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The Indy at One Hundred

Chris Anderson Mar 28, 2007

IndypanoramaProduction of The Indypendent PHOTOS: Antrim Caskey (left and center) and Jesse Carpenter (right)

As the sleepy 1990s drew to a close, SUNY-Purchase student journalist Ana Nogueira was fighting with her faculty advisor.Nogueira was editor-in-chief of the campus paper, which was aggressively covering the failings of the university administration. Her advisor, an ex-reporter in the corporate press, had final control over what was printed and repeatedly deleted coverage that cast the university’s leadership in a negative light. “This is how it’s done,” Nogueira was told, and when she complained, she was pointedly asked: “Are you going to throw away all your future in journalism for this college paper?” It was, after all, the 90’s. “I was alone,” Nogueira recalls. “I didn’t know activism existed.”

Little more than a year later, Nogueira would find herself shyly handing out copies of a new Indymedia newspaper, The Unst8ed (pronounced “unstated”) on the streets of New York. The cover of the four-page, black-and-white newspaper read, “Anarchist Conference Offers Viable Alternatives” underneath a blurry, darkened photo. “I didn’t even want to hand it out. It was horrible,” said Nogueira. She helped found the paper with a $500 grant from the Puffin Foundation; the title was in reference to the U.N. Millennium Summit on Development (TK).

Quickly renamed The Indypendent by its second issue, the newspaper was initially, according to current Indypendent coordinator John Tarleton, a “drab, grey little thing” with the ambitious ideal of attempting to connect the machinations of global capitalism to the experiences of people in communities around the world.

“Globalization was this big, huge abstraction and a misnomer as well that nobody could get a handle on,” said Nogueira. “We wanted to look at how it impacted people in their everyday lives with issues like rents, schools, healthcare. We wanted to draw connections between the local and the global and make globalization tangible to people.”

As part of the burgeoning Indymedia movement, the paper also took to heart the ideal of open publishing–that anyone can be a journalist, and stories are best told from the perspective of people who experience them. “The Internet was still very new and opened up all sorts of possibilities,” Tarleton said. “Part of what we wanted to do was infuse the Indy with the vibrant energy of open publishing.”

Over the past six years, as The Indypendent has carried on through two wars, it has seen the Indymedia and anti-globalization movements in which it germinated recede, while it has had to learn how to balance the tensions between the openpublishing model on which it was founded and the needs of a print publication. It has done all this while constantly developing new journalists and volunteers.

“Its accomplishments are nothing short of inspirational,” said former collective member Josh Breitbart.

INDYMEDIA RISING

By the late 1990s, John Tarleton was an independent journalist who had moved from being a mainstream daily news reporter to filing reports on his own “protoblog.” He had spent most of the decade hitchhiking around the United States and Latin America, dumpster-diving, working odd jobs, plugging into myriad countercultural scenes and witnessing the devastating effect of free-trade policies on Latin America. In November 1999, he arrived at Seattle just before the protests at the bi-annual summit of the World Trade Organization.

What Tarleton initially had expected to be a handful of demonstrators standing in the rain and getting arrested turned into a mass of 40,000 protesters, roughly 10,000 of whom participated in nonviolent direct action. The sea of peaceful protesters blocked access to the downtown meeting site, shutting down the first day of the conference. The ensuing crackdown by the police, using tear gas, rubber bullets, horses and batons against protesters would mark the emergence and crystallization of the anti-globalization movement in North America.

“For just about everybody who was in Seattle, there was a tremendous sense of euphoria and excitement,” said Tarleton, who immersed himself in the story by participating in blockades on the first day.

“This was a movement that wasn’t just questioning a particular war, or a particular set of unjust laws … it was fundamentally questioning capitalism, and the profit motive, and the idea that profits should always come before people.”

The protests were intertwined with the birth of Indymedia–with activists using open-publishing websites to upload written reports, video, audio and photos of the protests that the mainstream media wouldn’t or couldn’t show.

“The reports on TV and in the papers had nothing to do with what I saw … What I saw was this beautiful, defiant, upwelling of dissent that was then conveyed through the mass media as something completely different,” Tarleton recalls.

During the Seattle protests, the original Independent Media Center (IMC) website (indymedia.org) would receive more than two million hits. During the course of the next year, media activists established IMCs in more than 40 cities around the world, eventually growing to the current number of more than 150.

“I remember looking at Indymedia, and thinking that’s it, that’s what I experienced in Seattle,” Tarleton said.

Tarleton would eventually meet up with the newly established New York City Independent Media Center in the fall of 2000 – just in time for the third issue of the paper. As just one project among vibrant video, audio and web projects being run out of a donated loft at the original IMC space on 29th Street in Manhattan, “nothing about the paper stood out,” Tarleton said.

“We were your usual half-assed activist paper – everyone’s articles gets in regardless of merit, stories were too long, pictures were the size of a postage stamp, headlines not well thought out,” Tarleton said.

In the first year following its founding, the paper would focus on both chronicling local stories in New York and the surging antiglobalization protest movement. By the summer of 2001, “people were struggling with what we wanted to say–the big thing we were all focused on was the next round of IMF/World Bank demos in D.C.,” said Tarleton.

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City would be only the first act in a series of world-upending events that would jolt the paper out of its comfortable position in the radical wing of the anti-globalization movement.

The day of the attacks, members of the print team filtered into the collective space on 29th Street space and discussed what, if any response they should have to attacks that had happened less than three miles away, but which would certainly have global repercussions. Members of the print team collective, including Tarleton and Nogueira, decided “we needed to say something and say it fast,” Tarleton recalls.

Within two days of the attacks, The Indypendent published a fourpage special issue that mixed firstperson stories from Ground Zero with hard-hitting articles on the threat to civil liberties, the potential for backlash against Arab- and Muslim-Americans and which questioned the idea of a war of retaliation. “That’s when we began to take ourselves more seriously, when we decided that we really had something to say to a lot of people,” said Tarleton.

PUTTING IDEALS INTO ACTION

Today, what was once a revolutionary slogan – “Be the media!” the original do-it-yourself motto of the Indymedia movement – has been rebranded as a marketing device by the so-called “Web 2.0” entrepreneurial class. With the eclipsing of the anti-globalization movement, the political landscape has been radically altered as well. “In Seattle, it was simple, we all wanted to stop the WTO,” Tarleton said. “A couple of years later, we were all working out of the 29th street space and it was more complicated.

People had very different visions of what sort of media activism we wanted to do.” According Breitbart, a series of definitive and consistent decisions taken by members of The Indypendent collective have distinguished the paper from many other Indymedia projects and may have helped ensure the paper’s long-term survival.

“Keeping The Indypendent name, having a heavy editorial hand, publishing a small group of writers repeatedly; making certain personnel restrictions, taking advertising; going color, stipending coordinators. Some of [these decisions] may have not been the decisions I would have made,” Breitbart said. “But each one propelled the whole project forward on a clear path.”

The Indypendent was founded on the twin ideals of open publishing and participatory democracy. As a print project springing out of a webbased technological revolution, it has struggled to adapt itself to the constant tension between the Indymedia ideal of the authenticity of personal witness and the pressures and limitations of a print project.

“One of the first meetings I was ever at there was a discussion about do we correct misspellings,” said Arun Gupta, a former editor with The New York-based Guardian newsweekly who has been involved with The Indypendent since 2000. “Because misspellings are ‘authentic’ [the thinking was] that we don’t want to change people’s voice. If you’re not going to correct misspellings, you’re not going to correct anything, so you’re basically going to throw any crap that comes your way into your paper.

“Because print costs so much money, because so much effort goes into distributing the paper, we have to make every article count,” he added.

“Everything we had to deal with as a print publication,” Nogueira added, “limited space for stories, editing, raising money to pay for the paper – really challenged the idea of what an IMC is.”

With only two people who receive limited compensation for their work with the project, The Indypendent relies on the volunteer labor of nearly everyone involved, from the writers to the editors to the photographers to people handing the paper out in the subway. As an ever-expanding project, it has had to learn how to balance the participatory aspects of an volunteer-based collective with the needs of a regular publication.

Weekly open meetings allow new volunteers to filter into the project, while quarterly reporting workshops attempt to give a grounding in the basics of journalism. “If we don’t stay committed to the skillsharing process, people are going to be sliced out of participating in this project,” said Tarleton, whose reporting workshops have been attended by nearly 300 people in the past six years.

While a volunteer model is instrumental in maintaining the original vision and ongoing life of the project, it also creates numerous challenges for both long-time members and newer writers. “When people are volunteers you can’t really say get your story in on time or you’re fired,” said Ryan Dunsmuir, who has worked, for free, as the paper’s lead designer for four years. “We’re working much harder than a lot of other places because of this. It’s a great thing we’re doing, to get people involved that might not normally be able to participate, but we’re also making a lot of work for ourselves.”

“Looking at The Indypendent, having maintained that collective editorial structure so that people can train themselves to do it, and then contribute to the readers, is just phenomenal,” said Abby Scher, former director of the Independent Press Association of New York.

For new volunteers, the process of integrating into a media project with a flat, often invisible structure can be both invigorating and frustrating. “The output is much better than most other papers, so what we write about, what we cover, and what we do is clearly more activist, more thoughtful,” said Indy writer Clark Merrefield who got involved in the fall of 2006. However, Merrefield also noted that the paper’s commitment to openness and organizational democracy can be imperfectly implemented. “There’s a democratic structure, but then, there are also people who are in charge.”

For Arun Gupta, who has watched the paper develop and grow for the last six years, the presence of a devoted group of long-term volunteers has helped bridge the gap between newer members and the paper’s radical mission. “I think the reason the paper has survived, and even thrived, is because it has an absolutely committed core.

People here will bend, but they’re not going to give up,” he said. “And,” he chuckled, “there’s a group of people around this project who are, at heart, classic newshounds.”

However, as more people participate in the process of making the paper, its mission and content are constantly shifting. Jessica Lee, a long-time activist and Indymedia reporter from Arizona, moved out to New York this winter to co-coordinate the paper with Tarleton and is drawing on the original ideals of the Indymedia movement to further expand participation in the paper.

“Rather than increase the demand on the volunteers to contribute more to Indymedia, it might make sense to put efforts into pushing citizen journalism more into everyday life,” Lee said. “We could integrate Indymedia writing into class curriculums. Then individuals could contribute content to the Indy without increasing their responsibilities.”

Another key to the paper’s continued success has been its ability to attract talented photographers and illustrators and to also develop a culture section that allows readers to “exercise their right brains” according to Irina Ivanova, culture section co-coordinator.

“Art is a major way people communicate,” Ivanova added. “It touches you in a way that news reporting doesn’t. Everyone likes art. Even if they aren’t interested in such and such policy or event, they will almost always flip to the back to see what’s interesting.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Now at issue 100, The Indypendent has garnered 36 “Ippies” over the past four years from the Independent Press Association of New York for excellence in community journalism, more than any other paper in the city. It has cobbled together a citywide distribution network and moved over 1.4 million copies of the paper since its inception. It has trained hundreds of citizen journalists, inspired similar startup papers in several other cities and puts a paper out on a yearly budget of less than a lower-middle class salary in New York City.

While forging bonds with the local activist community, it has simultaneously maintained its identity as a “big tent newspaper” and continues to push the limits of the collective, volunteer-based model on which it was founded. “What I’m really struck by is how you guys are able to identify issues so early on,” said New York City AIDS housing activist Jennifer Flynn. “After about a month, the Times picks them up and they become citywide issues. But if I hear about them first, I always hear about them in the Indypendent.” Now located at a smaller, quieter, nonprofit space in Midtown, the vibrant video and audio projects of the original IMC have faded out of existence, while a nearly complete rotation of staff members and volunteers has occurred several times over. “It’s kind of interesting, not just how the paper’s changed, but how the whole vibe has changed. It’s also kind of quasi-miraculous that it’s still in existence,” said Dunsmuir, who first volunteered in 2003.

“The Indypendent has already lived long enough to see many of the perceptions of the movement against corporate globalization spread and become ‘mainstreamed,’” says longtime New York City organizer Eric Laursen. “The political mainstream is still a dangerous place to be. It’s where the original goals and objectives of the movement that sparked these changes are diluted and compromised to death. The role of the alternative press is to stay focused on those objectives, and to remind people constantly that they can’t be achieved by so-called “change from within,” but only by a revolutionary transformation of society itself.”

For many on the Indy, this challenge – and the frustrations engendered by the numerous political disappointments of the last seven years – remain to be grappled with on a daily basis. “I think we should be much more critical of what’s going on – I think we should be much more anguished and I think we should be much louder,” said Donald Paneth, the Indy’s only octogenarian writer and a former New York Times reporter who now covers the U.N. For Tarleton, the project continues to be about doing both compelling, first-rate journalism and helping to galvanize radical social change. “The left in this country is operating on pretty barren ground,” he said. “We’re loosening the soil, but it’s up to the larger left to take things to a higher level.”

Erin Thompson has been an Indypendent volunteer since 2005 and Chris Anderson since 2001.

For more, see indypendent.org