Occupy Journalism

Michael Levitin, editor of 'The Occupied Wall Street Journal,' speaks on the movement that confounded the press

Two weeks after the first protesters unrolled their sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street’s inaugural newspaper hit the streets of lower Manhattan.

Among those hawking that first free issue of The Occupied Wall Street Journal was Michael Levitin, a Sonoma County native and graduate of Forestville’s El Molino High School. A journalist by trade, Levitin jumped at the chance to join in the paper’s creation and help broadcast the diversity of voices within the fledgling movement. He quickly took on the role of managing editor.

“This is what a journalist dreams of—something that fit so well into my moral and philosophical background,” Levitin says from his current base in New York. “From the moment I saw that sincerity, that eagerness to contribute, I was completely activated.”

Now serving as print editor for the soon-to-be-launched Occupy.com, Levitin continues to add his own energy and craft to a movement holding firm to its pluralistic principles. On March 16, he speaks in Santa Rosa, where he’s been involved with the local Occupy movement in planning the launch of a bilingual publication, The Occupied Press—North Bay / Prensa Ocupada—Bahía Norte.

Levitin had arrived in New York in September during the protest’s first week, intending simply to pass through the city after a five-year stint as a foreign correspondent in Berlin. The 35-year-old freelancer was captivated. “The media wasn’t even capable of knowing what this was at the time,” he says.

After a week spent working through the night, Levitin and other organizers of the newspaper put out a call for donations online. They requested $12,000 for publishing costs and received over $75,000 in one week.

“That shifted our thinking,” Levitin says. “There’s a real hunger, there’s a need. It quickly became something to legitimize the movement.” Two weeks later, a second edition was printed, along with Spanish editions of both.

Levitin, like most Wall Street Occupiers, scoffs at the idea that a mainstream media reliant upon corporate advertising could accurately portray such a potentially destabilizing protest movement. “They act like they don’t know quite what we’re saying, as if we weren’t loud enough or clear enough,” Levitin says.

“The mainstream media has so much saturation,” says Jed Brandt, a co-editor of the paper, “you can’t make a dent in it.” For Brandt, a print newspaper allowed protesters to go beyond the park, drawing them into the streets to distribute it and engage with the community.

The newspaper did, however, respond to the general criticism that no singular message or clear goal had been set forth. The question on everyone’s lips was “What do the protesters want?” In the second issue, the editors ran a note titled “No List of Demands,” elaborating on an ever-unfolding ethos: “We are speaking to each other, and listening. This occupation is first about participation.”

The fifth and final print edition went national. The editors printed 150,000 copies, with a story by Cornel West on the cover. “We were burnt out by then,” Levitin says, “and ran out of money.”

A website may lack the immediacy and interaction of a newspaper passed out by hand on the subway. But with Occupy.com set to launch this month, many of those who got the people’s media train rolling now have a global platform.

The upcoming website met with some resistance inside the movement after it received a single donation large enough to cover startup costs and pay editors a living wage. “It’s a contentious issue,” Levitin acknowledges. “We know problems can arise when you throw money into the mix.”

For now, Levitin will continue pouring his focus and energy into activating more people. In his editorial role, his challenge is to convey what protesters are outraged about and to explain these issues in a way that’s not intimidating or alienating, all while remaining cognizant of the many paths the movement is still unfolding along.

Levitin hopes that his voice will add to the growing number. “Do you really want to go out and get a job,” he asks, “or be part of a generational moment that could change the world?”