About two weeks ago I got a check for $300 from Autumn Letters for winning their Best of Word 2010 contest. The check didn't bounce--these guys are for real. You should go to their site, spend some time there, and send them some of your best stuff.
Recently I've been thinking about how my literary 'career' has been most helped along by independent journals and publications. I did have a few early pieces published in university journals, but it's the indie journals that actually seemed to care about my work. Quick Fiction, for example, gave me my first break. And Fogged Clarity, nominated a story of mine for the Pushcart, then did me the additional honor of resurrecting it from their archives for a spot in their first print edition. Instant City spent hours working with me on the story they published--they offered a lot of insightful suggestions, and respected my decision not to follow all of them--and then gave me stage time at a reading a few weeks later. And now Autumn Letters has actually paid me for a poem, which feels like some sort of miracle in this day and age.
I've also found indie journals to be generally more interesting reading than the university affiliated stuff. Not sure why this is, but I think it might have to do with the fact that university journals are often edited by groups, instead of one or a few individuals. That 'group-think process' often leads to a sort of milquetoast selection. Even with uni journals that have a single editor at the top of the pile, those editors are still beholden to other folks in the university--they almost never get true independence in their decision-making.
My experience working for a uni journal--SFSU's Transfer--sure didn't leave a good taste in my mouth. The selection process consisted of a group of fifteen people arguing over what made it in and what didn't. I don't think that any of those people had actually published work of their own, and they consistently settled on pieces that showcased some frivolous quirk, like a second-person point of view. We had one story that I blew me away, and I fought like hell for it, but the group rejected it because they thought it too 'traditional.' I was embarrassed to have my name appear on the staff list of the final product.
Obviously, I'm grateful to anyone who publishes my stuff, and I've come across some incredible work in uni journals. But I think it's especially awesome that that there are journals that follow their own singular taste, and somehow find a way to do it without third-party funding.