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Independent Minds: Students Across Majors Take Over Film Publication

Screen shot of The Independent

By Erin Clossey

Hands-on learning is a hallmark of an Emerson education. But starting this fall, students across multiple majors, studying different disciplines, will work together to achieve something that hasn’t been tried at the College before.

They’ll have to revitalize, write, manage, market, and monetize a widely respected but struggling 44-year-old independent film publication.

In July, Emerson officially took over The Independent, founded in 1976 as a publication for and about “independent, grassroots, and activist media-makers,” from the non-profit Independent Media Publications. Beginning this fall, Emerson students will assume the helm of the now-digital property, and learn for themselves what it takes to keep a title not just afloat, but relevant.

“Publishing The Independent exemplifies Emerson’s leadership in innovative experiential education,” School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal said. “Better than an internship where students watch others work, at The Independent, Emerson students run the company.  

Sabal, who spearheaded the transfer, said that with nationally recognized film, journalism, and publishing programs, “it makes sense for Emerson to assume publication of The Independent.

“The Independent has been a key source of news, insight, analysis, and information for independent film and video makers since the 1970s,” Sabal added. “We’re proud to carry on that legacy.”

This isn’t the first time Emerson has taken over and/or managed a cultural institution. In the late 1980s, the College took the literary journal Ploughshares under its auspices. And WERS 88.9 FM has been broadcasting from Emerson College since 1949. The difference is that WERS is student-run, but professionally managed. And Ploughshares is professionally managed and edited by a rotating selection of published authors.

Whether The Independent sinks or swims will depend entirely on the efforts of Emerson students.

A New Beginning

Erin Trahan, an Emerson affiliated faculty member who teaches a course in Film News, Reviews, and Feature Writing, was managing editor of The Independent from 2007-2009 and editor from 2009-2016. She called it a “labor of love” for all involved, including Emerson students in her classes over the years, whom she encouraged to submit articles to The Independent.

It was time for a new beginning for the publication, and Emerson is a great fit, Trahan said.

“I’m thrilled,” she said of the move. “It’s actually exactly what I envisioned and hoped for the publication, probably 10 years prior to his happening. I completely saw this fitting in within a college or university setting. Since I’ve gotten to know Emerson even more from the inside out, I see even more what a great fit it is.”

Tim Riley headshot
Associate Professor Tim Riley

The rebirth of The Independent will begin in a full-year course co-taught by Journalism Associate Professor Tim Riley and Writing, Literature and Publishing Assistant Professor John Rodzvilla. The syllabus combines editorial and publishing, Riley said, along with a lot of stepping back and taking stock.

“We’re going to literally start at ground zero and look at what we have,” Riley said.

Over the fall semester, students will put together an editorial pipeline, gather stories, and ready the publication for a January relaunch. Although Riley typically teaches criticism, at the start of the project his students will primarily write news, business stories, and profiles, he said. The Independent also has a stable of volunteer journalists who will continue to write for the pub.

“We have one of the strongest film programs in the country, so we have a strong base there,” Riley said. “We have [Emerson Los Angeles] plugged in to the commercial film industry. We have lots of experts we can consult and figure out where the best ideas are.”

The students’ job will not just be churning out copy, however.

Looking Back to Move Ahead

The class will research other independent film magazines and site in the market and decide where it makes sense to compete and how The Independent can differentiate itself, Riley said.

Rodzvilla will set them to work on web analytics and combing through The Independent’s extensive archives, which Emerson also got as part of the arrangement. They’ll be looking for stories and interviews that today’s audience would appreciate – long-ago interviews with media makers who eventually made it big and stories about issues that resonate now.

“I was talking with one of the writers who was mentioning how the magazine approached the first films of Black filmmakers and how relevant it is now, how we could spotlight material if we had quick access to it,” he said.

john rodzvilla head shot
Assistant Professor John Rodzvilla

Rodzvilla said he’s excited about the collaborative nature of the course, as well as the opportunity to truly own a project. While Emerson faculty and students are no strangers to experiential learning, this time, they are working for themselves.  

“Everything we’re doing is staying in-house,” Rodzvilla said. “It’s Emerson and the students – there’s no third party that can take this and do what they want with it.”

With that autonomy comes pressure, however.

Right now, the title is being supported by the School of the Arts and the School of Communication, but the eventual goal is for it to become financially self-sustaining, School of Communication Dean Raul Reis said.

The College and its students can’t afford to become complacent at any point if they have any hope of making and keeping The Independent, you know, independent. Not just for one or two semesters, but for future generations of Emersonians.

“I think that can also be part of the learning process, a learning opportunity,” Reis said. “I think this is a really important project. I saw the value because of the way it reflects the mission of the College … and the way the programs are geared, I think it will be a great opportunity for us and for students.”

Future Possibilities

In the spring, students and faculty from Marketing Communication and the Business of Creative Enterprises (BCE) major will take on a larger role, Riley said, crafting a business plan, along with the marketing and messaging that will help the readership grow.

Executive-in-Residence Wes Jackson, director of the BCE program, sees so many opportunities not just to grow the brand, but to monetize it, particularly around The Independent’s deep archives.

Wes between raised hands
Business of Creative Enterprises Director Wes Jackson File photo/Derek Palmer

“My background … is concept of content,” said Jackson, a cultural entrepreneur and founder of the Brooklyn Music Festival. “I love the idea of having this trove of editorial, photos, interviews, and looking at it and figuring out how we can repurpose it for today’s marketplace.”

Jackson said he sees lots opportunities for merchandise. He’s talking with Rodzvilla and Riley about creating a coffee table-type book featuring some of The Independent’s best articles and interviews over the years.

“It’s getting into that archive and really looking at it with 2020 eyes,” Jackson added. “They were capturing content before that was a cool word to say. It’s quite exciting when you start to dig and you say, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t this Spike Lee fresh out of Morehouse?’”

Down the line, Jackson said he’s envisioning Independent-sponsored film festivals, with proceeds supporting scholarships that make an Emerson education more accessible to disadvantaged students.

Taking on a brand is incredibly challenging, said Riley, the Journalism professor, music critic, author, Beatles expert, and creator of the Riley Rock Index.

“What I’m confident about is the Emerson students I’ve worked with, they’re just roaring with ideas,” Riley said. “If you can harness that creative energy and teach them how to pour it into a publication, I know they’re going to do great.”

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