The Independent Weekly staff photo from 1989.

I lived in Chapel Hill 40 years ago, when the first issue of the INDY was published, but I didn’t read it. My tastes in periodicals ran more to Highlights. I was three. 

When I started reading the INDY, I was 19. As a Hillsborough high schooler in the ’90s, I had seen it lying around and looking weird, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that interested me then. Once I plunged into the local music scene near the turn of the millennium, it did. 

When I started writing for the INDY, I was 24. It had vanquished its rival, the Spectator, where I had been freelancing for a couple of years. So to the INDY my lightly founded, heavily wielded opinions went. 

When I joined the staff at the INDY, I was 33. I was associate arts editor, then arts editor, then managing arts and music editor, then other stuff as the constriction of the media economy increased. It got hard. But I learned so much. 

When I stopped working at the INDY to just read and write for it again, I was 40, the same age it is now. In those four decades, the paper has changed a lot, as all of us who’ve grown up with it have. 

Whereas INDY Week focuses on the Triangle, covers arts as well as news, and publishes weekly in print and daily online, its original iteration, The North Carolina Independent, later and more lastingly known as The Independent Weekly, covered the whole state, sold subscriptions, and published biweekly. It had no arts coverage, and the only web involved was web offset printing, still used to press the newspapers that exist today. 

But after all these changes, one constant (besides its age-old nickname) still makes the INDY the INDY: the friction between passionate progressive politics and rigorous conventional journalism, which generates the energy it takes to power a just democracy. This animating tension is the paper’s proudest tradition, the foundation of both its imperfect yet important place in local life and its national renown for unflinching, sometimes outrageous, yet sternly principled reporting. 

And it was set in motion at the very beginning, when the ideological spark of publisher Steve Schewel met the journalistic fuel of editor Katherine Fulton.

“I learned politics at my parents’ dinner table,” Schewel recalls one recent morning. Perhaps he looks a little more relaxed now that he’s no longer the mayor of Durham; perhaps not—a steadily warm, kind bearing has always been part of his art, whether as a politician or as a publisher. 

In 1951, Schewel was born into a liberal, Jewish family in segregated Lynchburg, Virginia. He attended his first civil rights protest at age 13. When he went to Duke in 1969, there were also the antiwar, antinuclear, feminist, and environmental movements to strive with. As student government leader, he gave a charter to Duke’s first gay men’s group, defying university president and former state governor Terry Sanford. “I got an incredible education at Duke in every way,” Schewel says.

Independent Weekly, January 1995

After he spent most of his twenties studying English and education at Columbia and Duke, doing some teaching and public-interest work, his first real foray into local politics came in 1976, when he cofounded the Durham People’s Alliance. The group campaigned against the election of a Durham City Council that wanted to strike the East-West Expressway through the historic Black neighborhood of Crest Street. The conservatives won office, though Crest Street would eventually win half the battle: the freeway was built, but without mass displacement. 

But Schewel didn’t know this outcome at the time. He bought an Olivetti typewriter and wrote a memo called “Newspaper Thoughts,” venting about the conservative, stenographic local media’s role in denying Durham a diverse council, sketching the outline of a statewide progressive paper. The memo was shared, commented on, and put aside—until 1979, when Schewel was jailed in Wake County for eight days. 

He was part of the self-described “Raleigh 17” who had been arrested during a sit-in against the construction of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant. “We have this movement,” Schewel remembers thinking. “We don’t like the way it’s being covered. How do we tell the truth about the politics we see in our state?” 

The North Carolina Independent’s first edition—April 16, 1983.

He proposed starting a newspaper to fellow protester Dave Birkhead, who was already setting type for small leftist organizations in the Regulator Bookshop. In 1982, in the heat of June, they plunked a desk into a cinder-block room on Durham’s Hillsborough Road, where exhaust and weed smoke seeped in from the auto shop next door. The first North Carolina Independent came out on April 16, 1983, with a cover story about toxic waste. 

Of course, much had developed in the 10 months before the official debut. There were fact-finding excursions to the Texas Observer and Flint Voice newsrooms; Schewel spent a week at the latter at the sharp elbow of filmmaker-to-be Michael Moore. Investors signed on, and editorial advisers, including Maya Angelou, were lined up. 

They hired a staff: associate publisher Jim Overton, associate editor Dee Reid, reporter Alisa Johnson, sportswriter Barry Jacobs, columnist Garrett Epps, photographer Alma Blount, intern Ann Morris, ad rep Sioux Watson, and ad director Greg Swanson, who, pivotally, convinced them to distribute for free in addition to offering subscriptions. 

And they lured an editor away from another paper, choosing her not despite but for the fact that, in some ways, she was so different from them. 

Katherine Fulton grew up in the mountains of Virginia. After graduating from Harvard, she started working at The Greensboro Record covering local politics. She was 27 when she left for the burgeoning Independent, which did take some coaxing. After all, she had a job on the city desk of a good paper. Her boss had covered Watergate at The New York Times. And here were these scrappy activists offering less certainty and less money—but more freedom.

“An important part of my story is that I had fallen in love with a woman,” Fulton says via video chat from her book-lined office in Northern California. “My sense of the limits of mainstream journalism and my personal evolution made the Independent a wonderful home for me.”

The paper was set against the grain of the South of Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority in many ways, especially in its outspoken embrace of gay rights, which it touted on covers and in editorials. It even hosted drag shows. But to Fulton, being not just a rare female editor but also a lesbian meant it was important to establish journalistic credibility above all.  

“We were attacked as communist and queer,” she says. “If all we did was publish polemical opinion, we were going to be totally written off. I thought first-class investigative journalism could also influence the rest of the press, and without it, I didn’t think we had a prayer.”

None of this means that Schewel lacked a passion for the precision of journalism. But “Katherine was our real journalistic anchor,” he says. “She really believed that a fact was worth a million opinions. We certainly had a point of view, but we believed in the old journalistic virtues of credibility and fairness.” 

Barry Yeoman, an iconic staff reporter, sensed this fine, taut line during his job interview. 

“Katherine asked me if I thought we should be journalists or activists first,” he says. “That was easy for me. I have a journalism degree from NYU. I said journalists.” But he remembers answering a bit more subtly when Schewel asked him the same thing.

“If Steve wanted his clone, he could have chosen his clone,” Yeoman says. “He was completely transparent about the political player he was. But he was really good at staying out of the newsroom.”

Independent Weekly, September 2010

Other staffers affirm that Schewel led by example and inspiration: you always knew what his causes were, but the only pressure to take them up was that you would hate to let him down.

“There was always a creative tension that I thought worked really well,” Fulton says. “Me being more moderate and a champion of the reporting side, while Steve and Dave wanted to pull us into more provocative stances. I still consider it one of the best work partnerships I’ve ever had.” 

The Independent was still in flux in Yeoman’s earliest years. Around the time he arrived, in 1986, it was already starting to pull back from subscriptions and statewide coverage. Shortly after he came, it moved into a new office on Hillsborough Road, a crumbling farmhouse that was either a bohemian oasis or a tetanus-ridden death trap, depending on whom you ask. It swapped Greensboro coverage for Raleigh, cementing its Triangle focus. In 1989, it changed its publishing schedule and its name to The Independent Weekly. Soon, it added an events calendar and someone to run it, Bob Moser, who would become the first arts editor in 1992 before his run as editor in chief. Thus the paper assumed the shape we know today.  

Yeoman started his career at an alt-weekly in Lafayette, Louisiana. The publisher came back from an AAN meeting—the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, which was crucial to the Independent’s formation and has given its work many awards—talking about these “starry-eyed” newspaper founders from Durham that she’d met.

“She said she loved their enthusiasm, but they would never survive,” Yeoman remembers. “They were way too idealistic. So of course, my ears pricked up.”

When he was laid off, he fled to the mountains of North Carolina and started freelancing, including for the Independent, where he honed the kind of long-form, social-justice-focused reporting, interviewing, and portraiture that he now teaches at Wake Forest and Duke

“How do you interview people whose stories are under-told?” he explains. “And then, how do you interview those who have to account for their power?”

As the first wave of staff writers filtered out, Yeoman stepped in. Alongside reporters like Melinda Ruley, Adam Seessel, and Todd Oppenheimer, he would help to write the paper to national fame. By the end of the ’80s, the Independent had been praised in the Columbia Journalism Review (for its “spine of steel”) and the Utne Reader, and it had started to win major honors like the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award.

“How do you interview people whose stories are under-told? And then, how do you interview those who have to account for their power?”

Barry Yeoman

Remembering the paper’s founding crusades, Schewel says, “We covered the hell out of Big Tobacco. Dee Reid and Ann Morris did some fabulous work on that. And we really wanted to give the kind of coverage to Jesse Helms that would help defeat him, which of course we never did. We did better against tobacco.”

As the ’90s began, the Independent’s investigative capacity and reputation grew. A unique grant arrangement with the Institute for Southern Studies allowed the hiring of reporter Bob Burtman so that Yeoman could spend eight months investigating the influence of political contributions on the NC Department of Transportation. His five-part series “Highway Robbery” won two major prizes, the Green Eyeshade and the John Bartlow Martin Award, and caused much discussion. 

“Each time a part dropped, other newspapers in the state wrote about it,” Yeoman says, “and when one of them asked the secretary of transportation about it, he said it was the work of the ‘left-wing attack media from hell,’” a slogan the paper promptly printed on shirts and mugs.

Though some of his definitive work was about uplifting the vulnerable, Yeoman also elicited many other memorable responses from the powerful. Somehow, he always got away with it, sources intact.

There was the time he went to state legislators who supported an antisodomy bill with this line of questioning: Why do you support this legislation? Do you think there’s a compelling public right to know if somebody has had oral sex? Have you had oral sex?

“I think that I played to a cognitive disconnect that people had between the byline and the person,” he says. “I was young, in a wrinkled shirt—a short, stuttering dude who didn’t have the swagger of a lot of journalists. I came across as an underdog, a stray mutt, and it worked in my favor.”

Then there was the time that legislators were debating the state’s official vegetable during a period when Republican governor Jim Martin seemed so ineffective that even his own party was grumbling. Yeoman made the connection, writing a story that compelled Martin to publicly deny that he was “the real state vegetable.” Behind the irresistible headline was “a great reported story with a lot of named sources, including Republicans,” Fulton says. “As a reporter, as a gay man, as a person, Barry was the heart and soul of the paper.”

The Independent was foundationally more diverse in gender and sexuality than in race, beginning with only one Black reporter, Alisa Johnson. It’s an ongoing shortcoming that was first seriously addressed in the ’90s, when Yeoman, after attending a weeklong Poynter Institute seminar on covering race relations, led an internal effort that earned the institute’s Model of Excellence Award in 1997.

“I can date my history as a journalist pre- and post-Poynter,” he says. “I recognized that all the goodwill I brought as a white liberal didn’t amount to much if I had not developed cultural competency, and I worked in an all-white newsroom, which I did. We did some really serious work, under Bob Moser, to change.”

The paper held summits with local Black and Latino leaders. It hired a number of Black columnists, reporters, and editors, and Yeoman did another eight-month embed, this time at a Hispanic church in Siler City, to write about immigration in his textured, intimate way. It was his parting gift before he left the staff on December 31, 1999, taking something of the paper’s 20th-century self with him.  

As the paper’s weekly reporting developed, so did its annual traditions. Many have retired: the Citizen Awards, the Indies Arts Awards, the poetry contest. But some are still very much alive, including local election endorsements and Best of the Triangle.

INDY Week, August 2014

Sioux Watson—who rose to ad director, then publisher, over her three-decade tenure—coordinated the massive awards parties the paper once had. Picture a thousand people in fancy dress at the Museum of Life and Science, with Schewel emceeing in silver sequins. Each winner would receive a small North Carolina pine tree. The inaugural Citizen Awards went to Lightning Brown, the state’s first openly gay political candidate, and Joe Herzenberg, the first openly gay mayor of Chapel Hill.   

“Joe and Lightning took their trees and planted them on the grounds of the North Carolina legislature,” Schewel says. “I won’t tell you whether or not they’re still there, because if they are, I don’t want anybody to take them away.” 

The Independent published endorsements from the beginning. They really caused a stir in 1988. The paper endorsed Harold Hardison’s opponent in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, and someone drove around picking up the papers and throwing them away. A friend in Raleigh saw the car in action; its license plate said “ATHOL.” (Sound it out.) Jim Overton went to Hardison’s office and found the ATHOL parked there. Confronted, the campaign denied any knowledge but apologized for some errant volunteer. Sensing an opportunity, Schewel alerted the TV media of “the Hardison Heist” and reprinted the issue with a flag on the corner: Steal this paper before somebody else does.

“That was a publicity booster,” Schewel says. “Even national NPR reported on it.” 

The influence of INDY endorsements lives on, though it was more visible before smartphones, when every other person in the voting line held a telltale clip-out guide—at certain polling locations, anyway. 

Best of the Triangle came about, in part, to undermine the Spectator, which had long been running a feature by that name. The Independent answered with “The Real Best of the Triangle,” then published its competitor’s cease-and-desist letter. For years, the Independent’s version, like the Spectator’s, was entirely an editorial product with no reader picks. It wasn’t until 2006 that it became a reader-driven poll run by the marketing department and started to make its real impact, the categories and zones growing more granular, the stickers layering the windows of local businesses year by year.

This was the innovation of Gloria Mock, a longtime ad director who first arrived in 1994, when the Independent bought the local publication she worked for, The Comic Revue. (Because of a personal connection on staff, the Independent carried Life in Hell, Matt Groening’s pre-Simpsons comic strip, in its early days, though the paper’s real comics legacy was laid by the local cartoonist V.C. Rogers.) Mock stayed until 2015, when she went to work for the paper’s music festival, Hopscotch. She recalls, “When I said to [editor] Richard Hart, ‘We need more categories, you know, best french fries,’ he was like, ‘You want to do a reader’s poll? Fine.’ And I never looked back.” 

It’s not always easy selling ads in a publication that doesn’t pander to wealth and power. While the INDY’s marketing staff is a vital part of its culture and a necessity for its existence, the firewall between edit and ads is guarded from both sides. Watson remembers once luring back an offended restaurateur only to open the paper to a scathing review of her new venture. And she put on a big local food fair at the old South Square Mall—the same week the editors decided to publish a cover story about local food pollution called “Poisoned Harvest.”

“I would talk to people who really wanted us to write about what they were doing,” Mock remembers, “and I would say, ‘The advertising is just not tied in to what our writers write about.’ I would use the example of a wealthy business in their category: If X, Y, or Z started buying full-page ads, would you want our writers to be beholden to that?”

Lisa Sorg, the paper’s editor from 2007 to 2015, certainly wasn’t one to kowtow to advertisers or anyone else. “I enjoyed the license that we had, because there was an expectation that if you’re a weekly, you’re going to have a certain kind of fuck-you attitude,” she says. (Her greatest editorial headline: “When nipples are outlawed, only outlaws will have nipples,” describing a piece of legislation in the long tradition of policing women’s bodies.)

Sorg arrived at the Independent from a long alt-weekly background in Texas, shortly before the paper left the old farmhouse and moved to the Venable Center on Pettigrew. She still has the “N” from the sign as a sculpture in her yard in Durham, where she now writes for NC Newsline.

“I enjoyed the license that we had, because there was an expectation that if you’re a weekly, you’re going to have a certain kind of fuck-you attitude

Lisa Sorg

Her tenure was defined by reporting on low-income housing issues, by an award-winning series on hog farms, and by her love of rich, narrative long-form, which, in 2014, brought us John Tucker’s magisterial 10,000-word profile of a high school wrestler who had been paralyzed in the ring. But shrinking budgets and a more crowded attention economy were starting to bite in.

When the first issue of the Independent came out, they didn’t have newspaper stands, so they just put them under the Spectator racks. The papers were mirror images, the Spectator dominant in Raleigh and the arts, the Independent in Durham and Chapel Hill politics. But the Spectator was older, with a wider base of advertisers and more readers. The Independent knew that a truly successful paper would have to consolidate those beats. It wanted to be the one, with the high-minded purpose of spreading its more progressive message and the practical one of gobbling up all of that ad revenue.

The first big coup was stealing star columnist Hal Crowther, who debuted in the Independent’s first weekly issue. It was a foreshadowing of 2002, when the paper bought and dismantled its weakened rival, scooping up the local arts writers it needed to capitalize on that now-open lane. It was finally the only game in town, and for a few years, it ventured to a place seldom glimpsed by alt-weeklies: the positive side of the ledger. The staff grew; people got raises. Print circulation topped out at 50,000, and the papers could be 80 pages long. Sorg remembers a 56-pager seeming like the end of the world. 

As the 2000s waned, though, the recession exacerbated a specific problem: the internet was eating up classified ads, a major revenue source, and display ads were falling. Schewel remembers losing a quarter of their ad revenue in one year. As the Times has reported, more than 1,800 local print outlets shuttered between 2004 and 2019, opening news deserts across the country. 

“It’s really sad,” Sorg says. “We hear a lot about news deserts and the centralization of media these days; [staff writer] Fiona Morgan was brilliant on that and really understood it long before anybody else did. But I long for the days of great alt-weekly long-form pieces.”

Another early seer of things to come was Katherine Fulton, who, after the Independent, went to California in the mid-’90s to study and advise on the emerging internet’s potential effects on public-interest journalism.

“It became clear to me by 1999 that the window for journalism to aggressively adapt had already closed,” she says. “I would say the Independent lasted because it was scrappy; it had to keep learning and changing over time. And it had this culture that was the result of an incredibly inspiring purpose and founder. If Steve had sold it to the wrong people, it would have put the Independent out of business, because these companies are just optimized for profit, and they’ve hollowed out the purpose of journalism: creating a healthy, inclusive, pluralistic democracy, which we now understand is far more precious than we ever realized.”

In 2012, Schewel, turning to his political career, sold the paper to Richard Meeker and Mark Zusman, who own Willamette Week in Portland and the Santa Fe Reporter in New Mexico. Meeker has been the INDY’s sole owner for the past few years, though that is about to change.

“Having to lay people off and cut wages was really hard, and I was already on the Durham City Council by then,” Schewel says of deciding to sell. “I have to hand it to Richard and [publisher] Susan [Harper] and everybody else who kept it going. It’s not as big and has fewer stories, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good a paper, and it’s harder now than it ever was.” 

Before Schewel moved on, he had one more legacy to plant. Music and arts coverage had come gradually to the Independent, through the work of writers like David Fellerath (the affable arts editor I first worked under), Olufunke Moses, Karen Mann, Maria Brubeck, Linda Belans, Laura Hatmaker, and the INDY’s immortal theater critic, Byron Woods. By 2010, in some circles, the paper was better known for arts than for news coverage, and it was ready to claim that authority.   

“I had already been wanting to do a music festival because a lot of my friends from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies had these wonderful festivals,” Schewel says. (Recall that South by Southwest started at The Austin Chronicle.) So when sales staffer Greg Lowenhagen and music editor Grayson Haver Currin approached him with a big idea, he was ready for it.

The Hopscotch Music Festival also exemplified the mounting ambition of Haver Currin, who had been handed the local indie-rock torch by Kirk Ross, an INDY reporter and editor, but also developed distinctly national aims, in concert with the Internet Age. Over his time at the INDY, from 2005 to 2016, he was calendar, music, and managing editor; these days he seems to spend most of his time hiking and writing for The New York Times.

Haver Currin, who started writing for the INDY fresh off of NC State’s Technician, recalls that in his first years, the paper was still struggling with its foothold in Raleigh. So when his basketball buddy Lowenhagen proposed putting on a music festival, it seemed like a natural fit. 

“It would give us a stronger inroad into Raleigh,” Haver Currin says, “and we saw it as an investment in the culture of the Triangle. It was a kind of proof of concept, and I think the line from it to, say, the IBMA Awards is pretty clear. That’s a risk Steve took that people in the Triangle could do big events, and he was right.”

Lowenhagen managed the logistics while Currin curated lists of bands and tried to navigate the obvious conflicts. “I think Lisa [Sorg] had some rightful hesitation about the music editor booking a music festival,” he says. No one could deny that Hopscotch was newsworthy, but then, no one can say how the paper’s coverage might have been different in other circumstances. Regardless, the conflict didn’t last too long: when Schewel sold the paper, he and Lowenhagen kept Hopscotch, then sold it to an Etix founder and other partners in 2015. 

“We never made any money, but we had a good time,” Schewel says. “It was awesome on its own, and we were the music newspaper, you know that. It helped to increase that brand.”

But it wasn’t just the music newspaper. It was a beloved local institution that had changed with a changing world and would face even more upheaval to overcome. But where others fell, it still stands, still adapting and growing, in the promising light of a new local partnership, a large online readership, and, in its Press Club, the most direct community investment it’s had since the early days.

And it all began with Dave Birkhead typing stories on a rickety old typesetter, cutting up the pages and photographing them with a big camera. 

Early in the morning, before sunrise, Schewel would take a grease pencil, fill in all the light spots on the cheap negatives, and hang them up to dry. He, Birkhead, and Overton would drive to Benson and bring back 10,000 papers in a van, adding subscription labels on the way. This was before the long service of distributor Brenna Berry, so each person had an extra part to play in getting the message to the people.

“Everybody on the staff had a route,” Schewel says. “I had a route. Reporters had a route. Ad salespeople had a route. We went and put the paper out. And that’s the way it was.”

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