Over the past few years, staffers for a long-defunct Harrisburg newspaper began documenting their history online. A few former reporters made it their mission to create a digital archive of all the papers, which were printed between October 1971 and August 1980.
It’s been 42 years since the Harrisburg Independent Press (HIP) ceased publication, but those who were a part of the alternative paper haven’t let go. They haven’t been able to, nor do they want to. For many of them, their time with HIP launched their careers, shaped their character, and offered lifelong friendships.
“It’s such a community that has stayed around all these years,” said Anita Harris, a former reporter for HIP. “Maybe it’s something about being a part of a small paper and community.”
Around the same time that Bill Keisling and Jim Zimmerman, former HIP reporters, were creating the online archive, Harris was writing a book about her experience from 51 years ago. She published “The View from Third Street: Ani and the Harrisburg Independent Press” in June, explaining that she felt the need to “understand what had happened all those years ago, and why.” Harris only spent about a year in Harrisburg writing for HIP, but it was one that, she said, impacted the rest of her life.
Harris remembers her first meeting with the founding members of HIP. Fred Solowey was the driving force behind the paper, recruiting his Cornell University buddy Ed Zuckerman and then Harris, who also attended Cornell.
Originally, HIP was started to cover the anti-Vietnam War movement. More specifically, the founders were interested in the almost-too-crazy-to-be-true national news story that was taking place locally—the Trial of the Harrisburg 7.
In this case, the FBI accused a group of anti-war activists, including nuns and priests, of plotting to kidnap then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and blow up underground heating tunnels in Washington, D.C. The National Defense Committee for the Harrisburg 8 (there were originally eight defendants before one was moved to a separate trial) was formed, and Solowey led its local activities, which included starting HIP. Zuckerman would take on most of the reporting for the trial.
Reporting on the anti-war movement was crucial to young activists like Zuckerman and other HIP staffers.
“Back then, if you were a young man, you could be drafted,” he said. “That fueled the anti-war movement. It was personal. You could die.”
Starting HIP was a way to get involved in the movement, while also launching Zuckerman’s career as a journalist.
Like Zuckerman, Harris wanted to make a difference. Growing up, she had faced sexism and gender role expectations from a family that assumed she wouldn’t have a career. But when she started at HIP, she faced a completely different environment amongst her colleagues.
“Everyone was accepted and could play the role that he or she wanted,” she said. “There was no sexism, which was very unusual in my world. It showed me I could do it. It gave me the opportunity. It gave me the courage.”
Brought to Light
HIP’s office was located at 1004 N. 3rd St., now the site of the Urban Churn scoop shop. The stretch of a few blocks in Midtown “passed as that town’s sleepy bohemia,” said former HIP member Jim Wiggins in his write-up on the paper’s website/archive. Wiggins remembers a “hippie” woodworking shop, a pornographic movie theater and former Harrisburg artist Toni Truesdale’s art studio.
HIP’s modest office was “a chaotic place full of life and laughter,” as Wiggins described it. It housed several typewriters, desks and “stuff tacked up everywhere.” There was a light table, which the staff used to lay out each issue of the weekly paper—cutting and pasting sections and articles together to create each page. Staffers came and went at all hours of the day and night.
At the time, the Harrisburg Center for Peace and Justice also was housed in the building. Activist and director of the center, Kay Pickering, worked closely with HIP for years. The paper gave voice and publicity to the issues Pickering and other activists advocated for. When the center moved to a new office at 315 Peffer St., HIP moved with them.
“Our common mission has always been one of truth and justice,” Pickering said.
Beyond reporting on the Vietnam War, which Wiggins described as the “defining issue” that motivated HIP, the paper covered issues of racial injustice, poverty, criminal justice reform, women’s rights and gay rights. The team tackled subjects that other papers often wouldn’t touch at the time.
“I think we brought certain issues to light that wouldn’t have been covered,” Wiggins said.
In 1972, HIP reported on Hurricane Agnes and the devastating flood it caused in Harrisburg. Harris remembered surveying the city with Wiggins after the disaster struck. In their “Special Flood Issue,” headlines read, “The Quick Brown Flood and Its Aftermath,” “Man Vs. Aberrant Nature,” and “What to do with a Drowned Car.”
Three Mile Island was another hot topic in the paper, as many at HIP were firmly opposed to the nuclear power plant. By 1978, the paper had transitioned to a monthly magazine format and, in August, the front page read, “Tomorrow’s Disaster at T.M.I.: Meltdown.” It was a scenario piece, Keisling, the son of the founder of Harristown Enterprises, explained. Less than a year later, the power plant suffered a partial meltdown, and some credited HIP for predicting the future.
“HIP was really important in fighting TMI,” Keisling said.
Harris saw her chance to make a difference with her reporting—her goal from the start—when she interviewed several migrant workers who were held as slave laborers at a farm in Schuylkill County. After Harris visited the camp and saw the awful conditions, HIP published her story. Eight months later, the Pennsylvania Department of Employment Security told her that they shut down the camp.
“Because we were an alternative newspaper, we were able to cover some of the most amazing stories,” she said. “You could really make a difference.”
End of the Beginning
Finances were always a struggle for the small paper.
HIP relied heavily on advertising revenue from the city’s adult movie theaters, which created its own controversy. Some saw the ads as demeaning to women, while others regarded it as a free speech issue. In the end, HIP continued printing the ads, not sure they could survive without the funds, Wiggins explained on the paper’s website. Eventually, HIP was met with financial decline caused by unpaid ads and accrued debt and was forced to become a monthly publication in 1977. Three years later, HIP shut down entirely.
It may have been the end of the road for HIP, but many staffers went on to further the careers that they had started in journalism.
After the Harrisburg 7 trial ended, Zuckerman went on to cover the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions for the Village Voice in New York and The Real Paper in Boston. Later, Zuckerman wrote the first episode of the TV show “Law and Order,” and many following episodes over the next 20 to 30 years.
Harris reported for Newsday, WRFM Radio and MacNeil Lehrer (now the NewsHour) of PBS. She taught journalism at Harvard, Yale and Simmons universities and authored two nonfiction books before serving as managing director of the Harris Communications Group in Cambridge, Mass. Keisling later authored many books, and Wiggins became a press spokesman in the administration of Gov. Richard Thornburgh. He then became a corporate communications executive for Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.
While most reporters only spent a fraction of their careers at HIP, these short tenures left a tremendous impact.
During his time reporting on the Harrisburg 7 trial, Zuckerman made connections that would later help him in his reporting and TV writing career.
“My whole life goes back to Harrisburg,” he said.
For Keisling, HIP helped develop his sense of ethics as a writer.
“Wiggins drilled on me to be fair and accurate—to really get it right,” he said. “That stayed with me my entire life.”
But ultimately, it’s the community that has stayed with them all these years. There was something that bonded many of the staffers for life. Zuckerman is the best at keeping up with everyone, Harris said, and she acts as a “den mother” of sorts.
It seems like that bond was destined from the start.
When Zuckerman hired Wiggins to take his place as editor of HIP in 1972, he remembers saying something to the effect of, “The paper’s yours, goodbye. I’m out of here. Good luck.”
Ten years later, Zuckerman was living in New York City when a former HIP colleague wrote him.
“Are you aware that Jim Wiggins is living across the street from you?” the letter said.
“I went over, rang the doorbell, and there he was,” Zuckerman said.
Another 40 years later, Wiggins and Zuckerman are still good friends.
“If you’re lucky, you look back on your youth with great fondness and memories,” Wiggins said. “I felt lucky to be part of [HIP]. It gave voice and form to a vibrant minority at the time.”
To learn more about the Harrisburg Independent Press and to view its archives, visit www.harrisburgindependentpress.com.
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