By Michael Nevradakis
Independence Day. For most, that may mean the Fourth of July, or perhaps even the movie starring Will Smith. For the Stony Brook Independent, however, Independence Day is February 3, 2005, the day that our first official article was published, welcoming readers to our then-new publication. Five years have passed since those humble beginnings, where a group of students came together and embarked on a new experiment in campus journalism. Five years later, “the experiment continues,” to borrow a favorite phrase from the Independent’s student media colleagues at WUSB 90.1 FM.
In looking back at the five years of the Independent’s existence, one may ask why such a publication was started in the first place. Stony Brook was already the home of two well-established campus publications in the Statesman and Press; radio and television stations; and a host of other smaller publications spanning an array of interests. By comparison, the University of Texas at Austin, where I currently am a graduate student, is home to a smaller number of student media organizations. Student-run media here is not nearly as diverse as at Stony Brook, despite a vastly larger campus and student body. Needless to say, there is nothing quite like the “Indie” here.
In our inaugural article, we outlined our mission: to be an independent, objective source of news, information and entertainment that would live up to our title Why declare independence, however, in the face of established competition?
In the Fall of 2004, a group of three students – Jeff Licitra, John Mascher and myself – met to discuss an idea that had been on each of our minds: the creation of a truly objective and impartial campus news publication which would look to take full advantage of the Web. I had, up until September of that year, been co-editor-in-chief of the Statesman, before resigning with a number of other editors and writers. Jeff Licitra had formerly been the president of the College Democrats, while John Mascher was heavily involved with the campus chapter of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Our first meeting, interestingly enough, was held in the friendly confines of the Stony Brook Press’s office (I had become a Press staffer in the meantime) on their infamous couches, sometime in October or November of that year. In an ironic twist of fate, this was the same semester that the Press was celebrating its 25th anniversary, having been founded as an alternative to the Statesman by some of its former staffers.
It was at this first meeting that the blueprint for what was to become the Independent was laid down. Notepads were taken out, doodles were drawn and brainstorming led to our first set of rough ideas, as well as possible names for this new publication.
But, how do you actually begin a campus publication? The campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), of which I was vice president at the time, agreed to sponsor our publication for one semester as a new, experimental effort in campus journalism. While this did not afford us a budget, it did place the Independent under the umbrella of an established campus media organization. The next steps were far more challenging: recruiting a staff and actually turning the Independent from a dream into a reality.
Our first staff members came from some fairly predictable sources: the Press, Blackworld and other campus media, as well as many of the editors and writers who had also resigned from the Statesman. Others came through friends, word of mouth, or from some less predictable sources, including recruits off of the then small community of Stony Brook students on Facebook. One of these recruits, George Agathos, became our photo and technology editor, before replacing me as executive editor after my graduation.
Out of our early days came attention and success—above and beyond what any of us could have even imagined—and more challenges. Two of our articles somehow made it onto the front page of Google News, bringing thousands of visitors to our website at once and causing our server to crash.
SPJ took notice, and many inquiries came our way from other campus chapters around the country. That recognition paid off- in the fall of 2005, the Stony Brook chapter of SPJ was named the “regional chapter of the year,” in large part due to the success of the Independent.
There were still other challenges. Our earliest logo was judged to be just a touch too similar to Stony Brook’s “red hot” marketing campaign, and so we had to jettison it. We still had no money, and all expenses, from server and hosting costs to fliers, came out of our own pockets. It was a labor of love, to say the least. And despite those challenges, we were able to carve out a name for ourselves in the campus media community.
We sent writers to cover a group of Stony Brook students participating in an anti-war protest in New York City, we were the first publication to post information about school closings and we were the first publication to post Undergraduate Student Government (USG) club and organization budgets, less than an hour after they had been announced. These early successes legitimized the Independent in the eyes of the campus community, including campus administrators who took notice of our existence.
One way in which the Independent made a quick and positive impression was through its innovative web features. Updates were posted on a 24-7 basis, articles had a comment feature enabled (remember this was still in the early years of Web 2.0), an RSS feed was available, photo galleries and online video were posted, and an events calendar was created, pooling together a comprehensive listing of campus events in one listing for the first time.
In the fall of 2005, it was time for the Independent to truly become independent. We were finally chartered as a student organization, and even received office space—sort of – in a tiny, cramped room that we shared with two other publications in the Union basement’s media wing. We still did not have a budget, but we did officially exist, and we made a splash right from the start with the 2005 campus survival guide, a huge A-Z compendium of everything Stony Brook, which was done in collaboration with the Press. We were on campus right from freshman move-in day, interviewing new students and making our presence known, and later that fall, we were the only campus publication to send writers and photographers to Connecticut, where the Stony Brook men’s soccer team competed in an NCAA tournament match against Yale.
Our most ambitious move, however, was a bit…off the wall. Our “Off the Wall” addition was our first foray into print, and owed its influence to the News at Noon, a one-sheet campus publication from the 1970s which featured the campus news of the day as well as a listing of the day’s events (with a big thank you going to Norm Prusslin, campus media adviser extraordinaire, who shared with us the story of this early publication). The “Off the Walls” were posted in prominent locations around campus, and served as a complement to our online content. While our editorial staff had, by this time, come to the consensus that we should remain an online-only publication, the “Off the Walls” were seen as an inexpensive way to incorporate classic print into our publishing efforts, providing breaking news to the campus community while further promoting our existence as an online publication.
Since then, the Independent has continued to grow, and has seen further changes. Editors and writers have graduated and moved on. The site has been completely redesigned and revamped. Blogs were added. Some less popular features, such as our online forums, were phased out. I don’t think any of us who were involved in the early days could have foreseen any of this. We were thinking that our new experiment would be lucky to last five months, let alone five years! But, the Independent has not only survived but prospered as well, thanks to the efforts of everyone, past and present, who has been involved and who has contributed their time, energy and work into making the Independent what it is today.
Some of these students have been recognized, such as former editors George Agathos, Radeyah Hack and myself, who have won the Martin Buskin Award for Campus Journalism. Others have graduated and work in the journalism field for a living. Everyone’s contributions have helped build the Independent, and for that, I personally wish to thank everyone who has played a part in the organization’s growth.
As one of the “founding fathers,” I am especially proud that successive generations of editors and writers have continued to build on the early foundations which were laid down and live up to our original mission: to serve the campus community as an independent, objective source of news, information and entertainment.
I wish the Independent many more years of great success and great journalism!
Michael Nevradakis is a graduate of Stony Brook University (B.A. 2005, M.A. 2007) who was one of the founding members of the Stony Brook Independent and its first editor-in-chief. He is currently a Ph.D. student in media studies in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin.