When the magazine distribution broker Indy Press Newsstand Services sank from the weight of financial troubles last week, it dragged the nonprofit Independent Press Association (IPA) down with it. Fortunately for ethnic and community newspapers in New York City, the association’s local office escaped the wreck.
Born in 2000 as the IPA New York Grassroots Media Project, IPA-NY spun off into its own entity last week as the national office, founded a decade ago in San Francisco to support independent publications committed to social justice by providing loans, technical assistance and networking opportunities, closed its doors. The local office will continue to “coalesce ethnic and community newspapers into a group of journalists that have more access to advertisers, government information and political officials than they would have as individuals,” said IPA-NY Executive Director Juana Ponce de Leon.
On Jan. 2 the IPA board publicly announced its decision to “shut down operations” and sell off its assets to “resolve our debt to Indy Press Newsstand Services publishers.” In an e-mail to members, the board said, “Ultimately, we were unable to overcome the toll of the ongoing deficits incurred by the newsstand operation.”
One division of the national IPA office has also spun off on its own. New Voices in Independent Journalism – comprised of The George Washington Williams Fellowship and The Campus Journalism Project – will carry on the missions of those programs independently. The fellowship sponsors professional journalists who write social justice stories about issues including healthcare, education, global trade policy and race. The Campus Journalism Project provides support for independent college journalists working toward social change on their campuses.
Current and former IPA staffers said last week they were saddened by the loss of the national IPA office, but grateful that IPA-NY would carry on its mission.
“We didn’t expect to be announcing the formation of our own organization at the same time the IPA national office announced its closure,” said Ponce de Leon. “We are chagrined at the loss of the national office but thankful that our office can stay focused on giving a greater voice to ethnic and community newspapers in New York.”
The IPA-NY office helps connect small papers with advertisers, offers a fellowship program to train journalists at ethnic papers and organizes press briefings with newsmakers to provide small papers with access to big news.
Peter Paris is the publisher of Tiempo New York, a free, bilingual Spanish/English-language newspaper distributed in East Harlem and the Bronx. The paper publishes biweekly with a full-time staff of only six people. After joining IPA New York, its circulation more than doubled, climbing from 15,000 to 40,000. With IPA-NY’s help, the paper will soon be expanding into Queens and Brooklyn.
“Without IPA New York, our paper would not be as good as it is today,” Paris said. “They run on a shoestring budget just like we do, so when you come to them with a problem, they empathize, and they have solutions. You can go up to their office and have a cup of coffee and talk about the challenges you are facing and they have six phone numbers for you. I feel like they are great friends and I’m grateful for the services they provide.”
One of the ways IPA-NY amplifies the impact of community and ethnic papers is by publishing a weekly newsletter called Voices That Must Be Heard. It provides English translations of stories from ethnic papers, providing “the one and only window for the mainstream media to get a glimpse into what is happening in ethnic communities,” said Ponce de Leon.
The New York office was able to survive because of its unique mission, dedicated staff and strong foundation support, said Andrew White, who chaired the steering committee that helped IPA New York become autonomous. An IPA founder, White is director of the Center for New York City Affairs at New School University and a previous executive director of City Limits.
“The New York City office of what was IPA is healthy because the staff is strong and a lot of people in the press – small and large, and ethnic and mainstream – recognize the great value of the work,” White said. “Voices That Must Be Heard is an excellent source for stories and provides a view into wildly different perspectives on events.”
The IPA national office came from humble beginnings when a handful of social justice journalists got a $5,000 grant to promote small magazines. Within a few years the association had hundreds of members and was receiving millions of dollars in foundation support. The association attracted high profile members including Mother Jones, Utne Reader and The Nation.
Around the same time IPA founded its New York office, the nonprofit bought a magazine distribution brokerage company and renamed it Indy Press Newsstand Services. In a way, it was the answer to IPA members’ prayers – it allowed the association to be directly involved in helping their publications make it onto newsstands. And for several years the association’s entrepreneurial venture was successful, even helping small magazines land on the racks in Barnes & Noble.
But before long, according to White and IPA-NY founding director Abby Scher, the nonprofit was up to its eyeballs in debt, much of it owed to IPA members who signed up to have the distribution broker hawk their magazines. A year ago, Indy Press owed more than $500,000 to independent magazine publishers. In the world of independent magazines, the publisher does all the work and incurs all the expenses up front – but they’re at the end of the line for payment. The money flows from consumers, who buy magazines from retailers, who pay distributors, who pay brokers, who in turn pay publishers. Indy Press Newsstand Services got behind in its payments to publishers. When it couldn’t get ahead again, Indy Press folded, and so did the nonprofit that owned it.
The story of IPA’s downfall leads some to ask whether nonprofits are cut from the right cloth to survive in business environments built for private corporations. White says that’s not the issue.
“There are plenty of nonprofits that are successful with entrepreneurial ventures, and branching out has become part of the core of running a nonprofit,” he said. “The problem with the IPA national organization was that it became too reliant on the entrepreneurial venture for funding. That can be a disaster for a nonprofit.”
IPA leaders reached various conclusions about what led to the downfall of IPA’s national operation. Scher and former IPA interim executive director Jeremy Adam Smith blame executive director Richard Landry for killing the organization through poor management and leadership. Landry, reached on his cell phone last week, declined to comment.
This story has been corrected.