Six months after their distributor collapsed, small magazines are still picking up the pieces
By Sarah Feightner

When we started Clamor, we were working out of Jason’s bedroom on a clunky iMac,” recalled Jen Angel, cofounder with Jason Kucsma of Clamor, the award-winning magazine of radical politics and culture.

It was 1999, the dawn of what promised to be a golden age for independent publishing. In the wake of the WTO protests in Seattle, the zine movement of the 90s blossomed into a media landscape full of alternative voices on the newsstand, as former zinesters like Angel and Kucsma graduated from their self-publishing roots to producing full-fledged magazines. Though its circulation never topped ten thousand, Clamor was a perennial nominee at Utne Reader’s annual Independent Press Awards and a favorite among its peers in this burgeoning media movement.

Clamor was also one of the brightest stars, along with venerable publications like the Nation and Mother Jones, in the constellation of small magazines brought together by the Independent Press Association. A network of independent publishers that formed in the late 90s as a kind of United Nations of the indie press, the IPA served as an adviser to and advocate for more than five hundred member publications. But when the IPA abruptly closed its doors after Christmas of 2006, it put many of its members in precisely the situation it was created to protect them from: being owed thousands of dollars by a failing distributor in a business where every penny counts.

The indie press’s response to the news that Clamor would cease publication, in part because of money owedby the IPA, was intense. “The IPA killed Clamor!” howled Anne Elizabeth Moore, publisher of the Chicago-based music magazine Punk Planet, on her magazine’s blog. Other casualties followed: the alternative culture magazines Kitchen Sink and LiP, and the media watchdog magazine Stay Free!. Others, like the music magazine Grooves and the animal rights title Herbivore, have retreated to online publication. The lives of small magazines have always been difficult and frequently short. But, according to many publishers, the end of the IPA—along with the bankruptcies of the book distributor PGW and Tower Records, a major outlet for small magazines, and the slow collective death of independent bookstores nationwide—suggests that the golden age of the indie press may be over before it even began.

The mission

The Independent Press Association was born over lunch at the 1996 Media and Democracy Congress in San Francisco where a group of left-leaning publishers decided to band together for support. Under the leadership of executive director John Anner (former editor of Third Force, now called ColorLines), the IPA provided revolving loans, a paper-buying co-op, annual conferences, and a lively member listserv. As former zine makers and new publishers stepped into the professional magazine market, the IPA offered business advice and technical training from its more experienced members. “We’ve learned we are stronger when we work together,” proclaimed the association’s website. In the face of increasing corporate consolidation—with just five corporations controlling the majority of the U.S. media after the AOL/Time Warner merger in 2000—another part of the IPA’s mission was to foster the voices of social movements otherwise ignored by the mainstream press, whether from politically progressive publications like Mother Jones or niche culture magazines like Curve (lesbians), Herbivore (vegans), and SageWoman (goddesses).

The same Do It Yourself spirit brought the IPA into the distribution business in 2000 when Anner made the decision to buy BigTop, the ailing distributor of a number of IPA member titles. Reborn as Indy Press Newsstand Services, the company handled distribution for more than seventy IPA publications. It was this service that Anner’s successor, Richard Landry, blamed for the IPA’s closure in late 2006. “Ultimately,” Landry wrote in the IPA’s final letter to its members, “we were unable to overcome the toll of the ongoing deficits incurred by the newsstand operation.” According to a June 2006 investigation by SF Weekly, the IPNS closed owing more than $500,000 to its seventy clients, most of whom will be lucky to recoup fifteen cents out of every dollar.

The system

Landry lays the blame for the IPA’s financial troubles on the nature of the distribution business itself. “The IPA entered a difficult sector that was crumbling by 2001,” he said. “It was without question that indie distribution was going the way of the dodo bird.”

Magazine distribution has always been a tough and poorly-understood business. Even among mainstream magazines, newsstand circulation figures have dwindled in recent years. The distribution system is expensive and inefficient: large publishers arrange for printers to ship copies of their magazines to one of a handful of national distributors like Ingram or Disticor, which then forward those copies to national or regional wholesalers, which deliver a predetermined number of copies to retailers in their area. Money flows the other way, from newsstand to wholesaler to distributor and finally to the publisher, with each middleman taking a substantial cut. Unsold copies are trashed or shipped back to the publisher without compensation.

For small publications, this system is made more complicated by the lack of indie-friendly options. Before the Indy Press Newsstand Service, small magazines could sign up with one of a dwindling number of national distributors like Ingram that, geared toward the Vogues and Times on the newsstand, left small publishers feeling lost or undervalued. Or small magazines could deal with wholesalers and retailers directly, which required a substantial investment of time, energy, and cash. It also meant forfeiting access to big chains like Barnes & Noble, which rarely buy directly from publishers. And there was the local distribution option, where the smallest publishers often simply walked their magazines from store to store.

By offering an in-house national distributor to IPA members, IPNS could centralize accounting and billing for newsstand sales, and provide bulk discounts and bargaining power with major wholesalers and retail outlets. Since the flow of money back up the distribution chain tends to be slow, IPNS could offer advance payments to publishers instead of forcing them to wait for money to trickle back from retailers. Small publishers signed up with little hesitation. IPNS’s connection to the IPA made it seem like the one distributor that understood how small magazines worked. “To me, it was a no-brainer,” said Punk Planet editor Dan Sinker. “They were the last vestige of hope for the independent press. Why wouldn’t you go with them?”

The money

According to Richard Landry, the IPA was a great but ultimately failed experiment. He blames the IPA board and staff in 2000 for not taking a more realistic look at the infrastructure and capital needed to support a distribution business. The IPA at that time had, according to Landry, “a very young, social-activist staff and board. None of them insisted upon the level of due diligence that would have been common if this had been a for-profit business.”

The Indy Press Newsstand Services lacked the kind of sophisticated accounting system that most national distributors used. This kept Landry and the board, to say nothing of the distributor’s clients, from getting access to timely financial information. At the same time, the IPA didn’t have enough initial capital to cover the costs of doing business. “There is a huge cash requirement because it takes so long for accounting on magazine returns to take place,” he said. “The distributor ends up acting like a bank, making advance payments to publishers to support future sales.” Foundation partners, he claims, weren’t willing to invest the money needed to keep that bank open.

Landry, who made his career in the for-profit arena at PC World and HyperMedia Communications, seems to suggest that IPNS was a purchase he wouldn’t have made and, when he signed on with the IPA in 2003, one that it was too late to return. “The organization had racked up a half-million dollar deficit,” said Landry. Though he was brought on board in part to save the floundering distribution business, he says, it was a “long-shot, last-ditch effort.”

According to a former board member, Richard Lawton, a senior vice president at the Hearst/Condé Nast-owned distributor CMG, IPNS titles didn’t have enough clout to guarantee good payment plans from wholesalers, who are being squeezed higher up the supply chain by demanding corporate retailers. “When a wholesaler is deciding who they’re going to pay faster, they’re going to choose the national distributors that are more important to their survival,” said Lawton. “It’s much more difficult to bargain with a People or a Cosmo.”

Former IPA treasurer Cheryl Woodard stresses that the IPA’s major funders share the blame for IPNS’s implosion. “You can talk to funders about consolidated media in radio or television, but it’s hard to explain in magazines because it’s all behind the scenes,” she said. “We were coming to them with this messy distribution problem that didn’t have much sex appeal.”

According to Woodard, in its last weeks the IPA appealed to major supporters of other IPA projects, in particular the Ford Foundation, which contributed to the IPA’s loan fund. “I was really shocked when we went to Ford and asked them to let us use their money to pay off these publications and they wouldn’t do it. They want their money back,” said Woodard. “So now they’re sitting at the table like every little publication, trying to get what’s left.”

In reflecting on the death of the IPA, Landry prefers to focus on the future in general, rather than the fates of member magazines in particular. Landry sees the IPA as an experiment in building a media social enterprise: a for-profit business with nonprofit sensibilities. As alternative media are increasingly shut out of the for-profit world, nonprofits and socially conscious businesses will have to adapt to this new model. “It’s very important for the stakeholders who care about the future of media in our society,” said Landry, “to start recognizing that if they want a strong civic discourse they’re going to have to engage with the media where they live, as businesses, and start providing the kinds of support that media need to survive in a highly consolidated environment.

“Unfortunately,” Landry added, “we all learned the lesson the hard way.”

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