Critics of the inaugural edition of the New York City Independent Media Center paper, the 4-page, black-and-white Unst8ed, didn’t pull many punches. “The masthead needs work,” read notes from a staff review meeting in September 2000. “In general, layout is confusing,” writes another volunteer. “Articles were crammed together,” the notes continue, “and we had issues with ‘news reporting’ versus propaganda. For the future, we should figure out how to manage information better.”
Fifty issues and almost four years later, Unst8ed is not The Indypendent, a sixteen-page, full-color biweekly. The critical feedback hasn’t diminished much, though. “I know all the stories on age three are related,” says Catriona Stuart at a recent review meeting for the 49th issue. “But do we really need to have multiple articles by the same author on the same page?” Donald Paneth asks, “What’s the big picture in this issue? Why do we have so much trouble managing our information?”
Though the comments haven’t changed a lot over 50 issues, much else has. While still relying almost entirely on volunteer labor, The Indypendent just two (under) paid staff members. After a great deal of controversy and discussion, the paper now conditionally accepts advertising, and has also broadened its international coverage considerably since the fall of 2001. Four years isn’t all that much time. The New York Times, for example, has published continuously since 1851. On the more “alternative” end of the publishing spectrum, the Village Voice began weekly production in 1955. However, for a group with little experience and even less money who started a “participatory newspaper” in the age of the Internet, 50 issues (and still going strong) isn’t a bad show.
RADICAL PUBLISHING IN NEW YORK
New York has a long and venerable history of radical publishing. “The penny press newspapers of the 1830’s considered by media historians to mark the birth of the modern news media, grew out of the Working Men’s movement, a short-lived populist struggle. In 1940, New York City publisher Ralph Ingersoll funded one of the last left-wing daily papers, the advertising-free PM, which collapsed in 1947.
A poplar front newspaper writing from a left-wing perspective at the height of the Cold War, The Guardian managed to survive the McCarthy era, the turmoil of the 1960’s, and the Reagan era. Years after finally folding in 1992, several of its ex-staff found themselves at The Indypendent.
Ellen Davidson worked at The Guardian from 1979-1990. she now helps The Indypendent manage its subscription lists and reader outreach programs. “When I came to The Indypendent,” she says, “the enthusiasm and energy were just amazing to me, considering that it was an all-volunteer operation. But it also seemed that a lot of things that could have been done weren’t.”
Davidson argues that the similarities between The Guardian and The Indypendent lie less in structure than in both papers’ ecumenicial attitude towards the left. “The Guardian had a very clear hierarchy and elected leadership, there were editors. Department heads actually make decisions.” Nevertheless, Davidson continues, both papers are unique insofar as “they’re both independent, radical newspapers. The Guardian had a very definite purpose, and that was to serve the movement. In the 1980’s we were the only non-party paper around.”
BETWEEN “VOICE” and “VANGUARD”?
Radical New York newspapers have tended to fall into one of two categories. The first is the class of sectarian broadsheets designed to promote a specific political belief. Rather than primarily reporting news, many of these appear attempt to keep national organizations on the same page politically and work to interpret world events in ways that conform to an already existing ideological analysis.
A second class of city papers includes alternative tabloids like the Village Voice, which focus primarily on countercultural lifestyle issues. Surprisingly, the Voice’s early production processes may have been more ragged than The Indypendent’s. Voice historian Kevin McAuliffe writes that, in its early days, the typical Village piece started on page one, jumped to page 7, to page 57, to page 74, back to page 19, and finished on page 33.” The Voice played on important role in overturning traditional notions of how the journalist was supposed to write, think and act, nevertheless, the glory days of the “alt-weekly” universe are little more than distinct memory. Last year, Village Voice Media produced six largely combined circulation of approximately 900.000.
Inspired by the anti-corporate globalization movement that burst into the public imagination during the Seattle WTO protests in November 1999, The Indypendent has attempted to forge a new alternative media paradigm over the course of its short history. “We needed something new,” says Ana Nogueira, one of the paper’s co-founders. “Something non-partisan, something that encouraged participation for unaffiliated individual and diverse organizations. There was no newspaper in New York City that was not rabidly partisan, overly rhetorical or inundated publication that could get into the hands of ordinary, even apolitical people and till make sense of them.”
“Our non-sectarianism is important,” agrees Jed Brandt, a writer and designer for The Indypendent. “Our task in the larger array [of alternative media] is to create something politically diverse and contentious, not something that holds a particular, unified ‘line’ and tries to convince others to adopt it. On the down side,” Brandt goes on, “we often have a bland, generic feel. We do need… a spikey diversity, not a smooth lowest common denominator.”
One thread running through The Indypendent’s 50-issue history has been its willingness to subordinate internal conflicts to more practical goals. “We’ve insisted that the paper exist for its readers, not its writers,” says John Tarleton, a long-time Indypendent volunteer. “and our goal is simple: produce the best possible paper we can.” Josh Breitbart. Am early writer for the paper, says, “We used to have vision discussions where we would realize that we had wildly contrasting ideas of what the paper should be, then we would go right back to working on the paper.”
“We wanted well – researched, factual news pieces written for and by the people of New York City about the myriad issues that affected them,” Nogueira says. “We wanted to make clear the connections between very local struggles in New York City with the broad and complex struggles facing communities over the world.” This pragmatic streak has attracted its fair share of criticism, both from within the paper itself and the wider Independent Media Center network it is a art of. But there is little doubt that that it has helped The Indypendent to survive its fair share of internal and external crises.
FROM 9/11 to the RNC
It was an external crisis, in the form of two hijacked jetliners slamming into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, that gave The Indypendent its biggest push forward. ‘In the early days,” says Tarleton, “things were very casual all around. Production would take two, sometimes three weeks. Stories floated in whenever. Editing was chaotic… Originally uncorrected text would often appear in the page proofs. We didn’t know any better so we were happy. September 11 was the turning point. We realized we had to respond right away even though we had come out with a new issue only a few days earlier. We worked non-stop through the next two nights.”
“Being able to respond so clearly and quickly at such an important moment,” Breitbart continues, “showed a lot of people, us included, what the paper could be. It also brought a lot of new people in the door to work on it. The next time I had 15-20. And we never really looked back on print runs of 5-6,000; pretty soon it was 10-15,000 every issue, which brought new kinds of financial pressure.”
In three years since September 11, The Indypendent has provided coverage of the movement and ongoing campaigns against corporate power. At the same time, it has launched El Independiente, a 4-page Spanish-language monthly and improved its design and layout as well as the quality of its coverage. “We’re doing much more of what I would call ‘real journalism’ now,” says A.K. Gupta, an Indypendent volunteer. “People are getting out there, into the neighborhoods, talking to people, and finding out what their concerns are.”
Davidson agrees The Indypendent has come a long way, but argues that there’s still much work that needs to be don. “I think that the steps we’ve taken, in terms of getting fulltime staff and getting a lot more advertising revenue have been really critical,” she says. “If we want to publish on a regular basis, we can’t depend on house parties to always publish our paper. At the same time, I would really like to see us build up more of a subscription base, because that’s really the way to build up supporters and create a steady stream of income.”
With the Republican National Convention preparing to descend on New York this August, the crisis brought about by September 11 has, in some ways, come full circle. Will the turmoil and energy of convention week move The Indypendent forward yet again? “Sure this paper could continue to grow and flourish,” Tarleton says. “But not if it doesn’t make itself into a truly sustainable project. Volunterist projects are inherently unstable. We’re still dependent on a very small number of people dedicating much or all of their lives to this project. What happens when their intensity wanes?”
Nogueira remains optimistic. “The Indypendent’s audience is getting wider, and its participants are willing to do the hard, ungratifying work that it takes to make a real community newspaper “This paper is a testament to the grassroots media philosophy of the Indymedia movement.”