The Indy embraces quirks, celebrates personality and admires art. It says “no, thanks” to partially hydrogenated highlights on the evening news. There’s a mutual impatience at the paper for the hate speech on AM talk radio. When someone says “Rush Limbaugh,” certain staffers are suddenly inspired to purchase a ball gag for next year’s Secret Santa gift exchange.
Of course, there’s no shutting up most Indy staffers, and the collision of articulated ideas creates its own friction inside the office. It crackles like static electricity. The pop and shock lasts for an instant, then from the hard drive to the page to the street the words flow, every week, on a mission to thoughtfully stir things up.
My arrival at The Independent was quite momentous. A cover featuring gay performance artist Tim Miller next to Jesse Helms (May 1994) was my “first issue.” The company was aflutter with controversy. Should we have placed such an image on our cover? An ad with the same image had published for weeks. But when used to make a point about Jesse Helms’ distaste for Tim’s form of art, man, oh man, did it hit the fan.
It was then I realized the power of the press, especially this press. Readers interact with The Independent. They care what we say or don’t say, and how it is said. My job now supported something that spoke to my community, about my community. Quite a good feeling I must say.
Watching us grow as a business and an institution, more and more successful each year, has been quite rewarding. Our first year of actual profit was thrilling. Then we, the little local guys, turned the tide of our industry with the purchase of the chain-owned Spectator. I’m proud of who we are, where we have been and where we are going.
When asked about how I like working at the Indy I used to say, “some call it work.” It was the best job I’ve ever had. I learned that there were some companies more interested in social justice than making a fast buck.
I was Jessica Stern back then, the Chapel Hill and national sales manager. Now I live in New Orleans with my husband, who’s associate publisher of Gambit, another alternative newsweekly. Since leaving the Indy, I founded Media Services LLC, which handles national ad sales, placing ads for clients and sales recruiting and training for alternative and community newspapers. I am also attending law school, focusing on Southern poverty law, a topic to which I was first introduced at the Indy.
The best thing about the Indy has always been the editorial content. I remember when former staffer Eric Bates’ article, “Shadow of a Doubt,” investigated the conviction and death sentence of David Junior Brown.
Jessica Stern Benjamin
From 1984, when I came to The Independent as calendar editor, until I retired from the paper as associate editor in 2000, I saw the paper change dramatically. Editorially it became much more focused, taking a proactive stance on local problems such as sprawl, rather than waiting for the problems to develop and then reporting on them.
As a benefit of editing articles for publication, I came to know many of the local writers whose talents and insights gave The Independent‘s cultural coverage its signature immediacy and flavor. Who can forget, for example, the wit and sophistication of Durham native Helen Whiting’s inspirational articles on cooking?
During my stint as office manager, I mailed out reprints for the most-requested cover story in Independent history: Barry Yeoman’s Slumlord Hall of Shame (1990). His well-researched article revealed shocking truths about abysmal rental property and abusive landlords–right in our own community. As many as 10 years after the story was first published, people were still calling the paper to check out prospective landlords before signing a lease with them. I was proud to be part of the support staff that helped make things like that happen.
The biggest change The Independent made in my life, however, was that I met the love of my life, now my husband for five years, at one of The Independent‘s singles’ parties.
Carol Collier Wills,
In September 1985 my mom had died and I took a leave of absence from the publishing house where I worked. During that leave, around the Thanksgiving holiday, I came across The Independent in a downtown Raleigh newsrack. The headline on the cover was “The People who Feed Us.” It was an amazing story written by Bill Warner detailing the conditions of the cafeteria and fast food workers in the Triangle. And there I was eating lunch at the old K&W Cafeteria in Cameron Village observing the people the story was about. The narrative was so riveting, that after reading the article, I decided I wanted to work for that paper. Over a year later, after much pestering and cajoling, Jim Overton, the associate publisher, took me on as a circulation consultant. Later on I worked in the advertising department.
During the five years I was there, the paper grew from a bi-weekly to a weekly. This was also when the Hardiston for Lieutenant Governor campaign stole 10,000 of our papers off our newstands. The headline that week (April 1988) was “Hardiston: STOP HIM. The Most Important Vote You Will Cast.” His campaign people didn’t think much of that, so one of them, though professed to be acting on his own, went around Raleigh scooping up all our papers in his car as soon as they were distributed. One of our incredibly loyal readers–a Raleigh attorney–saw this happening and called our Raleigh office. I happened to be there that day and took the call. Our loyal reader had a description of the car and the license plate. Remarkably the campaign’s office shared the back of our parking lot. Another employee (Rose Ramos) and I got up and went walking through the lot, spotted the car and had solid proof that the campaign was involved in the swiping of thousands of copies of The Independent. Within hours the decision was made to reprint the stolen Raleigh papers. The headline: “Steal these papers before someone else does!” They were on the newstands the next day, and radio stations and newspapers from all over the state and the country covered the story. The April 26 NPR All Things Considered news program opened with the story that evening. Hardiston went on to lose the election and The Independent has kept on truckin’.
The Independent was an amazingly fertile classroom for grassroots publishing. So much of what I know about alternatives came from my experiences at The Independent. Eighteen years later I’m the CEO of a chain of alternative newsweeklies in New England. From circulation part-timer to CEO, it’s been an amazing ride.
Working at The Independent affected me profoundly in many ways. The impact of the work that was done during the years I was there and the way we did it continues today.
One lesson I learned is the importance of distinguishing between hearsay and facts. When I was a young woman, I would often read or listen to someone talking about current events in which I was passionately interested. If I agreed with what was being expressed, or if I respected the person doing the talking, I would automatically assume that I was learning the truth of the matter.
I remember riding in a car with former editor Katherine Fulton one day. She was telling me about some of the first staff members, including one who was an excellent writer but who’d not had previous newspaper experience. Katherine said it was hard work to get her to understand the difference between fact and opinion. I remember thinking, “What’s the big deal? If you’re right, you’re right.”
But I started noticing how often my friends I and would talk as if there was absolute truth, and how often that was actually impossible. I started asking people, “Do you know personally that this happened? Did the person that it happened to tell you about it, or did you just hear that it happened?” To this day I want to know if the person I am talking to has first-hand knowledge of the facts to back up their analysis. These days especially it seems crucial to at least try to separate facts from opinions.
In 1995-1996 I was the “traffic coordinator” at the Indy–part-time work I found while writing a dissertation in cultural anthropology. I wanted to work at the Indy. I liked reading it, and liked the fact that I wouldn’t have to dress up like an Enron guy. I tracked the flow of ads from the ad reps into the paper. I planned the “map”–the location of everything that would appear in the edition.
Using this cool little waxing machine, I pasted up everything the production team cranked out. At about 2 a.m., I’d check the printer’s plates to make sure they got the right pictures into the right boxes. It’s so cool: These plates are clamped on a cylinder. That cylinder rolls across ink. It then, now coated with ink, rolls against a rubber cylinder where the images and words and images are “offset” to the rubber cylinder. Then, from the rubber cylinder, the words and images get transferred to the paper that’s flying through the press. It’s really beautiful. And think about how it’s changed human societies.
Sioux Watson and Steve Schewel asked me to find a lesson in life here to report to our beloved Indy readers. Here it is: Sometimes you’ll do a little something in life–like take a part-time job at the Indy–and that little something will take on a life of its own. Since those traffic coordination days, it’s been newspapers all the way for me. I now advise the Campus Echo, the student newspaper at N.C. Central University. It’s now my seventh year advising student newspapers.
I’m probably still brain-damaged from the heavy exhaust fumes (and thick marijuana smoke) that always emanated from the auto repair store next to our original Taj Mahal of an office, so I only have scattered memories of the early years:
Waking up on one hour’s sleep ready to go print the very first issue when Steve called to tell me to go back to sleep; it seems we forgot to call the printer and tell them we were coming.
Birkhead slumping to the floor with a 3-inch gash in his palm, suffered while he did his usually highly animated monologue about life–and just happened to have knife-sharp scissors in his hands.
Those suspicious sucking sounds from the darkroom that seemed associated with our first credible ad staffer.
Ann writing up how to get to the ramp festival–while still partially deaf from the Louisburg Whistler’s convention.
Dee delighting in her latest small scoop about an all-too-predictable outrage.
Alma rocking out to Los Lobos while producing another eye-stopping photograph.
Oh, yes, delivering the second issue of the paper–on April 29, of all days–only to look up and realize it was snowing. And wondering if I shouldn’t go back to a real job.
Throughout it all, however, I have a memory of dedicated, determined, passionate people–who really cared about the future of North Carolina, and did their best to put that passion to work at the Indy.
Twenty years a fishwrapper. Keep up the good work.