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The US military has not withdrawn from Iraq, but the US media has.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.
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.