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Indy at 15: How to Build a Radical NYC Newspaper, in 15 Steps

John Tarleton Oct 8

Hard work, an unusual blend of idealism and pragmatism, enough youthful passion to power a small city and a remarkable gift from one of our earliest supporters all helped make it possible for The Indypendent to survive and thrive as a long-running community institution.

1. Score Free Rent

The earliest planning meetings for The Indypendent were held during the summer of 2000 in the house of various collective members. Just when it seemed like the nascent newspaper would remain homeless, a supporter invited the Indy to set up shop in a 2,000-square-foot commercial loft space near East 29th Street and Park Avenue at no charge.

The 29th Street space came with a meeting area, a bank of computers, a T1 line that offered high-speed Internet at a time when dial-up was the norm, a small kitchen, a shower and enough nooks and crannies for as many as seven volunteers at a time to live on-site, plus room for visitors to crash on the couch. A community media center and a virtual squat all rolled into one, the 29th Street office became a magnet for radical media activists and provided a stable, if chaotic, home during the paper’s early years.

2. Get That First Issue Out the Door

After months of discussions, The Indypendent’s original collective managed to eke out a four-page, black-and-white first issue on September 8, 2000, just in time for a series of anti-corporate protests being held in the city that week. With the paper now circulating, a new wave of aspiring volunteers showed up at the next editorial meeting, including individuals who would become deeply involved in the paper for years to come.

3. Change Your Name Until It Feels Right

The inaugural issue of the paper was published under the name UNst8ed. Dissatisfied with the name, the paper’s staff decided on a new moniker, The Indypendent. It was derived from the paper’s affiliation with Indymedia, a decentralized global network of grassroots media collectives that had its origins in the Seattle WTO protests of 1999. During the paper’s first year, other name changes — The Brick Through the Window Gazette, The New York Beacon and The Independent, minus the “y” — were debated but rejected.

4. Establish Standards

Should basic writing errors be allowed to appear in the paper out of deference to the “authenticity” of the writer’s voice? Or must mistakes be fixed to preserve the overall credibility of the publication? These questions were a source of contentious debate during the paper’s early days before consensus was reached in favor of editing articles for spelling, grammar and punctuation. This impulse to ensure quality writing appeared in the paper would gradually become the norm in the culture of the Indy, enhancing the newspaper’s credibility with readers while making it more attractive to potential volunteers.

5. Respond Boldly to Historic Moments

The Indy published a special issue within 48 hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center. It published another special issue a week later. The paper subsequently experienced a surge in new volunteers looking for a way to respond to the ugly mood settling over the country. The paper also published special issues with increased press runs around the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, the rise of the Occupy Movement and during the run-up to last year’s People’s Climate March, bolstering its reach and visibility on each occasion.

6. You Too Can Be A Reporter

News reporting is hard work but it ain’t rocket science. Looking to share skills and demystify the process of how reporters do their work, the Indy began holding introductory-level community reporting workshops at its office in November 2001. Participants who wished to put their newly acquired knowledge to use were invited to work on articles for the newspaper or its website. Hundreds of people have participated in these workshops, a number of whom went on to became active in the paper.

7. Become a Hookup Hotspot

Lefties need good lovin’ just like everyone else. Before dating apps and websites like OkCupid became ubiquitous, The Indypendent was practically its own meet-up site, with volunteers frequently hooking up and in some cases settling into long-term relationships while continuing to work on the paper. After all, what on the left signals smart, sexy and passionately committed more than someone doing their part to contribute to a scrappy underdog newspaper that’s out to save the world?

8. Create a Big Tent

The New York City left is populated by a wide array of groups — anarchists, socialists, communists, Greens, left-liberal Democrats, labor unions, grassroots community-based organizations and others — that are prone to remaining in their own silos, or worse, falling into internecine disputes. Each group is doing important work. So instead of narrowly focusing on any one of these groups or adopting a particular “party line,” we have sought to be an ecumenical big tent where a wide array of social justice issues and activism is covered, analyzed and debated from within a left framework.

9. Build a Distribution Network

It is one thing to publish a newspaper. It is another to get it into people’s hands. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and supporters who explored their neighborhoods and found bookstores, laundromats, libraries and other public venues to put out the paper, we were able to gradually stitch together a citywide distribution network. These days distribution also happens digitally via indypendent.org, our social media platforms and our electronic newsletter.

10. Think Locally and Globally

New York City is our home and we love to hit the pavement covering social justice movements that are fighting to make it a fairer, more humane place to live. At the same time, we live in a big, interconnected world and we want to help our readers better understand it and learn from the experiences of others. The sum of these efforts has created a newspaper that, in the words of Naomi Klein, “reports on the whole world as a collection of neighborhoods, all struggling for justice.”

11. Context Matters

Mainstream journalism often amounts to a collection of seemingly unrelated facts. But that’s not enough. We have always strived to have our work informed by history, political context and a critical understanding of capitalism, colonialism, racism and patriarchy, the interlocking systems of social domination that shape and influence nearly every aspect of our lives. By taking this approach, we have become a unique voice in the New York City media landscape that our readers trust to provide a deeper understanding of the news.

12. Give People Hope

To critique the injustices of the world is deeply ingrained in the mindset of the left. We know how to do that too. But people are constantly organizing and fighting for their rights, building community and transforming our city and world for the better in ways large and small. That’s worth covering too.

13. Have Radical Politics and Be Business Savvy Too

The first issue of the paper was paid for by a $500 grant from the Puffin Foundation. Since then, we have had to work hard for every dollar with subscriptions, selling ads to social justice oriented organizations, peddling politically-themed posters, holding year-end fund drives, hosting dance parties and more. Most groups on the left struggle with raising the funds to survive, but done right, the solutions you develop can strengthen your organization, reaffirm its core ideals and make it more resilient for the long haul.

14. Aesthetics Matter

With intellectual critique wired into its DNA, the left tends to focus on having the right ideas and the proper words to express them. How those ideas are conveyed visually tends to be an afterthought. Bad idea! The Indy has had the good fortune to be a magnet for talented visual artists. Having the resources to run a full-color front page by our fourth year drew more artists to the paper, which created a virtuous circle that continues to this day.

15. Become Long-Distance Runners

The Indypendent was born in a milieu of free-wheeling anarchy. Like many activist projects that begin with a burst of volunteer enthusiasm but then fade away fairly quickly, we had minimal resources and infrastructure. To avoid that fate and continue with our work, we got organized, creating some paid staff positions and a budget, streamlining our decision-making processes and obtaining legal nonprofit status. 

The challenge now is finding the optimal balance between being structured and being open to the new and the unexpected; between having elements of hierarchy that serve a useful purpose and elements of consensus-based decision-making. There is no right or final answer to these challenges, only the path forward, making the road as we walk.


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