The Independent Press Association is dead

by Jeremy Adam Smith, Other

The Independent Press Association was once the great hope of indie publishing. Now something else has to replace it.

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.

article originally published at http://othermag.org/blog/?p=205.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey