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Dead Trees: Print Media in the Digital Age

Chris Anderson
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

The December 2006 collapse of the San Francisco-based Independent Press Association (IPA) marks a low point in the recent history of independent media in the US. Founded in 1996 by John Anner, the IPA was a membership organization comprised of little and not so little magazines like Bitch, Mother Jones, and Clamor Magazine. Beginning as a community-based advocate for small publications, the IPA organized an annual conference and provided an emergency loan fund for its nearly 500 members. In 1999, the IPA absorbed the about-to-be-sold Big Top Distribution Service, moving from advocacy and organizational support into the world of getting its members’ magazines onto newsstand shelves. It was the financial debacle that consumed Big Top, under the (mis)management of IPA Executive Director Richard Landry, which eventually led to the implosion of the entire IPA in the winter of 2006.

Dozens of former IPA members are still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by the now bankrupt organization, and some, including Clamor, have already folded. Others like Punk Planet and Kitchen Sink are struggling to stay afloat. “There’s money still owed to us by IPA that we’ll never see,” writes Punk Planet editor and publisher Dan Sinker on the Punk Planet weblog, “And there’s the impact it’s already having on other small press magazines.”

End of an era?

Despite the turmoil, the end of the IPA doesn’t mean that the small magazine is doomed—it doesn’t necessarily even mean the end of traditional lefty print journalism. It should, however, force a moment of reflection about what exactly the “dead-tree” magazine’s mission is in an increasingly digital media universe. After all, it isn’t just tiny, left wing magazines that are being forced to rethink their business models by economic, technological, and social developments. In most cases, in fact, niche publications have avoided the full-fledged crisis that now envelops the corporate media industry. Despair stalks the corridors of the Tribune Company, barely able to sell off its synergistic media empire for more than its current stock price; gloom envelops the newsroom at the Philadelphia Inquirer, forced to lay off 17 percent of its newsroom staff; fragmentation haunts the dreams of the “big three” network newscasts as their audiences age and shrink, with more and more young people tuning into “The Daily Show” and the “Colbert Report” for “news.”

So in many ways, this is a moment of opportunity for the left—the giants are collapsing, and we’re still here. But as the end of the IPA shows, we’re also not immune from the turmoil. The digitization of journalism does not mean the democratization of the media, and a democratic media does not by itself create a media dedicated to social justice. What should the alternate press be thinking about in 2007? Here are three suggestions:

The point of print?

This isn’t to imply that there isn’t one. Claims that we’re all about to enter some digital utopia in which everyone has access to perfect information ignore both the continuing digital divide and what media commentator Joshua Breitbart has called “the racist assumption of digital inclusion”—the argument that if we can just crack the digital divide, we can finally let people of color and traditionally excluded communities party on an already “white” internet.

At the same time, however, perennial problems with print media distribution, difficulties with paying writers, and the accelerating migration of advertising dollars online should make us think long and hard about why we’re in the dead tree journalism business in the first place. Is it the largely anachronistic thrill of seeing our words legitimatized “on paper”? Or are we committed to genuinely doing something that the Internet still can’t—and may never be able to—do?

Ideally, smart lefty print projects will occupy a strategic place at the intersection between the organic free for all of the digital world and the staid, authoritative universe that comes with actually being forced to pay money to get your message out to the masses. This may mean concentrating less on distribution and more on building the social legitimacy of the work we already do by doing more real journalism: paying writers, engaging in vigorous fact checking, and launching ambitious investigative reporting assignments. Less rhetoric and posturing—more actual news.

Rethinking community conversation

“Conversation,” of course, is the mantra of the World Wide Web. But conversation means more than maintaining an open publishing newswire or facilitating the ability of the average woman on the street to criticize an already published article through a commenting system. We have to broaden our understanding of what community conversation means in order to distinguish ourselves from the “Web 2.0” marketing machine.

Look, for example, at one of the actual success stories to emerge from the seven year IPA experiment. The New York City-based “Voices That Must Be Heard” is an IPA-NY project that takes important, mostly non-English articles found in its members’ ethnic papers, translates them into English, and distributes them for free on the web. “The nature of the work of the IPA in New York,” says director Juana Ponce de Leon “is very much like grassroots community organizing. Our members, the ethnic papers, are usually part of the community leadership structure of the neighborhoods they serve. So we’re going into the community and talking to the spokespeople of that neighborhood when we organize our membership.”

You can also look at the NYC Indypendent’s community reporting workshops, which are quarterly meetings in which budding journalists are trained, for free, in the basic skills they need in order to write accurately and effectively while not losing their political passion. Left Turn magazine’s activist forums, in which movement leaders, concerned activists, and journalists dialog about the issues covered in its pages, is another example of bringing the print content to life and creating more interpersonal relationships. All three of these examples push the boundaries of what is meant by “community conversation,” and all of them are difficult without the kind of structure an organized, offline media collective provides.

All about money

There’s a final, less sexy problem for print publications: the dearth of funding to support the basic infrastructure needed to produce a quality journalistic product. Foundations on the left, argues Tikkun editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, “only seem to want to support exciting new programs. They don’t seem to understand that the most effective way to support left-leaning nonprofits is by supporting infrastructure. Programs are great, but without really boring stuff like paying rent on a physical office, buying and finding someone competent to run database software, offering living wage salaries and benefits—without these, an organization can’t really exist for long.”

“If the IPA could have gotten infrastructure grants,” Kaiser concludes, “they wouldn’t have needed to hire a director whose head was in the for-profit world and who ended up betraying the organization’s mission.”

Financial problems go even deeper than the lack of foundation funding, however. “People these days are used to getting information for free,” says John Tarleton of the New York City Indypendent. “The idea of having to part with money and put it into a project you support seems burdensome to a lot of people.” Tarleton estimates that the Indypendent garners only a fraction of the subscriptions it would have collected even a decade earlier. “The Indypendent’s mission is to share the work we do with as many people as possible,” adds Tarleton. “So we make the paper available for free, both in print and online. At the same time, we’re under a lot of financial pressure. A few subs here and there wouldn’t hurt.”

The end of the IPA isn’t the end of the print media. It is however, a sign—a canary in the coal mine, if you will. The media industry is in a period of transition unlike anything we’ve seen for more than a century. Print publications on the left need to figure out how to adapt themselves to the new digital, economic, and political world they find themselves in—and fast … Before we’re left behind.

Chris Anderson has been an organizer and writer with New York City Indymedia and the Indypendent since 2001. He is also a PhD student in communications at Columbia University where he studies journalistic authority and new media technologies.