When the world ends someone better tell the computers or they'll go on talking to each other forever. Ask Kylie Loynd at the Polishing Stone, a tiny quarterly in Snohomish, Washington, who received an e-mail in mid-January that began, "Dear Kylie, Did you know that your membership with the Independent Press Association will expire 02/14/2007? Here's a reminder of the benefits of membership."
The message from IPA listed a bunch of them. Its expertise in helping little magazines put together business plans, handle direct mail, and deal with printers. Its network of consultants and other small publishers. Its development-loan fund and distribution services. Its role as "your national advocate for independent access to the marketplace."
Loynd, Polishing Stone's publisher, values these services. She says that when she started her 2,000-circulation title in 2004, IPA's "mentorship was essential to me. I didn't have to reinvent the wheel." But when she got to the end of the e-mail--"Your continued membership is important to us"--all she did was wryly post it on the IPA Listserv. For not one of these benefits still existed. IPA had forgotten to tell its automated renewal program that on January 2 the computer had told the membership, "We are very sorry to report that the Independent Press Association has ceased operations, effective immediately."
This bad news fell like the proverbial other shoe. Launched in 1996 by John Anner of Third Force in Oakland and Beth Schulman of In These Times in Chicago, IPA began as an advocacy group for the nation's small, struggling publishers. Anner had a genius for raising foundation money that financed the good works touted in that renewal letter, and in 1999 (the year Schulman left IPA) he took the logical next big step. Hearing that BigTop Newstand Services, a San Francisco-based distributor that handled several IPA titles, was up for sale, he bought it.
National distribution had been every indie publisher's nightmare, with newsstand revenues dribbling rather than gushing in. Bringing distribution in-house would be IPA's most important service. The renamed Indy Press Newstand Services could mind the pipeline. As things turned out, it could even borrow from IPA to give publishers waiting for those revenues the short-term loans they needed to put out their next issues.
When I wrote about IPA 15 months ago the pipeline was near collapse. Richard Landry, who'd followed Anner as executive director, had just let the membership know about "cash-flow problems" that weren't close to being solved. The IPA board had decreed that IPNS's borrowing from its parent had to stop, and plan B was to raise money somehow from somewhere so IPNS could establish its own revolving fund. IPA treasurer Cheryl Woodard told me IPNS needed $1 million, and "it takes a while to raise it. It can take years."
When Chicagoan Dan Sinker, publisher of Punk Planet and a member of the committee that picked Landry to take over for Anner, got that e-mail from Landry in 2005, he wrote back, "I find it ironic that for the first time in twelve years I find myself staring the end directly in the face and it's being brought about by the very organization that was originally put in place to support the independent press." Sinker was facing $16,000 in debts he couldn't pay because no newsstand revenues were coming in from IPA. He appealed to his readers for help and raised enough to go on.
From bad, IPNS proceeded to worse. Last June SF Weekly published a long article on why a "noble idea in 2000" had turned into a "financial disaster five years later." According to the alternative weekly, IPNS owed "dozens of publishers" more than half a million dollars, would make "secret payments" to one publisher if he or she promised not to tell any of the others, and could not be counted on for straight answers. IPA members complained that Landry, a product of the for-profit publishing world, not only lacked Anner's skills at tapping foundations but regarded information as proprietary rather than as something to be shared. Everyone felt in the dark.
In a long analysis posted on the Web site of IPA member Other magazine ("Pop culture and politics for the new outcast"), Jeremy Adam Smith, IPA's acting executive director between Anner and Landry, said IPA's growth "from a scrappy little nonprofit into a multimillion-dollar social venture" that collapsed raised fundamental questions. He'd chaired the search that led to Landry, who "had no obvious political values and no background in indie publishing." Why, then, was he picked? "We hoped that he would bring management expertise to an organization that had grown too rapidly and developed problems typical to undercapitalized start-ups," Smith explained. And it hadn't worked. "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."
But Smith wasn't buying the idea that nonprofits "should stick to advocacy and soup kitchens." Indie magazines, "no matter how left-wing, are fundamentally entrepreneurial entities." What they, and all nonprofits, need to focus on, he argued, is "hiring true believers and then making damn sure that they get the training they need."
Near the end Landry, like a doomed man organizing his estate, did one thing right. He signed a strategic partnership last spring with Disticor Magazine Distribution Services, an established distributorship based in Ontario. Disticor would do the distributing and accounting, IPNS the marketing. As a result, IPNS clients at least still have a distributor.
Sinker tells me that as part of the deal, clients owed money by IPNS, like Punk Planet, got some of it back from Disticor. "There's still a good chunk of money owed us by IPA that Disticor wasn't willing to accept as their own," Sinker says--a few thousand dollars he'll never see again. But "I don't think anyone expects Disticor to go out of business anytime soon."
Sinker has the ability to recount with something approximating calm experiences that would make most people incoherent. "In our year and a half with IPA as our distributor we had five different reps there," he says. "As soon as you get one rep up to speed, they're gone. And now all of a sudden we have a rep at Disticor, whom we have no background with at all." He was apprehensive, but the next day the new rep called. "She was actually--it sounds reassuring to speak with her," he says. "In a 20-minute-long conversation she actually exuded a level of knowledge in the industry I'd forgotten people had. She made me realize in retrospect how little the IPA came across, on the phone, knowing what they were doing."
Sinker can't swear that Punk Planet will make it--he's scheduled a benefit at the Hideout on February 25 to raise operating funds. He's worse off than the Polishing Stone, whose circulation was deemed by IPNS to be too small to trifle with. That's why IPA didn't owe Loynd any money when it went under. But Punk Planet is in better shape than Oakland's Kitchen Sink magazine. Publisher Carla Costa says IPNS put the quarterly on the map when it started up in 2002, making possible a national circulation of 12,000. When IPNS went under it owed her close to $10,000, which is why Costa intends to put out one more issue and call it quits.
Clamor, a quarterly based in Toledo, Ohio, is not only going under but threatening to take kindred spirits with it--indie zines such as Left Turn, Spread, Critical Moment, and Faesthetic and the book Vegan Freak that piggybacked on Clamor's order-processing capacity.
About a year ago Clamor's publisher, Jen Angel, was named to an advisory board IPA's surly members had just created to act as a liaison between themselves and Landry. "Everybody was well intentioned," she says, but also too busy to do much. The board met a couple of times last year by phone with Landry, according to another of its members, Ethan Michaeli, publisher of Residents' Journal in Chicago, but then "we all took a step back and said 'Let's see what happens.'"
Michaeli thinks IPA was brought down by a fatal organization flaw--a "mismatch" between little magazines that needed all the help they could get and bigger titles like the Nation, Mother Jones, and In These Times that didn't. A mismatch between the boomers who ran the big titles as professional journalists and the Gen Xers who ran the little ones "with lots of sweat equity as a labor of love." These were the publishers Landry couldn't connect with, Michaeli says, and what he should have done at the last IPA membership meeting a year ago in San Francisco was apologize to them for IPNS and ask them to help him find a way forward.
Not everything was lost. The autonomous New York chapter of IPA will continue. (An IPA Chicago ran a few interesting projects but is now moribund.) So will a couple of programs close to the heart of IPA cofounder Beth Schulman. One's the George Washington Williams Fellowship, the other the Campus Alternative Journalism project, a support network of some 80 campus publications. For the time being it's being run out of Mother Jones in San Francisco.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.