In September 2000 world leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations Millennium Summit. Organized at the dawn of a new century, the stated purpose of this three-day conference was to alleviate global poverty. Outside in the streets, thousands of protesters weren’t buying the official rhetoric, pointing to the outsized influence that large corporations wielded over the proceedings.
The main demonstration was held on September 8, or in the nomenclature of its organizers, “S8.” At the protest, copies of UnSt8ted, a four-page black-and-white newspaper, were being handed out by members of the all-volunteer collective that published it. Headlines like “Demanding Human Rights, Fighting Corporate Power” and “Anarchist Conference Offers Viable Alternatives” in UnSt8ed’s maiden issue reflected the political moment from which the paper emerged.
Shortly afterward, the UnSt8ted collective changed the paper’s name to The Indypendent and published a second black-and-white issue of eight pages. The rest is history. We now find ourselves celebrating our 200th issue (and our 14th anniversary) as protesters once again target the United Nations, this time to demand action on climate change.
While the circumstances are familiar, the paper has changed considerably. Our issues are now printed in color, run from 20 to 24 pages and reach tens of thousands of readers every month through a citywide distribution network.
In the Beginning
Informed by a participatory, “be the media” ethos, The Indypendent began as the offshoot of a New York City website that was a part of Indymedia, a global network of leftist news websites. The website that spawned us is now defunct, but this newspaper has continued to flourish. More than 700 people have volunteered with us over the years. They include journalists with decades of experience, novice scribes who found a place to hone their craft, artists who have graced our pages with their illustrations, photos and graphic design and many others who have helped out behind the scenes doing the invisible work that makes a newspaper possible.
The Indypendent emerged during a moment of heightened protest activity on the radical left that began with the “Battle of Seattle” demonstrations in November 1999 and featured summit-hopping protesters who besieged the meetings of international financial institutions, national political conventions and just about any place where corporate and political elites gathered behind closed doors.
The alter-globalization movement was adept at mobilizing large street protests, and with its emphasis on consensus process and its aversion to leaders, prefigured Occupy in many ways. However, it left little in the way of enduring institutions once the post-9/11 security state made it virtually impossible for the movement to use the confrontational tactics that had initially catapulted it into the public eye.
We are one of the few institutions to survive from that era, and we’ve learned a few things along the way:
- Engage with the world. Don’t be insular. The Indy sprang from a DIY (do-it-yourself) anarchist tradition but chose to embrace the Left, broadly defined, and to report on it in a way that would be accessible to activists and non-activists alike. This helped us draw more volunteers who brought with them a greater variety of interests and life experiences.
- Be open and transparent about hierarchies that exist within your organization. Structurelessness doesn’t get rid of leaders, it just conceals them.
- Process matters, but it should not be fetishized. Endless meetings are no substitute for doing real work.
- You can be both idealistic and practical at the same time. Dealing with real-world challenges that pose contradictions (such as how to raise money for a radical newspaper) is a part of life. The solutions you develop can strengthen your organization and make it more resilient for the long haul.
While new media technologies enhance the individual’s ability to be a channel of one broadcasting to the world, they can also leave us isolated. Publishing a newspaper, on the other hand, is a collaborative enterprise that involves not only the people who produce it, but also subscribers, donors, advertisers, sources who return our calls and even critics, who keep us on our toes.
More than anything, the Indy’s first 200 issues suggest what people can achieve when we work collectively and do so with the support of a larger community. Thank you for sharing these first 14 years with us.
John Tarleton is a co-founder of The Indypendent and the newspaper's executive editor.