20 Years of Voices - reflections from the founders of State College's only surviving independent free press.
20 Years of Voices
By Art Goldschmidt
On Thursday, October 14, 1993, a small pickup truck came into State College, carrying about twenty thousand copies of Voices’ first issue. They came as bundles of fifty copies, each bundle being bound by a plastic cord. One of my Middle East history students stood beside me when they arrived. He taught me an old newspaper boys’ trick: Always turn over the cord. Then you can separate the ends and, presto, the papers are unbound.
Ben Farahani, wherever you are now, thanks! I have turned and separated cords for twenty years.
Voices of Central Pennsylvania began in a meeting convened jointly by Dr. Alycia Chambers, then the president of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and me. It was held on July 26, 1993, in Schlow Memorial Library’s old Community Room.
The women’s organization was deeply concerned about a fortnightly publication called The Lionhearted whose pages were filled with articles opposing women and gays. They especially attacked movements, mainly but not exclusively at Penn State, that fought prejudice against them.
Its founder was a State College lawyer who was also an elected Penn State trustee, Ben Novak. He had come to believe that campus publications, especially The Daily Collegian, were too subservient to the administration and faculty of the University. Novak hoped in 1990 to create a forum that would empower students to speak and write on behalf of their own interests. Even in its maiden issue, The Lionhearted was a mouthpiece for Novak’s views of what a university should be and for the complaints of conservative students, who accused their instructors of downgrading their work to punish them for their political and religious convictions.
During its five years of existence, The Lionhearted evolved into a paper that glorified a traditional image of masculinity—often printing Penn State’s football schedule on its front page, even out of season.
When The Lionhearted printed a cartoon depicting a Collegian columnist, an outspoken feminist, writing her column while wearing a bikini and lying on a bed in a sexually provocative pose, many of the campus feminists were enraged. They spotted the truck that delivered the copies of The Lionhearted to various drops on the University Park campus and in State College, followed it, scooped up the papers, piled them in front of Novak’s law office on South Allen Street, and set them afire.
The bonfire attracted local and indeed national attention, even inspiring an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Everyone agreed that students should generally be free to express their views on controversial issues in writing. But opinions differed on the limitations of good taste.
The most sensible response I read at the time was a letter to the Centre Daily Times, arguing that the sensible way for progressives or feminists was to publish their own periodical. I had thought about this for some time. In those days, I was suspicious of politicized academics. I would have substituted “gender studies” for “women’s studies” and disparaged the use of African and African-American studies as a vehicle for Black liberation. I taught Middle East history and knew of the controversies surrounding Orientalism, Zionism, and Arab studies. But I was progressive enough to believe that African Americans, people of other races who had suffered discrimination in America, women, homosexuals, and religious minorities needed a chance to speak for their rights.
The National Organization for Women envisaged publishing a periodical called “The Voice” to advance and defend feminist interests. I thought that such a paper would probably have limited appeal to writers and readers and might well be confused with a well-known New York weekly, The Village Voice. The library catalog showed more journal titles bearing the name “Voice” than “Voices,” which had the added advantage of permitting diverse opinions on a variety of issues.
What did matter to the crowd of 60–70 activists who crowded into the Community Room on July 26 was that someone must publish something soon. Ben Novak actually attended our meeting and offered to include whatever we produced under the aegis of The Lionhearted. Doing this would have facilitated our raising money, because he had already secured nonprofit status and even a 503c3 tax exemption for The Lionhearted. As I joked at the time, our paper would have become the “Left Ventricle of the Lionhearted.” This would certainly not have pleased the feminists. We declined Novak’s offer.
Instead, we organized an Administrative Committee, now commonly known as our Board of Directors, to draw up a mission statement and some bylaws and an Editorial Committee to parcel out the tasks of writing and producing the paper. As Suzan Erem writes in her article, I knew nothing about editing and production. Indeed, if anyone else had stepped up to direct the Administrative Committee, I would have stood aside. All I wanted to do was write a few articles. I organized a Ways and Means Committee, but we knew almost nothing about fundraising or selling advertising.
Indeed, it was the leadership of our first Editor-in-Chief, Bonny Farmer, and our Managing Editor, Angela Rogers, that set the direction for Voices. I credit our survival to the influx of the many men and women who have joined us over the years. Their willingness to favor cooperation over competition, even at the sacrifice of time and money they could have spent in other ways, has been the key to our continuity.
I will keep on unbinding those plastic cords as long as I can.
It takes a village to grow a paper like Voices
by Suzan Erem
When I took up Voices in 2003, it was a ghost of its former self. The founders were mostly gone. The conservative newspaper the Lion Hearted, the original impetus for Voices, was long gone. Ad reps Carl Ector and Mike Stetson would walk in once a month with a fistful of dollars and ad copy scrawled on napkins. Art Goldschmidt had doggedly kept filling the managing editor spot over the years, but he hadn’t a clue how to produce a newspaper.
Now it was my turn. I opened the mail my first day in the office to learn we owed thousands and our bank account was empty. Art walked in as I was trying to catch my breath.
“Art, we need money,” I gasped. “And we need it now.”
“OK, I’ll go get some donations,” he said. Wow, I thought. How cool is that?
I sat down at the old computer with the bootleg software and dial-up connection. I couldn’t find the ads. There was no filing system. There wasn’t even enough bad writing on inane subjects to fill a 16-page paper. Opinion blended over into news and back again. No one was demanding good reporting or asking what defines news. There was no sense of audience and less of purpose. Birdwatch and Cosmo were the only content, and why was a bird column in a progressive paper, I wondered.
Art returned a few hours later. “I collected some donations!” he announced proudly. He handed me a $10, a $20 and a check for $50. (One of those was his.)
“Art, we’re going to have to do things differently,” I said, and didn’t take another deep breath for years.
My predecessor kept the paper going best he could while finishing college. And thanks to every late night that former editors like Mike Casper and Elizabeth Goreham had put in long before me, Voices was there when I came along. Because of them, Voices never missed an issue in 20 years. We never really know the ground we’re preparing for those who come after us.
But it was rough ground for sure. I was new in town. Activists were fighting other battles. One day when I was ready to quit, a new friend told me others would step up if I hung in there long enough. How could I put a paper out successfully while people waited to see if we were successful?
But she was right. Slowly, community members and dedicated students, some local, started to trickle in – Reidar Jensen, Carisa Cortez, Anne Marie Toccket, Ben Brewer, Ray Bryer, Obi Nwoke, Delia Guzman – to name a few early ones. Ann Bolser did all of our accounting until we could afford to pay her. Voices veterans John Dickison and Mike Casper sent people our way. Art always pitched in. A newly-recruited board retired our debt. We reduced our printing costs and improved quality with a new press. Suzanne Weinstein and Roxanne Toto joined up and built a distribution system they ran for years. They, Kevin Handwerk and scores of volunteers took Voices from a low of 2,000 papers downtown to 8,000 to 12,000 distributed through more than 400 sites county-wide. Graphic designer Mali Campbell’s work drew new advertisers. Bill Eichman made the website so successful firms from Boston were buying ads. Our readership topped 20,000. Meanwhile, scores of student volunteers and interns came through learning more, they said, than they ever had in class. Most gave their whole hearts to the effort.
Our goal was to amplify voices that are often muted – workers, union people, African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, women and anyone working to make a better world. We asked questions no one else would of Penn State and our local officials. We believed in the old journalistic adage of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Only Voices, with its fearless, community-based reporting, socially conscious donors and loyal advertisers, could do it. All that distribution, web work and credible reporting paid off, and we began to affect policy while also celebrating artists and community-builders across the region.
The upward momentum continued. The 2006 senatorial campaign galvanized progressives and forged deep friendships that helped grow our base. Approval of our 501c(3) application expanded our fundraising capacity. Bob Potter showed us how to build our board. Affinity Connection helped us reach supporters better, vaulting us into financial viability. Webster’s Bookstore became the physical space to our written one. Our spring Fun!Raiser, generously supported by India Pavilion and others, became an annual celebration of social and economic justice. Even our naysayers were beginning to see the value of a truly free press.
We had no debt, a healthy bank account and owned our software and hardware outright.
We regularly published a 36-page paper, with color, and a monthly email to more than 3,000 people highlighting stories and upcoming events.
Ad representative Marisa Eichman was making a (small) wage, mentored by local media guru and board member Mike McGough.
Our Free Press Fund donors committed support for a managing editor for three years, commitments I garnered one at a time, to give Voices time to transition to the next phase.
Our advisory council of community leaders showed supporters that Voices was a valued part of a vibrant democracy.
We were paying a few small stipends to our hardworking volunteers.
In addition to workers’, civil and women’s rights stories, we were publishing issues on food and farms, and the only printed guides to community nonprofits and local Community Supported Agriculture farms.
But this requires ongoing relationships with sources, advertisers, readers willing to say they “saw it in Voices,” reporters who will ask good questions and learn from mistakes, editors who will take writers to task, donors digging deep, professors sending students our way and more. Centre County, more people must take on a piece of it now or you will lose your Voices for good.
We were only one part of a larger history. I thank Art Goldschmidt for his tenacious desire to keep Voices alive, and the hundreds of volunteers I met for the privilege of working with them, the long hours and the hearty laughs, the passionate debates and the late nights finishing pages. They are some of the toughest, most dedicated and decent people I have ever known.
Now it’s up to you, the next generation of free thinkers, to grow something even greater.
Happy 20th Voices!
Suzan Erem was managing editor of Voices from 2003 to 2010. She lives in Iowa with her husband Paul Durrenberger, daughter Ayshe Yeager (currently attending the University of Alaska), and a menagerie of dogs and birds. Readers can visit them virtually at dracohill.org.
Voices changed my life
By Elizabeth Goreham
Above everything else, it has been Art Goldschmidt’s commitment to VOICES and his astonishing good humor in the face of every problem imaginable is the reason we are here today, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of VOICES. I am personally grateful because But Art Goldschmidt and his editors took a chance on me.
Beginning in 1996, I was the Nature and Science editor for VOICES for more than a year. The experience remains one of great pride for me. I had moved from Texas to State College three years before, the new spouse of an environmental engineering professor. Busy with my new family, I was still unsure of any broader contribution I could make.
Now I am struck by how directly VOICES contributed to great changes in my life. VOICES gave me the opportunity to explore my new community from a different perspective. Before I had much confidence in knowing the interests of the town, VOICES entrusted me with that responsibility. Being an editor was both hard work and highly satisfying. I had several painful lessons about how to write well (almost impossible), the intricacies of grammar, and how far to conjecture.
The payoff came not just in working at the craft but getting to know the other people. People with real writing talent and experience made their monthly commitment look easy; they inspired the rest of us. Money was always tight; Mike Sletson was indefatigable at selling ads; he somehow knew which trees to shake to pay the printer for the next edition. It was a miracle each month.
This was back in the previous century, when production pages were literally pasted up. Stories come in late, too long or too short. Ads, too, made for headaches that only a few people could cure. Production always ran down to the wire, and late. We would flip a coin to determine who would drive the paper to the printer in Lewistown. On those long nights I formed friendships with people who are still important in my life.
Distribution of VOICES began each month in the enclosed porch of Art and Louise Goldschmidt, where the thousands of papers were delivered. Many times the writers and editors were pressed into service to help. Art himself always took a full load in his car, finding new outlets in town and on campus. We were all in it together which felt good.
Because of my experience with VOICES my life changed. I came to know and embrace State College, even took a chance on running for public office and, somewhat to my surprise, won! Unfortunately I had not developed the ease of producing a well researched, well written article each month and finally had to resign as editor. Writing this makes me want to renew my involvement.
Asking the right questions
By Michael Casper
When once the world seemed to face the prospect of nuclear annihilation (college kids, this was before most of you were born), the question sometimes posed was, “Will we survive?”
A humble monthly newspaper could probably ask that several times each year.
But if in time the world – or a newspaper – has escape total disintegration, an infinitely more interesting question to ponder might be, “What if we survive?”
This is the question that Voices has lived and thrived inside of for 20 years. Nevermind making ends meet. Well, yes, there was that, too.
I liked what I saw when I first arrived at Voices in 1994. I didn’t see a cramped upstairs office where there was barely room for chairs around the work table. I saw a roundtable of section editors and writers, all dedicated to producing a newspaper that went further than other local publications in seeking the truth, from politics and community to environmental issues and the arts.
In this scenario the lead editorship rotated among five section editors, so no one bore the burden alone. Old fashioned paste-up was the rule, complete with roller and hot wax.
More than anything, there was dynamic interpersonal chemistry. There were marvelous columnists, and some from the first years are still at it. Scores of communications students cut their journalistic teeth on this independent rag.
There were colorful personalities, too, not least of these being the itinerant ad peddler, Mike Sletson. If his compulsive horse-trading selling style was exasperating, his raspy voice and long list of merchants advertising in the next issue were a staple and part of the paper’s success for many years. Mike would often point out the conservative merchants who kept coming back. “He hates the pay-pah,” he’d say with a glint in his eye.
Times got lean labor-wise after a few years when various section editors fell away; at one point it was down to two of us, then I was alone, passing the production baton to myself each month. But Voices had a persistent attraction, and more hands came on board.
Production day meant late nights, but there was never any question but that the paper had to come out. Part of the ritual in the early years was a late night drive with a wide box of pasted up pages to Lewistown, and driving up the hill to the back door and the presses of the Sentinel. It’s easy to romanticize about now, but the trek held a feeling of accomplishment.
I managed the finances for several years, too. We dreamed of being able to pay everyone at least some tiny sum for their work. We actually tried it for a month or two, but it wasn’t yet to be.
One day I got a call at home, late at night, from a highly regarded professor of the solid state at Penn State. Would Voices do a story on a certain top administrator who’d just been caught in hanky panky with a rising star academic? The paper’s diehards talked about it the next day. This was our job, breaking stories of magnitude – a hard enough task already as a monthly vying with daily enterprises. We checked our day job affiliations – all happened to be at the university – and decided that the long arm of Old Main was too long for comfort. But that didn’t stop our canine columnist, Cosmo, from referencing the gentleman’s high post directly, so any loyal reader of the pup’s worldly wise advice column could follow. Today that administrator is elsewhere and the rising star oversees a college.
Voices has taken great strides since then. It has not only broken countless stories that other media had the