Chamber of Commerce Small Business Person of the Year Award Winners: John Weiss, Publisher of The Independent

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In 1980, John Weiss graced the cover of The Atlantic Monthly and was featured on television news programs 60 Minutes and 20/20. He was only 24. Weiss made an impression on society at an early age, and he continues to do so in Colorado Springs as publisher of The Independent, a locally-owned weekly newspaper.

On June 30, Weiss was named Small Business Person of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce, along with Trevor Dierdorff, president and CEO of Amnet Inc.

The Independent started in 1993 with a circulation of 22,000 and 15 full-time staff members. “They recommend that newspapers should launch with $500,000 and we started with $300,000,” Weiss said. “I liked putting a newspaper in Colorado Springs because it needed it so much.”

And things have certainly changed at The Independent in the last 11 years. “About 80 people get a paycheck every month from The Independent,” Weiss said. There are now 31 full-time employees and about 50 regular independent contractors who help with everything from editorial to delivery. For more than a decade, staff members have tackled such issues as same-sex marriage, medicinal marijuana, religious fundamentalism and the state of the environment.

Weiss has dealt with social issues, and has made a career of it, since his early days as an undergraduate student. He attended seven undergraduate institutions and graduated from Colorado College in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Weiss worked with troubled teenagers in Milwaukee and on a standardized testing bill in Congress. “I became the expert in Congress on standardized testing,” Weiss said. His work on that issue brought recognition from national print and television media.

He has demonstrated his commitment to the community in a number of ways. Weiss and The Independent launched a non-profit arm, the Independence Community Fund in 2002. The Independence Community Fund is a project of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation. The ICF assists non-profit organizations by providing financial, technical and media assistance. The Independent also donates advertisements to non-profit groups.

In addition to working with non-profit groups and making it in the fast-paced world of print journalism, Weiss spends time with his three sons, ages 5, 7 and 18.

Weiss has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He is the author of two books: Standing Up to the SAT: How to Beat and Change an Unfair Test (1988) and A Citizens Guide to the Maine Legislature, which is updated every two years.

His desire to create positive social change has led him on journeys around the world. In 1992, the government of Finland awarded Weiss a year-long travel fellowship to study international environmental issues facing the former Soviet Union and former Eastern Bloc countries. Weiss used his degree in economics to teach macro and microeconomics to students at the University of Transkei in Umtata, South Africa.

South Africa, like Colorado Springs, is a long way from his hometown of Boston. So, why settle in Colorado Springs? “I want to be a big fish in a small pond,” Weiss said. His vision for The Independent was, and is, multifaceted. Weiss said he wanted to provide an independent news source, what he called “a vehicle for people disenfranchised from the media environment,” in addition to promoting culture in Colorado Springs. “It’s incredibly important to have at least two newspapers in city,” Weiss said. “We were in a movement to help Colorado Springs help itself.”

In 1993, Weiss knew he would face challenges starting a newspaper from the ground up. “We had to prove to ourselves that there was enough of a base,” he said. Weiss and his staff wanted to know whether Colorado Springs residents would even be interested in reading a weekly newspaper.

Weiss knew for certain, however, that he wanted his paper to be free to everyone. “People didn’t understand the beauty of a free paper,” Weiss said. “With the free distribution model, you’re going to bend down and pick it up and read it.” He said people make a conscious decision to seek out and read free newspapers.

And fans of The Independent can count on the paper to hit newsstands every Thursday morning. Because of its popularity though, newsstands may be empty early the following week. “The analogy I like to use is – if you find a quarter in a phone booth, you’re happy. If you find a copy of The Independent, you’re happy.”

- Stephanie.Cline@csbj.com