Why Independent Matters (6/00)

Vital public discourse starts small. That’s why independent periodicals with modest circulations — exemplified by the members of the Independent Press Association (IPA) – matter just as profoundly today as they did a century ago. The practice of democracy, everywhere in the world, depends on media outlets like these.

Despite the proliferation of all-news cable channels, talk radio and the now ubiquitous internet, print persists as the medium where we begin to describe and name public problems, where we undertake the first discussion of issues that shape the daily lives of ordinary people.

And, while mainstream newspapers and magazines may participate in this process, feisty independent publications generate the most innovative reporting, analysis and debate. Investigative reporters, academics, policy specialists and other advocates for change do their most original work in these pages. There they know they can expect to engage the readers they encounter – even through the smallest of these publications – in the kind of spirited exchange necessary to refine and sharpen a new idea. These conversations, all too often ignored or pushed to the margins, can grow to become the cornerstones essential to building new public policies and new ways of thinking.

Many of the periodicals in the IPA take it as their mission to move readers beyond conversation to action. The independent, "alternative" press is organically connected to social movements. Publications rise, fall or subsist in circumstances that parallel the movements they represent. Such periodicals serve as forums for debating strategic approaches, for finding common cause among seemingly disparate, often geographically diffuse, constituencies, and, in hard times, for relentless critiques and attempts to resolve factional quarrels.

Some historical examples:

* When, in the spring of 1776, Thomas Paine used a self-published pamphlet called Common Sense to argue that rebellion against the crown was a legitimate response to oppressive conditions, he directly challenged the prevailing public sentiment that acts of rebellion were beyond the boundaries of responsible civic behavior. By the summer of 1776, Paine’s radical argument had evolved into a new conventional wisdom.

* In a series of 1862 article in his small circulation Douglass Monthly, Frederick Douglass argued that the best way to disrupt the Confederacy was to take southern blacks out of slavery and put them into Yankee uniforms. Douglass’ arguments crystallized new but growing recognition throughout the Union leadership that slavery had become an obstacle to preserving the Union. The Douglass Monthly and Frederick Douglass himself deserve much of the credit for persuading Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

* Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and the other muckrakers exposed "the underside of American capitalism" in the pages of Colliers’, McClure’s and other popular magazines. Before these crusading journalists were silenced by new, industry-friendly, magazine owners, they had facilitated the passage of some of the Progressive era’s most effective regulatory reforms.

* Writing in The Revolution, a nineteenth century journal whose circulation never exceeded 2,500, Susan B. Anthony began a critique of gender-based civil discrimination that galvanized the movement for universal suffrage. A century later, her successors, in the pages of still-extant periodicals like Feminist Studies and Off Our Backs, offered the analysis that has expanded the definition of feminism to include militancy against rape, domestic violence and the poverty of single mothers.

* In the Cold War era, analysis appearing in the pages of Monthly Review, Latin American Perspectives, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and dozens of other journalistic and scholarly titles fundamentally informed organized efforts to influence US policy on nuclear weapons, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.

Challenging conventional wisdom. Speaking truth to power. Exposing unpleasant realities. Giving voice to the silenced. These are the sacred priorities of advocacy journalism. Throughout the twentieth century, oppositional and minority movements, including people of color, the disabled, gays and lesbians, workers and welfare mothers, have used small-circulation periodicals to develop the vision and power their struggles have required.

Beth Schulman is the IPA Education Director and publisher of charter IPA member In These Times. This article is excerpted from the introduction to Annotations: A Guide to the Critical and Independent Press, from the IPA and the Alternative Press Center.