Inaugural Symposium Summary

“The Future of Independent Media: Growth and Challenges”

(Sept. 15-16, 2008)

The symposium began with a presentation by Robert Greenwald and (Ithaca College alum) Jim Miller of Brave New Foundation/Brave New Films, describing how they built an institution with 50 employees through grassroots Internet marketing of full-length documentaries and short videos. To produce their documentary on war profiteering, “Iraq for Sale,” they raised $200,000 online in a 10-day period largely through $25 and $50 contributions. Their newest project is “Meet the Bloggers.”

Workshops on day two focused on “Independent Media Successes,” “Business and Revenue Models” and “New Collaborations and Technologies.” A key measure of success in independent media is that journalists and artists are taking control of the means of media production and distribution – and involving “the people formerly known as the audience.” Amanda Michel of HuffingtonPost’s Off the Bus described how her project has activated readers to commit acts of journalism, with most of the contributors being women. Leaders in independent “ethnic media” – Roberto Lovato and Juana Ponce de Leon – discussed the potential represented by 29 million people in the U.S. who, according to pollsters, say they prefer ethnic media to mainstream media. Spanish-language outlets offered a different perspective on the immigrants’ rights protests than CNN; it was the black blogosphere that brought the prosecutions of the Jena 6 to the national agenda. But what is success in independent media? Is it moving an issue into the mainstream, or empowering a community, or achieving a huge number of page views, or simply sustaining the enterprise?

The workshop on business/revenue models began with a discussion of the clout of bloggers in rocketing the book, “How Would a Patriot Act?” to No. 1 on Amazon, a dialogue led by the book’s editor, Safir Ahmed, and one of the bloggers involved, Chris Bowers. Grizzled veterans of independent media and younger upstarts joined in a discussion of what it means to be “independent” when – even in the Internet era – the revenue needed to sustain media production sometimes come with strings attached or obstacles. Which raises the need for “transparency” in independent media. Participants hashed out the pros and cons of funding streams from: 1) readers/listeners/ viewers (though sales, subs, memberships/on-air fund drives) or 2) major donors or 3) advertising -- or some combination. And the possibilities of independents collaborating in fundraising. At the heart of revenue security is providing vivid news, issues and story-telling that build a loyal, involved audience – and traffic that can be monetized.

Before lunch, Denis Moynihan of Free Speech TV (formerly outreach director of Democracy Now!) presented dramatic video of the independent journalists who’d been arrested – at times brutally – while covering events at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. . .showing yet another obstacle faced by independent, un-embedded journalists.

In the final workshop on new collaborations and technologies, presentations were made about The Media Consortium, which unites forty outlets in the progressive sector of the independent media, and SourceWatch, a wiki sponsored by the Center for Media and Democracy in collaboration with other nonprofits that monitors the people and organizations shaping the public agenda. Technologists Deanna Zandt and David Mathison discussed new platforms for outreach and news-gathering, as several participants Twittered away.

In the symposium’s keynote speech that was open-to-the-public and attended by hundreds, including many communications students, Josh Marshall offered a humble yet inspiring chronicle of how he went from blogging part-time at night to running the Talking Points Memo/TPM blog network that employs ten people and has more than a million monthly readers. At every point in TPM’s growth, a loyal and active readership came through with journalistic tips and/or financial support. Marshall described how he asked his readers to launch, whose investigative reporting helped expose the politically-motivated firings of U.S. attorneys and prompt the resignation of Attorney General Gonzales: “Fundraising was beyond my expectations. We raised a little more than $100,000. . .90-95 percent was contributions $50 and under.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Explaining the need for independent media, Marshall concluded: “The more voices you have, the more takes on the news, you’re just going to have a more vibrant and diverse news ecosystem – as opposed to having two or three gatekeepers that control the news.”
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Dianne Lynch, dean of Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications, live blogged from symposium workshops hereand here.