I’m a journalist today only because I stumbled into a job at the Independent and found an excuse to leave grad school. And only because, by the time I arrived in 1990, Steve Schewel and Katherine Fulton had built a weekly that aimed for greatness, every single issue, with a staff that wouldn’t have filled a corner of the newsroom at The News & Observer back then.
No money was made. If there was a sign that some cash might be coming in, much of it would be funneled optimistically into some six-month investigation of corruption that would stir up the General Assembly, be picked up by daily papers and win scads of awards. Because that was the whole point: to make journalism that stirs things up.
By the time I left the Independent in 2000, I’d had a 10-year crash course in trying to produce unreasonably ambitious journalism on a shoestring. I’d been editor for almost five years, getting to work with the best reporting and writing staff of any small magazine in America. As I soon learned, I was horribly spoiled. I took a year off for a journalism fellowship, where I met some top mid-career journalists, all of them from much bigger publications. When I heard what it was like to work, say, as a woman on the sports desk of the Chicago Tribune, or as an award-winning investigative reporter at a paper that had been bought by Gannett, I realized how ridiculously good I’d had it.
True, I was probably making the lowest editor’s salary in Americawhich could also be said of every other position at the Indy, including publisher. But I still wondered if I’d ever have it so good again. (And the answer would be no, not really.)
The obstacles that reporters and writers and photographers faced elsewherehaving to fight, all the time, to produce anything interesting or challengingwere things I couldn’t fathom. Having to battle on a daily basis against sadistic editors and bottom-line pressures and horrible assignments? I didn’t know much about that.
Back at the Independent, we were bitching about our drafty old Hillsborough Road farmhouse office, or complaining about the ad staff’s valiant efforts to make us not be hostile to their clients. Our only job was doing the best possible journalism that we could muster with the resources we had. Compared to almost everybody else in journalism, our problems were about as big as our salaries. Tiny and insignificant, that is.
I am being sentimental, of course. Yes, there were plenty of fights. I remember some spirited yelling matches with a certain ad manager; it worked kind of like primal scream therapy, releasing the pent-up pressures. There were and personal frictions and advertising-editorial clashes. And there was the fact that still, into the ’90s, the Independent had never made money. At some point, it really needed to make some.
Even so, if Steve could be convinced that there was a legitimate reason to risk pissing somebody off, including an advertiser, we would usually go for it and face the music. Or, rather, he would face the music. Usually, he was not terribly difficult to persuade. Say the word “censorship,” if Steve was worried about a potentially offensive cover; or talk about the Indy‘s commitment to telling hard truths nobody else will dare tell, if we were about to publish an expose of a wealthy corporation that could sue us into insolvency; or remind him of the paper’s history of being one of the first unabashed supporters of LGBT rights, whenever we were about to stir up a hornet’s nest of homophobes. Rarely did Steve balk at giving the green light for whatever well-documented shitstorm, or slashing book or music review, we were about to unleash.
The blowback would come as expected. Steve absorbed most of the flak. He had to smooth things over, if possible, with the people who wanted to shut down our racks and the advertisers who couldn’t possibly be associated with such things. The ad staff would be justifiably flabbergasted, as would the circulation folks who were losing drops because of, say, that cover featuring a near-naked gay man and Jesse Helms (in 1994!). But Steve, bless his heart, wanted more than anything to change as much of the world as one little weekly could. He wanted to stir things up. Even though we really did need to start making some money, sometime.
Katherine taught me how to be an editor; Steve taught me how to lead (or tried to). Everybody else taught me how to be a journalist and also a more wide-open person. Working at the Independent finally pushed me out of the closet. I realized, at some point, that it was silly not to be out in one of the few workplaces where people would like you better if you were openly gay. So I came out in the pages of the Independent, after Editor Gillian Floren walked me through about 12 agonizing drafts. And by god, people did like me better.
People may be sad to see the original incarnation of the Independent go. Then again, we’re also in disbelief that it lasted so long. Kudos and love to everybody who’s kept it going for so amazingly long. And to those who will, I hope, keep it going for a good long timealways as a paper that aims to make people’s lives better through journalism that’s willing to challenge and, if necessary, offend anyone and everyone.
Moser is the executive editor at The American Prospect.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Early times.”