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The Arts

Collective Perspective

A Progressive Local Art Exhibition Births A Progressive Local Publication

Carly Ptak

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 9/12/2007

With its small distribution, limited publishing schedule, and a name that is easily confused with the web site Baltimore Indymedia, you can be forgiven for not being familiar with the Indypendent Reader. But the newspaper, now on its fifth issue in just over a year's time, has become a guidebook to Baltimore's resurgent activist community.

Started last year as a way to use up some cash left over from the Contemporary Museum's Headquarters: Investigating the Creation of the Ghetto and the Prison Industrial Complex , an art exhibit that dealt with the issues surrounding urban renewal ("Unite and Conquer," Arts & Entertainment, July 12, 2006), the Indypendent Reader has become the stitch that holds together the threads of activists, community organizers, and academics concerned about the city. Run by a small editorial collective, which at present includes six members, the magazine works out of the Alternative Press Center in Waverly. Nicholas Petr, who worked on the Contemporary exhibit as a member of the artists' collective CampBaltimore, says the Reader started because they saw a need for the dissemination of news and information through a print format.

"Online is only accessible to people who have access to the internet," Petr says as he and four other Reader members sit around a table at a downtown warehouse-like space on Paca Street. "Which was one thing that we talked a lot about--seeing that there is this left or alternative media movement that has been going on for a while, but a lot of that has turned to the internet. There were a lot of discussions going on about how effective that was in reaching marginalized communities."

Ashley Hufnagel, also a member of the CampBaltimore group and now, like Petr, a member of the Reader's editorial collective, says the publication is an attempt to make the same kind of connections between scholars, activists, artists, and community leaders that Headquarters had made. "There are leftist publications that are local, and sometimes they're within a certain scene and a certain demographic," she says. "This paper is really trying to make connections, and keep people informed, so that someone who's working on urban-renewal issues and someone who's working on abolishing the death penalty [will keep] those lines of communication open. Like the exhibit, the paper is about making connections between groups that don't necessarily often talk."

The "indy" in the Reader's name comes from the Independent Media Center project, which started in Seattle in 1999 to allow for activists to report on, as well as participate in, the activities there. Since then, both temporary and permanent IMCs have started across the globe, often calling the product they offer--whether it be a web site, newspaper, or radio broadcast--Indymedia. Each Indymedia collective is autonomous, with a loose network connecting the various centers. Baltimore's Indymedia was started in 2001 and has some overlapping membership with the Reader, although the organizations are formally connected in name only.

Unlike other newspapers that are associated with the Indymedia network, the Reader does not cover international and national news and, for the most part, political protests. Instead, each issue focuses on a particular theme, which is then explored in a series of articles, essays, analytical pieces, and photographs that deal specifically with Baltimore. The first two themes, urban renewal and the prison-industrial complex, came out of the preparatory work done for Headquarters. The third issue focused on education, while the fourth turned to food systems in the city. The most recent issue takes on the subject of work.

Eric Imhof, a member of the collective who also works as an organizer for Banner Neighborhoods, says the publication tries to present the issues from a number of different voices. "We're trying to reach people on different levels and take as many angles [on an issue] as we can," he says. "College students who read it can find an article in there that they relate to, and people who pick it up in a café can find something, and people who pick it up on the street can find something.

"People tell me that what they like the most [about the paper] is that there are different kinds of things in there and [different] writing styles," he continues. "So it's accessible to more than just one target. It's not an academic journal, although it has a lot of that in it. It also has narratives and first-person accounts, and people are writing from different parts of the city."

By focusing on a particular topic and gathering information about the many different groups trying to address the problems associated with it, the Reader produces both a resource guide for anyone interested in the topic and an update on what various groups are doing. A typical issue includes analyses of the subject at hand by professors, longtime activists, and community organizers, descriptions of new projects, and photographs and stories that help illustrate how the problems affect residents of the city.

The most recent issue, which focuses on work, features the United Workers Association, an organization founded in 2004 by day laborers. The article outlines the group's current campaign: forcing the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium, to pay a living wage to its day laborers. But where an ordinary newspaper would place this story in with stories on other current campaigns, the Reader includes an oral history of labor activists in Baltimore, an essay by a worker at an unionized nursing home in West Baltimore on the lack of solidarity felt in that environment, a discussion of worker cooperatives, and an analytical essay and brief history of immigration law in the United States.

Michael Lane, another member of the editorial collective, says that with each issue the paper tries to draw new groups into the overall project. "It's about communication between this editorial group, people who have some activist experience and have some political priorities, [and] various communities about themes that we've selected," he says. "The audience is bound to grow and shift as time goes by, and perhaps become more stable as we put more issues out, and open more lines of communication between ourselves and people who might join us."

At the same time, Petr admits that a potential pitfall of this approach is that "when our theme changes, the people who are interested in reading the next issue also changes."

Lane feels that the paper's audience being a moving target is a potential benefit, however, distinguishing it from papers that focus on the same topics in every issue. "[We're] getting away from this static notion [of an audience]," Lane says. "It's not a question of us the editorial group targeting people outside of us. It is a dynamic. We're trying to draw people into the process, even if it's just writing for a particular issue. Our hope is to bring people into the editorial group, or have people writing consistently about certain issues."

The editorial collective's membership has shifted over time, with participants going in and out as the themes change and the organization shifts from a project of CampBaltimore to its own organization. In addition to Petr, Hufnagel, Imhof, and Lane, longtime activists Chuck D'Adamo and Howard J. Erhrlich are also part of the group. D'Adamo is the co-editor of the Baltimore-based Alternative Press Index and Ehrlich, formerly a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, is known for his research on violence and prejudice and the Social Anarchism journal, which he founded in 1981.

Petr says the collective picks the theme for each issue based on the perceived needs of the community. "We try to look at what are the big issues [in Baltimore]," he says. "In this network of people involved with grass-roots organizations in Baltimore, what are the big things going on? Who needs help right now, who might benefit from some visibility, who would want to work with us to develop an article on their issue, on their project, that might actually better their chances of changing policy?"

In its first year, the Reader has grown from a leftover project connected with an exhibit to its own entity that is in the process of raising money to ensure that it will be able to continue publishing. Petr says the most important accomplishment of its first year is learning the mechanics of publishing a newspaper that accomplishes their goal of connecting various groups in Baltimore around a particular theme.

"We've really figured out the process of coming up with a theme, doing outreach and finding the material, laying it out, and printing," Petr says. "For a volunteer group of five or six people, to accomplish that in one year with no funding is pretty big for us."

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