on Alternative Journalism
The challenge at hand is to understand the range, scope, and impact of the many faces of alternative journalism today; to grasp how alternative journalism has changed with the advent of the internet; and to assess what effect media changes have on the power and potential of alternative journalism, and its influence on social change.
It is rare that anyone agrees with a definition of 'alternative journalism.' For the sake of this discussion, let's define it as: the presentation of facts, opinions, and narrative imbued with a strong point of view and distributed via non-corporate means. Perhaps a better name would be advocacy journalism - but of course that can mean the right or the left. Moreover, there are global, national, regional, and local journalisms, and these various geographies are relevant to the discussion.
My personal trajectory tracks quite well with the large scale changes in alternative journalism. We start in 1985 when I was publisher of Mother Jones (Mojo), an award-wining magazine with a focus on investigative reporting. Mojo was and still is part of a large collection of 'magazines of opinion' - many of you likely read them, including The Nation, In These Times, The Progressive, American Prospect, Z, and many dozens more. None of these magazines make money, and they are supported by various forms of philanthropy, mostly by wealthy individuals and sometimes foundations, often supplemented by their readers. These magazines are the cores of the old 'national' alternative journalism.
In 1991, I moved to AlterNet, then a project of the Institute for Alternative Journalism (IAJ). At that time, AlterNet was a syndication service for the one hundred twenty-five or so newsweeklies, in every medium and large city and college town across the country and in Canada. The most famous of the 'alties' are the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, and perhaps the Bay Guardian here in San Francisco, all of which had a very strong political voice and were the home of 'point of view' or advocacy journalism. Some well-known investigative reporters, like the Voice's Wayne Barrett, still toil there. At AlterNet, we brokered content from these papers, and many magazines of opinion to the member papers of AAN, the trade association.
Recently, one company, the New Times company from Phoenix, Arizona, has taken over ownership control of virtually all the biggest papers in the key markets: the Voice, the LA Weekly, and papers in Miami, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Berkeley, and half a dozen more. For the most part, the New Times model is to be the only weekly in a marketplace. When they had to compete in a market, in SF and LA for example, they weren't successful. Where they ended up being most successful was in leveraging large amounts of venture capital to be able to buy everything they couldn't compete with.
And the Voice ownership, wanting to cash out, and not caring for the future of the Voice style of journalism, sold New Times their eight or so papers. (Independent papers still exist in Boston, Portland, Atlanta, Sacramento, San Jose, and a handful of other cities.) For many, this corporate take over of the alties is the death knell of the weekly alternative advocacy journalism form, since the owners of New Times produce a quite different form ofjournalism - long form, professionally written and edited, and often effective but not advocacy journalism in the classic sense. The New Times style is to tell stories of heroes and victims and personal quests, and it prefers to keep the complexities and oppression of the system and social ills like class and race out of the narrative.
In the mid-Nineties, IAJ changed its name to Independent Media Institute, recognizing the limits of the word 'alternative' and also understanding that public interest information and strong opinion writing come in many forms. The brand 'AlterNet' remains however.
Under the auspices of the newly renamed Independent Media Institute, I launched two popular Media & Democracy Congresses, in SF and NYC, attended by a couple of thousand people. These events launched the media and democracy movement, which is now under the leadership of Free Press, a group that is once again holding media reform conferences. Media reform in its latest incarnation is frequently about net neutrality, wireless internet, and still the never-ending, ever-failing, effort to reduce media ownership concentration.
After a period of organizing on media reform, including publication of a book called We the Media about who owned and controlled what, I came to understand the limits of media reform. It is a constant uphill battle that has resulted in pretty much losing every significant battle against media corporations over the past sixty years. Media conglomerates have taken over radio, TV, and cable and are of course fighting to get their hands on the internet. Based on this, I concluded that it was necessary to make use of the powerful and growing development of new technologies to help fight the corporate control of information. The most important media reform was to build an independent media structure in order to reach larger audiences with compelling content and keep up with the corporations that invest billions in social networking web 2.0 sites, knowing that these web communities are going to become dominant. But more about that in a second.
When the World Wide Web came along, AlterNet recognized that it no longer needed to sell content to reluctant newsweeklies but rather could go directly to audiences all around the country and the globe with content from hundreds of sources. Alternet.org was launched about nine years ago and has grown to be one of the highest trafficked, influential news sites on the web, winning two Webby Awards, for best magazine and for political coverage. In April 2007, we had 2.6 million visitors. That is a far cry from the days at Mother Jones, when it was hard to get our circulation over 200,000 for a monthly magazine. Now of course Mojo and The Nation, like all magazines, have websites to accompany their magazines, but that hasn't really worked. Time has shown that you have to be one or the other - a print magazine or a powerful, robust website.
Digital media have spawned a whole new bread of magazines of opinion. In some cases, changes have been highly succesful. One example is the Huffington Post, a blog that became a portal with large traffic, overpowering some of the progressive content on the web and in print.
Common Dreams, Truth Out, Raw Story, Chirping Chimp, Buzz Flash, and Tom Paine, are all new developments over the past seven years, and all have thriving audiences. Like AlterNet, these sites, are still new versions of old media, but in many ways represent innovative new takes on the old model of alternative journalism. Old media are characterized by top-down content decided by a small group of people. Now, there is nothing wrong with that model, and it is never going to die out, but it certainly isn't the future of media.
Here is a useful list of ten elements that will characterize media as we go forward.These ten elements tell us a lot about how the media are evolving and how the media that we are creating differ from the media we are used to.
capabilities of twenty-first century media:
I haven't mentioned the blogosphere yet which, perhaps, best represents the transition from old media to new. The universe of progressive blogs has anywhere from two to four million visitors. They are a powerful force in the echo chamber. Some do top-notch journalism. For example, Talking Points Memo has a large influence and uses its readership to greatly enhance its research and accountability capacity. The Daily Kos is perhaps the most famous of the blogs with hundreds of diarists, and the largest blog traffic. FireDog Lake got front-page NY Times credit for its live blogging of the Libby trial and for covering the story in depth and with nuance. Crooks and Liars has huge traffic and is the pre-eminent site for progressive video, and on and on.
In the remainder I will schematically summarize how the media landscape has been transformed by technology - and what the advent of Web 2.0 means for alternative media.
Definition: The enrichment of the web that incorporates user-generated features, feedback, collaborations, and content into existing structures, and offers enhanced organization of information for easy retrieval and reusability.
Common features of Web 2.0 include: tagging, RSS, user generated content, multimedia, social networking, recommendations, and ratings. The focus is on the entire experience: 'I can participate.'
Web 2.0 suggests that we have to
move to providing services, not simply