Independent Weekly's Publisher Hangs Up Spurs

Schewel to Remain as Paper's Primary Shareholder and Keeper of Flame.

june 24, 1999  11:50 am
Independent Weekly founder Steve Schewel has stepped down as the active publisher of the award-winning alternative paper. For 16 years Schewel has presided over the Independent, which was conceived in 1978 amid the turmoil surrounding protests over a nuclear power plant. Schewel began discussing the possibility of starting an alternative paper with fellow protester and co-founder David Birkhead during long car rides between Durham and Raleigh, N.C. to attend their trial for trespassing.

"We felt the [Raleigh] News - Observer and the [Durham] Herald-Sun gave short shrift to progressive voices and grass roots activism, especially the anti-nuclear movement. We felt the dailies were very pro-nuclear energy."

Schewel got eight days in jail, and five years later the booming Raleigh-Durham area (also known as the "Research Triangle") got a weekly with a decidedly progressive slant and a vigorous commitment to investigative reporting.

The Independent debuted as a bi-monthly on April 15, 1983. In the early days the press run was 10,000 copies and a DIY ethos prevailed --" We didn't have any money. We used to develop the print negatives in the bathroom and then hang them in the office. We used hair dryers to blow them off."

But editorial content came first. "Right out of the box in 1983, when we were bleeding money out the door, we had full-time investigative reporters on our staff." The paper paid the bills by "raising investor equity," said Schewel.

Jane Levine, publisher of the Chicago Reader, worked at the Independent as an advertising manager in 1984. "I assume it's been a very good paper from the beginning because Steve and the staff were committed to making a good newspaper editorially as opposed to [just] making money," she said.

She also recalls a sense of purpose, openness and solidarity among the staff."I remember every time a new issue would come out, the entire staff would meet together and critique it. People would say, 'I don't like that headline,' or ' I like this ad.' It was a very open and honest environment."

The Independent added the "Weekly" to its title in 1989, when additional operating capital was raised from shareholders and arts and entertainment coverage was added (an unusual reverse of the usual progression from beginning with listings and gradually adding editorial content). Recognizing that rapid demographic shifts were bringing a surfeit of well-educated people with disposable income to the Research Triangle, the Independent became the dominant weekly in a crowded field, in part by taking on powerful interests such as 1992 Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Gardner.

The Independent's investigation of Gardner revealed a checkered financial past, replete with bankruptcies and violations of environmental regulations. And the candidate unwittingly gave the Independent publicity of the you-can't-buy-this variety : when asked by a reporter from another news organization for his opinion of the Independent he snarled, "I don't read the Independent. I don't even like to touch it."

Another public relations windfall came courtesy of North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tommy Harrellson. Caught in the middle of a 1992 Independent 5-part expose on highway construction and campaign contributions, he referred to the paper as "left-wing attack media from Hell."

"That's one of my favorite quotes from all time," Schewel remarked. "It was great marketing for us."

Investigative reporter Barry Yeoman recalled another high-profile political incident: "State Senator Harold Hardison was running for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1988. Hardison was a mossback Democrat, mostly known for a series of laws handcuffing North Carolina from passing environmental regulations stricter than the federal government's. He was bad news, and progressives shuddered at the idea of his being a standard bearer for the Democratic Party.

"So we put his face on the cover of our endorsements issue, with the words 'Stop Him.' He didn't take this too kindly, of course, and his staff ended up stealing around 10,000 papers from the newsstands and dumping them...This got big news coverage, including NPR and lots of local papers. It proved embarrassing to Hardison and helped unravel his campaign.

"We also sued Hardison but lost. The judge said you can't steal a free paper."

The Independent has racked up an impressive number of awards for investigative reporting (including a George Polk Award, a John Bartlow Martin Award for investigative reporting from the Medill School of Journalism, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Green Eyeshade Award, and the H.L. Mencken Writing Award), and has fared well in recent AAN contests, with Yeoman's "Dirty Money" and Schewel's political expose "The Senator's Secret" taking first place honors (under 55,000 circulation) in the investigative and political story categories in 1997, and in the illustration category with Andrea Cobb's "Poetry Contest" in 1998. This year, reporter Eric Bates won the top prize in the feature writing category with "Class Dismissed," described by the judges as "A superb reporting job...Bates tells an engrossing story about troubled teens and frustrated teachers in an alternative school for 'chronic disrupters.'"

Despite the Independent's excellent editorial reputation, the weekly only began operating at a profit in 1998. Schewel cited two reasons for this: "We've always spent a lot of money on editorial...and we're also in a very competitive market that's not that big, roughly 900,000 people." One obvious source of advertising revenue, tobacco, has been deliberately avoided since the Independent's inception. Initially the paper didn't accept any tobacco ads, largely because nobody offered. Later, when advertisers recognized the demographic appeal of mid- and small-market weeklies , the Independent continued to refuse tobacco dollars. " It cost us money, sure," said Schewel. " North Carolina is the tobacco state, so that was all the more reason to do it. In Texas, if you're not writing about oil and taking an ethical position, you're not doing your job. In NC, [tobacco] is the great ethical question."

Growth continues apace, claims Schewel, adding that the Independent sold "a couple of million [dollars] of ads" (including national, local and classified) and boosted display ad sales by 27% in 1998. And with financial stability Schewel makes guarded, modest claims for the Independent's influence, especially on the Raleigh News-Observer. "I'd like to think we had some effect on the News-Observer. They're more oriented to longer, analytical pieces rather than just getting every single school board meeting in print. But I think that's the way the mainstream media has gone nationally in response to the alternative press. I do think they now follow our lead in terms of covering specific stories. I will take some credit there."

Schewel isn't entirely satisfied with the legacy he leaves, however. Chief among the regrets is the continued career of Senator Jesse Helms, the notoriously conservative Republican. "When we got started Jesse Helms was in the US Senate," he said. "One thing we always thought would be great would be to contribute to his defeat. But we were never able to make it happen. I consider that a failure."

Schewel expects that the Independent will continue "to do great journalism in the service of building a more just community," and will remain true to the name. "We have had several people interested in buying, but we're not interested in selling now. We love being independent. For us, alternative newsweeklies are more than a business. They are a movement, too, when they're at their best, and we like being part of that movement...Alternative media voices are more important than ever in American society as the big media and entertainment companies gobble up everything in sight."

Currently the Independent's circulation is 50,000, and the paper's 30 employees work in three offices in each of the Research Triangle cities. Schewel, who will remain as the chairman of the board of directors (and who is the paper's largest shareholder), has no immediate plans other than to take the summer off : "I'm 48, I've been doing this for a long time, and I'm going to take some time to decide what the next challenge will be." Former advertising director and long-time colleague Sioux Watson, now at the Independent's helm, "is totally dedicated to the Independent's editorial mission and can, at the same time, drive our business. She believes in our vision of what an alternative paper should be. It's in good, good hands."

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