NEW WORDS WILL live on in another, more contemporary incarnation that serves the needs of a new generation that can now find most women’s resources in the yellow pages. Still, notes co-founder Gilda Bruckman, the bookstore’s closing breeds a sense of loss in the local women’s community. "There’s a great deal of sentimental attachment to the store," she says. "Our idea is to create something for those who are attached politically, emotionally, and financially. Events will continue; but we won’t sell books anymore, except at readings and performances. It is too hard in this economy for a small seller."
Bruckman, like many small independent booksellers, felt the squeeze years ago, as the Internet and major chains began to dominate the book market. With the same foresight that made the enterprise a success in the first place, New Words began to devise a transition plan (its entire prospectus is available online at www.newwords.com). For Bruckman, it was crucial that despite the bookstore’s place in history, it continue to remain vital and relevant. "Look, we could have the attitude that the ’70s were great and the ’90s were not, so we’re done," she says. "We want to transform and go forward and become what New Words needs to become, not just remain what it was." Indeed, New Words has always been the kind of business that balanced community ties and social commitment with economic realities. "Back when we started in 1974, we were thought to be sophisticated because we used an electric cash register instead of making change [out] of a cigar box," says Bruckman. That attitude, in large part, allowed New Words to appeal to all factions of the feminist community; it was, in short, many things to many different women. No surprise, then, that it is also handling the transition with the same professionalism and forward-looking thought.
If New Words was novel two decades ago for eschewing floppy couches and overflowing bins of used books in favor of a clean, bright, comfortable space and well-organized stacks of hard-to-find books, it is just as cutting-edge now as it undergoes an identity change. "We have been in close touch with other women’s bookstores all over the country in planning this transition," says Bruckman. "We intend to ‘lift as we climb,’ developing a model that can be transplanted and replicated."
According to its lengthy prospectus, CNW "represents a hybrid organizational form: a for-profit retail operation embedded within a nonprofit cultural enterprise. New Words Inc. (the store) will transfer its assets and future revenues entirely to CNW. CNW will be a division of the extant nonprofit, New Words Live." For several years, New Words has targeted younger audiences weaned on ’zines and poetry slams, with fresh feminist voices such as Letta Neely and Michelle Tea, who have been frequent readers in its New Voices series. Two years ago, it launched a program called "Cultureshock," aimed at young women and featuring young writers and performers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Cultureshock has been put on hold during the transformation, but the long-range plan calls for its resurrection.
Just as New Words’s end follows the pattern of its long life, Sojourner’s apparent demise follows the familiar pattern of its long existence. The feminist newspaper began as part of the women’s center on the MIT campus, grew into the region’s sole feminist newspaper and, later, into a national monthly. After putting out its September issue, Sojourner abruptly suspended publication and last month vacated its offices in Jamaica Plain. Unlike New Words’s end, Sojourner’s folding, admit members of its board of directors, was not well planned. Nor has information about the paper’s closure reached many parts of the public. In fact, Sojourner’s Web site offers no clue to what has happened, and its office phone machine continued to answer for weeks, as if everything was business-as-usual. The eight-member volunteer board of directors did issue a mission statement declaring that by folding the publication, they hoped to reorganize it as "a sleeker, bolder, solvent entity." They continued: "It is hard to describe to anyone just how difficult it is to keep a progressive feminist newspaper alive. The effort has exhausted the most valiant and committed of us."
Classic burnout is understandable. In the last five years, many alternative publications have struggled under the weight of astronomical printing costs and steep declines in advertising revenue. This, coupled with an ever-changing media climate in which more and more readers obtain news and information from the Internet, has caused many fledging and established publications to step back and rethink their missions. Younger readers, including young feminists, are not committed to getting news the old-fashioned way. The locally generated and popular "The List" (formerly "Hannah’s List"), for example, is a well-distributed weekly e-mail, an electronic bulletin board, that combines traditional what’s-going-on information with classifieds, links, and a who’s who in young feminist circles — all with clear emphasis on transgender concerns, an edgy area for some, perhaps, but completely acceptable for most twentysomethings. For many young women, such up-to-the-minute resources have supplanted a news- and analysis-heavy monthly like Sojourner.
In 1995 Sojourner transitioned from a for-profit to a nonprofit venture, but it remained a hand-to-mouth operation. The paper briefly halted publication twice in its 27 years for lack of money, once in 1977 and again in 1984, but resumed both times once funds were raised. It paid its editorial and administrative staff — which has been laid off since September — entry-level wages and relied on contributions from volunteers, a classic grassroots model that is difficult to sustain beyond a start-up period. Often, these women were committed but inexperienced in the worlds of journalism and business. This volunteer, grassroots model was a necessity in the ’70s and early ’80s, but it became questionable as the years went on — particularly in Boston, where professional women were in no short supply. Eventually, Sojourner seemed a relic of ’70s-style idealism-on-a-shoestring rather than a modern enterprise that could change with the times.
Still, those in charge say they are determined to bring back a "new and better Sojourner." And they recognize that the paper needs to change. Although it’s one of the longest-running feminist publications in the nation, Sojourner for many young readers (indeed, older ones too) had become irrelevant, one-note, and supplanted by Internet listings, ’zines, and more edgy publications like Bitch, says Laura Soul Brown, president of the board of directors. "The paper needed to be updated and we needed to expand our constituency," she says. "Our under-35 readership had declined. Younger women, frankly, feel it’s about time. They felt the paper wasn’t speaking to them. They’ve said, ‘We dig your politics and respect that you’ve been a front-runner, but you are out of step. If you want to get us involved, you need to change.’" Brown says the paper, when it resurfaces, must contain "newer and younger voices" and reflect more diversity than that envisioned by the ’70s- and ’80s-era feminists who founded it. How the paper will achieve that is, of course, the key question. The board must wrestle with how (and how often) to produce a newspaper that addresses feminist concerns across the generations in the new century — no small order.
Karen Kahn, who served as Sojourner’s editor from 1987 to 1997, agrees that the paper needs to reinvent itself, and that it hasn’t been relevant for some time. "Younger women didn’t identify with the same set of issues and institutions. We were not successful in attracting younger readers," she says. "But that’s the struggle of all alternative publications: do we cater to our traditional readers or try to attract new ones? Can we be all things to all women?" Kahn says it was a routine battle to balance the paper’s traditional feminist content with the interests of its large number of lesbian readers and contributors. "There were always gripes on both sides. Straight women thought we were too lesbian; lesbians thought we were too straight. I figured if both were true, we were okay."
Kahn, now communications director for a nonprofit health-care organization in New York, says the paper lived its entire life "on the edge and was never finally stable," and so the current situation is not unexpected. "Ads had really diminished by the mid to late 1990s," she says. "Most people think of the 1970s as the height of the women’s movement, but right up through the 1980s, women’s institutions had lots of strength and a strong sense of community." Nonetheless, the paper’s core readership seemed confined to a clique, and Sojourner was woefully ill-equipped financially to attract new readers. It did boast strong arts coverage and comprehensive listings, but the news section’s ambitious reach often exceeded its grasp. Kahn admits the paper didn’t have the resources to hire investigative reporters, yet in its monthly issues it tried to cover everything from the abuse of women globally to welfare-rights issues and health-care concerns. The current issue, for example, with "The Color of Violence" as its theme, offers articles about racism and violence, inequities in health care, and the struggles of women in Afghanistan.
Despite its financial and editorial struggles, Kahn says, Sojourner was a vital link to feminist community for many women, especially those outside urban areas. She recalls meeting a lesbian couple in rural New Hampshire for whom Sojourner’s news and information was a lifeline. Moreover, the paper, which had a circulation of 25,000 and 4000 subscribers at the time of its demise, was sent free to 1000 readers in prison as part of Sojourner’s nationwide program of distribution to incarcerated women. Kahn says that for her, the high point of her stewardship was an article about breast cancer by Susan Shapiro, who was fighting the disease. Shapiro raised the then-novel argument linking incidences of breast cancer to environmental factors. Kahn credits the article with helping to spark a local movement committed to the issue. "We were able to provide a voice that turned into a tool for community building and organizing," she says.
Britt Wahlin, another current member of Sojourner’s board of directors, came from a background of grassroots organizing for women’s and girls’ groups. She says that unlike the previous two lapses in publication precipitated by lack of money, this time Sojourner won’t simply start up again once more money is raised. Sojourner recognizes that this is a "turning point," Wahlin says, and that the paper, if it is to continue, must be reinvented. "Even after Sojourner became a nonprofit in 1995, business was still declining, which is not so different from many other alternative papers. It’s very hard on the staff to operate in crisis mode," she says. "I joined the board to try to make the organization sustainable, to create a stronger Sojourner for the next 28 years." The board is currently putting together a separate transition committee, but Wahlin says the newspaper’s transformation is still in its "nascent stage." The board must decide whether to expand the paper, whether it will focus on national or regional concerns, what its mission and focus will be, and how to make it financially viable.
She expects a tough road ahead. Even running as a nonprofit, which Sojourner has done since 1995, a newspaper can’t be sustained through subscriptions and advertising alone, she says. Revenue must also be generated from foundations, endowments, grants, and donors. This is skilled and time-consuming work, so it is important that Sojourner attract women who are accountants, lawyers, successful business leaders, and philanthropists to its board and transition team, something that was virtually impossible in the ’70s, when few women had cracked the professions or had the seed and foundation funds to engage in philanthropic giving themselves. It also must decide whether it will be able to pay women competitive wages so that it can attract experienced writers, reporters, photographers, and advertising professionals.
Meanwhile, as both Sojourner and New Words undergo separate transformations, the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, which already houses the papers of New Words, will now store Sojourner materials and artifacts so they can be accessed by scholars and historians, says Brown.
That’s the legacy part, and it appears secure. It’s the future that remains wide open.
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org