Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Independent Press Association is dead

And so is this blog. I am no longer a freelancer, having become co-editor of Greater Good Magazine. It's a great job. I love it. But I thought I'd post one last time about the Independent Press Association, which was once the great hope of indie publishing. Now something else has to replace it.

Here's my post (from the Other Magazine blog) on the death of IPA, which repeats some material I've posted here in the past:

The IPA was founded in 1996 to support free speech and social justice. Under John Anner's leadership, it grew rapidly from a scrappy little nonprofit into a multimillion-dollar social venture that provided business services to a membership of periodicals that included Mother Jones, Sierra, Utne Reader, The Nation, and, at one point, over 500 indie magazines, including Other Magazine, many of which were threatened by the consolidation of the distribution and retail ends of the magazine industry.

At its height, the IPA handled the distribution of almost 100 members, made them loans, financed investigative features by journalists of color, ran a paper buying co-op, and provided technical assistance and a sense of community for magazines that were until that point pretty fragmented. Sure, there were ego clashes and ideological battles and some pretty serious mistakes, all signs of a creative period of an organization’s history. Lots of amazing people worked at or with the IPA and contributed to the growth of the programs, some of which were new under the sun. I was there. I was, and still am, proud to have been there.

Four years ago, Anner left and the IPA hired Richard Landry as Executive Director. As interim Executive Director, I chaired the search and I voted to give him the job after our first choice turned us down. Richard had no obvious political values and no background in indie publishing, but we hoped that he would bring management expertise to an organization that had grown too rapidly and developed problems typical to undercapitalized start-ups. We hoped that he would grow to love the magazines and embrace the values of the organization, which we spent a great deal of time discussing with him in the interview process. We hoped a lot of things.

Instead he, with the help of an IPA board of directors he stacked with sycophants, systematically betrayed the membership and the principles on which the organization was founded. Dissenting staff and board members were driven out of the organization; members who raised questions on the IPA listserve were kicked off; practices and activities that cultivated communication and cooperation were gradually eliminated. A cone of silence descended over the organization. Dissidents were slandered like disgraced Soviet generals after a show trial, and airbrushed out of the photographs.

In June of last year, the IPA was the subject of a major investigative piece in the SF Weekly that covered the meltdown of IPA's newsstand service and the destruction of the community that once defined the organization. The silence was broken. Members left in droves; foundations and major donors stopped sending checks; the surviving businesses collapsed; the leadership of the IPA grew increasingly isolated and solipsistic.

As of today, the IPA is dead. As I write, staff are packing boxes and, from what I hear, Richard is busy avoiding responsibility for the outcome. (Richard and the IPA Board, if y’all are reading this: The results speak for themselves. You disappointed me, the staff, supporters, the members, and, indirectly, everyone who reads and values indie magazines. It was a lack of integrity and the absence of vision, not a lack of foundation support, that killed the IPA.)

What the hell happened? For years non-profits have been pushed (and have pushed themselves) to start businesses and adopt a more business-like culture that includes financial incentives and high executive salaries - with very fucked-up results that have included big scandals at non-profits like the United Way and the Red Cross.

Social ventures—as businesses run like non-profits are called—have tended to recruit from the corporate sector for management and leadership, when in trouble looking for a savior, only to find that such people often don't get the mission or culture of the organization, or the difference between non-profit and for-profit goals. They solve some problems but create others, in the process betraying and disillusioning the very people they're supposed to serve.

That's exactly what Richard Landry and his allies did to the IPA.

What's the solution? I've heard it suggested that non-profits should stick to advocacy and soup kitchens, and leave the buying and selling to private businesses. Maybe. But I'm inclined to believe that it's too easy to reject the notion that non-profits might use the tools of the marketplace to accomplish their missions. Indie magazines, no matter how left-wing, are fundamentally entrepreneurial entities, and organizations that serve them need to get magazines like Other into the marketplace in order to spread their ideas. As privately owned distributors and indie outlets collapse, charitable organizations have to step in and keep the ideas flowing. (In Canada, incidentally, the government helps keep indie publishing and bookstores alive, with help from NGOs. It will be a long, long time before we see anything like that here in the USA.)

For the whole social venture thing to work, non-profits need patient capital from foundations as well as grassroots support—readers should expect to pay more for indie content, in the form of donations as well as cover and subscription prices. I also think non-profits (and their funders) need to focus on hiring true believers and then making damn sure that they get the training they need to do their jobs and bring their projects to scale.

But the most important elements—the pieces that Richard eliminated at the IPA—are commitment to the mission and values of the organization, transparency in finances and decision-making, and accountability to the people who depend on non-profits for services and a voice in the culture and in public affairs. Without that, a non-profit may as well be Enron. In the end, that’s exactly what the IPA became.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

School for Censors

Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin:

Workshop On Censorship At Language And Literature Bureau
By Jon Tampoi

Bandar Seri Begawan - In conjunction with the Reading Month, the Language and Literature Bureau has organised several workshops to benefit the public.

One of them is a workshop on censorship, which commenced yesterday at the Lecture Hall of the Language and Literature Bureau. It is being organised by the Activities Committee.

The workshop, which will run until June 14, will discuss the proper methods of censoring an article, material or any related matter without altering the content of the subject.

Speakers from the Language and Literature Bureau, Islamic Dakwah Centre and Internal Security Department have been invited to present methods and guidelines at the workshop.

There will also be visits to the Package Receiving Section of the Postal Department at Old Airport in Berakas, as well as the Censors and Publication Control Department of the Islamic Dakwah Centre.

Upon completion of the course, the participants comprising personnel from government departments will each receive a certificate.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Melinda Duckett vs. All of Us

In yesterday's SF Chronicle, columnist Jon Carroll pleads with liberals and progressives and decent people everywhere to conserve our outrage and not waste it on the likes of Nancy Grace.

"In these troubled times, outrage is a limited commodity," Carroll writes. "There are only so many hours in the day... So we need triage. We need risk assessment. We need to remember that just because the herd is running some place doesn't mean that we have to run that way too."

But Jon, I think I can spare a moment of spittle-spewing indignation in memory of Melinda Duckett, who was suspected of murdering her 2-year-old Trenton and foolishly agreed to go on national TV to talk about it. Duckett killed herself the day her interview with rabid talk-show host Nancy Grace aired on CNN, which ran an announcement of the suicide at the bottom of the screen. Classy. I've read the transcript and it's pretty clear that Grace grilled Duckett into incoherence, intent on solving the case right then and there in front of the whole audience.

Here's the context: Duckett had been laid off from her job and was going through a divorce with Trenton's father, who'd been hit with a temporary restraining order. Parents, try to walk a mile in her shoes and imagine the stress of a situation like that. Here's a 21-year-old woman, barely an adult, who was probably living every moment of every day with fear and anxiety. She's isolated and taking care of a toddler. She probably doesn't have much help or support. The money was running out. There's evidence that the dad was abusive, though I'm not going to say if he was or wasn't because I wasn't there.

Being a parent provokes a curiously bipolar response to a case like this. On one hand, it seems impossibly monstrous that any parent could commit an act of violence against a helpless baby; some of us want vengeance on behalf of our own children. On the other, I think that if we are willing to dig deep, most parents will find moments when we've all been pushed right to the edge of violence. (Think four in the morning and the baby's been crying for an hour and you've got a big meeting at work in five hours and your spouse is irritable and not much help and your arms are getting tired from carrying the baby and if you have to shush one more time you're going to scream...)

I've had sleep-deprived, stressed out moms tell me that they feel like they are going to die; one said that she didn't feel like she could control any aspect of her life and that she was angry at everything, including her little boy. I've read that moms who kill their kids often convince themselves that their children are better off dead, given the reality the family is facing. Certainly, there's no shortage of parents, moms and dads, who beat their kids to within an inch of their lives. This isn't to excuse the parents - they should be tried in court and either treated or punished, as the case warrants - but if we can try to understand the conditions that would drive a woman (or man) to that extremity, we might be able to help prevent a disaster or heal a family that's been through one.

That said, I don't know if Duckett was innocent or guilty. I have no idea if Nancy Grace drove Duckett to suicide. Neither do you. I'm less concerned about the facts of the case than about what the Nancy Grace interview reveals about our culture and parenting. In the transcript, Grace is conducting multiple interviews simultaneously, including with Melinda Duckett, her estranged husband Josh, and a circus tent of guests who critique Duckett's "performance" as the interview proceeds.

At one point, Duckett, who was probably exhausted and is visibly confused, says she doesn't want to answer a question "because I'm not dealing with media very well." (Turned out later her divorce lawyer had advised her not to answer certain questions.) Grace turns to Marc Klaas, president of an organization called Beyondmissing and crusading celebrity father of the murdered Polly, for an opinion. "Nancy, in these kinds of cases the media is never the problem," says Klaas, whose job is to appear in the media. "The media is always a friend, it's about sharing information. It's about transparency, it's about working with the authorities. It's about working with the media and it's about getting over that hump that people are looking at you. And quite frankly, Melinda is not doing that very well at all."

"The media is always a friend"? "Melinda is not doing that very well at all"? Who the hell is this guy? He acts like the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" for parents of missing children. Perhaps he should have coached Melinda beforehand, maybe gone through her wardrobe and shared his favorite hair gel, developed some talking points and blocked some tragic poses. Then perhaps Duckett might have performed to his satisfaction for our friend, the media. Even assuming that Klaas sincerely wants to help parents find abducted kids, I'd respectfully suggest that his appearance on Nancy Grace's show didn't help anyone except Marc Klaas. It's fun to be on TV, isn't it, Marc? Remember back when it was just a means to an end? How naive you were, back then. How much more sophisticated you are now.

And how sophisticated we all pretend to be. I scanned editorials, blogs like the one you're reading, and talk-show discussions. Newspapers and many blogs dutifully roasted Grace for being crass, but a substantial number of TV talking heads fell over themselves with support for Grace and her tactics. Duckett was an adult, say the talking heads. She should have known the score, and if she didn't, it's her fault. She should have watched more CNN and maybe taken some notes, for future reference, back when she had the chance, presumably. She didn't even have the common decency to have attended j-school.

Melinda Duckett may or may not have committed a crime. That hasn't been proved one way or the other. But in my eyes, and of course in the eyes of lots of people, CNN and Nancy Grace stand convicted of turning a family tragedy into entertainment. Grace and homelander celebrities like her say they're trying to "reunite families" (direct quote from a press release!), but they do nothing of the kind. Instead they directly hurt the families who stumble, blinking and nervous, in front of cameras hoping for help or vindication or sometimes fifteen minutes of fame.

That alone is wrong, but it's much bigger than the families who land in the spotlight. In a mindless drive for eyeballs and profits, mainstream media cheapen the culture that's supposed to bind us together and they drag their audiences into moral and political fantasylands. Many editorials I read faulted Grace for her journalistic ethics and technique, but to me the media's systemwide failure is moral (in failing to distinguish right and wrong) and political (in abandoning their historic mandate to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - today in the media and in every major institution, it is the comfortable who have their backsides kissed and the afflicted who gets their asses kicked).

When we can't find justice in the real world, we look for it on TV. We seek the appearance of justice and indulge ourselves in fantasies of moral rectification. Maybe that's necessary in fictions like 24 or Over There, but it's terrible and destructive when enacted as ritual slaughter on TV that purports to be reality, starring real people who don't have the benefits of a script, teleprompter, or competent legal representation.

Sometimes when I look out at the world I've helped to make - through inaction or self-indulgence - for Liko, I want to cry. We can do better than this.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Another Great Organization: Alternatives for Community and Environment

Today I'm in Boston working for Alternatives for Community and Environment. I first encountered ACE about ten years ago, when my good friend Jodi Sugerman-Brozan joined the staff to organize Roxbury youth around public transportation issues.

"ACE builds the power of communities of color and lower income communities in New England to eradicate environmental racism and classism and achieve environmental justice," reads their mission. "We believe that everyone has the right to a healthy environment and to be decision-makers in issues affecting our communities."

The most interesting thing about ACE is how it has transformed itself from a legal and technical assistance agency started by a couple of nice white guys into a grassroots community organization mostly staffed and led by the constituents it's supposed to serve: the neighborhoods in Boston most affected by urban environmental hazards like lead-contaminated lots, diesel exhaust, solid waste facilities, etc.

It remains a hybrid organization where gray-bearded Euro-American attorneys work side-by-side with 17-year-old neighborhood kids to change the rules of the game. I'm sitting in the office now, and though it's just a regular ordinary work day, the energy is palpable.

Speaking of energy, have you done anything lately to stop the corporate takeover of the Internet? If not, start here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Three Great Organizations: ISS, Grassroots Fundraising Journal and Media Alliance

I'm in North Carolina right now helping the Institute for Southern Studies to develop a comprehensive media strategy to support its work and revive its award-winning magazine Southern Exposure, which was important resource to me when I was an activist and organizer in North Central Florida, a million years ago.

More personal/political news: Last week I was elected to two Boards of Directors - Media Alliance and the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. Both are tremendous progressive organizations that I'm proud to be a part of. I'd like to use this as an opportunity to tell you about them.

I've been involved with Media Alliance, whose mission is to build a more just and open media system, almost since the day I moved to San Francisco in August 2000, helping to organize a protest of the National Association of Broadcasters convention.

Recently Media Alliance - which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary - took a big financial hit when its health insurance provider canceled coverage of freelancers enrolled in a unique program offered through Media Alliance.

How people or organizations react to bad times reveals a lot about their characters. Media Alliance could have done what some organizations have done in similar circumstances, which is to hide from criticism and pass the bad times on to their constituency. Instead throughout the crisis the staff of Media Alliance thought first and foremost about assisting freelancers affected by the loss of health coverage and staff devoted tremendous energy to assisting them in the transition.

I was hired as a consultant to help Media Alliance create a strategy and locate new funding in a time of financial crisis. The Media Alliance Board developed an aggressive 2-year strategy of expanding its work as a statewide intermediary, traning community based organizations to participate in media policy debates, while continuing to directly mobilize Bay Area activists around such issues as municipal Wi-Fi.

We took that strategy to three funders, two of whom were entirely new to Media Alliance. Not only were we successful, but the two new funders together tossed in an extra $25K just because they liked the proposals so much. It's a tribute to the effectiveness of Media Alliance and Executive Director Jeff Perlstein that the organization can be so frank about its position and still win new support.

The membership meeting at which I was elected was perhaps smaller than in previous years, yet there was no sign of bitterness. Indeed, the mood was hopeful, fueled by the knowledge that the media justice movement is at last maturing into a force that could transform the media landscape. Media Alliance has been a big part of that.

If I have less to say about Grassroots Fundraising Journal, it's because they have a simpler recent history and mission - to create and distribute accessible materials that teach people how to raise money. When I was learning my trade as a fundraiser and organizational development strategist, the Grassroots Fundraising Journal taught me many of the nuts and bolts, speaking in a language and with values that I shared.

Shortly after we moved to San Francisco, my wife Shelly worked briefly at the Journal and I got to know founders Kim Klein and Stephanie Roth quite well. Kim, in case you've never heard of her, is the authority on raising money to support social-justice organizing and author of the definitive guide Fundraising for Social Change. As Kim steps down from her position as publisher of the Journal, I'm proud to be on Board and helping with the transition.

And it's great to be helping three organizations that have each provided help and inspiration to me in the past.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Independent Press Association: A "Hard-Hearted Corporation"?

Where have I been?


What am I working on?

I'm helping the Institute for Southern Studies create a strategic plan for its publications program; raising money for Alternatives for Community and Environment; writing a business plan for Media Alliance's earned income programs; helping the Utne Institute design its programs; writing articles for AlterNet, Public Eye, Utne, and Mothering Magazine; and editing technical assistance manuals for the Independent Press Association.

Speaking of which, the IPA is the subject of a major investigative piece in this week's SF Weekly: "Pulp Friction: The Independent Press Association was founded to champion alternative magazines, but now its members say it has become the kind of hard-hearted corporation it once opposed."

The article - which covers the meltdown of IPA's newsstand service and a growing conflict over the identity of the organization - is very, very fair. I don't have any comment on how the Indy Press Newsstand Service disaster was handled; IPA members are the authority on how they have been treated as members - and to get a sense of that, you should read the article.

It's not just the IPA: for years non-profits have been pushed (and have pushed themselves) to start businesses and adopt a more business-like culture that includes financial incentives and high executive salaries - with very mixed results that have included massive scandals at once-trusted non-profits like the United Way and the Red Cross.

One aspect of the big picture here is that while there is a growing rhetorical commitment to helping non-profits develop social venture strategies to fund their work and accomplish their missions, the reality is that foundations and other sources of non-profit capital don't yet know how fund most creative social ventures: they lack patience and long-term commitment, and don't pay enough attention to developing management and infrastructure.

At the same time, social ventures tend to recruit from the corporate sector for management and leadership, when in trouble looking for a savior - only to find that such people often don't get the real mission or culture of the organization, or the difference between non-profit and for-profit goals. They solve some problems but create others, sometimes in the process betraying and disillusioning the very people they're supposed to serve.

What's the solution? It's too easy to reject the notion that non-profits might use the tools of the marketplace to accomplish their missions; indy magazines, no matter how left-wing, are fundamentally entrepreneurial entities, and organizations like the IPA need to get members into the marketplace in order to spread their ideas. What we really need is a "third culture" that combines patient capital and entrepreneurial sophistication with real commitment to social change as well as accountability to the people who depend on non-profits for services and a voice in public affairs. It's larger than any one organization; we need training, networks, and more. It's a system and an idea that will have to emerge over time and through trial and error.

P.S.: I still plan to report more on the purchase of Utne Magazine. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


This just in:

TOPEKA, Kansas, (June 2, 2006) – Ogden Publications, Inc. announced today that it has acquired Utne magazine, the nation’s leading digest of alternative ideas, from LENS Publishing Co., Inc. and Nina Rothschild Utne. Launched in 1984 by Eric Utne, Utne magazine is a bi-monthly magazine with a paid circulation of 225,000. Utne reprints the best articles from more than 2,000 alternative media sources bringing together the latest ideas and trends emerging in our culture.

Ogden Publications publishes Mother Earth News, Natural Home, Herbs for Health, The Herb Companion and seven special interest magazines. “Utne is one of the most respected publications in America and we feel deeply honored to make it part of Ogden,” said Bryan Welch, publisher of Ogden Publications, Inc. “This makes us the largest and most influential media company in the conscientious lifestyles and environmental awareness fields. Public interest in living more sustainably is growing faster than ever and we expect to grow with it, creating an important resource for today’s consumer.”

Judy Rudrud, Utne’s prior president and publisher, will continue to operate the magazine as general manager from its offices in Minneapolis. She will be responsible for marketing, public relations and merchandising for Ogden’s magazines. “We are thrilled by the possibilities that this acquisition creates for the future of Utne magazine,” said Rudrud. “Our loyal readers will benefit from the magazine being part of a company that is aligned with our values.”

Chair and Chief Executive Officer Nina Rothschild Utne will assume the title of Editor-at-Large for the magazine and continue writing her column, as well as provide editorial and strategic consulting. “We are energized by this purchase and confident that our mission will continue with integrity,” said Utne.

Ogden Publications will begin publication with the July/August issue.

Utne is a client and I've been watching this deal unfold (from a distance) for months. What will this mean for Utne's brand and future editorial direction? Stay tuned....I plan to get a comment from Nina and Judy at some point in the next week.