“So, is this about democratizing the media?” Asked one of the 23 participants at The Indypendent’s June 3 community reporting workshop. “Yes,” was the emphatic response from Indypendent reporter and editor John Tarleton, who spent four hours teaching aspiring citizen journalists about the basics of story structure and lede writing.

As part of the New York City Independent Media Center, the Indypendent (indypendent.org) has emerged over the past six years as an award-winning community-based newspaper, staffed with volunteers and citizen journalists, who cover everything from New York City tenant-landlord battles to New Orleans reconstruction to the war in Iraq, and who help fill the ever-widening gap between the people affected by news stories and those who report them.

On Saturday, workshop participants were asked to analyze story ledes, the first paragraph of any news story, and give comments on how effective those openings were to tell stories. They were also given notes for a pair of practice stories and asked to write their own ledes, which were shared in small discussion groups.

One of the topics that came up several times during the workshop’s discussion was the idea of “objectivity,” with many participants hesitant to write ledes that gave too much credence to any one perspective. Tarleton emphasized that impartiality on the part of a journalist is less important than accuracy and open-mindedness in reporting.

“When approaching a story, it’s important to realize how much you don’t know and to expect to be surprised by what you learn along the way,” Tarleton said. “However, we shouldn’t forget that power tends to corrupt, and that those who hold power and wealth will often abuse it while trying to conceal or spin their activities.” He then added, “What we’re striving to do is tell the story of the world around us from the bottom-up instead of with the usual top-down perspective of the giant media corporations.”

When the discussion veered to the use of adjectives like “raucous” or “rebellious” in example ledes, Tarleton explained that reporters can use evocative adjectives in their writing, but they must “back it up with facts.”

Some participants came from a background in social justice activism; others were students, artists, teachers or members of the Indymedia collective; while some simply wanted to learn more about the basics of journalism.

Pat Senior, an African-American woman recently evicted from her apartment of 26 years at University Towers in Brooklyn, approached The Indypendent after reading the paper’s May 10 cover story about a landlord who has moved to evict thousands of low-income tenants. She attended the workshop to learn how to better write about her own eviction experience.

“I wanted to write my own story,” said Senior, who has been attending The Indypendent’s weekly Tuesday night meetings for the past few weeks and hopes to publish a story in the coming months.

Madhuri Kumar, a Masters student at the School for International Training in Vermont, came to the workshop to “learn skills on how to ask the right questions and mostly how to bring out the emotions behind the story.” Kumar had recently embarked upon a project in India, reporting on the effects of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and wanted to fill in some of her knowledge gaps on the basics of journalism.

Others, like Corie Muhammed, a Brooklyn high school teacher who heard about the workshop from WBAI-99.5 FM, saw it as a free opportunity to learn something and possibly get involved in issues of social and economic justice. Muhammed would eventually like to produce music, and sees the mainstream press as perpetuating a “concept of America created for white people, by white people.” He plans on attending the second part of the workshop this Saturday, which will focus on how to interview and research news articles.

Over the past five years, Tarleton has used the workshop’s hands-on, participatory format to train hundreds of citizen journalists, a number of whom have gone on to write for the Indypendent or other progressive publications or websites. One of the workshop teachers, Chris Anderson, attended the first Indypendent reporting workshop in 2001.

"They've gotten better and better since then, though even that first one was still pretty darn good," he says. "A lot of people stick around Indymedia because they've made friends here," he adds, "but if you can learn a little basic journalism too, well, that never hurts."

Anderson, who has been an integral member of the Indymedia collective since, is now writing his doctoral thesis on Indymedia.


Erin Thompson is a reporter for The Indypendent. Her most recent article is "Immigrants Rising in Brooklyn".

The Indypendent’s next community reporting workshop series will be held on Saturdays August 5 and 12. To receive an application, email  indyjournalismworkshop@yahoo.com or call 212-221-0521.