Mothers News is a free newspaper published monthly in Providence, Rhode Island. Though it has comics, and ads, and reports, and news, Mothers News takes unpredictable routes to get to these familiar elements.
You won’t find much on local politics, but you might get a scene report from the public library of an Alaskan fishing town. The barrage of images and drawings amongst the type may seem at first blush an impossible hodgepodge, and even the comics may be initially undecipherable. But if you spend a little time with the newspaper, if you begin to trust it, you begin to see that its apparently erratic behavior is in fact carefully calibrated.
Mothers News deals with the very big (the natures of change and dreams) and the very small (ways to tie knots, invertebrate of the month). And yet is it always timely. Last December’s issue began: “Hi out there it’s December are you in here? Get in here… no need to be outside looking in. We have the space heater going and the tea is in the microwave. If it smells like burning dust in here, that’s because that’s what we’re doing, burning dust.”
Mothers News does news its own way, this much is clear. I sat down with the paper’s founding editor, Jacob Berendes, outside his home in a former industrial building, to reflect on the occasion of the paper’s thirtieth issue.
The Independent: How did this all get started?
Jacob Berendes: The start is pretty banal. I just needed to make money, because I had no money, so I thought that this was a good idea. And then it worked.
Indy: Why a newspaper?
JB: I thought I could do it. I definitely have self-destructive tendencies. When somebody tells me something can’t be done, it’s tempting. So I had a previous project that was in a similar vein. Because of technology everyone said that a certain thing was dying, so I said, “Oh, I’ll try that thing.”
Indy: What was that thing?
JB: A store, a brick-and-mortar store. It was a junk shop. Which was extraordinarily successful. Well, no, it was regular successful.
Indy: What is your bar for ‘regular successful,’ especially in doing a newspaper?
JB: In this instance I would say it’s acceptance, or ‘proof of concept.’ Proof of concept is regular success. Writing on a paper is funny, because people approach it in a different way. It’s also kind of a shorthand, to be like, “Wow, you cared enough about this thing to make it physically exist.”
This is a bit post-apocalyptic—the nice thing about doing a newspaper now is that there’s wiggle room. There’s time to throw out things that have happened before, there’s a real and sincere freedom. It’s like living in this building. This building was built for a purpose, that purpose is long gone, and now it’s like anyone’s call to say what happens in this building, what use is it going to find. It’s not like a website, where it’s going to blip out. There’s a way that the newspaper’s been running, they’re not doing so good because they’re in competition with this different medium, well, how are we going to survive? What use will we find? Time to break whatever format rules we have. The way we approach content, the way we approach the idea of what is the news, the way we approach ‘being a newspaper,’ is, I would say, extremely different from other newspapers. And it’s a function of the newspaper industry in general being on a downward swing.
Indy: You’ve said before that Mothers News is definitively not a magazine. What is so special about the news?
JB: I think a magazine is a closed format. You get a magazine because you care about whatever the magazine’s about. You get the newspaper because it’s there, because it’s around. The newspaper is relevant to everyone, as stated. It’s declaring that it’s relevant to everyone. If it’s a magazine—it might be a magazine on a shelf, it might be exactly the same thing but declared a magazine—would a kid pick it up? I don’t know. You’re like, ‘What’s this? Oh. It’s a magazine.’
Indy: It’s for ‘this group.’
JB: Yeah, it’s like: ‘Oh this is an arts magazine. I don’t care about that.’ But since it’s a newspaper… Also there’s an exceptional thing about a newspaper where parts of it you know that you don’t care about, and it’s not an affront or insult, it’s just part of a larger structure. And this makes the newspaper more like a place than a magazine is. A magazine you might thoroughly ingest, knowing every part is worthwhile—a newspaper you might wander around and explore, not paying attention to certain parts that don’t immediately interest you, maybe looking at them later.
I was always fascinated by the previous puzzles solved, because it was like, if you solved the previous puzzle, you don’t need it, and if you didn’t, you don’t care. But it’s so useless that that’s where magic is. In these spaces in between, in these useless things, in these weird lots, that’s where exciting things happen. It’s like a kid’s playground is nice but equally or maybe even more valuable to a kid is like a tree that fell down, and a car tire, and a weird pit. That’s where the exciting things happen. It’s cool to have access to a slide, but if you have access to a tree that fell down, a weird pit, and a tire, there’s a lot more that can come about.
Indy: You also pitch the ads as, “this is a magical spell.”
JB: That’s part of the pitch, yes. American mysticism is sales. And that sounds sort of miserable, but it’s also sort of excellent, because sales isn’t about necessarily convincing somebody of something. It’s about meeting somebody in this third space in a weird way, or getting them to decide that something is happening.
So as far as advertisements in the newspaper being magical, it’s true. There was this dude who took out an ad in the October issue, Frain, he just wanted his name printed as big as possible. He took out an eight-inch ad. He did that for his own reasons, but he opens up the paper, he sees his name, big as anything, and he’s like, “Yeah man, Frain, let’s fuck shit up, let’s get out there today.” And other people are like, “Who or what is ‘Frain’? Some kind of operator?” It’s a magical spell. Also if you just have a low level scam or something—well not scam…
Indy: You’ve mentioned that people might encounter this thing and begin “to take their art as serious as their life.”
JB: Oh yeah. That’s a funny thing that I’m always contending with, this certain idea of realness. It’s sort of why I talk about making money (which I almost don’t care about), because that’s how people assess realness. But I want the newspaper to be a bit of a beacon for ‘I’m just doing my thing and it’s working. I trust myself. And my eyes are open to possibility, to failure, to change. And you could do the same thing.’ Not to say that you follow your heart and do what you believe in and it’s going to work out tremendously and exactly how you planned it, I 100 percent do not believe that that’s the case, but it really is worth a shot.
I have a great friend who’s a high school teacher in Massachusetts, and he’s a maniac in the best way. He teaches English, but every year, he works in single-day lesson plans on other things that he thinks kids should know about. So he did a class on Bad Brains, he did a class on Sun Ra, and he’s like, Sun Ra is this dude from Saturn, here’s some bold things to think about. And so on. He’s going forth with bold concepts of how to live in the world, things that maybe certain agents or agencies would take issue with.
I was like, “Aren’t you worried about your job?” And he was like, “Yeah, I was worried about it, but then I realized that if I did everything the way that I thought people wanted me to, I would hate it, and I would get bored and I would quit… I might get fired in a couple months, but I might be there living wonderfully forever, so from a pragmatic standpoint, I can just do whatever I want to the best of my ability.”
And it was really shocking for me. It really helped me get away from my fear of acting in the universe. And it made me go, oh yeah, I’m gonna do this newspaper, and I’m not going to think at all about what people want to read, or what people expect from a newspaper, I’m just going to do this exactly as I want to do it, to the best of my ability, just going as hard as I can, or desire to, and then, if it doesn’t work, great, if it does work, great, but if I did it in the way that I thought for sure it would work, I wouldn’t necessarily care about it, I would just get tired of doing it and stop, or it would just be some fucking dumb job. So yeah, I’m sort of trying to spread that idea. You can just do your thing and sometimes it works. And it’s always worth a shot.
To find out where to get Mothers News, or to subscribe and have it sent to your mailbox, see mothersnews.net. Definitely do not send them submissions!