Independent Democracy

Thought provoking commentary

2006 Utne Reader Independent Press Award Winners

Below is a list of the 2006 Utne Reader Independent Press Award Winners.

The Wilson Quarterly
General Excellence: Magazines
In culling articles from New York’s wide-ranging ethnic, immigrant, and community presses, the online publication of the Independent Press Association in New York illuminates stories and taps journalists from communities of all stripes.

General Excellence: Newsletters
‘Do not ever call GeneWatch a newsletter,’ says editor Evan Lerner, laughing. ‘That was one of the first things drilled into me.’ The 2004 graduate of Brandeis University does understand the designation, however. At just 20 pages, printed on matte beige paper with a card stock cover, and nary an ad in sight, GeneWatch is a far cry from the thick, glossy magazines that line the newsstand. In moxie, and in quality of content, however, the tiny publication is a heavyweight.

The official mouthpiece of the nonprofit watchdog group Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) for the past 24 years, GeneWatch dedicates itself to monitoring the ethical and environmental impact of biotechnology, and over the past year has set the bar for reporting on critical issues such as genetic profiling and DNA databases.

The approachable, elegantly written bimonthly is best when it examines the often ignored over-lap of science, philosophy, and politics-making it essential reading for anyone interested in the social consequences of developing technology. And the CRG has just two full-time employees: Lerner and president Sujatha Byravan, a molecular biologist, activist, and journalist.

28 Pages Loveingly Bound With Twine
General Excellence: Zines
Zines are still cool. Like ’em or not, zines have held fast to their place in the far-underground depths of the independent press, which helps keep their hip credentials intact. This makes sense when you consider their origins: Zines as we know them were shaped by punk-rock fans in the 1970s and 1980s. Frustrated with mainstream music magazines’ inattention to punk music and culture, they created their own ‘fanzines’ to cover the scene.

The zine 28 Pages Lovingly Bound with Twine is cool partly because it does not aspire to coolness. In fact, it’s downright dorky at times. There’s no particular mission or subject area, so content varies and randomness abounds. Christoph Meyer, the man behind the twine, admits he ‘stumbled across a nice title’ that hasn’t confined him to any particular realm of discussion. ‘As long as I feel like self-publishing,’ he says, ‘I can put whatever the hell I want in it-fiction, everyday stories, visual stuff, comics, whatever.’

The flexibility allowed by self-publishing makes for some amazing zines; it also means this category is particularly tough to judge because it’s difficult to pit zines against one another. Just as they have largely fended off commercialization, zines have also managed to resist definition. There is wide variation among them in every aspect imaginable: subject area (or lack thereof), publishing frequency, size, appearance. Many zinesters and librarians cite some basic criteria-small print run, handmade and self-distributed, low-tech, produced as a form of expression rather than a source of profit-but these vary depending on who is making the list.

‘I think overall, the rule for zines is that there aren’t any rules, and that most structures or formulas are meant to be broken,’ says Alycia Sellie, newspapers and periodicals assistant at the Wisconsin Historical Society and founder of the Madison Zine Fest. ‘And while zines may be unconventional and ephemeral, that doesn’t necessarily make their content so.’

This is certainly true of Meyer’s efforts, which are much more accessible than they are zany. He began tying twine five years ago, around the time his son Herbie (a budding zinester himself) was born. Since then, he has cranked out 13 issues, logging a finger-cramping ‘knot count’ of 29,566. For #9, the ‘Dental Issue,’ Meyer made the whimsical yet logical decision to bind his zine with floss, leaving some ‘long and untrimmed so that you may actually use this very fanzine to floss your teeth.’

Twine rises above many other zines because, in addition to its energetic craftiness, the writing is excellent and the stories are engaging. Short as they may be, some zines can be difficult to read cover to cover because stories can easily fall into the rambling-about-myself trap. An added bonus is that Meyer copyedits his work-typographical and spelling errors are few and far between.

Surprisingly, the rise of blogs and social networking sites doesn’t seem to have cut deeply into the world of zines. It’s natural for those who aren’t familiar with the medium to compare it to blogging, since they share a commitment to self-expression. In fact, part of what is so intriguing about contemporary zines is that people continue to make them even though blogging, arguably, is much less labor intensive.

Of course, that’s why people make zines: They truly are labors of love. Barnard College zine librarian Jenna Freedman addresses this question in the Summer 2005 issue of Counterpoise with ‘Zines Are Not Blogs: A Not Unbiased Analysis.’ Her discussion suggests that zinesters prefer their medium for many reasons, not least because they are not accountable to anyone (whereas bloggers ultimately rely on Internet service providers) and because zines embody the do-it-yourself spirit.

‘You know when you hold a zine that someone else slaved over that object in your hand, even if it was just at the photocopier or with a long-arm stapler,’ Sellie notes. ‘Usually you can sense a lot more than that.’

Meyer considers e-mail ‘a passing fad’ and does not own a computer. ‘And anyway,’ he says, ‘I like handing zines to people-they are little works of art. I couldn’t put silk screens, stickers, and stamps on a blog.’

New England Watershed
New Publication
Place is an important part of how we construct our identities, which is why it’s no surprise that three of our nominees in this category seek to explore it (the other two are Conveyer and Minneapolis Observer Quarterly). Of the three, New England Watershed casts an exceptionally wide lens on a variety of questions pertaining to regional identity. Each issue of the magazine focuses on one theme-food and farming, mental health, Interstate 91-and examines it through a variety of cultural and historical perspectives.

Indeed, New England Watershed reads like a toolbox of ideas-and it’s supposed to, says Russell Powell, the editor and publisher. He views the influx of locally focused publications as a hopeful sign that more people may look to regional identities to articulate common ground with folks from other parts of the country. This sort of approach, he says, will contribute to more complex debates at the national level: ‘You have to know who you are and what you believe in before you can really engage.’

Best Writing
n+1 debuted in 2004 with guns blazing: Its first issue opened with a bold discussion of the ‘intellectual situation’ that criticized the shortcomings of various prominent writers and magazines. (The editors can take their lumps, too-in the third issue they printed New Republic senior editor James Wood’s lengthy response to that critique.)

We have found that n+1 is always thoughtful and surprising: At the end of every essay, you can’t help but think that you’ve just read the masterwork of that author’s career. Credit for this is due to the writers, of course, but also to the architects of what is probably the best-edited magazine in our library this year. Each story-each word, for that matter-just belongs.

In researching this magazine, we were surprised to encounter accusations of elitism by some of its fellow New York literary scenesters and litbloggers. We heartily disagree. To us, essays on culture and politics are written gracefully, and easily, through a literary lens. Yes, n+1’s four editors are young, male Ivy League graduates, but the writing still doesn’t seem ivory tower or self-important-perhaps because it is important.

Social/Cultural Coverage & Design
Nuance, context, and perspective tend to drown in the deluge of ink the U.S. media spill on the Middle East. Where so many mainstream and indie outlets have floundered, Bidoun, a quarterly out of New York, has soared-covering a swath of cultural terrain in all its contradictions and complexity. And it has done so by using the arts as a point of departure.

Relying on a growing network of contributors stationed in galleries, studios, and caf?s from Beirut to Berlin, Bidoun mixes columns by curators, reviews of upcoming exhibits, and profiles of innovative artists with essays on the region’s shifting political and social landscapes. The publication itself looks like an art book, something to be displayed and kept out for all to see.

Part of this aesthetic force stems from the sheer ambition of its creative mission. Each issue is redesigned cover to cover-new paper stock, new typefaces, new color palettes-in an effort to merge form and content. The winter 2006 issue on envy is electric with green ink, pumped with fluorescence, on thick paper that calls out to be touched. And the fall issue on ‘the interview’ evokes the theme’s inspiration-Andy Warhol’s iconic Interview magazine-with newsprint (a reference lost on some subscribers, who worried that the cheaper-quality paper meant the privately funded magazine was in financial trouble).

Despite this mandate of constant reinvention, each issue’s uniquely structured layout manages a coherent feel that’s easy to navigate. Full-page photographs and two-page spreads that sporadically feature nothing more than simple, playful illustrations allow readers a place to pause and reflect-a necessity considering that the articles ask us all to reconsider our preconceptions.

Take, for example, Seif El Din’s piquant account of the Al-Hamra Hotel’s transformation from cosmopolitan Baghdad haunt to mercenary central. The piece, like so many in Bidoun, gives readers an unusually intimate level of access that represents the best of what the social/cultural coverage category celebrates: It chips away at that wall in our imaginations that has kept so many of ‘us’ from identifying with ‘them’ over ‘there.’

This is a task for which Bidoun’s young creators are well suited; the small editorial team straddles a diaspora rooted in Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. And it is this sense of statelessness, a lack of a fixed geographic or ethnic positioning, from which the magazine takes its name: Bidoun is the Arabic and Farsi word for without.

Though they shun the label of spokespeople (senior editor Negar Azimi: ‘We are privileged kids’), Bidoun’s makers are trying to fill a blind spot in Americans’ perceptions. They’re also trying to start a conversation. Staffers routinely curate shows and host panel discussions. And they’re working to distribute Bidoun more widely in the Middle East. That’s not a tough task in open cultural hot spots like Beirut. In Tehran, it has required more creative problem solving: Azimi is not above loading up a friend’s father with copies before a business trip to the city.

Spiritual Coverage
In November, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s erudite rejoinder to the religious right released Tikkun Reader: Twentieth Anniversary (Rowman & Littlefield) to showcase memorable essays from the bimonthly magazine’s all-star cast of contributors: Naomi Wolf on ‘Starting on My Spiritual Path.’ Jim Wallis facing down fear, post 9/11. Lama Surya Das ruminating on the timeless value of nonviolence. Peter Gabel on ‘Spiritualizing Foreign Policy.’

Revisiting these intellectually rigorous, often deeply moving works concerning our society’s collective soul (or lack thereof), we were reminded why Tikkun routinely makes our short list of nominees (eight times since 1989, when it won top honors). Besides challenging people of all faiths to use their bully pulpits ‘to mend, repair, and transform the world,’ the magazine has made it a mission to stay in the face of what Lerner calls the ‘values neutral’ secular left.

Both messages are invaluable. The executive branch is still beholden to fundamentalists, the globe is once again a battleground of rigid religious belief systems, and progressives still don’t know how to keep the faith. Over the past year, Tikkun has not only adeptly analyzed this reality, it has also articulated a pragmatic vision for change.

Raw Vision
Arts Coverage
Outsider artist is one those fuzzy but indispensable terms-like alternative press-that provokes endless debate about just what the heck it means, and about who ought to be lumped under the label. It generally refers to self-taught artists, but not always, and beyond that things get even stickier.

Consider a few of the artists who have been featured in recent issues of Raw Vision, which calls itself ‘the world’s leading journal of outsider art, art brut, and contemporary folk art’:

  • A man from the United States’ rural South who filled his yard with brightly colored cut-out figures and whirligigs bedecked with religious slogans.
  • A homeless Jamaican painter whose vibrant works include recurring figures of cowboys, fortune-tellers, and boxers, and who says he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln.
  • A German woman who sabotaged a railway in a 1907 political protest, and who, after she was deemed insane and institutionalized for the act, fashioned a full-size male ‘doctor’ from burlap and stuffing, and regularly pummeled it. She also made small figures from bread dough and wrote a play.

Clearly, it’s an expansive genre, and people in the field love to skirmish at the boundaries between outsider and other terms such as folk, contemporary, naive, raw, visionary, primitive, vernacular, and, when it’s applicable, simply art by people with disabilities. Despite their disagreements, many of them agree on one thing: Raw Vision covers this ever-shifting territory nimbly and smartly.

‘If you want to know this field, you’ve got to take Raw Vision,’ says Eugene Metcalf, a professor at Miami University in Ohio who has written books and articles about outsider and folk art.

‘There isn’t any another publication that comes close in terms of timely information about the field,’ says Tom di Maria, director of the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, which provides studio space and instruction for physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled artists. ‘I also like its international focus.’

‘It does a service in promoting these artists,’ says Sherry Pardee, director of the Pardee Collection folk/outsider gallery in Iowa City, Iowa. ‘It exposes things to the world that people aren’t usually going to see.’

Raw Vision places a premium on its visual presentation of this electrifying art, extending the magazine’s appeal beyond the insular art-publishing world. With large and abundant photographs on high-quality stock, Raw Vision is a visual feast akin to ‘Christmas pudding,’ says contributing editor Roger Cardinal, a British scholar who coined outsider art in 1972 as an English equivalent to the French art brut (‘raw art’). A reader might be exposed to hallucinatory paintings, eye-bogglingly meticulous pen-and-ink drawings, or an alien-looking yard in which branches and jagged structures are wrapped in aluminum foil. ‘It takes a while to settle down to read it properly, because it’s so rich,’ Cardinal says. ‘You don’t just take a bite for breakfast. You’ve really got to deal with it.’

Raw Vision editor John Maizels started publishing the UK-based magazine in 1989. ‘It was the height of conceptual art, and [many art] magazines were essentially unreadable,’ he says. ‘Not only that, they didn’t have any pictures in them. We tried to be completely different.’

‘It’s very important to have the art well presented so it can be looked at equally with any other art,’ he says, ‘because people can look down on it and say, oh, it’s art by mad people or something like that. They don’t realize that it’s probably a truer art than most of the art you see around, because it comes direct from the soul; it’s just pure expression done by people who aren’t looking for a career, or for exhibitions, or to sell anything.’

Raw Vision has a circulation of about 8,000, with about 5,000 of those copies sold in the United States. ‘Fairly wealthy collectors’ and ‘fairly impoverished artists’ are the magazine’s two main groups of subscribers, Maizels says.

‘The amazing thing about all outsider art is that it’s just so accessible,’ he says. ‘People can look at it and appreciate it and feel it without having read an art book or been to a museum or anything. Just like the artists, in a way.’

New Mobility
Lifestyle Coverage
Every issue of New Mobility takes aim at the journalistic clich? that editor Tim Gilmer calls ‘the inspirational cripple story.’ Gilmer, a paraplegic who edits the magazine and runs a 10-acre organic farm from the seat of a manual wheelchair, has little patience for such tired, teary-eyed dispatches. ‘Most of our writers have disabilities,’ he explains, ‘so we offer an insider viewpoint.’ That viewpoint-honest, intelligent, and human (as opposed to superhuman)-is what makes New Mobility such compelling reading, both for the disabled and for the ‘temporarily abled’ (that’s the rest of us).

When it comes to the writing, abilities are varied: Many contributors, says Gilmer, are not professional writers, though some, like Lorenzo Milam and Harriet McBryde Johnson, are well known. Regardless, the stories and style are down-to-earth and take on tough subjects. The mix of voices and perspectives captures the paradox of life in a wheelchair: It commands time and energy, but disability doesn’t define every moment. New Mobility manages to finesse the distinction, demonstrating that a life on wheels is a rich and complicated one.

NACLA Report on the Americas
International Coverage
When the Democratic Party wrestled a slim majority in Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the punditry was quick to pronounce it a ‘revolution.’ But while lefties may have raised a hopeful fist on election night, nobody could legitimately claim that the shift in power stemmed from an energetic, organized, dedicated grassroots movement.

Latin America is a different story. The flourishing progressive political climates of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Nicaragua represent, to varying degrees, the triumph of decades of political organizing.

‘Overall, these changes were a long time coming,’ explains Teo Ballv?, editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas, a bimonthly magazine that publishes some of the best reporting on the region. ‘Progressive groups have been engaged in movement building and political organizing for decades. During the ’70s and ’80s, there was a leash on those organizations, because they were under the U.S.-supported right-wing governments. Now that more space is being afforded those groups, there have been dramatic gains.’

The NACLA Report offers its readers a front-row view of these changes. The magazine is the primary work of the North American Congress on Latin America, an organization founded in 1966 to provide an alternative to the mainstream media’s coverage of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. The NACLA Report’s formula is to uphold academic standards of research and sourcing, but to deliver the information in writing that anyone can understand.

This mix of substance and style has won the journal a loyal following; it is the most widely read English-language magazine on Latin American affairs. Most of the work is commissioned, says Ballv?, from academics and journalists who are happy to write for a periodical that affords them the space to dig deep. ‘The result is a form of intelligent journalism that’s pretty rare,’ Ballv? says.

In addition to shorter reports from various regions, the magazine typically collects related articles in a feature section. A recent issue explored Caribbean politics, with articles ranging from a report on the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti to a study of Jamaican gang violence. Another ambitious package called ‘The Bio Politic’ offered wide-ranging analysis of international politics and biology, including the appropriation of native plants, the global trade in human tissue, and the use of digital technology to enforce borders.

NACLA has served as a catalyst for activism in the United States, although that work has languished as the organization struggled for survival. ‘We began our life as a hybrid activist organization,’ explains Steve Volk, who has been with NACLA since 1969 and sits on the board. The information in the NACLA Report forms one arm of its activism; the other consisted of building networks among organizations interested in Latin American policy. ‘We had a staff of 8 or 10 people on two coasts,’ Volk says. But as budget pressures constricted the staff, ‘we withdrew more and more into the office and we lost that vital connection with the grass roots.’

In recent years, the organization has taken steps to reconnect, beginning with a dramatic turnover in staff. Editor Ballv?, 27, represents the new face of the organization. ‘We brought a lot of younger people on board,’ he says, ‘so the organization could take a new direction. We are a new generation of activists, arising in part from the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, and we’re building new, organic ties to the wider movement.’

A central tool in creating these ties is NACLA’s web presence. The group is about to launch a new site that will add breaking-news reports to the NACLA Report’s in-depth coverage. It will also, says Volk, help to forge ties between activists in the United States and Latin America.

Recent shifts in Latin American politics have made such ties even more important. Progressives in the United States have a lot to learn from Latin American groups, and NACLA is uniquely positioned to facilitate collaboration across borders. ‘The Internet allows community and coordination that were inconceivable a few decades ago,’ Ballv? says. ‘Back then, you were lucky if you could raise the money to bring a handful of Latin American labor leaders up here for a week. Now you can be in constant contact with them.’

In These Times
Political Coverage
Chronicling the rise of hip-hop politics. The role blogs will play in progressive politics. How Madison Avenue sells perpetual adolescence. Considering the nightmarish consequences of leaving Iraq prematurely.

Not the sort of stuff fans of the socialist, labor union-loving In These Times have become accustomed to since the Carter administration. Not because the Chicago-based nonprofit hasn’t made its mark on the media landscape year after defiant year. It’s just that, since going from biweekly to monthly in 2006, the magazine has a palpable, politically unpredictable energy-a little less worry and a lot more fight.

Turns out it’s all about the staff, which is younger, more diverse, and less likely to tolerate doctrinaire bromides. ‘We’re building community. I read In These Times and I don’t feel alone,’ explains 27-year-old publisher Tracy Van Slyke. ‘But we don’t want to be the mouthpiece for the movement, we want to make it better. We want to be provocative.’

According to Van Slyke, who started as a Chicago Reporter intern and is three years younger than the magazine, a number of staffers and contributors are in their 20s and ‘more comfortable about critiquing what’s working or not working. And people in the alternative media have been hesitant to do that-to criticize the left.’

In These Times has also started showcasing more female voices and regularly features two African American writers-sadly, still an anomaly in the progressive press. You’re probably not going to see an essay from Andrew Sullivan anytime soon, of course-but it’s a good guess he’s reading.

Science/Tech Coverage
Seed magazine’s mission to make science sexy has had skeptics clucking their tongues since the periodical’s launch five years ago. ‘If you trivialize a subject such as science and technology,’ scolded R. Bruce Journey, former publisher of MIT’s Technology Review, back in 2001, ‘you do so at your own peril.’ Whatever.

Founder and editor in chief Adam Bly, a child prodigy who launched his career as a cancer researcher at 16 and dropped it at 21 to start Seed, appears to have escaped that peril. But maybe that’s because Seed doesn’t really trivialize its subject at all.

The best comparison for Seed is the early years of Rolling Stone, when music was less a subject than a lens for viewing American culture. In other words, what sets Seed apart from its competitors is its focus on storytelling-and the unfolding dramas enacted in our 21st-century laboratories make for some pretty fascinating tales.
Recent issues have featured a profile of Elizabeth Gould’s exploration of the effects of environment on brain development and an ambitious roundup on ‘the culture
that has arisen to combat HIV/AIDS’ in the past 25 years. Compelling stuff, and hardly trivial.

The Ecologist
Environmental Coverage
To anyone who breathes air, drinks water, eats food, and enjoys nature, the Ecologist is a reliable and long-standing British friend, covering environmental issues with dogged assurance. The 37-year-old magazine publishes gutsy activist journalism that takes on agrigiants like Monsanto; sharp and soundly argued commentaries; unvarnished green consumer advice; and revealing, deeply researched features such as the recent explication of all the environmental costs of a BLT sandwich.

The Ecologist’s British provenance occasionally shines through in words like barmy and yobbishness, but even when it celebrates the local, it draws links to the global. And the casual stateside reader would never know that the magazine’s editor, Zac Goldsmith, is the young scion of a blueblood family, a conservative who’s advising the Tory party on environmental matters, and a headline-generating rake who loves poker and, according to recent news stories, extramarital relations.

And perhaps all that doesn’t really matter any more than the fact that Al Gore flies on jumbo jets. After all, the Ecologist stands on its own merits, and Goldsmith has only made it better since he bought it from his Uncle Teddy in 1997. As for his Tory ties, maybe he and his magazine can help the environmental movement broach the partisan divide. ‘A conservative who is not also in his heart an environmentalist cannot really legitimately be described as a conservative,’ he has said, and we wholeheartedly agree.

High Country News
Local/Regional Coverage
High Country News has an unusual beat: ‘the West’ (or, as editor Greg Hanscom points out, more than a million square miles, half of which are public parklands).

It has an unusual financial structure: Subscriptions and donations to a nonprofit research fund make up 70 percent of the budget. And it has an unusual style: independent not only from advertisers and other moneyed interests, but also from the progressive community that forms its principal readership. ‘We’re not beholden to anyone,’ says Hanscom.

A go-to source for coverage of the West’s public lands (policy makers and big-city reporters rely on the paper’s in-depth reporting), High Country recently installed a younger staff and redesigned itself as a smarter, more serious alt-biweekly of the West-and began to take more risks. ‘We’ve thrown our readers some serious curveballs,’ says Hanscom (who stepped down in November), covering, for example, Mormon Polynesian gangs in Salt Lake City and a heroin epidemic in New Mexico. ‘A lot of publications aim to make their readers comfortable,’ he explains. ‘We intentionally throw our readers off balance. We’re constantly poking holes in their assumptions. It’s great!’


December 21, 2007 - Posted by | Books, Magazines, Utne |

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