Elisabeth Garber-Paul looks at home in the Rolling Stone magazine offices, almost like a rock star herself with her Monroe piercing, perfectly faded, once-dyed-red hair, and casual yet fashionable cardigan and stretch pants combination. A self-proclaimed “degenerate,” Garber-Paul dropped out of high school, attended community college for a semester, worked as a makeup artist at the downtown Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store and moved to the East Village, all before starting at The New School in the fall of 2005 at 18 years old. Joining the old Lang zine-style publication Inprint in the fall of 2006, Garber-Paul was present for the switch-over and founding of The New School Free Press the following year. The Free Press was born out of a student desire to create a more serious news source for those on campus. Ten years later, Garber-Paul is now a senior editor on the Rolling Stone’s digital team. She spoke with the Free Press’ current editor-in-chief, Truman Ports, about the paper’s history, what it was like to run a primarily print, “pre-digital” publication, and how she went from receiving her high school diploma in the mail at 16 years old to working at one of the most recognized and circulated music and culture magazines of all time.
TRUMAN PORTS: You were there for that transition from Inprint to The New School Free Press. What was the debate or reason for the transition?
ELISABETH GARBER-PAUL: There had been what I think we referred to as a coup, or an attempted coup, at some point. They weren’t doing hard news really. We wanted something that could be taken more seriously by people in the neighborhood. We really wanted to be a part of the Village in a larger way than just focusing on what was happening at Lang.
PORTS: I talked to another former editor, Kevin Dugan, the other day. He said he felt where he sort of missed the mark while leading the paper was a focus on most things Lang. When you were editor-in-chief, how do you feel like you managed the coverage of the entire university across divisions? Which we’re not even supposed to call them divisions anymore because it’s “divisive.”
PORTS: Which is so New School.
GARBER-PAUL: Yeah, right? Just call them “separate loving entities.” Let’s see. I think we did a better job engaging the city than engaging other parts of the New School. We definitely wanted to work with these other schools, but certainly most of the politics that was happening was centered around Lang and the New School for Social Research. In the whole Occupy New School phase it was hard to not just focus on that. I think we had really grand visions and when it comes down to it, you only have so much time that you can put into a paper. We had an idea that we really wanted to engage with the rest of the schools, but I think that the other schools were less interested in engaging with us. We got some Parsons participation, but that also was just geographically easy to get to whereas Mannes or the New School for Drama, which I think was still the Actor’s Studio when we were there, were not interested in what was going on with the Free Press. Those were serious grad students who had other things to pay attention to.
PORTS: You mentioned Occupy, what were some of the other big issues happening at the New School at the time you were editor-in-chief?
GARBER-PAUL: It was basically all Occupy all the time. It’s funny, I was going through some old issues to try and spark my memory for this, and I kind of forgot, but it sucked up our entire lives. It wasn’t just, “There was those protests on campus.” In the months leading up to those protests, there was all sorts of small community groups popping up. There was the New School in Exile, Students for Democratic Society, there were all of these kind of…I don’t want to say “wannabe” because that’s derogatory, but they were kind of wannabe ’60s student free speech movement groups, which being at the New School, being at the end of the Bush administration, these were all things that seemed really important. We let the New School become this microcosm where the Occupy movement was the main thing we were paying attention to. Then there was the issues with should we be divesting; should we have Bob Kerrey as our president; is Bob Kerrey a war criminal? There were these other things that all wrapped up and culminated in this big protest at the end of the year, and two years later essentially became the Occupy movement. But before that, we covered school politics. I was going through the Arts & Culture section from when I was in charge, and some of it is pretty bad. There’s like, “The best places to have sex on campus.”
PORTS: I saw that recently. [laughs]
GARBER-PAUL: I was like, “Who let that run?” Oh, it was me. I think we really saw ourselves as the younger voice that could be inserted. At that point you still had all those Greenwich Village newspapers. There was the Village Voice, the New York Press, the New York Observer, and we made a physical thing and we put it right out there with the other ones. We wanted to be that.
PORTS: For us now being solely digital, we can check how many views a story gets and what kind of social media likes, shares, and comments a story is receiving, and that can help guide decisions in what we should keep covering based on student, faculty, or administrative interest. For you guys as a print publication, how did you find out what stories were garnering the most success?
GARBER-PAUL: We knew which ones got picked up because we would get yelled at about them. But honestly, we didn’t know. We were just guessing. We had to go with what we thought was interesting. There was no way to do metrics then. I’d ask friends in other classes what they thought was interesting, I’d ask teachers what they thought was interesting. I just moved from print to online [at Rolling Stone] about a year and a half ago, so I think that’s something that publications have been struggling with for a long time.
PORTS: How did you end up at Rolling Stone?
GARBER-PAUL: After I graduated in spring of ’09, like I said, it was one of the worst times to be entering the job market. I had worked as a waitress and bartender through a lot of college, so I just gave myself the summer to not stress over it. Just be a waitress, make some money, figure out what I was going to do next. I applied to The Nation for the fall semester internship program, got waitlisted, managed to get in, and there they teach you to fact check. I really liked fact checking. It’s such a puzzle. It’s like taking everything apart and then putting it back together.
Then when that came to an end, I got an email from the old research editor over here, and she was like, “Are you interested in working at Rolling Stone?” and I fell out of my chair.
PORTS: As one would.
GARBER-PAUL: Exactly. Then I came in and interviewed, and that was January 2010. I’ve been here basically ever since.
PORTS: That’s quite the trajectory.
GARBER-PAUL: Yeah, but it’s also terrifying that I’ve given my entire twenties to a publication. But I worked in the fact checking department for a long time, and while I was freelancing here for the first three years—I was just part-time—I worked at Health Magazine, I worked at New York Magazine, I just kind of picked up money where I could. And then I got hired here full-time in May 2013.
PORTS: What are some of your most memorable moments on the Free Press?
GARBER-PAUL: There was a profile I wrote of Bob Kerrey. One of the most valuable lessons you learn studying journalism is how you can balance what people are telling you with what you know to be true and calling bullshit on things. I’m very disappointed with how that profile turned out. I haven’t read it in a long time, and this isn’t to say that Bob Kerrey isn’t a good person or has good qualities about him, but it essentially came out as a puff piece because I don’t think I’d done enough research into what the other side of the story was. Basically he was in Vietnam and he was part of the military, but there were some questions as to whether or not he helped or participated in what could be construed as a war crime. Murder of civilians. I didn’t press him on that at all. I kind of took his PR lines and rolled with them. I remember getting a lot of shit for that story, especially from people who saw themselves as radicals. I thought that was unjustified, but going back and reading the article a couple years later, I saw it for what it was which was a bio written based on an interview. There were no follow up interviews, there was no pressing him on things, but I think I always kept that in my mind as, “Okay. This is what we don’t do.”
PORTS: As someone who is black and gay, sometimes getting taken seriously in certain settings as a writer, reporter, or editor is hard. Not to be presumptuous, but have you felt that as a woman writer as well?
GARBER-PAUL: Yes. Mostly just because of being a young woman, people are like, “Okay, sweetheart,” you know, that kind of brushing off. And I know that it’s much more an issue for other people. If somebody is trying to make me feel bad or trying to push me out, I’ll just purposefully ignore what they’re trying to do and be like, “Well that’s nice, but I need this comment.” I think at some point you learn to just push past that, and that seems presumptuous because it’s not that easy for everyone. That’s something I was able to do because of the position I was in or my personality. I think I kind of pushed passed that because I didn’t stop asking for work; pitching. It is disheartening to hear “no” all the time from editors, but if you just pitch and pitch and never let it get to you, never pause to think, “Are they not taking my article because of who I am?” Don’t let that steer you. Chances are they aren’t taking your article because they don’t like your pitch and it has zero to do with who you are. Just focus on making those better. And that’s how I approached it, not letting the marginalization creep in and letting it psych me out, because if you just focus on what you want, whether it’s a story somewhere or an editing job, it’s a lot of work. It takes 10 years to get anywhere in any industry in New York no matter what you do.
PORTS: You gotta manifest that.
GARBER-PAUL: Exactly! Which is dumb, but it’s really true. That’s not to say that there isn’t an inherent racism in the industry and that certain points of view aren’t going to get picked up as easily as other points of view. That doesn’t mean that someone as a queer person of color, that shouldn’t be your approach to your pitches. That would be awful. I’m so sick of the white male point of view, especially [at Rolling Stone]. I wouldn’t want to discount anyone’s experience, but my experience has been honestly very positive. I think if I would have entered the industry 10 years before, five years before, it would have been a very different experience for me. It’s been a positive experience. I know it hasn’t for a lot of people, and I know I’m definitely lucky.
Photo by Elisa Deljanin Padula