"A labor of love":

the (not-so-secret) history of DEAF LIFE

"What we're doing is a labor of love. We earn no money from DEAF LIFE. We've put many exhausting hours into producing the highest-quality product we can. I and my tiny staff are doing this on behalf of the Deaf community. It's our way of being involved--and helping to make positive changes."--Matthew S. Moore

From video to "slick"

In the summer of 1984, Matthew S. Moore produced and directed Deaf Magazine, a half-hour magazine-format show focusing on Deaf issues and personalities. It was the realization of an old dream. The program was opened-captioned, and featured attractive graphics and original theme music by Tom Connor, Jr. Deaf Magazine aired on WOKR-TV, Rochester's local ABC affiliate, and drew unanimously favorable response. Viewers loved it. Even the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle's TV critic gave it a glowing review.

Moore wanted to make Deaf Magazine a regular series. He drew up a detailed prospectus with a list of proposed topics for one-hour programs, demographic analysis, estimated budget, etc. Then came the tough part: to secure corporate funding to make the series a reality. Like many other independent producers, he ran into obstacles at every turn. The money just wasn't there. Many local corporations had contributed to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a result, the funding pools were dry. Without funding, the proposed Deaf Magazine series was forced to remain just that--a proposal on paper.

On paper? After encountering one frustration after another, Moore came up with the idea of starting a magazine as a way to raise the necessary funds. He already had extensive experience with print media, having edited his high-school newspaper (The Reflector, Indiana School for the Deaf). In 1982, he founded and directed the Student Communications Center (SCC) at NTID. Moore wanted NTID students to get hands-on experience in print and video media. His goal had been to establish a student-run media team which would both publish (a newspaper) and produce (TV programs). He wanted a state-of-the-art throwback to the admirable old practice of having students at schools for the deaf write and produce high-quality journals and newsletters--the "Little Paper Family." NTID's official publications, written by hearing professionals and printed by an outside company, had no student involvement. Under Moore's leadership, the SCC team published a newspaper, Perspectives, and produced a TV show which aired after he had graduated. Several former SCC co-workers were ultimately recruited for the new adventure.

The first volunteers

The first volunteer was Charles Francis Bancroft, an old friend majoring in Printing Production Technology at NTID. One might say that DEAF LIFE had its origin one evening in a booth in The Ground Round restaurant on busy Jefferson Road, not far from Rochester's main Post Office, where Moore and Bancroft were having dinner together. In the course of the conversation, Moore told Bancroft about his idea: starting a "commercial" magazine for deaf people. They batted the idea back and forth. Bancroft enthusiastically "joined on."

Why a magazine? Why "DEAF LIFE"? Moore was to be asked this question repeatedly. He always explained that at the time, there was no independent magazine for deaf people run by deaf people. There were several existing publications--worthwhile, certainly--but they were either house organs or newsletters (which could not take an independent approach), or newspapers.

The new venture would have a twofold aim: to keep deaf readers informed of what was happening (issues, events, and personalities) in an entertaining, accessible way, and to educate hearing readers about a much-stereotyped, much-misunderstood minority culture. Moore envisioned a colorful, slick-format trade-size magazine with advertisements for "mainstream" products (like cola and jeans) in addition to the traditional deaf-oriented ads for TTYs and assistive devices. A magazine that both deaf and hearing readers could enjoy. A magazine about deaf people with universal appeal that could stand next to People and Newsweek on the racks. ASL users have an expression glossed as "deaf life," and which literally means "the reality of being deaf." Moore chose it for the title.

He then approached Peter Cook, another old friend, and Jenifer Baker, who, like Bancroft, had worked with him at the SCC. Moore asked Cook to handle the design and artistic aspects of the magazine. Baker was to be the chief staff photographer. He later approached Julianne Bonta, yet another old friend, and invited her to become editor-in-chief--handling all aspects of editing, writing, and proofing. Moore was to remain publisher of the magazine and owner of MSM Productions, Ltd., his own tiny, independent media company (incorporated 1984). DEAF LIFE was under the auspices of MSM Productions.

Other volunteers, deaf and hearing, came to handle the everyday aspects--distributing flyers, selling subscriptions, stuffing envelopes, making telephone calls. And so work began on the Trial Issue.

Getting it off the ground

In the beginning, a good number of friends and friends' friends volunteered enthusiastically, perhaps motivated by the "perk" of seeing their names on the masthead, or some idea that publishing a magazine was a lark. Ahead lay mountains of tedious work. Once they'd gotten a glimpse of the tedium, they had second thoughts. Many of them proved unwilling to make a long-term commitment, and one by one, drifted off.

Linda Levitan, a student taking Fine Arts classes at RIT (ultimately majoring in Painting/Illustration), already had a B.A. degree in English that she'd somehow never been able to put to use. In September 1986, having learned about the new magazine, she sent in some samples of her writing. Moore liked her work, contacted her, and assigned her to do a book review for the Trial Issue. She was quickly recruited as Copy Editor. But she could not foresee that DEAF LIFE would ultimately become the "consuming passion" of her life.

"That's impossible!"

The magazine business is full of ironies. Especially so with the story of DEAF LIFE. As far as Moore was concerned, negative attitudes in the Deaf community presented the toughest obstacle of all. A new Deaf-run magazine? There were some members of this community who considered it an impossible feat to pull off. "Impossible to do the job," they said, shaking their heads. Impossible this, impossible that.

The initial negative reaction went beyond mere apathetic grumbling. Moore encountered a surprising amount of hostility. One national Deaf organization bluntly condemned DEAF LIFE and even published an attack against the new magazine in its official newsletter, labeling it a "fraud" and urging members not to buy it. Meanwhile, ironically enough, members of the Hearing community were rallying behind Moore and cheering the idea of a new independent Deaf-run magazine. They thought it was a terrific idea. Thus, some of the most enthusiastic supporters were hearing, while many of those in the grassroots Deaf community, whom Moore hoped would support his venture, tried to undermine him, as though he were the enemy.

In truth, the Trial Issue, originally slated for publication in Summer 1986, was a year late. Moore looks back at that ridiculously long postponement and shakes his head philosophically. It was dismaying to see the lack of commitment, the irresponsibility, the disorganization, the personal squabbles, the shakeups. Month after month of postponement, of work slowing nearly to a stop. Everyone blamed him, of course.

He was forced to keep pushing back the projected publication date. Some of those who'd signed up for the Trial Issue began to lose patience. A few angrily demanded refunds, or threatened legal action.

At long last...

In June 1987, the long-delayed Trial Issue was finally published. Copies were mailed out to 2,300+ purchasers in most of the states, who'd paid $2.50 per copy, sight unseen. Compared with the current issues, this was quite a primitive affair, but, excepting the cover story--a follow-up on NTD's founding members--it was in color. And it gave readers a glimpse of what was possible.

The first few subscribers signed up. Moore's original plan was to round up 50,000 subscribers before proceeding with regular monthly publication. In the meantime, the MSM team started Deaf Rochesterians' Newsmagazine, covering local events. That venture lasted a year and a half. Finally, Moore decided to go ahead and start publishing DEAF LIFE on a monthly basis. The Gallaudet "DPN" uprising had created major shock waves throughout the Deaf community and beyond. The money wasn't there, but the time was ripe. Deaf Rochesterians' Newsmagazine folded, and the team focused its energies wholly on DEAF LIFE. The first monthly issue, with a cover story on Dr. I. King Jordan, was published in July 1988.

Getting it launched

Magazines are costly to produce and mail. A necessary step to insure survival is to round up as many advertisers as possible. Moore used his own personal savings, with Bancroft's help, to start the magazine and keep it going. Unable to find advertisers, he placed attractive Ad Council public-service "spots" on the back cover and inside. And finally, after nearly a full rough-and-rocky year, the first advertiser signed up. In May 1989, Gallaudet placed a full-color ad on the back cover for The DEAF WAY. Potomac Technology (beginning January 1990) and Harris Communications (beginning February 1990), which the DEAF LIFE team affectionately calls "the old faithfuls," have been with DEAF LIFE ever since. Other loyal advertisers include Sign Enhancers and Merrill Lynch (the first "mainstream" company).

Lack of funding meant that Moore had to curtail his original plan to have a full-color magazine and settle for a mostly black-and-white one with color reserved for the cover and a few inside pages. But, he reasoned, a black-and-white magazine can still look good.

The first 17 issues were 32 glossy pages, including the covers. "News Briefs" began as a 2-page spread in February 1989. In December 1989, subscribers got a bonus: a 16-page newsprint "gazette"-style insert section, DEAF LIFE Plus, which increased the size of the magazine by one-third. It included a greatly-expanded News Briefs section, columns, and more.

With the February 1990 issue, DEAF LIFE Plus went to 24 pages, and in March 1990, 32 pages, doubling the magazine's original size. (The November 1992 ["Dummy" Hoy] issue is the biggest to date--40 pages gloss, 48 pages of Plus.) Yet Moore refused to raise the price of subscriptions. DEAF LIFE is surely one of the very few magazines in history to double its size while keeping its price constant! Nonetheless, there were (and still are) complaints from readers and non-readers that the magazine was "too expensive." Some people wrote in, asking for free issues. Moore encouraged libraries to subscribe.

There were times when the funds were so low that there was only money enough to print one or two more issues. Somehow, they managed to scrape through. Just when things looked unbearably, insurmountably bad, something would come through--a batch of new subscribers or a new ad contract.

The best revenge

Moore's best rejoinder to those who wanted to see him fail was to work harder to make DEAF LIFE succeed. And DEAF LIFE's success only aggravated their jealousy. They retaliated by spreading vicious gossip about Moore and his staff. And the DEAF LIFE team fought back by persevering.

Gradually, they established a loyal base of subscribers, readers, and advertisers. DEAF LIFE has a very high pass-along rate (meaning that the editors get inquiries and comments from people who borrow copies from friends). There are a number of Canadian and a smattering of international subscribers.

Many potential advertisers, seeing the unusually low ad-schedule rates, are extremely skeptical and dismiss DEAF LIFE as a cheap, low-circulation publication not worth advertising in. But appearances can be deceptive. DEAF LIFE's readership is just as high as, if not higher than, other publications. Ads in DEAF LIFE have high impact in the Deaf community. Moore has deliberately kept the rates low, to make DEAF LIFE accessible to all advertisers, especially other Deaf-run businesses.

Boiling down

The Trial Issue had 17 names on its masthead. The July 1988 issue had 10, and the August 1988 issue had 7.

By the beginning of 1989, Peter Cook had departed to pursue his own career as a poet-performer. Jenifer Baker had since moved to the West Coast. This left three on the DEAF LIFE team.

Moore took over the jobs of designing, typesetting, and laying-out the magazine, as well as giving final inspection and touch-ups to the negatives and approval of the printer's blueline (the final proof). He is directly involved with the production of the magazine from start to finish. He ensures that each issue is of the highest possible quality that the shoestring budget allows. The elegance and sophistication of the "look" are largely his work.

He also handles all business aspects of the magazine, takes and makes phone calls, chases advertisers, rounds up subjects for stories, sets up interviews, gives presentations about DEAF LIFE, and generally does everything he can to promote the magazine, as well as spreading around a bit of needed enlightenment.

Levitan (with Moore's assistance) is responsible for all writing, editing, and proofing, including captions, headlines, and cover text. Her main job leaves off where Bancroft's and Moore's begin. She also handles the bulk of the company's correspondence, some database entry, the sorting and filing of subscription records, as well as handling subscription problems, complaints, requests for information, advertisers' queries, and research.

Production Manager Bancroft, the company jack-of-all-trades, tackles most of the technical details, the subscription-database entry, installing software and hardware, some mailing, and the post-office paperwork. For the first couple of years, he handled the exhausting and time-consuming task known as "stripping," in which full-size negatives of each page are printed, opaqued, and taped into place for publication. Although DEAF LIFE has switched to a time-saving negative printer, he still handles the stripping (again, with Moore's help) and oversees many of the technical details, such as preparing color separations.

Charles McGehee of Vancouver, Washington, processed the color separations through the July 1991 issue. That September, Bancroft took a full-time job in a graphics form which enabled him to do the separations himself. (He ended up juggling full-time and part-time jobs in addition to his regular duties at DEAF LIFE.)

From the start, the DEAF LIFE team has sought to improve the magazine. Everyone has input. A sleek new logo was introduced in the July 1992 issue. The most sophisticated software, the best news sources, the most timely story--they're always on the alert for "something new." The team jokes about DEAF LIFE being "a 24-hour job." It's only partly a joke.

Everyone pitches in with the inevitable and absolutely essential "grunt-work"--stuffing envelopes, lugging boxes, labeling back-issue mailings, drop-offs, and so forth. (The team is used to putting in "irregular" hours and an occasional all-nighter.) A few good volunteers come in now and then to help with organizing financial and tax records, filing photos, and some of the envelope-stuffing. But deadlines don't wait. Whoever's around does whatever needs to be done.

It boils down to this: a labor of love. What the team does is entirely voluntary. MSM Productions remains a classic shoestring operation. In the years since Moore and Bancroft had that fateful dinner at The Ground Round, there have been dozens of people coming and going on the staff. Volunteers. Groupies. Interns and co-ops. Very few have lasted long, and the core DEAF LIFE team is still composed of the old trio--Moore, Bancroft, and Levitan.

"Out of the blue"

But there have been several noteworthy contributors, hearing and deaf. David Baquis has contributed "The TDD Connection" (later "The TTY Connection"), covering various aspects of telecommunications, and Stuart Gopen has contributed "The Caption Report," a monthly follow-up on captioned TV and home videos. GaryWayne Wilkins contributed a series, "Silent Steps," on the Twelve Steps program for deaf alcoholics and substance abusers. Richard Nowell has done a popular "personal insight" series, "The Way I Hear It." Several contributors have sent in wonderful articles, essays, and poems.

In Fall 1990, Moore visited San Antonio, Texas, and was guest of honor at a banquet hosted by a local Deaf organization. There he met Tony Landon McGregor, a flamboyant Texan with a mane of palomino-colored hair. McGregor complimented Moore on the splendid job he was doing and said he "wanted to be part of the DEAF LIFE family." And he followed through. To date, "Tony Mac" has contributed several stories dealing with Texas Deaf politics (which can be both hot and sticky) and provocative cartoons to accompany them, and has already designed four magazine covers, including this one, as well as the cover of Meeting Halfway in American Sign Language, Deaf Life Press's second book.

Another welcome "bolt out of the blue" was Robert L. Johnson, whom Moore and Bancroft had known at NTID. Now an athletic Californian, "R.J." has contributed numerous illustrations, including "Signs of the Month," and the "Twelve Faces" cover, which, like Tony Mac's "DPN" cover design, appeared on sweatshirts. (These have been used for fundraising purposes.) He did the chapter illustrations for Moore and Levitan's book, For Hearing People Only. All this fits in beautifully with Moore's philosophy of actively supporting and encouraging Deaf artists.

Taking the heat

DEAF LIFE has been gradually easing itself into the volcano, taking a more forthright approach to controversial issues. After Raymond Luczak published "Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer" in Christopher Street, he sent Moore a copy. Moore asked Levitan for her opinion. She said, "Let's go for it!" Both loved the article. They considered it a superbly-written piece affording readers a unique insight on how it feels to be Deaf and gay. Luczak gave his permission to DEAF LIFE to publish it as they saw fit. "Notes" was reprinted in two parts, in the March and April 1991 issues. And DEAF LIFE lost nearly a thousand subscribers as a result. It was a staggering loss, but they don't regret doing it.

That experience was a revelation of the narrow-mindedness that persists in the Deaf community. Another thing the DEAF LIFE team has learned is that Deaf people are extraordinarily difficult to please. Readers wanted more sports stories, so DEAF LIFE found sports stories. Then they got complaints that there were not enough late-deafened people being featured in cover stories. Or not enough born-deaf people.

Editors of a publication must be sensitive to the needs of the readers. The Deaf community contains highly-literate, college-educated folks and grassroots readers with a third-grade (or lower) level of comprehension, and DEAF LIFE has to reach them all, somehow. It is impossible to please everyone, but the editors take their job of making information accessible very seriously. There have long been complaints about the difficulty of the text. So the editors introduced glosses in braces (curly brackets). Then came accusations that DEAF LIFE was insulting its readers' intelligence. The braces were obtrusive, so DEAF LIFE switched to a footnote/glossary system. They undoubtedly haven't heard the end of it.

Having impact, making connections

Putting together a complete issue under a tight deadline can be a grueling experience. Life is simply not tidily predictable. Plans have to be changed. Interviews get canceled. People get sick. People oversleep. People forget. People don't cooperate. Letters get mislaid. Letters get lost. Faxes don't come through. Deadlines loom menacingly. There are screw-ups at the printers. All sorts of problems pop up. The magazine is occasionally late. Subscribers complain. And yet DEAF LIFE has survived. "We'll find a way," they say. "We always do."

Each issue has its own frustrations and challenges, but gradually the team gained expertise, and DEAF LIFE reflects its increasing self-confidence. Before long, the team knew they were having an impact on and outside the Deaf community.

Having received a blank Caption Action petition form, for example, DEAF LIFE decided to reprint it in the January 1990 "Captionwatch" department, and again in July. It provided a "tremendous" boost to the Caption Action petition drive, which eventually netted over 60,000 signatures.

One of the advantages of independence is being able to say what needs to be said, without regard to the official "party line." DEAF LIFE has NO official ties to any organization, agency, or institution. And that's the way they want it. Nonetheless, Moore, who has a thorough understanding of the Byzantine politics of the Deaf community, sought to establish good relationships with as many "Deaf establishments" as he could. Some have been more cooperative than others.

With the growth of DEAF LIFE, Moore wanted a way to "keep on the pulse of the Deaf community." In June 1991, DEAF LIFE established an Advisory Board, consisting of Bernard Bragg, Julianna Fjeld, Bill Graham, Alice Hagemeyer, Bob Panara, Frank Turk (all of whom appeared on its covers). These were respected deaf professionals from a variety of backgrounds (culturally-Deaf to late-deafened) whose opinions and guidance were valued. This in no way diminished DEAF LIFE's proudly independent stance.

Spinning off

One of DEAF LIFE's regular features was a question-and-answer column, "For Hearing People Only." This proved so enduringly popular that Moore and Levitan decided to publish the columns in book form. In Spring 1992, Moore started a subsidiary, Deaf Life Press. In September 1992, Deaf Life Press published For Hearing People Only, an expanded compilation of the first 48 installments. It was a hit. The first edition was sold out before June 1993. Plans for a second edition were immediately put in the works. By then, Deaf Life Press was busily at work on its second book, Bernard Bragg and Jack R. Olson's Meeting Halfway in American Sign Language. Deaf Life Press' third book was St. Michael's Fall, a collection of evocative autobiographical poems by Raymond Luczak. Its fourth was Great Deaf Americans: The Second Edition, a thoroughly revamped, expanded, and meticulously updated version of Bob Panara's original book. Coming up are Victory Week a child's eye view of "DPN" by Walter P. Kelley, illustrated in brilliant watercolors by Tony Mac, and On His Deafness and Other Melodies Unheard, a compilation of Panara's poems. And there are others...

The shocking truth...

What makes DEAF LIFE unique? For one thing, it's written and produced by Deaf people. That is the best response Moore could ever give to the nay-sayers in the Deaf community.

For another thing, it's a magazine for the Deaf community--a forum for the free sharing of "inside" and "outside" views--i.e., "Readers' Viewpoint," "A Few More Words," "Oh, No! Not Again!", and "Letters to the Editor." Readers are offered plenty of opportunity to get involved. And, judging from the steady trickle of letters DEAF LIFE gets, they do.

Furthermore, DEAF LIFE is a magazine for the Hearing community. Moore recognizes that change is a mutual process. Improving the conditions of the Deaf community demands not only a strong sense of Deaf pride and responsibility, but also recognition by the Hearing community that Deaf people have their own linguistic and cultural identity. Contributions, questions, and suggestions from hearing readers are valued. And if hearing readers complain about being snubbed by deaf folks, deaf readers have their own complaints about hearing folks!

The magazine has gradually taken a more political slant in support of Deaf Culture. "Someone has to take a stand," he says. "More and more deaf-oriented publications are losing sight of the objective." He adds, "DEAF LIFE belongs to the Deaf community."

Even today, Moore finds deaf people who believe that DEAF LIFE is run by hearing people (and have accordingly refused to subscribe). They simply can't believe that a bunch of deaf people could produce something so sophisticated, so beautiful. The color, the elegance, the way it looks. Sometimes Moore has an opportunity to personally set them straight. "Oh, so you're all Deaf? Really? Wow! OK, I'll subscribe!!!"

One astounding fact about DEAF LIFE is that the staff earns nothing from it--not Moore, not Bancroft, not Levitan. All revenues are re-invested into the company and go towards the cost of printing, upgrading the equipment, and improving the coverage. The team very rarely takes anything close to a vacation. There are no pocketed profits towards excursions, fancy houses, or cars. Some folks adamantly refuse to believe this, thinking that either it's a "Hearing" operation or that certain deaf folks are getting rich on it (Or both.) Levitan says, "The only ones who get rich are the readers. We want DEAF LIFE to enrich their lives. We're not making any dough on this."

Looking ahead

At 5 years, DEAF LIFE is still a young publication. It's growing and expanding. Even though the DEAF LIFE staff takes pride in their achievements, they're not resting on them. They are never satisfied. Indeed, they're constantly striving to improve the quality and depth of the coverage, the appearance of the magazine, its timeliness and appeal. It's an incurable itch. There are an endless variety of issues that need to be addressed, contributors' articles to be prepared, stories to be written, follow-ups to do. More books, too. And videos. "Migawd," says Moore, "there is so much to do. There is sooo much to do."*