Mock Democracy: The Fate of Independent Journalism

If you would like to peak into the immediate future of independent journalism, we invite you to examine what we witnessed this past week in New York City.

Rafael Matinez Alequin has been reporting on City Hall for over 25 years.  He has made friends with countless New York Police officers, security guards, and City Hall personnel for his quick charm and inviting smile.  Once you meet this man you are immediately drawn to his kindness and sense of humor. But also to his tenacity in being one of the only independent City Hall reporters who doesn’t have the backing of an established news organization. He funds his news site out of his own pockets and doesn’t have foundation support.

He does it because he feels it’s his public duty.

Mr. Alequin is an underdog. One of City Hall’s few minority reporters who immigrated to this country long ago.  As a journalist, he’s persevered through countless sessions with New York’s top brass over the past two decades. Asking the tough questions on behalf of New York’s minority and working class.

From Ed Koch to Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Alequin has stood toe-to-toe in press rooms as one of the city’s only independent reporters.  The same independent reporter who marched in the civil rights movement back in the sixties and frequently ended up going to jail for his non-violent protest involvement on various issues.

Mr. Martinez Alequin is not your average blogger, sitting in his boxer shorts on the couch, writing about City Hall on his laptop.  He was also a publisher of a popular newspaper:  The Brooklyn Free Press, which ran from 1983 to 2001. The final year of that newspaper’s publication, tragedy came into Mr. Alequin’s life:  he discovered he had stomach cancer.

With the support of his wife of over 20 years, he was able to survive through surgeries which ended up saving his life.  “She was my hero”, he tells me.  “Without her, during my early career and through my cancer treatment, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Another tragedy would soon fall upon him.  His wife would soon pass away from health complications of her own.

She had helped him run his newspaper for several years.  A husband and wife team who understood that democracy depended on fair and accurate information for the public to digest (if they had the willingness and attention span that is).

They understood this information was vital for any community, small or large, poverty-stricken or gentrified, to survive.  At the end of 2001, Mr. Matinez Alequin shut down his printing press and ceased publication of his paper.  “I just couldn’t do it anymore.  Not without my wife.”

But he wouldn’t give in just yet.  In 2003 he launched The New York City Free Press, with a linked blog site called Your Free Press, in 2007.

In 2007, Mr. Matinez Alequin and two other bloggers sued the city when the police department denied them press credentials. The reason:  they work for nontraditional online news outlets.   The three reporters sought the assistance of attorney Norman Siegel, who once served as the Executive Director of the New York Civil liberties Union from 1985-2000. The reporters won the lawsuit.

Cut to Thursday October 7th, 2010.

Mr. Matinez Alequin is standing outside One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan.  A place he has frequented for several years as a journalist.  As I stand with him in a security line to get into headquarters he mentions how excited he was for this day to finally arrive.  Today is the day he picks up his new press credentials.  This however, isn’t his first press card.  Before it was revoked, he held an official press card from 1986 to 2000.  Then again from 2005 to 2006.

For several years, press cards could be obtained in New York City if you could prove you were a real journalist.  Traditional or non-traditional.  One who consistently showed up on a daily basis for work and provided a fair and balanced view of that day’s events at City Hall and police headquarters. One who was able to reach, and maintain a local audience day-in and day-out.

Mr. Matinez Alequin was all of these things.

Today, however, his resume may not hold the same weight.

As I waited with Mr. Matinez Alequin in line for the press credential office inside police headquarters, I couldn’t help but notice we were the only two people waiting in line.  Apparently bloggers or independent journalists don’t seem to be busting down the doors to get into City Hall these days.  With the glutinous amount of blogging on the internet, it still seems in one of America’s largest cities, you will only find a few dedicated souls to actually walk the true freelance reporting tightrope.

Mr. Matinez Alequin steps inside the press office.  I’m told by an unidentified suit standing at the front entrance window to remain in the hallway, as I myself, do not have the proper press credentialing to join him.

I sit outside the press office for roughly 10 minutes, popping M&M’s and watching Mr. Matinez Alequin through the open office doorway.  He spins around and huffs out of the room, immediately whipping out his cell-phone and dialing.  “They won’t give it to me”, he says.  “They won’t give you your press credential?”, I ask.  “No.  They won’t.  They say my six articles don’t count and that I’m under review. I’m calling Siegel.”, he says.

As part of New York’s official press credentialing process, one has to provide 6 articles from a news organization to prove they qualify as a reporter.  Mr. Matinez Alequin held over 25 years of worthy articles from both print and online.  According to new regulations they don’t count anymore.

Roughly 30 seconds later out steps the deputy director telling us we need to vacate the building if we have no business to conduct here anymore. She ushers the both of us to the elevators where she stood with us as Rafael paced back-and-forth, ending a voice-mail to his attorney Norman Siegel.  “We’re going back to court.  I’ve been fighting this for years and have already been to court over this.”, he tells her.  “You can do that.  But not here.”, she says.

The deputy director escorts the both of us down to the front lobby and stands by as we depart without further incident.

As we continue heading down the street away from the building, Mr. Matinez Alequin turns to me, smiles and says, “that’s our democracy going down the drain.  It will only get worse for others.”

I believe he was on to something.  Mr. Matinez Alequin wasn’t just another journalism student or boxer-short wearing blogger.  He was, and remains a real reporter who now has to figure out a new day-to-day strategy to get access to City Hall and police head-qaurters just to follow through with his normal work.

Lesson learned here:  We are rapidly approaching an Orwellian state of existence.  We know the U.S. newspaper industry is struggling.  We have seen the latest statistics on the public’s distrust with the media.  We don’t see the numbers of newspaper, television and news radio lay-offs that much (save for a few independent blogs) because the mainstream media doesn’t find that story ‘sexy’.  Nor would we have known how public authorities, institutions, and powers-that-be feel about citizen journalists like Mr. Matinez Alequin until now (and even so, you’re reading about it in a blog most mainstream media would classify as ‘superficial’).

It gets worse…

Mr. Matinez Alequin would later tell me about a few of his interactions with the traditional reporters in New York City who work in a tiny press trailer parked to the side of the City Hall building.  “Reporters from The Daily News, Newsday, The New York Times, and the Post are all in there.”, he tells me.  “Most of them are pretty nice.  Good writers.  But the problem is the Mayor’s people plant questions for them to ask each time out.  It’s comforting for them to know that if they only ask certain questions, a job might be waiting for them in his media empire someday.”

…It brings a bright smile to my face when I realize I live in a democracy like ours…


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