Reflections from the helm of The Good Ship Indy

It’s hard to believe I have been Editor in Chief of The Independent for four years. Looking back, January 2019 feels like it belongs to a different geological era. It was a very different operation then; we lived in a different world, and I was a different person.
Photo by orbtal media on Unsplash

This article was initially sent to subscribers as a ‘Letter from the editor of The Independent’ on 20 December 2022 (#72). For more like this delivered directly to your inbox, join our newsletter here.

Hello dear reader!

Welcome to the latest letter from the editor of The Independent. This one will be a bit different, for a variety of reasons. First, and most superficially, it’s coming in the middle of the week instead of on a Sunday (because we are in the second half of a month-long fundraising campaign and it would be blasphemous for me to send one of these out on Christmas Day). It’s also less of an editorial than a brief retrospective about where we’ve been, where we are now, where we’re going.

And, last but not least, it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these. Long enough for quite a lot of water to flow under the proverbial bridge, as it were. And as we come to the end of this particularly long and strange year—they only seem to get longer and stranger the further we get from March 2020—I am inclined to stand along the railing and wonder at its passing. So forgive me if I get a little sentimental.

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It’s hard to believe I have been Editor in Chief of The Independent for four years. Looking back, January 2019 feels like it belongs to a different geological era. It was a very different operation then; we lived in a different world, and I was a different person.

I can still remember the honour, excitement, and trepidation I felt when I was first offered this job.

When I was a teenager growing up in Grand Falls-Windsor in the early aughts, I had a big ‘Republic of Newfoundland’ tricolour flag hanging in my bedroom—yes, I was “that guy.” And I remember that every trip we would make to the ‘big city’ of St. John’s, I would make sure to find a print copy of The Independent as a souvenir and symbol of national pride. (A now-defunct magazine stand in the Avalon Mall comes to mind as my preferred place to find them.) 

There was something undeniably adventurous about that paper—inseparable in my memory, I suppose, from the heady nationalist sentiment in those days, and the way being 17 makes the world feel like it’s brimming with potential as its infinite possible paths begin to open up before you. I remember bringing a copy with me to Ottawa during an ‘Adventures in Citizenship’ program in spring 2005 so I could show the Canadians that Newfoundland patriotism was serious business. I would wager that The Independent’s print run made a similar mark on every Newfoundland Millennial who was ‘plugged in’ during the springtime of our youth.

Of course, the newspaper business being what it is, The Indy’s print run ended after a few years. But I remember when it was revived as an online-only ‘newspaper’ in 2011—another adventurous gambit in a time and space that seemed to offer limitless potential. By 2012 I had moved out of the province for school, but I remember following its evolution from a distance as it found new life as Newfoundland and Labrador’s leading progressive publication. 

There was nothing else quite like it, before or since; it was thoughtful and critical—occasionally biting—but always grounded in a deep commitment to the place and its people. I remember citing the first issue of Landwash in my comprehensive exam in Canadian Politics—once again, trying to get some Canadians to take the place seriously by giving them an inside view. After The Scope folded (RIP), I even wound up contributing a few columns back when I was a baby freelancer; before this erstwhile hobby became my full-time job.

I can still remember the moment I learned Justin Brake was following the Labrador Land Protectors to document the occupation of Muskrat Falls. I was sitting at the media table in Gander during the 2016 Liberal AGM with the province’s other political journalists, watching Dwight Ball give a speech. At that moment the premier seemed very unimportant. There was something very real going down in Labrador, and I was awed at the courage and strength of The Independent’s journalism.

So when The Indy was entrusted to me at the end of 2018, I didn’t take the responsibility lightly. And I knew I had my work cut out for me. Despite its longevity across different owners, mediums, business models, and editorial visions—and the impressive things its journalists had managed to accomplish—The Independent was a very small operation. It was a skeleton crew with a shoestring budget, a blog powered by volunteer contributors and curated by an editor who was paid a pittance. There was no money and even less structure, and an overwhelming volume of work to be done without many people or resources to do it. 

But still we plugged away. And just as “the man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones,” gradually things started to get done. We organized livestreams and panel discussions for the 2019 provincial and federal elections, and eked out as much writing and reporting as we could. We dabbled in podcasting, published a few blockbuster investigations, and we threw the last big party St. John’s saw before the pandemic swept through and shut everything down. It was going in fits and starts—but it was going.

The 2020 Indy Gala was so successful it gave us enough cash to start paying contributors—the first time The Independent could do that consistently in nearly a decade. We didn’t get a chance to host any of the other in-person events we had been planning before Covid, but we were able to start building connections in other ways. Our friends at Bridge Communications gave us a spiffy new rebranding, and we linked up with our partners at Indiegraf to overhaul the website.

By the time the next snap provincial election rolled around in January 2021, we were able to hire our first full-time reporter for a short-term contract—an experience that made a world of difference (even if it couldn’t prepare us for the chaos that followed). By the time that election (finally!) ended, our subscriber base had more than doubled from where it had been when I began my tenure, and we were able to hire more reporters and columnists to cover the 2021 municipal elections in St. John’s, Mount Pearl, and CBS.

Most importantly, by the end of the year, we were able to hire another part-time staff: Erin Whitney, Operations Manager extraordinaire. Adding a second staff member to oversee operations and logistics was like the invention of fire. If The Independent is a ship, hiring Erin was the moment we rolled up our sails and installed a steam engine.

And so 2022 has been a year for moving full steam ahead. We have kept growing, kept publishing, kept experimenting—and kept hiring. Over the summer we were able to hire Abby Cole as a full-time staff writer through Canada Summer Jobs, as well as bring aboard Sara Swain as a second part-time editor. I can’t stress enough how working with a team of staff on the editorial side of things has been absolutely revolutionary. And Erin was able to go (almost) full-time as The Indy’s Operations Manager in the fall, just over a year after she first started—a true testament to how much excellent work she has been doing to help the outlet grow.

We have even bigger plans for 2023. Besides publishing more investigations, columns, arts and culture coverage, and video pieces, we’re also jumpstarting our podcasting. We’re putting together a major documentary podcast series on housing issues in Newfoundland and Labrador. We’ve got a new current affairs podcast series from Justin Brake that will be appearing early in the new year. And—drumroll, please—we’re finally planning another gala. Get your dancing shoes ready.

It is incredible how much can change in four years—and how fast the time goes.

This job has not always been easy. A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and heartbreak have gone into bringing The Independent to where it is today—alongside the unfathomable love, kindness, and dedication from friends, neighbours, readers, contributors, volunteers, and supporters across Newfoundland and Labrador who believed in the vision of accessible public-service journalism. 

Despite a long and lonely tenure as The Indy’s sole employee, it was never really a one-man show. The Independent has always been, and always will be, truly “community-powered.” And now, with a growing team of staff and an expanding board of directors, The Independent is maturing into a robust institution bigger than any single individual. It is a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Above all, this is the dream that has guided me since I first became its editor.

It’s been one hell of an adventure to get here. And I will forever feel blessed that we could share in it together. I hope you will stick with us as we write this next chapter in our story, and discover where it takes us.

Here’s to the future of journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

If you haven’t already, please consider supporting our year-end fundraising campaign and help us keep growing in 2023. If you’re already a supporter, thanks for keeping us going.

Drew Brown

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