Pulp Friction

The Independent Press Association was founded to champion alternative magazines, but now its members say it has become the kind of hard-hearted corporation it once opposed

Nevertheless, many who've worked with Landry see him as a man who climbed aboard as captain of a sinking ship — in the middle of a storm no one saw gathering.

"I don't think anybody on staff, including Richard [Landry], understood fully until late last year how bad the problem had gotten," IPA co-founder and former board member Schulman says. "I don't think anybody was trying to create a disaster. We tried to do the right thing."

The biggest impediment to finding out what really happened, though, is that an organization dedicated to informing the public can't agree on its own story.

IPA's employees and directors once mirrored its membership — what Schulman calls "a feisty group of liberal independents." Under Landry's leadership, that changed.

He added board members like Woodard, co-founder of PC World(where Landry had once worked) and other technology business publications, and Lawton, senior vice president of Comag Marketing Group, a sales and marketing company jointly owned by Hearst and Conde Nast. Like Landry, they were vocal supporters of independent media, but worked as managers in for-profit corporate environments.

Landry brought to the IPA a new kind of professionalism, adding job titles and middle managers. He also added a concept previously foreign to the organization: proprietary information.

"[Landry created] a real culture of secrecy," says Tikkun's Kaiser. "People are only given information on a need-to-know basis. Even program directors didn't know what the other [program directors were] doing."

In the pre-Landry days, say Smith and other former employees, if a publisher called the IPA with a problem, the phone call would be returned within 24 hours. Throughout a cash-flow crisis in early 2003, for example, no members quit the IPA. In fall 2005, however, account executives — even those who'd built up years-long relationships with clients — were instructed to refer debt-related calls to a manager. The stated goal was to ensure that clients received accurate information, but IPA members were skeptical.

"Richard [Landry] has never been upfront enough with the members," says Lisa Jervis, Bitchfounder and former IPA board member. "It's not out of some nefarious place. He's not used to a nonprofit structure. He comes from the for-profit business world, where hoarding information is OK — in a lot of ways, preferred."

Longtime IPA staff members clashed with the new culture. After four years at BigTop, account executive Lauren Cooper left over differences with IPA management in spring 2005. "If I wanted a corporate job," Cooper says, "I would've worked for a corporation."

Landry says that soon after he joined the IPA in 2003, he knew that "BigTop had a working capital requirement bigger than anyone in the organization understood at the time, including people on the board." Which is to say, in order to deal with the long payment cycles of the distribution business, BigTop needed a lot of cash. At the time, that money came from other IPA funds, instead of from BigTop revenues. It took Landry 18 months to figure out "whether or not the IPA could sustain that cash-flow requirement on its own, or whether it needed to get outside sources of capital." Several former board members and staffers say that during that time, if Landry thought the problem was severe, he didn't tell them. Older BigTop clients like Bitch, and new IPNS clients like Punk Planet(which signed a contract in March 2005), were told nothing.

"Nobody saw it coming or stopped it soon enough," board Treasurer Woodard says. "What the IPA should've done two years ago was stop taking on new clients and only deal with big ones selling lots of copies, but that wouldn't have been popular, either."

Last summer, information trickled out in private conversations between the IPA and members. "The IPA kept saying: 'Don't worry, don't worry,' or telling each magazine individually, 'We have it all under control; it's just you,'" says Kaiser.

The IPA's debt to Bitch reached nearly six figures while then-publisher Jervis was a member of the IPA board. She considered resigning, but stayed on, hoping to advocate for smaller publications in even worse shape. Jervis, Leibsohn, and Schulman say they had asked for financial details about items including the BigTop budget, but were usually outvoted by other directors or denied access to data by Landry. The current board leadership calls this a difference of opinion — a small cadre of board members wanted greater financial detail, they say, but the majority wanted only analysis by IPA staff. "We're board members. We have access to whatever we want," says chair Lucia Hwang. "I don't know what people are so upset about."

When Jervis sent an e-mail critical of Landry and the board to another publisher in January, she accidentally cc'ed the entire list. In it, she said she felt restricted from raw, public honesty by her "stupid board involvement" and called Landry "so defensive." After reading the e-mail, Hwang called Jervis, asking her to change her attitude or, Jervis says, resign. (Hwang says she did phone Jervis, but didn't specifically ask her to step down.) Jervis quit.

"One way to deal with squeaky board members is to ask them to leave," says Leibsohn, who has sat on dozens of nonprofit boards. "Another way is to deal with questions they raise."

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