The Trials and Triumphs of DIY Journalism

Joshua Breitbart
February 28, 2007

I wasn't surprised when Jen Angel told me that Clamor Magazine -- the national publication she co-founded with Jason Kucsma in 1999 -- was closing. It always seemed like only a matter of time when I was working there. On the other hand, there was also always a sense that maybe it would go on forever. Publishing a national magazine out of Bowling Green, Ohio, with a staff of two people was such a big accomplishment on its own that anything seemed possible. The story of Clamor, the people that drove it and its political moment bears telling.

A shared sense of self

I moved to the Midwest in 2001. I was familiar with Clamor. I admired it. So I contacted the publishers, and when we met, Jen, Jason and I clicked. At some point, we all talked about Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and the way media creates communities by establishing a shared sense of self. But I think it was all of the things we did not know in common, the things we could learn from each other, that made us want to work together.

In my time at Clamor, I raised money from sources as wide-ranging as the Third Wave Foundation, a 33-city simultaneous concert series, and sales of The People's Guide to the Republican National Convention. I co-organized tours, usually of Jason talking about Clamor and me showing a selection of Rooftop Films. One of the tours covered over 3,000 miles doing 14 shows in 12 cities in 17 days, if I recall correctly.

My direct involvement covered the period of time pretty much from just after 9/11 to just after the electoral contest of 2004. I managed to stay inspired through this stretch of history in large part because of my involvement in Clamor. Jen and Jason were awe-inspiring in their ability to fulfill commitments they had made. They worked harder for less personal reward than anyone I knew in the alternative media world. And they had a community, especially in the Midwest, that was supportive and engaged and creative. The act of publishing Clamor extended and strengthened this community.

They founded the magazine as the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 established a new, shared sense of self for a group of people who had before only suspected that there were others like them out there. At the time, these people had mostly been communicating through zines and gatherings, so a national magazine was well-timed.

Clamor included articles on subjects similar to those in magazines like Bitch and Punk Planet, but they were more often written by the subjects themselves or by first-time writers. By design, it was much more like a group-zine, though the production and publishing were highly centralized.

This combination made Clamor remarkably accessible because anyone could participate in it, but you could also get your email returned by someone who could make a decision about something. The more than 1,000 people who contributed to the magazine came from many different walks of the active life. In that way, Clamor helped spread and cement the popular understanding of participatory media.

I think we all understood that Clamor served a number of purposes. It was a vehicle through which people could become the media. That was a radical idea for much of Clamor's time, even if it has become almost a corporate slogan.

It also served as a forum for activists to speak to other activists. One of the best articles Clamor ever published, in my opinion, was one called "The Tyranny of Consensus." (The title plays on "The Tyranny of Structurelessness," by Jo Freeman.) It was the first article I saw, certainly in print, that questioned the anarchist dogma that all decisions needed to be made on consensus with unrestricted participation.

Clamor was also the outward face of a movement that was at times strong or weak and at times clearly or vaguely defined. It was intended to be a magazine you could show to your liberal or working-class parents to convey where you were coming from. It was for that young person in Laramie, Wyo., looking for a lifeline on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble because there's no other newsstand in town. And it was for those three kids at the Brewers game to whom I gave a copy of the "sports" issue of Clamor (#19). These are all connections that remain pretty unique to print; you just can't hand someone a website or place it in someone's path the way you can a magazine or newspaper.

Being all of these things to all of these people, while at the same time trying to address the whiteness of most of them, was quite a challenge. It might be more than one magazine can really be.

But Clamor struck that balance somehow for seven years. A large community of people supported it with their money (in small amounts) and content (for which people got paid). In my experience, even those who didn't feel a sense of ownership over the magazine or didn't see themselves represented in its pages still respected it and saw it as an ally.

A moment of great transformation and opportunity

In the end, there were too many obstacles for Clamor to climb. Newsstand distribution is costly and their distributor's -- Independent Press Association -- erratic and incomplete payments made it impossible to manage. Clamor also carried a sizable debt from the original capitalization of the project.

In addition, political circumstances are shockingly different than they were when Clamor first started publishing. Even while smaller magazines have struggled, subscriptions to large, moderate left publications like the Nation and Mother Jones have skyrocketed. This in part reflects the ability of these companies to leverage strong capitalization to seize a business opportunity. But it also reflects the mainstream acceptance of many notions that were radical just a few years ago: opposition to neoliberal trade regimes, opposition to U.S. imperialism, a sense of failed democracy in the United States, opposition to the Iraq war, global warming, participatory media and media activism in general, and even support for Palestine.

That kind of shift is enough on its own to put a political project out of business. You can add in the shifts in publishing and communications: those who would have once been zinesters and gatherers now exchange emails, post to their blogs and update their profile pages.

This is a moment of great transformation in our media landscape. We should take this opportunity to envision the media world we want to see and to intervene in the digital transition going on around us. I invite you to do this by adding comments below, in your own writing and commentary, and in person at the 2007 Allied Media Conference.

We'll need to learn from that past to plot our way forward. With that in mind, I spoke to Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma on Dec. 4, 2006, about the successes and errors in starting and sustaining an independent magazine.

========

Josh Breitbart: I think that very few people have an appreciation for how many hours a week you two have been working on this for seven years straight. When I first showed up in the Midwest and called you guys and said, hey, I'd like to come down to your office and meet the collective --

Jen Angel: Yeah, we laughed.

Josh: Because you were like, "Well, there's two of us and an iMac." And when I would tell people about Clamor and that it was just the two of you, people would just be blown away and it really has been seven years straight of doing that.

Jen: Recently Jason and I have both been burnt out and not acting the way that we did for the first five or six years. But I was amazed for years how much Jason would work on the magazine and how much he didn't burn out, and I really feel like that is truly one of the things that we couldn't have done without. You know, Jason did the entire layout and he did so much work on it, I swear there were times that he worked on it 16 hours a day and that was it.

Jason: Thank you. But part of that was out of a sense of duty because I knew Jen was coming home from her 40-hours-a-week job and putting in another five hours in the evening, or more, on the magazine. And so to me I felt like I just needed to pull my own weight and work on it as much as I could. But when we were doing the bimonthly issues, it was just sort of a really unsustainable schedule.

Josh: Although I would take issue with your use of the word "unsustainable," because, for me, if you sustained it for five years, then somehow or another it was sustainable.

Jason: Right, and I guess by unsustainable I mean, unhealthy? I don't know.

Jen: On a lot of levels, I think a lot of people are going to get the impression that, Clamor's over and Jen and Jason are just going to walk away, and that's not really true. We have months of basically dissolving the business coming up. And there, that's something that I really want to talk about, is the ability to and desire to take financial risk. Jason and I are not going to walk away from this unscathed. It's actually a really horrible financial situation for both of us. I don't regret that, and I think that being willing to take that financial risk, yeah, we're going to be kind of screwed. But at the same time there are a million rewards that are not financial that came back to us. And so, that's something I find really frustrating that I want to talk more about with people -- the level of taking financial or other risk to do something that's really important to them. I think that's something that really paid off for me and I think Jason too.

Josh: When I first got involved with Clamor, you told me the magazine wasn't a niche publication because you didn't want to treat people like niche people, you wanted to treat people like whole people. Do you stick by that? Do you think that posed certain challenges as far as getting advertisers or reaching readers?

Jen: Politically, I thought it was something that was really important to me and Jason and something that shaped how we determined what would be in the magazine and the focus. Even over the years as we refined our vision statement and talked about a new direction for the magazine, we still had a very broad perspective and that was basically because we didn't want to just focus on one little narrow sector of the population. Partially because, politically, if change is going to happen, it's going to happen on a big scale. You can't be like, "Alright, we're going to talk to this one small segment of the population, and hope that change happens from there."

But that really defied magazine convention, and this is one of the cases where that was not a smart business thing to do, because it made it hard to clearly define our audience. Advertisers didn't agree with that. So when we would [tell advertisers] that more than 50 percent of our readers are vegetarian, when we tried to appeal to vegetarian product companies, they would say, "Well, you're not a vegetarian magazine." So it was very difficult for us to get advertising and get support from different organizations because of that.

Josh: Clamor also was very rooted, as you two were, in the zine community and that creative spark. That's another way you two used to articulate why you started the magazine -- because you saw all of these incredible writers publishing their zines that were distributed in small batches to friends, and if you could somehow aggregate all of that creative power, you could reach a really large audience with some really incredible content. What was your relationship to your audience? What was the process by which you tried to imagine your audience and what it wanted?

Jen: Well, in a lot of ways Clamor is so small. We were always volunteer-run, and I think a lot of people, when they wrote to the magazine and they had a problem with their subscription or something, were always surprised when Jason or I wrote back.

Being based in Ohio, we [also] didn't meet or interact with our readers on a day-to-day basis. ... I think that was something that was difficult for us, and kind of made us feel isolated producing this project because we didn't have that kind of day-to-day feedback.

Jason: I feel like one of the things that Clamor never had was a whole lot of dialogue between readers and the magazine. It was always a struggle for us to find letters, until, of course, we published this American Apparel [story] and then we got tons of letters about it. That could be due partially to the fact that it got so much media, or it could be due to the fact that we struck a chord with being a little bit more snarky and a little bit more negative.

Josh: Well, spreading the word was always a challenge. It's interesting that there's been all this attention about the closing of the magazine while it was harder to get attention for actually publishing the magazine.

Jason: Yeah, I think it's unfortunately ironic. It's not for lack of publicity or press strategy within Clamor that we haven't had people writing about us, and it's just weird because we've actually tried a lot of things and done a lot of different projects that I think are worthy of other independent media writing about Clamor. But it just hasn't ever happened.

Jen: It kind of also speaks to the lack of support among independent media projects, and I know that behind the scenes a lot of the magazines work together, but we need to develop ways of publicly working with and supporting other independent media projects.

Jason: And what Jen's talking about -- there are two ways to look at that. One is that Clamor, in it's seven years of publishing, never really played the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" game. Which happens a lot, not just between different magazines or different media projects but [between] independent record labels and independent music magazines. When we featured media projects and we featured bands and movies and stuff like that, we did it because someone, one of our readers, thought that it was really compelling and something that they wanted to write about and talk about. ... And I think that really hurt us in a lot of ways. I mean, it hurt us and I don't regret it.

Jen: Financially.

Jason: Yeah.

Josh: OK, so if people are going to be reading this or listening to this, what are some of the accomplishments from the past seven years that you wish had gotten some more publicity at the time?

Jason: The Clamor Music Festival was a phenomenal thing. And as far as memory serves, that was something that was virtually impossible to get anybody to write about. You know, the re-launch of our magazine from bimonthly to a thick quarterly, was not an insignificant event. The American Apparel situation was not exactly the appropriate example because we did get a number of people writing about that.

Jen: Right. That was an example of a really great story that only got attention because the company threatened to sue us. There were a lot of great stories over the years, but it would have been great, not just for us but for the sake of the story and the author to get the word out about those stories if they had been picked up, or whatever.

Jason: Well it's interesting because one of people's biggest critiques with mainstream media is that it's just way too negative. And, in talking about this, thinking about it out loud, it's something that we sort of replicate within independent media too. Like, let's only talk about or write about Clamor once they're closing. Let's not talk about this amazing story that they broke this year or let's not talk about project x, y and z.

Josh: That's another thing about the American Apparel story, is that it actually was a little out of character, in the sense that it was negative and Clamor was negative very rarely in it's pages.

Jen: Right. And also now that we're starting to get feedback from readers, after announcing that we're closing, one of the biggest things that we're hearing from people is that Clamor always talked about what people were doing -- [it was] positive and solution-oriented.

A lot of criticism about left media is that all it does is critique and it doesn't really offer inspiration or hope for the future. That was something that Clamor really tried to do. It was not necessarily "put a smile on everything," but that here is a problem that people are facing. Let's talk about what people are actually doing to counter this problem, instead of just talking how bad the problem is.

Jason: I'd say it was positive without being naive, you know, that we were talking about things very realistically and hooking people up with things that we thought were worth paying attention to that weren't being covered in a more negatively oriented media landscape.

Josh: How much do the Independent Press Association and Big Top owe you and how much was that a factor in the closing of Clamor?

Jen: I think it was a big -- I don't really want to talk about numbers, but we can't really underestimate the damage they did by withholding payments from publishers. It wasn't why we stopped publishing, but it was definitely an impact when last year we had to print less copies of certain issues.

Jason: I critique the organization as someone who lauded it for five years -- I thought it was the best thing for independent magazines, and it's one of the reasons we were able to continue publishing past issue four. We joined before we even started publishing the magazine. And, I think that the information and resources that they provided us were invaluable to sustaining and helping get over some major hurdles. But, in the later years, as they tried to bite off more than they could chew, catering to larger magazines and sort of forsaking the base of the IPA trying to get more and more people under their umbrella that weren't necessarily social justice or social issue-based magazines, I think that they lost a lot of their power to represent the people that were part of their organization. It's definitely a loss for magazines.

Josh: You guys have obviously stored up a lot of expertise and knowledge. What are you going to do with all of that?

Jen: I think that it's really hard for us to know how best to share that knowledge, and one thing I really want, in talking to people about the magazine closing, is for them to let us know [if they need] information or resources 'cause we've obviously amassed quite a bit over the years.

Jason: I feel like in a lot of ways we really need a truly reliable collection of information for independent media makers that is not being served by the Independent Press Association. ...

Jen: Yeah that's something that Clamor had started to work on, which was a collaboration among some of those smaller grassroots projects, and that's something I'm still really invested in having happen. I think it's really essential to the future of media in this country.

Jason: I think the idea of using Radical Reference as a model to create a collective of knowledgeable independent magazines or even broaden it to knowledgeable independent media makers who are doing podcasts and blogs and create a go-to shop for information.

Josh: Anything else that either of you want to add?

Jen: I'm just very thankful to have had the opportunity to work on such an amazing project with amazing people, not just you two but every staff person, every writer we ever worked with has been really important to me. So, I'm very happy about what happened.

Jason: My email inbox has been blowing up with people writing to me their condolences or their congratulations and [I] just [want] to let folks know that they definitely haven't heard the last of us. And that it would be refreshing for us to start with a new project that doesn't have the kind of debt that Clamor was carrying with it.

(Editor's Note: Jen Angel recently published a formal analysis of their work with Clamor, reflecting on the role of independent media in movement building, the finances of independent publishing and the importance of building sustainable institutions. You can read Jen's reflections at ClamorMagazine.org (PDF).


Joshua Breitbart is a producer of the annual Allied Media Conference. You can read more of his writing on media and technology on his blog A Civil Defense.


#

tags

1

Comments

And great analysis of what&;s happened and what is happening in the world of independent media -- which, without Clamor, will never be the same. Clamor was awe-inspiring, both as an outlet for information and as a model for participatory, grassroots media. And the fact that you all organized events and tours on top of publishing the magazine always blew my mind. <br />
<br />
I&;d like to second Josh&;s comment that "Jen and Jason worked harder for less personal reward than anyone I knew in the alternative media world."