Media Crisis and Grassroots Response

Last week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the latest major newspaper to cease publishing. As corporate media restructures, can the grassroots survive?

The media landscape in the US is changing rapidly. As all forms of journalists face massive layoffs, analysts fear that journalism’s role as a counterforce against the powerful is in jeopardy. For progressives and radicals working in media, it’s important to not only question what format news will come in, but also how to approach our work so it is both accountable and sustainable.

While corporations have shown an ever-decreasing interest in funding investigative journalism, independent media is undergoing its own transformation. Part of it is in economic challenges to old methods of distribution, such as rising print costs and postage rates for print publications. But the larger transformation has been in where people turn for news and information.

For much of the last century, a vibrant world of left journalism was an important part of movements for change. Hundreds of radical magazines, newspapers and radio stations did the hard work of covering stories that the corporate media wouldn’t take on. But, in recent years, that work of journalism has been increasingly abandoned to the corporate media, while radicals and progressives – especially through websites and blogs – have been more likely to comment on the stories reported by others. This work of media criticism is vital. However, now that news corporations are increasingly making the decision that journalism is no longer profitable or needed, there is also a need for an organized alternative to take their place. At last year’s Allied Media Conference – a gathering of radical grassroots media-makers in Detroit – organizers asked the question, “What is our evolution, beyond survival?”

The State of Corporate Media

The US military has not withdrawn from Iraq, but the US media has. The New York Times reported in December that, “America’s three broadcast network news divisions have stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq.” The article went on to note “network evening newscasts devoted 423 minutes to Iraq [in 2008]…compared with 1,888 minutes in 2007.” The fading coverage of Iraq is a reflection of political decisions and ratings pressures, but it also illustrates some of what we are losing as funding is cut for serious journalism in almost every format.

The cuts are affecting every type of media. NPR, which until recently had been undergoing a growth in staff and programming, recently cancelled News and Notes, their only news program that focused on Black issues. This came as they cut almost 10% of their staff nationwide.

The much-discussed end of print seems to portent the biggest changes, especially for local news coverage. At least 525 magazines went out of business in 2008, according to mediafinder.com, and even more went under in 2007. The Los Angeles Times has cut nearly half its staff in the last eight years, while the Tribune Company announced that they would trim 500 pages of news each week from their twelve papers. The Miami Herald slashed 370 jobs last year, nearly a third of their workforce, with more cuts announced for this year. Book publishers – corporate and independent – have also been announcing staff layoffs and bankruptcies. Many of these reductions happened before the current economic freefall, and there are dire predictions of steeper drops on the horizon.

When The Christian Science Monitor recently ended weekday publication after a century, the New York Times quoted the paper’s editor as saying, “We have the luxury – the opportunity – of making a leap that most newspapers will have to make in the next five years.” Last week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the largest US paper to make the shift to being only available online, laying off the vast majority of its staff in the process.

Journalism and Money

The story behind the statistics is this: consumption of media hasn’t gone down – if anything, it’s gone way up. But as more and more people have become accustomed to getting their media online and for free, who will fund journalism?

Corporations will continue to make money off of media. And they will certainly fund a certain amount of journalism as a part of this. But for independent media-makers, will this work continue to be financially sustainable? And will new models of funding work for them?

As technology has made most kinds of media creation easier, the range of people doing this work has grown. At the Allied Media Conference, an annual gathering of radical media, it appears the future of media is alive and well. From hip-hop artists to radio activists to video journalists, radical educators, and a network of women of color bloggers, the several hundred participants at last year’s gathering were younger than most conferences, with many high school students who are already deeply involved in challenging work, and the gathering had much more of a queer energy than most media gatherings. The conference was also majority people of color, and very much focused on organizing and social movements.

Although print is under-represented at the conference (which ironically began as a gathering of zine makers), the dialogue that exists between different mediums represented is inspiring. Seeing gatherings like this, I believe that there is a new generation coming up who will continue to use these tools to hold the powerful accountable.

But even with many technological barriers removed, there is still a need for money. Every potential source of funding has its problems. Advertising funds some news websites, but that’s not an option for anti-corporate media-makers. Foundations have stepped in to fund investigative reporting and other projects, but this funding doesn’t nearly meet the need, and – in this time of economic crisis – this form of support is going down. Finally, critics point out that getting funding from foundations is not so different from getting money from corporations. Through your funding, you become accountable to the wealthy people who are paying you, and not to your community’s needs.

Reader Support

Without alternative sources of funding, publishing any kind of print publication can be extremely difficult. Bitch Magazine is one of the larger independent publications, selling tens of thousands of copies of each issue. The magazine has an extremely small staff, a specific niche that they fill that no one else does, and a loyal readership. Yet even with these advantages, they recently faced a serious financial shortfall.

Last September, Bitch’s editor and publisher announced on their website and in a youtube video that they need to raise $40,000 by October 15 or they would have to cease publishing. They raised $46,000 in three days, and over the next several weeks tens of thousands dollars more came in. They now have well over 500 sustainers who have pledged to donate anywhere from $5 to $100 or more every month. The crisis they faced illustrates the fragility of all independent magazines, but the quick and massive outpouring of support demonstrates that financial support is possible from our communities.

While media companies have repeatedly failed in their attempts to get readers to regularly pay for their product, examples like Bitch provide some evidence that people will pay to keep a valued resource alive.


New Distribution Models

Grassroots organizers and activists founded Left Turn Magazine – the publication I work with – as a political project. The magazine has focused on writing by people directly involved in movements, rather than journalists or academics. We are an all-volunteer collective with members in cities across the US, including Chicago, Durham, Washington DC, New York City, Oakland, and New Orleans.

In 2004, the magazine was passed on to an editorial collective made up mostly of organizers and activists. Instead of media-makers who founded a magazine, we are organizers who suddenly had a magazine given to us. Because of this, we have always seen the magazine as a tool or resource for social movements, and we have looked for alternate models of distribution, not relying on corporate distributors and bookstores, or anonymous mass mailings.

Most of our distribution happens through what we call our activist distribution network – grassroots organizations, activists, infoshops, and collectives who pay what they can and distribute the magazine to their communities. Many of these distributors also suggest content for the magazine and write articles about organizing happening in their communities.

This model is not necessarily sustainable for a larger project, and has many drawbacks. But we have consistently grown while magazines all around us have gone out of business over the past years. Most importantly, we believe that our model – which involves much more direct contact with our readers – creates a kind of journalism that is more accountable to the communities it seeks to serve.

Grassroots Media Tour

Recently, Left Turn joined a coalition of activist projects that launched the Grassroots Media Tour. Sponsors included several print publication, such as Bitch Magazine, ColorLines Magazine, $pread Magazine, and Make/Shift Magazine, as well as Free Speech Radio News. The tour brought performances, film screenings, poetry, workshops, and discussions to communities across the South – from Greensboro, North Carolina, and Miami, Florida, to Denton, Texas. Nearly one thousand people saw the tour, with standing-room only crowds in several cities.

For participants in the tour, the most exciting aspect was the opportunity to connect with people across the South who are engaged in the vital work of connecting media and social justice. We met with organizations such as the Hive in Greensboro, Project South in Atlanta, Take Back the Land in Miami, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, and many more. We found inspiring and exciting organizations struggling in innovative ways for justice and liberation.

Some of our inspiration for this tour came from the mass mobilizations for the Jena Six in 2007. Almost 50,000 people from around the US came to support high school students in a small town in northern Louisiana who were facing life in prison for a school fight. The organizing and publicity for the Jena case originated from the families themselves, and spread from there. Left Turn was the first national news outlet to cover the case, and the story spread over email, blogs, social networking sites, Black radio, and other noncorporate outlets such as Democracy Now and The Final Call newspaper. While CNN and every other major corporate news outlet eventually covered the case, there is no doubt that it was activists that made it a story they couldn’t ignore.

The attention certainly helped the students – all of them are in school, rather than in prison. While five of the six still have charges hanging over their heads, they are in a much better situation, with much better legal representation, than most Black youths entangled in the Prison Industrial Complex. However, this public scrutiny was also hard for the young students at the center of the case. Mychal Bell, the only member of the Jena Six to have been convicted, recently attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest with a gun.

The Jena Six case serves to illustrate two important points. The first is the power of independent media, which helped to nurture this story until the major outlets could no longer ignore it. The second lesson is the importance of accountability in our movement. It’s not enough for media to be focused on grassroots struggles; we also need communication, collaboration, and empathy for those directly affected. As Mychal Bell has demonstrated, there are lives at stake.

New technology will continue to change the way we consume information. But the need for communication across communities and for uncovering the deceptions of the powerful remains unchanged. We need to find ways, as a movement, that we can support – and hold accountable – grassroots, community-oriented media. Its clear that corporations wont do it for us.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans has been published and broadcast in outlets including Die Zeit (in Germany), Clarin (in Argentina), Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now!. He can be reached at: neworleans@leftturn.org. Read other articles by Jordan, or visit Jordan's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Martha said on March 27th, 2009 at 10:10am #

    Left Turn needs to go under. Clamor made a difference. Left Turn is nothing but nonsense and does no real reporting despite Flaherty’s nonsense above. (Or was Sarah Olson’s write up of her FRSN report on Ehren Watada that she wrote up for Left Turn supposed to count as ‘original’ reporting? That was before she stabbed Ehren in the back with her remarks to Atlanta Progressive News.) Yes, Jordan F, White man went to New Orleans and then grabbed as much media attention as he could going on The Laura Flanders Show (as it was called then), Democracy Now, etc. When what America really needed was to hear from the victims.
    What Left Turn does is what Flaherty did above, a column of unoriginal reporting. That’s all it does.
    It’s also completely non-radical and embarrassed itself with it’s cheerleading for Barack Obama.
    Never e-mail Left Turn to complain about anything because they put you on a list and begin spamming you as has been going on with my e-mail since last summer.
    Left Turn needs to go under and I’d say the same for every magazine and outlet he mentioned above except Bitch (I don’t know a thing about Bitch so I won’t comment). What you see is the echo chamber that installed Barack Obama and refused to treat Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney or, for that matter, Ron Paul as legitimate candidates. That’s not left, it’s not democracy. I say they should all go out of business and would be pleased to hear the words “CounterSpin will no longer be producing new episodes” on WBAI.
    C.I. of The Common Ills has made two important points this week regrading ‘independent’ media. 1) “A true independent media would have done the work required for a third party to emerge long ago but we don’t have an independent media system in this country.” and 2) A real independent media would be calling out Chris Hill’s nomination for US Ambassador to Iraq based on the endoresments from Hill by John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad. But instead we get, “Republicans opposed! We should all support Chris Hill!” I’m sick of the two-party shuffle.
    And while Jordan F whines in his long and non-original reporting column, C.I. covered the Hill confirmation hearing Wednesday
    http://thecommonills.blogspot.com/2009/03/iraq-snapshot_25.html

    and Thursday

    http://thecommonills.blogspot.com/2009/03/iraq-snapshot_26.html

    Point, some of the people online don’t write long whining columns, they get off their butts and do something, actual reporting. And they do it regularly. Not just when it’s time to hit people up for money.

  2. Ron Horn said on March 27th, 2009 at 10:42am #

    The development of grassroots media is absolutely essential if working people have any chance of a decent survival. The work of these grass roots media activists are the first step in bringing working people together with an awareness of the real issues facing them and sharing solutions. Thank you for your wonderful efforts, Jordan, and the many others like you.

  3. Don Hawkins said on March 28th, 2009 at 6:27am #

    I wrote this comment yesterday and liked it so much I am doing it again.

    The so called elite’s are the biggest slaves of all. That feeling of power that is nothing more than an optical delusion of conciseness is the most powerful drug of all. They will do anything to get it keep it. Well what’s coming that delusion is over and we all get to go down together. Boring it will not be. A nice quiet cup of coffee anyone.

    So what’s coming? It’s not so much of what’s coming but what is already here. In the last 100 years we have been burning things in a rather big way. In the last 50 years or so we have been putting CO 2 into the atmosphere at 10,000 times the natural rate and let’s just go back 600,000 years for the natural rate part that should be enough for us human’s. 120,000 years ago the amount of CO 2 in the atmosphere was about 285 ppm and the temperature was about the same as today. Well guess what the ocean level was 19.5 feet higher because most of Greenland was ice free with those conditions. Then the CO 2 dropped over about 100,000 years to about 200ppm and stayed that way for about a thousand years. Now in just the last 100 years we human’s have been very busy. The line on a chart goes up and in a rather big way. We went from about 290ppm to 386ppm in just 100 years. Here’s where you have to use your mind a little. If the oceans were 19.5 feet higher 120,000 years ago and Greenland was for the most part ice free at 285ppm why now are not the oceans much higher and Greenland ice free? Because we put CO 2 so fast into the atmosphere it hasn’t had time to catch-up but it will. The ice in the North right ice is melting fast and the temperatures are on the rise. We are in big trouble people and yet certain people are still trying to figure out if it is a problem. Among the people that know this climate breakdown is moving much faster than first thought and in many way’s to late to slow some real fun stuff. So what is the biggest obstacle to try and slow this breakdown for future generations? A very big part is these so called elite’s who are the biggest slaves of all to the very system that got us here. For me to watch these so called elite’s weather it be policy makers or people on TV use fifth grade level thinking to back up there truths is fascinating in some way’s and very sad in others. There are a few trying to get the truth out on this and it could be to late but maybe not we must try. One thing for sure we are not going to slow this down with the same thinking that got us here. We need more than a few trying and again think of this as kind of a war. Tuff times ahead either way. That optical delusion of conciseness there is something very very wrong with that I think it’s called stupidity. The few that are trying to slow this down are not hopelessly addicted to the system and the one’s that are for the most part are still in control and that fifth grade thinking seems like such a shame to have to go that way. Yes the biggest slaves of all.

  4. Don Hawkins said on March 28th, 2009 at 7:27am #

    Then we have this to think about. Is it true so far from what we see, yes. Another summer we will know more.

    Sea level rise could be worse than anticipated
    February 5th, 2009 in Space & Earth / Earth Sciences

    A digital image of what Antarctica would look like if it consisted only of land actually above sea level.
    If global warming some day causes the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse, as many experts believe it could, the resulting sea level rise in much of the United States and other parts of the world would be significantly higher than is currently projected, a new study concludes.
    The catastrophic increase in sea level, already projected to average between 16 and 17 feet around the world, would be almost 21 feet in such places as Washington, D.C., scientists say, putting it largely underwater. Many coastal areas would be devastated. Much of Southern Florida would disappear.
    The report will be published Friday in the journal Science, by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Toronto. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and other agencies from the U.S. and Canada.
    “We aren’t suggesting that a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is imminent,” said Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. “But these findings do suggest that if you are planning for sea level rise, you had better plan a little higher.”
    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that a collapse of this ice sheet would raise sea levels around the world by about 16.5 feet, on average, and that figure is still widely used. However, that theoretical average does not consider several key forces, such as gravity, changes in the Earth’s rotation or a rebound of the land on which the massive glacier now rests, scientists say in the new study.

    Right now, this ice sheet has a huge mass, towering more than 6,000 feet above sea level over a large section of Antarctica. This mass is sufficient to exert a substantial gravitational attraction, researchers say, pulling water toward it – much as the gravitational forces of the sun and moon cause the constant movement of water on Earth commonly known as tides.
    “A study was done more than 30 years ago pointing out this gravitational effect, but for some reason it became virtually ignored,” Clark said. “People forgot about it when developing their sea level projections for the future.”
    And aside from incorporating the gravitational effect, the new study adds further wrinkles to the calculation – the weight of the ice forcing down the land mass on which it sits, and also affecting the orientation of the Earth’s spin. When the ice is removed, it appears the underlying land would rebound, and the Earth’s axis of rotation defined by the North and South Pole would actually shift about one-third of a mile, also affecting the sea level at various points.
    When these forces are all taken into calculation, the sea level anywhere near Antarctica would actually fall, the report concludes, while many other areas, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, would go up.
    If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet completely melted, the East Coast of North America would experience sea levels more than four feet higher than had been previously predicted – almost 21 feet – and the West Coast, as well as Miami, Fla., would be about a foot higher than that. Most of Europe would have seas about 18 feet higher.
    “If this did happen, there would also be many other impacts that go far beyond sea level increase, including much higher rates of coastal erosion, greater damage from major storm events, problems with ground water salinization, and other issues,” Clark said. “And there could be correlated impacts on other glaciers and ice sheets in coastal areas that could tend to destabilize them as well.”
    It’s still unclear, Clark said, when or if a breakup of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might occur, or how fast it could happen. It may not happen for hundreds of years, he said, and even then it may not melt in its entirety. Research should continue to better understand the forces at work, he said.
    “However, these same effects apply to any amount of melting that may occur from West Antarctica,” Clark said. “So many coastal areas need to plan for greater sea level rise than they may have expected.”
    A significant part of the concern is that much of the base of this huge ice mass actually sits below sea level, forced down to the bedrock by the sheer weight of the ice above it. Its edges flow out into floating ice shelves, including the huge Ross Ice Shelf and Ronne Ice Shelf. This topography makes it “inherently unstable,” Clark said.
    “There is widespread concern that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is characterized by extensive marine-based sectors, may be prone to collapse in a warming world,” the researchers wrote in their report.
    Source: Oregon State University

  5. KR said on March 28th, 2009 at 9:35am #

    I find Left Turn to be an invaluable resource for organizing. Because it is written by and for grassroots organizers, it regularly presents news and thoughtful analysis of the myriad efforts being undertaken by the Left.

    Left Turn did not take a pro-Obama position, by the way. Rather, it ran a few insightful commentaries about the way the radical anti-capitalist Left may attempt to relate to the broad population of everyday folk who supported Obama enthusiastically. Left Turn considered the value of building alliances with people who supported Obama, particularly young folk of color new to political engagement.

    I found this line of inquiry to be refreshing and full of radical potential, unlike the sea of cynicism I regularly witness on the Left, which verges on utter contempt for the masses of everyday people inspired by the Obama campaign.