff and printing expenses. Other Grapevine, Inc. literature, such as Language of the HeartThe Best of Billand the calendar can help pick up the slack, but keeping Grapevine, Inc. out of the red has still been tricky.

In recent years, theGrapevine has come under benign attack from the very body it is supposed to support: the General Service Office. A decade ago there was talk of the GSO wanting to modify Bill Wilson’s original intentthat the Grapevine be an independent voice for AA. To that end their independent 10th floor office space at 475 Riverside Drive in New York, was recently moved upstairs to the main office of GSO on the 11th floor.

These alterations were codified into corporate jargon at the 62rd General Service Conference, when a motion was passed to “[support] the General Service Board’s development of a plan to restructure the Current AA World Services Inc. and AA Grapevine Inc. corporate and governance structures… The plan may, among other things, address the separate corporate existence of both entities…[and] financial stability.”

Such a change may indeed fuse the Grapevine with AA World Services, the entity that prints the rest of the “Conference Approved” AA literature. (The Grapevine, as a monthly publication, cannot technically be conference approved, as that would mean each issue of the journal would have to wait a whole year to come up before the conference.)

Currently, these two separate corporate entities, along with the General Service Office, make up the General Service Board. Although all three are already closely tied, the Grapevine’s financial independence has long been established in an effort to, according to Bill W.’s original conception, “reflect, as accurately as possible, the Voices of all AA.”. This issue was to be address at the 63rd General Service Conference, which took place last month. Most members are waiting to hear back from their delegates.

However, there may be some hope for the Grapevine. Following an industry-wide migration from print to online media, the journal now offers online-only subscriptions as well as ebook versions of many of its books, such as Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier.

Unlike the ebook editions of Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions offered by AAWS, which are only compatible with iPad and iPhone readers, the Grapevine ebooks are compatible across many formats including Apple iBook, NOOK and Kindle. This shows some level of foresight and understanding of the digital media market.

The Grapevine might also consider adapting its image and purpose match to an evolving fellowship. It remains a valuable resource for people who, because of physical limitations, cannot attend AA meetings. But many of these people can now attend online meetings through certain sites that host them. Speaker tapes and meeting recordings are also available via the web in ever-increasing numbers. This shrinks down a prime demographic.

Many AA members now attend groups that neither use the Grapevine as part of their format, nor have aGrapevine Representative. If the Grapevine is not represented at meetings, AA’s may not come in frequent contact with it and will not, therefore, incorporate it into their sobriety, further reducing ongoing demand.

One newcomer with about four months tells us that of the seven meetings she attends weekly, only three offer copies of the Grapevine. Of these three, one of the meetings sells the Grapevine at cost to members, and this meeting is the only one to make any kind of announcement concerning the journal.

When asked what she thought the purpose of the Grapevine is and what kind of information it contains, the newcomer says she thinks it is some kind of newsletter to “keep you posted” but doesn’t know anything more specific.

AA literature isn’t completely foreign to her—she has read parts of Alcoholics Anonymous and theTwelve Steps & Twelve Traditions and uses selections from As Bill Sees It as morning mediations—but all the books she uses are published by AAWS, not Grapevine, Inc. She concludes, “If it was something that was more visible and explained for the newcomer, it would be something I might purchase or read.”

Although moving content online was a progressive idea, the website currently requires a subscription, which may discourage many potential readers. However, the Seventh Tradition suggests that theGrapevine should not incorporate advertisers into its business model, so the fee is probably here to stay.

The Grapevine may need to change or refine its content, instead, to try and make buying an online subscription more appealing. With so many other recovery and AA related resources available online for free, the Grapevine needs to make sure its content stands out. Evaluating the key demographics and well as incorporating more free online media could improve prospects, but in the organized chaos that is the AA service structure, this could simply take too long.

A board of elected trustees from around the publishing industry meets quarterly to direct theGrapevine’s staffing management and editorial direction. Sources tell The Fix that they tend to be on the conservative side, which could prove an obstacle to change. And they only meet four times a year, which could further slow their response-time to a fast changing industry.

A Brooklyn AA tells us, “I have read the Grapevine at meetings and occasionally while waiting for a friend at their house. In eight years of sobriety, I’ve had a decent exposure to it. I think the Grapevineshould be geared toward a younger readership base with more real-life topics…maybe even grittier…topics not mentioned in the Big Book. Maybe so someone not in the fellowship might want to pick it up and read it to see what we have to say.”

In situations like these, we should remember the openness and willingness to change that were the touchstones of the AA fellowship as it evolved toward maturity. In 1959, co-founder Bill Wilson explained the importance of this flexibility in a speech immortalized in AA Comes of Age: “In the end the innovators would have to adopt AA
 principles—at least some of them—in order to remain sober at all. If, on the other hand, they found 
something better than AA, or if they were able to improve on our methods, then in all probability we
 would adopt what they discovered for general use everywhere. This sort of liberty also prevents AA from 
becoming a frozen set of dogmatic principles that could not be changed even when obviously wrong.”

Yet more changes are coming for the Grapevine, driven both by forces within AA and the media market as a whole. Like all independent publications, it must adapt or give up its status as a self-supporting corporation. Neither the General Service Office, nor the Grapevine, were willing to respond to questions for this article, beyond a standard disclaimer. Article Link “the fix”…

Meg Williams is a student at Hunter College, specializing in clinical psychology and addiction research.

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