This article is part of a series of articles by Media Mouse covering the 2007 National Conference for Media Reform. We believe that these will be of value to those organizing for social change in the Grand Rapids and West Michigan area.
This panel, moderated by Tracy Van Slyke of the magazine In These Times (http://www.inthesetimes.com), brought together four independent media producers involved in different mediums–television, radio, internet, and print–to discuss the challenges facing independent media outlets as their reach expands with more and more people become further dissatisfied with the corporate media. The four panelists were Andre Banks of ColorLines a news magazine filling the role of providing national news to people of color who get most of their local news from the ethnic media, Bonnie Boswell, a former corporate media journalist who is now working with a start-up news program called The Real News, Cenk Uygur of the Air America radio show The Young Turks, and Kim Spencer of satellite network Link TV.
Van Slyke set the stage for the panel–much of which would focus on the monetary challenges facing independent media outlets–by describing the independent media landscape as “rich in content but poor in capital.” To help illustrate this point, she showed the audience a map of “The Conservative Media Machine” that showed how conservatives have used foundations, individual donations, and corporate money to build a top-down system that funnels their messages to the media. As a contrast, Van Slyke showed a map of the progressive media network that was described as ad-hoc in nature, underfunded, and struggling for coverage in the corporate media. An updated map titled “The Emerging Progressive Media Network” was also shown to explain how the network has expanded over the past year.
One of the major obstacles facing any independent media outlet is funding and the issue came up within the first quarter of the panel. The four outlets represented all had different approaches for dealing with this difficulty, with The Young Turks running their radio show as a for-profit entity, ColorLines attaching itself to a nonprofit organization, LinkTV relying on foundations and individuals, and The Real News raising money initially from big funders with the goal of eventually breaking out of reliance on such foundations. Moderator Tracy Van Slyke stressed the importance of diversifying funding sources and not relying on a single entity or set of entities for support. Not surprisingly, none of the panelists had a single solution to the challenges of raising money, but they all stressed the importance of developing metrics to measure their audience. The metrics–including website hits and feedback from their audience–are useful for approaching funders and also generating public relations materials that can be used to build an audience. Bonnie Boswell of The Real News asserted the importance of self-analysis and accountability, stressing the importance of making sure that independent media outlets do what they say they are doing as an organization. Van Slyke explained the importance of identifying a gap that a particular media outlet is filling, while also reminding the audience that at the present time many foundations are willing to fund content but will not fund ongoing operations.
In listening to the panelists discuss fundraising; it became clear that one of the prerequisites for successful fundraising is building a loyal community and audience. Of course, unlike the corporate media, the panelists all explained that the role of this audience was not to be passive consumers of media, but rather to engage them in political activity. Much of the discuss of community revolved around the internet and the “social networking” aspects of the internet that have become low-cost ways of building communities around progressive politics as well as the importance of making use of multiple mediums to reach people in a variety of ways. The panelists all stressed the importance of using their content to produce multiple formats and it was a recurring theme throughout the discussion. Panelists also articulated the importance of forming partnerships, either with organizations to produce original content or other independent media outlets to improve distribution and reach. Kim Spencer of Link TV explained the importance of ad bartering and networking as a way of assisting other organizations, while the Media Consortium, a network of progressive independent journalism organizations, was also mentioned as a vehicle for increasing collaboration. The panelists, especially Andre Banks, also briefly addressed questions of access to the Internet and how that should influence how independent media producers approach the Internet as a means of doing outreach. Banks cited the Pew Internet & American Life Project as a means of questioning the traditional notion that people of color dramatically less access to the Internet and shifting the focus towards understanding why existing online outlets are not reaching people of color.