Ten Years of Indypendent Media: An Oral History of the Public i

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The Public i commemorates ten years of publication by interviewing some of those who have worked on the newspaper along the way.

Darrin Drda

Darrin Drda is a former Champaign-Urbana resident who now lives in San Rafael, California with his wife, Annabelle. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times (www.thefourglobaltruths.com).

As far as I can recall, I first became involved with the Public i in the summer of 2001. I had been approached several months before that by Sascha Meinrath, who, along with Sarah Kanouse, Danielle Chynoweth, Paul Riismandel, Mike Lehman, Zach Miller, and a handful of other key figures, was busy securing and readying a space for the newly-formed IMC. It was important, Sascha told me, that in addition to having a space, the UC-IMC needed a face — something to tell the community that Indymedia had come to town and intended to stay. A monthly newspaper was the obvious choice, and I the apparent man to help lead the charge. Having worked as Art Director for C-U’s first independent newsweekly, The Octopus (later the CU Cityview, which somehow became The Buzz), I was at least qualified to work a computer and make it churn out legible pieces of paper. On top of that, I was down with the revolution. I can’t say that I was eager to work long hours for no pay, but eventually I surrendered to the Greater Good.

I vaguely recall a brainstorming meeting at the then-new IMC location (next to Siam Terrace on Main Street) during which I proposed a couple names and flag designs for the for the as-yet-unmanifest IMC publication. The clear winner among them was the Public i, although my favorite at the time was actually IMpact. Shortly thereafter, I set about designing the Quark template for our new radical rag, and weekly meetings of the new working group began. The early crew was always relatively small, surprisingly harmonious, and incredibly tenacious. Despite ongoing doubts that we could possibly scrape together enough material and money to produce the next issue, we consistently managed to pull it off, sometimes with aplomb, and always with a certain pride mixed with disbelief. Although I did spend many a sleepless night cursing the IMC’s frequently-freezing iMac and battling the Kinko’s printers, my memories of the Public i, even if hazy, are fond ones.

I retain especially high regard for those committed souls who have stuck with the paper since its inception a decade ago. Chief among them is Belden Fields, without whose fundraising talents the paper would have tanked long ago (this is to say nothing about his considerable writing skills). Another stalwart is Paul Mueth, performer of many thankless tasks including regular voyages to the printer, sometimes in the harshest weather. In the months before my departure in January 2007, Paul even tried his hand at layout, until being valiantly rescued by Dave Powers. Other long-time torchbearers include Brian Dolinar and Bob Illyes, while shorter (yet still quite significant) stints were served by Lisa Chason, Megan Krausch, Laura Stengrim, Marcia Zumbahlen, Sandra Ahten, and John Wasson.

There were, of course, many others who gave freely of their time and talent, including regular contributors like Ricky Baldwin, Al Kagan, and David Green. (Surely I’m forgetting a few people, even after peeking at past issues to retrieve a few of these names from the memory hole. I hope that what’s-his-name will forgive me.)

In terms of content, it would be hard to forget the third issue that was hastily assembled in the weeks after 9-11. I also recall with unusual clarity meeting Amy Goodman at the UC-IMC, just before its exciting and surreal relocation to a former federal building. Among articles, I can’t recall any clear favorites, but this is due less to my faulty wiring than to the fact that articles for the Public i have always been top notch (and I’m not just saying that because some of them were mine). Indeed, the consistently high quality of writing―by unpaid, untrained, citizen journalists no less―is exactly what has helped the paper survive and thrive all these years (of course, compelling images and occasional cartoons certainly haven’t hurt).

Although I am now separated from the Public i by distance as well as time, it inspires me to know that it lives on, providing a desperately needed counterpoint to the corporate sound bite and the official government line. I trust that for many residents of the greater Chambana area, it also provides a monthly confirmation that the entire world hasn’t gone completely insane. I like to think that Indymedia has even succeeded in keeping mainstream media more accountable, and perhaps even helped inspire the inclusion of left-leaning voices like those of John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Keith Olbermann into the otherwise conservative mix. In fact, the popularity of these pundits and of news outlets like Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera, as well as recent political developments in North Africa and the near East, provide some basis for hope that the world might actually be moving towards greater sanity, however slowly or falteringly. My sense is that Indymedia will play an increasingly important role in the years to come, and I celebrate its growth and flowering. Viva la revoluçion!

Sandra Ahten

Sandra Ahten is an artist, activist, writer, diet and wellness coach, friend and most recently… a grandma. She has lived in Urbana since 1995.

Why did you get involved with the Public i?

I loved reading alternative newspapers and when I moved here I attended one of the first meetings of the alternative that was to become the Octopus. I went to the meeting, not to become a writer but to just start to get my feet wet in the community. I offhandedly suggested some story ideas and the editor/manager Paul Young just said, “Great. Write them.” That’s what I started doing. Three things I loved about it: 1. I found that some stories could actually effect change in people’s lives. 2. It was such a great way to be in the pulse of what was going on in the community. 3. My name was recognized. I loved that level of people knowing who I was, not in a way that was about “fame” but just a basic way that allowed me to feel valued.

I worked hard at many jobs, helping to keep the Octopus afloat, and when the IMC was born I moved my energies there. I was most involved with the Public i and with IMC radio news.

Had you ever written for a newspaper before?

I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper in about 1986. That was it until I started writing for the Octopus in 1995 or so. I transitioned right to the Public i from there.

Who else do you remember working with?

Dorothy Martirano, Shelley Masar, Dave Madden and I put together an amazing story that was a document of where all the “conspiracy theories” surrounding 9-11 were actually reported first as facts in mainstream media. We worked on it in my basement for at least 15 hours a week for a month. Darin Drda pulled it together visually. It was an amazing story.

I credit Darrin, with really being the backbone of the paper. The hours he put in, the graphic design skills, the editor’s eye that he brought to the table were so consistent week after week. So although we had a fluid process, it arrived on time and in a format that people could get used to, which is something that really helped it flourish.

What were some of the big stories covered or what were your favorite articles?

The “article” that I got the most comments on was my recipe for Vegan Sloppy Joes.

  • 1 tsp    oil for sautéing
  • 2 each    medium onion chopped
  • 1 each    green pepper chopped
  • 2 cups    TVP, textured vegetable protein, dry, crumbles
  • 4 cups    vegetable juice, like V8
  • 3/4 cup    prepared barbecue sauce

1    Sauté onions and pepper in large skillet over med high heat, until just tender
2    Add TVP and vegetable juice.
3    Simmer about 20 – 25 minutes over medium heat until liquid is absorbed.
4    Add barbecue sauce and heat through.

What did you learn at the Public i that you have since used?

The process of consensus was really hammered out at the early stages of the Public i. We first used a model of “editor” and “departments.” There was going to be one person soliciting articles for “environment,” another for “women’s issues,” and other for “community happenings,” etc. The consensus was in that we decided who these people would be and who the editor would be.

But then we took it one step further and moved away from “departments” and “an editor” to a paper that was really pulled together equally by the people who were actually at that month’s meetings  and sustaining the commitment to it. It was a not a pretty process, but one that I learned a lot from and that has really been most helpful to me in my life.

And then in working at that level of true consensus, with the shared respect that it demanded helped me grow as a human being. I also really learned how not to put up with bullshit and how not to be patronized. That’s come in pretty handy too.

Laura Stengrim

Laura Stengrim currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works in the legal field for her day job, is an adjunct writing instructor in the community college system, does some freelance editing, tries to avoid Arizona politics, and enjoys hiking, yoga, swimming and spending as much time outdoors as possible.

Why did you get involved with the Public i?

I had seen the newspaper around town and was studying media consolidation in a graduate course at U of I, sometime in 2001 or 2002. At first I went to a few Public i meetings just out of curiosity and I started writing a few articles myself. Then I became totally attached to an amazing group of people who produced a very important and wonderful little newspaper.

Had you ever written for a newspaper before?

My first letter to the editor was published in the Rocky Mountain News when I was like 12. I was angry at my social studies teacher for not allowing us to watch Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, and I wanted to make a point about the pitiable state of public education in America. I still write occasional letters to the editor when outraged by some ridiculous injustice or another, but no, I hadn’t consistently written articles for a newspaper prior to being involved with the Public i.

What is “indypendent” media?

Local journalism, freedom to pursue narratives that are not predetermined by a corporate agenda, a process of true collaboration and consensus in making editorial decisions, a response to a world increasingly governed by Fox News and its ilk. My understanding is that the Indymedia movement was spawned around the time of the 1999 protests against meetings of the WTO and IMF by activists whom the mainstream media termed “anti-globalization.” The idea of Indymedia was to create a network of web sites and Indymedia centers around the country and around the world, with vibrant local media that included newspapers, radio, community and artistic space, as an antidote to the corporatization of a national media that was shutting down dissent. Indymedia wasn’t anti-globalization; it was attempting to do globalization in a way that would be more democratic, more transparent, and less exploitative. The UC-IMC took off around that time, embodying those ideals, and as the events of the past dozen or so years have unfolded―globally, nationally, and locally―it has become a really important staple of the community.

Who else do you remember working with?

Belden Fields is one of my favorite people in the whole wide world and I adore him. We had an amazing and functional group of people when I was involved with the Public i. Darrin Drda was the graphic artist who had a hand in masterminding the paper from the beginning. There was a very solid group of writers and editors that included Linda Evans, Megan Krausch, Sandra Ahten, Ricky Baldwin, Lisa Chason, and Bob Illyes. Brian Dolinar became a key facilitator and contributor. Dave P started doing the layout after Darrin left. And of course the Public i, nay, Urbana, would not be what it is without Paul Mueth.

What were some of the big stories that the paper covered?

I moved to Urbana a few weeks before 9/11 and left in 2007. We all know what happened during that time period: Bush, Afghanistan, Enron, Iraq, WMDs, swift-boating, genocide in Sudan, Bush’s re-election in 2004, health care crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, etc. The Public i would have articles about these major issues written from a local perspective, and it also had articles about all kinds of topics, local and not. We liked doing a big middle article and trying to have others work around a theme for the month, but not be constrained by it. Urbana-Champaign has a great wealth of resources and very smart people who can be tapped for occasional articles without being deeply involved in the facilitation or production of the paper.

What were some of your favorite articles?

I enjoyed facilitating (and reading, and sometimes writing) the themed articles that drew on a number of authors and their various perspectives. I think we did one around the 2004 election on different candidates, one about the Free Trade Area of the Americas, one called “Meet the Coalition!” about Bush’s Coalition of the Willing (the countries that were supporting and sending troops in the Iraq effort), and there was a health care issue around 2005-06 that comes to mind as particularly well done. I also loved reading articles by people who had special expertise or had traveled to places like Sudan or Israel and Palestine and then “report back” in the Public i for a general audience in a way that sheds unique light and understanding on a situation or struggle. Belden’s recounting of a trip to Vietnam in 2005, some 35 years after the war, fits this bill as well. By providing an outlet for everyday people to discuss, deliberate, and ponder issues of current and historical importance, the Public i makes a unique contribution to the sort of democratic society that we all envision but is seemingly impossible to attain.

Meghan Krausch

Meghan Krausch left C-U in 2005 for NYC, and eventually landed in the PhD program in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Currently in Buenos Aires researching utopian social movements, she is also the drummer for the Angry Feminists.

Why did you get involved with the Public i?

I originally got involved with the Public i after I returned from a Witness for Peace trip to Nicaragua. The trips are designed sort of like real-world seminars, and a big part of the trip is finding ways to share the information with your local community when you get back to the US. I had been looking for something to get involved with in C-U since I was still relatively new to town, so this provided the push I needed to finally check out the Public i. I originally showed up just to pitch my article (“The Neoliberal Noose Hanging Nicaragua”), but was immediately drawn to the editorial collective, the UC-IMC as a whole, and an entirely new (to me) way of thinking about activism and politics.

Had you ever written for a newspaper before?

Yes, I had written for papers in both high school and college (and came to the Public i shortly after I graduated from college).

What is “indypendent” media to you?

Indypendent media is certainly non-corporate, but more than that I think it is constantly working to be more responsive to its community. It ditches the traditional idea that you need an expert in charge to ensure quality control in favor of the idea that lots of minds are stronger than one. Instead of relying on one editor to pick and choose who should write what story, indy reporters hash out their ideas in a group and have faith that all that input will make the media stronger. Instead of seeking folks who already know the ropes, indymedia looks to open up the opportunity for more and more people to write their own history. I guess that’s a bit romantic, but in the best cases, I think it’s exactly what indymedia can be.

Who else do you remember working with?

My time at the Public i was 2003-2005. I remember Belden Fields, Laura Stengrim, Brian Dolinar, Bijan Warner, Lisa Chason, Linda Evans, Sarah Boyer, Bob Illyes, Darrin Drda, Paul Mueth, and Sandra Ahten. There are probably some people I’m forgetting in there, but that’s who comes to mind as the more or less steady editorial crew.

What were some of the big stories covered or what were your favorite articles?

While I was at the Public i the biggest story I covered was the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami. I drove down to Miami with several other UC-IMC reporters who were working with the radio and video groups, but I was the one who got to do the written story. I especially remember that one because I also wrote an editorial piece leading up to the protest that was the basis of a lengthy discussion about inflammatory wording, the UC-IMC’s liability, and my own potential risk of being charged with incitement to riot.

The other major stories I remember bleed the lines (as the best indymedia should) between newspaper coverage and major topics of interest and concern for activists and folks in C-U: the 2004 presidential election, the UC-IMC space shutdown, and the arrest of community activists Martel Miller and Patrick Thompson.

What did you learn at the Public i that you have since used?

The Public i, and the UC-IMC in general, was my first real introduction to non-hierarchical organizing and consensus decision-making, and thus to a new way of thinking about politics and organizing (ideas which now form the basis of my dissertation). I was radicalized, or at least more radicalized, if you can say that. The editorial group at the Public i taught me how to actively participate in a meeting that needs to arrive at consensus, which is a great organizing skill and just a useful life skill, and how to maintain those principles even when deadlines loom. I learned to carefully reflect on what it means for indymedia to be a tool for those left out of the mainstream media—does that mean just presenting alternative narratives and information, or does that mean working to include voices of color, of poverty, or of folks otherwise marginalized in both mainstream and alternative media? Finally I would say that I gained the confidence that anybody really can make their own media. We were just a ragtag group of volunteers producing a monthly paper, and somehow it was good.

Maggie Quirk

Maggie Quirk graduated from the U of I with a bachelors in Business Administration in December, 2011.  She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where she works as a specialist in corporate financial reporting and regulatory compliance.  She is building an e-business in her free time.

I joined the Public i’s team as a writer and collaborator during my junior year of high school, in 2003. I was delighted to discover the opportunity through my involvement with the IMC. While my mind was being shaped by my teachers, the paper gave me an outlet to further develop my interests. I wrote articles and joined the weekly meeting in which those in attendance facilitated articles and organized the paper. I had the opportunity to develop some very important life skills at an early age. My experience was valuable for engaging with the local community and learning directly from people participating in the community’s affairs.

I practiced three of the most important skills for success as an adult: writing, teamwork, and dealing with people. I have found these to be invaluable in and after college. The only way to improve is through practice. Joining the Public i sets the foundation for the most valuable skills you can have in life.

Written communication is still as important as ever, and can be used to improve your position in life. Many people will have to write e-mails and reports. You may be able to pair it with marketing, or use it in other ways. Writing and journalism have always fascinated me. I even hope to support myself someday with the e-business I’ve started providing information and advice for people interested in a vegan diet.

Working on the Public i gave me so many opportunities to grow. I learned how reporting makes the world go round. It is the main way people hear new ideas and are exposed to things outside their direct experience. As we sat around the couch at the old IMC building, I was immersed in adult conversation. It was a welcome change to be treated not like a child, but like a valuable contributor. I learned about current events from new perspectives. I was exposed to new thoughts and ideas. The experience was like traveling to a foreign country.

Possibly the greatest benefit from working with the Public i was all of the people I met. The Public i is a meeting ground for free thinkers who walk their talk. Some of the most intellectual and active people in Champaign-Urbana contribute and collaborate. You have the opportunity to make lifelong friends. This is valuable not only for socializing, but it helps build a network of people you can leverage in job searches, college applications, and future projects.

The people who made my time at the Public i so memorable have my sincerest thanks. The gift of their attention and guidance nurtured my abilities. It was a notable part of my life, which I remember fondly. I recommend that anyone, especially high school students, consider joining to give back to the community and develop valuable life skills.

Shara Esbenshade

Shara Esbenshade wrote for the Public i as a high school student from 2007-2008. She is currently studying history at Stanford University and working on public history education projects at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute.

It was through my activism that I first learned about and started writing for the Public i. Independent media is crucial to movements for social justice. It provides information and news that corporate media often ignores and a platform in which movements can form. It is open to all as a space for expression about locally relevant news, reflections, and stories. Independent media itself is a process that nurtures democracy and nonhierarchical community-building.

I started writing and editing for the Public i when I was 17. The year before that I had begun to work with local antiwar organizations: AWARE, the Anti War Anti Racism Effort, the Campus Anti-war Network, and the newly formed activism club at my high school, Uni High, which addressed various issues in addition to the war from labor rights to health care. I co-wrote my first submission to the Public i with Cody Bralts, a fellow high-school student and activist, about a campaign we were working on to educate high school students about military recruitment, as misinformation about the rewards of serving in the army persuaded many to risk their lives.

A major aspect of the campaign was to distribute information about the dangers of war that recruiters don’t mention and about the importance of getting recruiter’s promises in writing in order to help our peers make informed decisions when it came to the question of joining the military. We handed out fliers in front of the National Guard’s recruitment station at the annual high school state football championships―a major attraction at these events. The recruiters had the police called, who required us to move away from their booth, despite the fact that the university rules protect the right to flier where we were and in all public areas. Given that this incident was one in a long line of recent police abuses, coverage of it was important. Covering it in the Public i also helped in pushing the officers on the matter, and we had meetings with police officers and university officials alike that resulted, a few months later, in an official letter on behalf of the University affirming the right to flier and the spirit of free speech. We fliered without issue at the football championships the following year.

I continued to write for and edit the Public i until I left Urbana for college in 2008. I was working with Belden Fields, Antonia Darder, Brian Dolinar, Paul Mueth, Bob Illyes, and others, and what I learned has benefitted me a lot in my work since with student-labor organizing and public education about the history of liberation movements. I learned what it takes to collectively put together an issue of a newspaper every month―soliciting articles, gathering photos and information about upcoming events, and arranging and editing the final pieces. I learned about the many local movements that my co-editors worked on and wrote about. Writing for the Public i was my introduction to these issues, and to understanding the ways in which economic justice, labor rights, anti-racism, ending militarism, and the many other causes people were organizing for in our community, are interconnected. The opportunity to write for a publicly read newspaper as a young person challenged me to articulate my thoughts just as I was at the beginnings of my political education.

Three years after moving to California for school, I am utilizing the skills of research, writing, editing, outreach and collaborative, democratic organizing in working on a global history of liberation movements with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University. We seek to do the same thing that independent media accomplishes: demonstrate the power in collective action and the agency we all have, through sharing the stories of how people have always resisted oppressive situations and moved toward freedom. Telling the history of collective social movements in creative, accessible ways helps us to move toward a recognition of our co-creation of what is, and inherent to that, our ability to change the way we live as a society. I see this work as an extension, in many ways, of our work as the Public i in providing space for contemporary social movements to tell their stories.

Marcia Zumbahlen

Marcia received a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois in 1997. She had been a Savoy resident for 20 years when she volunteered for the IMC. She now lives in Evanston, IL and provides developmental psychotherapy at a pediatric therapy clinic in Skokie. She loves running by the lake and working with children but misses the slower-paced cultural enclave of her Alma Mater.

Why did you get involved with the Public i?

I was ending one career path and taking time off before I started another. I wanted to use my “down time” constructively. The Public I seemed like a great way to make a difference and stimulate my mind at the same time.

Had you ever written for a newspaper before?

I’ll admit that after high school I had a gig where I submitted a weekly column to my hometown newspaper. My father was a pork producer and I was asked to promote the business. So I submitted recipes and fun facts about pork, including one about how Wall Street got its name.

What were some of the big stories covered or what were your favorite articles?

I most enjoyed doing the story on dental care. I still can’t believe that a pic I took with my dinky cell phone then made it to the front page.

What did you learn at the Public i that you have since used?

Let the people tell the story. It’s much more effective that way. And less is more (though I still have a hard time doing that).

What impact do you believe the Public i had on community awareness during your participation?

I remember health care, educational reform, and racial profiling being constant themes. The most direct impact probably had to do with the racial inequality in criminal prosecution.

What do you consider to be the strengths of the Public i as a project during that time? What were its limitations?

The high caliber intellectual discussions that took place behind the scenes made the paper what it was. There was passion in those conversations. I suppose some might say the consensus mode was a limitation in that some things couldn’t move forward just cuz one person would shoot it down. But, I saw its value. And, the fact that we were a 501c3 limited our ability to take a more partisan stance in our stories.

Why did you leave your work with the Public i?
I found my new career path 2 1/2 hrs north of Urbana.

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