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.
The 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?
Yet more changes are coming for the Grapevine, driven both by forces within AA and the media market as a whole.
Following trends in the rest of the industry, the Grapevine subscription 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 Heart, The Best of Bill and the calendar can help pick up the slack, but keeping Grapevine, Inc. out of the red has still been tricky.