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How The Indypendent Has Survived & Thrived For Two Tumultuous Decades

Issue 258

Now we face our biggest challenge.

John Tarleton Sep 26

As Priscilla Felia was driving through the desolate, boarded-up streets of Lower Manhattan one night a couple of weeks after the George Floyd uprising swept across New York City, she saw something that made her pull over.

One of The Indypendent’s bright red-and-white news boxes was standing alone on a street corner just south of Houston Street. Felia didn’t expect to fi nd anything. We had switched to publishing exclusively online at the height of the pandemic with daily reports on nearly every facet of a sprawling, fast-moving story. Nonetheless, Felia later wrote us, “I just had to stop and pay homage by touching the box and opening the little door.”

Then she got a jolt: A stack of brand-new Indys featuring Black Lives Matter coverage filled the box. “I nearly jumped out of my sandals,” she added in her neat, handwritten script. “I was so happy and excited. I had to take extras for friends, two of which will be mailed to friends in North Carolina.”

The Indypendent was launched 20 years ago this fall. It was a conspiracy of hope. Our goal was to reach tens of thousands of everyday New Yorkers like Priscilla Felia, who hungered for an alternative source of news and analysis that challenged the conventional wisdom of a corporate-dominated society and brought back stories of resistance from the streets of New York City and the far corners of the world.

Twenty years is both a long time and the blink of an eye. Each issue we have published has been a small miracle. To be still standing is a bigger miracle. That we’re making readers like Priscilla jump out of their shoes two decades later at the sight of a new issue is the best news of all.

• • •

The Indypendent’s editors and writers gather for an editorial meeting at the paper’s Downtown Brooklyn office circa 2018. Photo: Elia Gran.

Every institution has an origin story. Ours is a good one. It begins in the late 1990s at SUNY Purchase, where Ana Nogueira was the editor-in-chief of her college newspaper. Nogueira’s faculty advisor had promised to put her protégé on the fast track to a scholarship at the Columbia School of Journalism and a Wall Street Journal internship. But when Nogueira tried to publish hard-hitting articles on police brutality, the minimizing of the number of sexual assault cases on campus and other abuses of power, her mentor overruled her.

“She told me I was through, because ‘that’s not how the real world works,’” said Nogueira, who never looked back.

A couple of years later, the placid 1990s ended with a bang when tens of thousands of protesters, including this writer, swarmed downtown Seattle and shut down a summit meeting of the World Trade Organization. Diplomats had gathered from 136 countries to hammer out a series of global free trade pacts that would have expanded corporate power while undermining labor, consumer, human and environmental rights. Instead, those talks collapsed amid the tumult. After decades of retreat and defeat, it was a rare and stunning victory for the left that gave a jolt of energy to many radical movements in this country and beyond.

“The Battle of Seattle” also gave birth to Indymedia, a decentralized global network of left-wing media collectives (and the source of the “y” in our name) that spread to more than 200 cities around the world and pioneered the use of online crowd-sourced reporting a decade before the rise of social media. Within months, Nogueira and others began organizing a New York City chapter of Indymedia. She also rustled up a $500 grant from the Puffin Foundation to print the first four-page, black-and-white edition of this paper that would speak to New Yorkers who might never find the NYC Indymedia website.

Our young paper threw open its doors and drew activists and artists, crackpots and visionaries, novice reporters and veterans of the alternative press.

“I’ve been in love with print ever since the 1980s, when I worked at the [New York] Guardian independent radical newsweekly,” says Ellen Davidson, who joined the project in 2001 and is active to this day. “When you’re out on the streets organizing, there is nothing like handing someone a newspaper to get your message out. They’ll take it home and read it later. And people absorb information differently when it’s on a printed page than when it comes through a screen.”

The Indypendent was a product of the movement moment we emerged from, and most of us believed fervently in making decisions by consensus. Passionate debates ensued. Was it more authentic to keep a writer’s misspelled words and errant commas on the page? Could we have an editorial hierarchy of any kind and still be true to our egalitarian politics? Were there any circumstances in which advertising could be a legitimate source of funds? One thing we were all convinced of was the futility of electoral politics, especially involvement with the Democratic Party.

A fan of Indymedia donated a 2,500-square-foot loft space in midtown Manhattan with a high-speed Internet connection for us to work out of. The Indymedia office be-came a community hub that saw frequent visitors. It also became a squat, thanks to the kitchen and shower on site. As many as seven of us at a time lived there, throwing down mattresses in the nooks and crannies of the space, going out late at night to forage from bountiful local dumpsters. When I would wake up on cold winter mornings in my makeshift home in a 3-foot by 8-foot storage closet in the back of the office, I could see my breath. At least the commute to work was short.

• • •

When you are living in a countercultural space like the one we created, it’s tempting to want to withdraw into an activist bubble, ignore the larger world and all its ugly, messy contradictions and create your own private club-house. However, events outside our control forced us to answer the existential questions we had been debating. When a pair of jet planes full of passengers crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, every pa-per in the city howled for war, including the Village Voice. Our page one headline read “How Should We Respond?” The article by Mike Burke quoted peace activists instead of retired generals working for military contractors and asked “Wouldn’t fighting terror with terror propel the nation, and indeed the world into a war where there may be no winners?”

In such a fraught environment we had to use every word well to connect with skeptical readers instead of repelling them. Our circulation doubled from 5,000 to 10,000. The turnout for our weekly meetings quickly tripled. We began to hold monthly reporting workshops to even out the skills imbalance within our group and to get more aspiring people’s journalists into the streets. We also added a culture section, which offered another way to talk about what mattered to us without being tethered to the ebb and flow of events.

“It proves we exist,” Naomi Klein once said of the paper, meaning that the wide-ranging grassroots coverage in its pages each month gave concrete form to the much-touted “movement of movements” that can sometimes seem more like activist hype than reality.

Unfortunately, you can’t find what it takes to print a newspaper at the bottom of a dumpster. So we had to learn how to raise money. There were underground dance parties and a four-color 36-inch by 24-inch poster that depicted where the weapons of mass destruction were made and stored in the United States. It sold briskly at anti-war rallies and was snapped up by lefty community radio stations around the country that used it as a fund drive premium. Eventually we lost our virginity, selling our first ads to a radical bookstore and a feminist sex toy shop. And to be honest, it felt pretty damn good. We were helping ourselves and community-based organizations and businesses we wanted to flourish.

In 2004, American Apparel threw a pile of dough at us to hawk their undergarments on our back page in the run-up to massive protests at that year’s Republican National Convention in New York. It was the first and only large corporate account we’ve ever landed. Before we took it, we checked with the union that was trying to organize the American Apparel’s workers and it assured us there was no boycott being called for against the company. We used the extra revenues to switch to full-color covers that increased our visibility and attracted more talented illustrators. We had two modestly paid staff positions for the first time, which allowed me to move out of the storage closet and into the rent-controlled apartment of a friend of the paper. We also used some of that undergarment money to spin off a monthly Spanish language edition, El Independiente. In that same era, we helped launch IndyKids, “a free paper for free kids” ages 10-14 that still publishes to this day.

• • •

The alter-globalization movement that The Indy sprang from petered out within a couple of years here in the United States. The Indymedia network was mostly defunct by the end of the 2000s, technologically superseded first by blogs and then social media and finally eviscerated by internal strife. Still we powered ahead, covering powerful new movements we could have scarcely imagined when we began: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, climate justice and the revival of socialism as a serious political current in this country for the first time in decades.

“We had a self-described socialist within spitting distance of the American presidency,” Nicholas Powers wrote in his post-mortem of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. “The world was watching, because when you peeled off the ideology, what was left was a simple thing. We wanted to love our neighbors. We wanted everyone to have enough because we’re tired of hurting each other to get it.”

We also became more sophisticated in our understanding of local politics. This allowed us to help our readership map power in this city and how to confront it. When the Sanders campaign inspired local versions of his challenge to the Democratic Party machine, we jumped into covering them with gusto. The first socialists to run in local races lost but, we noted, ran stronger than expected with hundreds of volunteers hitting the doors on their behalf. Elec-toral politics no longer seemed hopeless. In 2018, we became the first print publication to put then congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on its cover.

“Holy SMOKES!” She tweeted. “Our campaign is the FRONT PAGE STORY of NYC’s classic monthly, @TheIndypendent!”

• • •

The past dozen years have seen the collapse of the media industry. Hundreds of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Newspapers in particular have been gutted — by the 2008 financial crash, by the Google/Facebook duopoly making a mockery of antitrust laws to hoover up online ad dollars and most recently by the pandemic and the economic crisis. Throughout, we’ve been able to survive and even thrive.

This isn’t easy to do because there is a constant churn among our volunteers. Like the waves of the sea, they roll in one after another and make their mark, then recede and are replaced by others. While there are a some long-timers who have stuck with it for a decade or more, most Indy participants are active for several months, a year or two or three and then move on with new skills, new confidence, valuable clips, a keener sense of what they want to do in life, a deeper knowledge of the city and its social justice movements, long-term friendships that will endure beyond the paper. Some, like Ana Nogueira, move on to full-time media jobs. She became a producer at Democracy Now! as did Mike Burke, another Indy co-founder.

From the vantage point of 20 years, what’s striking to me is how consistently outstanding our volunteers and staff have been: talented, passionate, hard-working, politically aware, eager to give voice to the issues they care about. The chance to be a part of a vibrant, supportive community counts for something too in our alienated, atomized society and often inspires people to give more of themselves to the project.

“I got involved in January and haven’t looked back,” says Amba Guerguerian, The Indy’s administrative manager. “I’m grateful to be a part of something that is so people centered.”

• • •

In 2016, a chance encounter we had with a new reader while handing out papers at a subway station led to us receiving the financial support we needed to dust off long-shelved plans to place news boxes on street corners across the city and more than double our print circulation to 45,000 copies a month.

Was that luck or perseverance?

Either way it has made it possible for us to introduce many tens of thousands of progressive New Yorkers to down-ballot leftists such as AOC, Tiffany Cabán, Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport among others. We’re also amplifying the voices of New York City social movements fighting and not infrequently winning against ICE, NYPD, Amazon, the landlord lobby, the bail bond industry, polluters and the police unions, Gov. 1% and our bumbling mayor for starters.

We want to continue to do great work in 2021 and beyond, but the coronavirus calamity that has laid waste to our society has not left us unscathed. Some of our major donors have had to pull back. Most of our events-based advertising may not return any time soon either. And while we’ve had an unprecedented explosion of ads in our 20th anniversary issue, that is not going to be enough over the long haul. To ensure The Indy survives these perilous times, please visit our donate page and see how you can do your part.

John Tarleton joined the Indypendent in the fall of 2000. He is the paper’s executive editor. His favorite dumpster score back in the day was a nice unblemished pineapple and cinnamon raisin bagels to nibble on while working late at night.

Please make a recurring or one-time contribution today. It’s readers like you who ensure we continue publishing in these challenging times. Thank you!