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Starting The Humboldt Independent

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of “The Humboldt Independent” and brings back memories of the summer of ‘97, when a group of us got together to start it.

After the “Redwood Record” went out of business in ‘95 there was heard a murmur in the community about starting another paper, an alternative to Bill Roddy’s weekly “The Southern Humboldt Life and Times.” Karol had told me her friend Jerry was interested and a few weeks later she took me across town to meet him and talk about the idea. He showed me his template of the first page of his dream paper which he called “The Emerald City Gazette.” 

A couple months later I visited Jerry again, we talked more about the paper idea, and a few days later I asked an aspiring writer, my neighbor Rosa, "Hey, you wanna start a weekly newspaper?"

"Yes!" she said.

The first meeting was just before “Reggae on the River” at Tooby Park where six of us sat around the picnic table talking about the idea, including our volunteer lawyer Eric Kirk. We shared our ideas and dreams about what we’d like in the proposed paper, that first meeting the most contentious issue was whether to allow anonymous articles and letters.

I donated $260, the little office in Garberville was rented, and some supplies were purchased. We had a few more weekly meetings at Little Tooby where a lot of time was spent on what the name should be. Driving up to Smith River Karol and I brainstormed possible names for a couple hours and she came up with “The Independent.” It wasn't too repugnant for Rosa or too kitschy for Sylvia, it was a compromise choice. 

We started having weekly editorial meetings, roles emerged, and Jerry became our Editor-in-Chief and leader. Some dropped out of the organizing process, new ones came on board, and we had a lot of columnists but few reporters.

The business aspect of the paper was daunting: who would be responsible? Was it a collective? A partnership? Everyone wanted to do the creative part but no one really wanted to do the business. Jerry plunged ahead building the “Indie” as the editor, writing stories, and co-ordinating everything. 

(It was a good time to start a paper as the first issue covered some hot local stories: the Bear Lincoln trial, the inflammable Health Center/Hospital negotiations, the first publicized Prop 215 garden, and the latest Headwaters rally.) 

Jerry was overwhelmed, the publication deadline passed, and then Karol and Bridgette marched in and pushed it through a week late, which didn’t seem too bad considering the first organizational meeting had been just two months before. 

We wondered if there would even be a second issue.

Congratulations to the Indie, 1750 issues later.

One Comment

  1. Paul Modic Post author | December 9, 2023

    And just for fun, the long winding edition of this story, where names are named and all I have to worry about is someone spitting on my grave:

    Starting The Independent/Summer of ‘97
    After the “Redwood Record” went out of business there was heard a murmur in the community about starting another paper: there was a meeting or two, one woman actually lavished thousands of dollars worth of computers, supplies, and money on two local worthies, who kept the money when the thing went kaput. (Of course each thought the other one was the scammer.)
    Karol had told me about her best friend's husband, Jerry, who wanted to start a paper. I made it an item (in my zine: The Gulch Mulch) in a column lamenting lack of creativity in local media: ("meanwhile Jerry S. is contemplating starting a local paper. Maybe some of the other people interested could collaborate with him.")
    A few weeks lager a very emotional Karol took me across town to meet Jerry, check out his Internet connection, and chat up the paper idea. She was crying, calling lawyers, and worrying about custody battles. (That's what happens when you threaten to take your kids to live with your boyfriend in England.) Jerry and I alternately surfed the web and comforted Karol.
    I had met Karol two years earlier at Manny Frishberg's writer's workshop and became infatuated: she was young, and beautiful. (Once we drank tequila swinging on the swing set at the old school building by the highway. I thought I had a chance but then her old flame came back and she settled down with him.)
    One day in the writer's workshop I had read a story called "My First Time" which included a line about "whether I could count the 'muff-diving' with Suzy" back in Indiana. A short time later Karol received an anonymous envelope with a clipping inside, a graphic photo from "Muff-Diving" magazine. She was certain I had sent it because of the story and the Whitethorn postmark. She wouldn't buy any of my arguments of innocence, so I turned cool to her after that. ("Shit, this chick's dangerous with these false accusations!" I thought.)
    When we weren't kissing and hugging and consoling Karol, that little ball of emotion, Jerry and I talked about our visions for a local paper, all great ideas easier said than done. Jerry was poor, marriage on the rocks, and his darling baby was crying. He showed me the template of the first page of his dream paper, named “The Emerald City Gazette,” and seemed hurt when I asked him if he was very attached to that name. I was thinking, "That name has got to go!" but Jerry loved it.
    A couple months later I was visiting Karol and she was telling me what a mess Jerry's life was with the impending breakup. I headed over there, ostensibly to check out his Web access, like a vulture attracted to bad news: I wanted to see what a broken man looked like. We romped around on the Internet some, he fed us homemade hummus pockets, and this time his girl was better behaved, although she still needed a lot of attention.
    The paper idea didn't come up till I was standing outside the door, he wanted me to stay longer. "What's your hurry?" he said. He fed me bits and pieces of local media concepts which I'd written in my last ‘Mulch, and I caught that right away, figuring it was meant to butter me up. “Well, there's always the “Emerald City Gazette,” he said.
    I thought about the newspaper idea for a few days, then while walking into a local wedding party for our neighbor Matthew I announced to Rosa, an aspiring writer, "Hey, you wanna start a paper?"
    "Yesss!" she said.
    The first meeting was just before Reggae on the River at Tooby Park where six of us talked about creating a local paper, even a volunteer lawyer, Eric Kirk. We laid out a lot of ideas about what would go in it, that first day the most contentious issue was whether to publish anonymous columns and letters.
    A little office in Garberville was rented (I donated the $269 startup money), the six of us had a couple more formative meetings, and a lot of time was spent talking about what the name should be: Jerry loved "Emerald City Gazette," none were good enough for Rosa. ("Eel River Journal"? She hated them all.)
    I had broken up with my girlfriend, and invited Karol and her two kids up to the annual Gulch camp-out on the Smith River, as my "rent-a-family". On the way north we were brain-storming names when Karol hit upon "The Independent," which sounded just about right.
    The boys loved the river, Karol loved my wacky neighbors, and as we were leaving The Joker handed me a joint. Uh, smoking in the morning? We all did, but I told The Joker that I was going to blow it for sure now. "Ahh," he said. "C'mon, have another hit."
    Sure enough by the time we hit Arcata, Karol said to just "dump me on any street corner," with all her stuff: a big pile of camping equipment including ice chests, sleeping bags, and two children, right there on the sidewalk, a big pile on the corner of 12th and I? (Somehow we made it back to Garberville intact.)
    So the name "The Independent" stuck: it wasn't too repugnant for Rosa, or too kitschy for Sylvia, or too this or too that, it was a compromise choice. (I always figured we could have done better than that though.)
    The timing for starting a new local paper was propitious; there were some big local issues coming to everyones’ attention, and also the editor of the existing paper, "The Southern Humboldt Life & Times," was annoying a lot of people with divisive editorials stirring up shit between the "hippies" and the "rednecks.” He was encouraging the local yahoos to write in with their moronic opinions, such as a recent letter-to-the-editor where the writer accused environmentalists, earth first?, and the counterculture of sabotaging Measure R, the bond measure designed to bail out the high school. (Well, I don't know if more stoned hippies or drunk rednecks didn't vote on that one, probably a lot of both, those apathetic weasels!)
    The editor, Bill Roddy, was pretty sure his house had been burnt down by a drifter, and he may have been going through serious physical and psychological problems also. He was doing his job, stirring up the shit, which generated attacks on him, of course, and he didn’t take criticism very well. He did publish letters criticizing him but was so thinned skinned he responded with defensive and rambling generalizations, which were usually twice the length of the offending letters. (Just once I would have liked to see him take criticism like a big boy and maybe just answer, "Yeah...whatever, dude," which everyone knows means "Fuck you asshole, you don't know shit.")
    When he was criticized for printing divisive bullshit was when he’d really launch his harangues: "All these people are telling me to shut up and it's blah blah my 1st Amendment rights, blah blah Constitution...blah blah." (They're telling you to shut up, Bill, 'cause you're making a fool of yourself. But hey it's your paper, it's a hard job to put it out, it's better than nothing, and, somehow, we still love you Bill! Even with your Redwood Rural Health Center-bashing "articles.")
    Consequently the people were thinking they'd like to have another voice, start another paper, and it could be a crazy foolish venture.
    It was a great moment to start a paper: The Bear Lincoln trial was ending, all the fair-weather "activists" were gathering for the annual Headwaters Rally, and the Redwoods Rural Health Center (RRHC) was imploding. Their doctors and nurses were defecting to the Hospital Clinic as partner talks between the two medical institutions reached an impasse.
    (I went to one Hospital/RRHC meeting when the RRHC was on the defensive, like a wet whimpering dog. The Hospital board was telling them, "You're too dysfunctional, we don't want to deal with you anymore, you're too flaky, we want agreement now, on our terms, we've waited long enough."
    And the RRHC responded with something like, "Oh, please give us another chance, we promise to get our shit together, we'll quickly come up with a concrete partnering proposal in like...two months, or so."
    And the Hospital said, "Sorry, this partnering process has been going on for two years and enough is enough, no more 'two months'."
    Some of the people in the Hospital gallery were sneering and ridiculing the hippie health center. "Score one for the rednecks," you could see in their eyes. "We beat you hippies this time!"
    Did they beat us at our own game? The "people" game: communication, co-ordination? What did go wrong at the RRHC to cause all those people to leave? Does it have to do with sealed settled lawsuits and other secret stuff? Was it just time for these practitioners to move on? Will the local system be better or worse? Do you follow your doctor or P.A. to the Hospital Clinic or do you stand with the RRHC? If you're very healthy you can stand on principle and support the RRHC. If you're sick you just want your doctor and hate the politics involved.
    What did the doctor and PA's who left think? That they were so indispensable that they could force an early merger, that the RRHC would just sign everything over to the Hospital District? It is a well-known fact that a hospital is always more important to a community that a clinic.
    My opinion is that the majority of RRHC member didn't really trust the Hospital and this probably goes back to the, maybe apocryphal, horror stories at the hospital from the late sixties and early seventies, indeed why the RRHC was started. If there was a chance that we could continue to operate as before we'd take it. Now that un-willingness to change may mean the RRHC will go down. Maybe we were wrong, should have been more attuned to what's going on in the health care industry, and jumped on this partnering thing a long time ago. (I suppose it's also possible the RRHC board was incompetent, hardly anyone wanted those thankless positions. I hope it all works out and there's plenty of good health care available locally. Joe Sixpack and Pedro Pothead just want everything working well. Best advice: Don’t Get Sick!)
    So there were all these big issue happening while these nuts are trying to start a paper. There are weekly editorial meetings and roles are emerging: Jerry became our editor-in-chief, our leader. People drop out, new ones come on board, we have a lot of columnists, and very few reporters.
    Our editor-in-chief became homeless, with no car to boot. Sometimes he camped down by the river in his tent, then spent all day in the little office working on that paper and brooding about his broken family, the kids 150 miles away. The little kitchen in the office got used a lot though his needs were few: a pot of rice, a pan of vegetables, and a Mac.
    A new girlfriend took him in for awhile, then she closed her door. At one point he had not one penny to his name and has to borrow $150 for living expenses. He was supposed to leave the office each evening at ten, when the building rules say you gotta close up shop. This was because the herb man, the Chevron ginseng inventor himself, Arnie "Give me $50,000 and some free land" Wolman can't handle people in that late, he's trying to get some sleep. Inevitably the office had become Jerry's crash pad until the Hospice guy took him in to his house down by the river.
    The office was in the back of the Humboldt Trader’s office across the hall from Telepal, and there's a story there: for some reason the Telepal lady saw The Independent as a threat. Before the paper even had a name she had complained to authorities about us: traffic, building codes, health dept, etc, all the NIMBY complaints you could imagine. Then she wrote the landlord to complain which got her a letter from him telling her to quit harassing the other tenants! The next thing we hear she's evicted and moved out! But that's how newspapers are, they just collect the shit.
    The business aspect of the paper was daunting: who would be responsible? Was it a collective? A partnership? Everyone wanted to do the creative part but no one really wanted to do the business. Jerry tried for a while but it just wasn't him. Then an amazing thing happened: our ad salesman Glen walked into a meeting and laid $2,000 on the table! What a great country! We hadn't even put out the first issue and we had this pile of cash! For a paper started with almost nothing that was encouraging indeed.
    So Jerry plunged through his homeless, jilted misery to do everything: build the paper, be the editor, write stories, and co-ordinate it all. The publishing deadline passed with no paper. Another few days: no paper, a
    Now here's where it gets a little murky because Karol told me that she went down to the office were Jerry was stymied and just not getting it together. She said that she and Bridgette marched in there and pushed it through, a week late which doesn't seem too bad, considering the first organizational meeting was just two months before.
    It was a pretty good first issue, if you ignored the copious editorial and layout mistakes, all the big stories were covered, and it turned out to be a pretty leftwing rag. At our visioning meetings we were inspired to be a paper for the whole community, have interviews with loggers, etc., but the reality was that we were just a bunch of lefties, hopefully fair.
    The 1st issue was out! Would there be a second? At our next Thursday night meeting Jerry dropped the bomb: he couldn't work with Karol anymore. He gave us an ultimatum: either she left the paper or he would. She had until Monday to decide if she wanted to run the paper, if yes then he was gone. (I guess that's what happens when two control freaks are trying to share power.)
    So Karol was out, Jerry was plodding toward another issue, and I was torn because Karol was my friend and I was trying to figure out the whole breakup.
    "Look, I'm out for now,” Karol said,” but after Jerry runs it into the ground I'll come back and pick up the pieces, rescue it."
    A couple weeks later I stopped by the office to see how the paper was going. (I had lost interest in the project before the first issue had even come out but I kept coming to the meetings because I liked hanging out with Rosa: We'd carpool in, have a bite, and then go to a lousy movie after the editorial meeting.)
    "I'm leaving the paper,” Jerry said. “I'll put the second issue out then I'm moving back to Sacramento to be my kids' dad. (Dr. Laura would've been proud.) I thought the paper would come together faster and I could rent a place and send for the children. Now I can see it'll take a lot longer than I thought so I'm outta here, and I'm taking my computer with me."
    "What?" I said. "We can't do it without you! Why even do another issue? Why not kill it off right now!"
    He got another issue out, kinda slapped together an "I'm outta here issue." It looked pretty boring but when I actually read the columns they were readable. But there was no local news, it was a disgrace, an embarrassment!
    After Jerry quit we were trying to give the paper away to whomever would run it, and be the leader. All the writers were volunteering, they just wanted a leader, an editor. It was comical, here we were trying to give away a business.(Take this paper, please!)
    Karol and Liz ended up leading the drive for a third issue, one that came out very green, environmental stories on practically every page. After the third issue came out there was another falling out at the top: Liz apparently stalked off saying she'll never work with Karol again, and that she's going to start her own paper!
    The 4th issue will be out next week.
    It's been interesting watching the paper and the ego-wars. Bottom line “The Independent” needs people to do the work to put it out for little or no pay, with many columnists and few reporters.
    The old “Life & Times” editor has started to rant again though he did take a good vibes break over Christmas, it seems. I like to think that the existence of “The Independent” reigned him in a little, but face it, he's still the biggest show in town.
    And then we've got “The Indie,” the little paper that refuses to die.
    (And twenty-five years later it’s still around...)

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