The Inner Workings of Alternative Media: Part 1
By Kirsten Anderberg (This article is part 1, in a 3-part series online at http://resist.ca/~kirstena/pagealtpress.html)
Ben Franklin said freedom of the press is in owning the press. And these days, with the internet and Xerox machines, owning, or at least renting, your own press, has never been easier. I would argue that freedom of the press is in owning the press *and* understanding marketing, though. I interviewed some people involved in alternative, independent and "parallel" media forms for this article. I wanted to see what motivated people working in alternative media, but I also wanted to see what they needed, and what the public could do to help support their efforts... to ensure a healthy alternative to mainstream media for us all. For this article, I interviewed Bradley Allen (Free Radio Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Independent Media Center ( SC IMC)), Lance Scott (Co-founder of Eat the State! (ETS!)), Christa Donner (Ladyfriend and Free Advice Zines), an editor from a prisoner newsletter that goes out with prisoner book deliveries who wanted to remain anonymous, Chuck Munson (Coordinating webmaster for Infoshop.org and librarian), and via phone, Tim Walker (campaigns manager for Adbusters Magazine).
Tim Walker threw a curve ball into the interview process right away by using the terminology "parallel" media, in addition to independent or alternative media. He said what most people call "independent media" really has many interests to serve, most often those of the funders and advertisers. He said that in many ways the media we refer to as "independent" is not really independent, but rather a "parallel" to mainstream media. He said the main difference between parallel media and corporate media was in distribution, as both can have advertisers or outside funding. What is different is the distribution and marketing conglomerate for corporation media. He said the distinction between "parallel" media and truly "independent" media was meant to protect the integrity of the term "independent" media. He said that truly independent media was not supported by advertisers or outside funding, but rather directly by the readers themselves.
1. I asked what the 3 biggest challenges were to keeping their media projects alive and growing:
Bradley (SC IMC): "Dedicated Volunteers, Community Support, Access to Resources. It can be hard to find people that are willing to work on the critical, yet often tedious, aspects of keeping the station on the air. 'Behind the scenes work' is so important to keeping our media projects going."
Lance (ETS!): "One challenge: Money. Three corollary challenges: 1) Finding people who will help raise money (since interest in fundraising is not usually reason people get involved in alternative journalism). 2) Finding institutional support for progressive media. 3) Finding people willing to do the hard work of creating & distributing alt media month after month, year after year, for little or no pay."
Christa (Ladyfriend): "First and foremost, funding (paying for printing and mailing) -- that's the main one. After that, I guess getting diverse, high-quality contributions for each issue...and keeping on top of distribution to various distros and bookstores. Subscriptions are still too overwhelming to me, though I'd like to do them."
Prison Publication: "Since all our publications, zines and resource guides we do are intended primarily for prisoners, there's unfortunately never a lack of an audience. I'd say funding is our biggest challenge since most of our readers are unable to pay/donate financially."
Tim (Adbusters): Tim said that money was problematic, which is why Adbusters has other funding projects, not just the magazine, including posters, books, etc.
Chuck (Infoshop.org): "I'm not sure I can boil the challenges down to three. There are external challenges such as the magazine market, distribution, and so on. There are internal challenges like finances, organization, fulfillment, editorial, layout headaches, and hard-to-reach co-editors, writers, and artists. The primary challenge is lack of resources. Practical Anarchy zine is now published by a collective, but for over ten years it was an irregular zine put together mostly by myself. I think the zine could have turned into a magazine years ago if I had had more money and resources. You can't publish if you don't have the money. Even if you are scamming your entire print run from Kinkos, you still have to pay postage and other costs.
Time is another challenge. If you have to work a job or several jobs, or have to take care of a family, you aren't going to have much time to work on a zine or magazine, even if you are doing it with other people who have the same time constraints. There is one reason why some magazines stay in print, publish monthly, and have newsstand distribution: because they have a paid staff. The only way to run a magazine that is published frequently (more often than "quarterly") is to have a staff that is compensated so they don't have to work other jobs. This is why so few anarchist and leftist magazines come out more often than quarterly. If you don't mind the fact that your political magazines are published infrequently, then this may not bother you. If you'd like to see more anarchist and radical magazines reach more people--which is one of my goals--there has to be a move towards a more structured situation.
Then there are all of those other challenges which I've mentioned. Finding new and exciting content. Working with writers and artists. Trying to figure out how to set up an effective fulfillment database. Doing data entry. Stuffing envelopes and going to the post office. Trying to figure out where to place that last paragraph from a story in your publication. Pulling hair out over production problems. Dealing with people who disrupt your work or throw temper tantrums when you don't cater to their needs. Staying up all night to finish layout so you can get the files to the printer. Alternative media is obviously a labor of love. There is no money in publishing, which is what everybody discovered in the dot-com crash when people found out that almost all dot-coms were actually publishers."
2. Next, I asked what has been tried to remedy those challenges/problems, as well as what worked and what did not work?:
Bradley (SC IMC): "Better outreach to the community through our radio station, the internet (freakradio.org, santacruz.indymedia.org, radio.indymedia.org, radio4all.net, diymedia.net, etc... ), stickers around town and occasional benefits with either a band, speaker, or film screening. It is hard to say what has worked and what has not worked."
Lance (ETS!): "The key to getting money is to ask for it: from readers, from advertisers, etc. ETS! just finished a fundraising drive that we highlighted on our front page & website for 2 months, similar to public radio pledge drives. When asked, our readers stepped up with donations, helping us pay off most of our debts. We've also been relatively successful getting ads; we just need more people soliciting them. What hasn't worked so well, in my limited experience, was asking progressive foundations for money. Years ago I approached the 2 largest local progressive funders, only to discover that their funding guidelines expressly forbid funding media.(!?) While the right wing has been funding media for years, & building large right-wing media empires, progressive media continues to hold bake sales. Dumb."
Christa (Ladyfriend): "I've tried raising the cover price slightly, which worked somewhat. I try to send personalized e-mails (and extended deadlines) to contributors I'd really like to have material from, which usually works better than mass-mailings. I'm trying to keep better records of my invoices/shipments to bookstores, but I don't have a very good database set up yet. I still need to solve that problem somehow."
Prisoner Publication: "Low risk high return hustles seem to be doing the trick. As for what didn't work, I'd say focusing on working within the system."
Tim (Adbusters): Tim said Adbusters has been diversifying products, such as with their new Black Spot Sneaker (www.blackspotsneaker.org), as well as other culture jammer items which they pretest in concept and through small runs to see if the product is viable. He said they also use a large campaigns dept., running events such as Buy Nothing Day and Turn Off Your TV Week, etc. He said competing with mainstream media is hard due to promotion, so things like using listserves, websites, and the internet is good. He also said that Adbusters was started with a larger concept than to merely be independent media. The concept was to highlight unsustainable consumerism, not to be a newswire magazine, and that editorial vision and steering was important also.
Chuck (Infoshop.org): "Experience is what helps the most here. You gain wisdom from experience. You often fall on your face. Sometimes things go better than planned. I learned much from my experiences working on Alternative Press Review and working for Science magazine.
Remedying problems and addressing challenges depends on what your goals are. Do you just want to publish an irregular zine with a limited circulation? If that's the case, then your main challenge is a creative one. What do I want to say in my zine, or my blog? If you want your project to reach more people, than you have to pay attention to important items like fulfillment, organizing the organization, outreach, fundraising, editorial and accounting. It also depends on the project. A magazine presents different challenges than running a website. Practical Anarchy is a different creature than Infoshop News. Right now with Practical Anarchy we're putting together a new issue and trying to distribute copies of the last issue. At Infoshop News I'm focused right now on creating more original content. At the same time, I'm busy much of the day on the tasks of updating and running the website. I really suspect that most people familiar with Infoshop news don't understand that it is a full time job for me, despite the fact that the project becomes more collaborative every day. So instead of finding articles and posting them, I find myself more and more editing content that is submitted. It would help to have more volunteers, but very few people are interested in volunteering.
What works? The answers to that question are of most interest to the people reading this interview. It's important to enjoy what you are doing. If your project isn't fun or rewarding, than it's just like a suck ass job. One of the most important things is to have those things necessary for motivation, creativity, and dedication. It also helps to learn a few things about how people do alternative media well. Go to workshops such as the ones put on at the Allied Media Conference. Join the Independent Publishers Association and read their white papers. Take a class on editing. Study how other publications do layout and design. Don't be afraid to steal ideas--that's how art always works!"
3. What role do you envision alternative media serving in society?:
Bradley (SC IMC): "Alternative media is a way for people to come together, exchange ideas and information, and work to reclaim autonomy while pushing back corporate domination on our lives. It is also a way for people to learn and develop their skills in media production."
Lance (ETS!): "One role is simply to do what mainstream media should be doing: providing the information needed by citizens in a democracy to govern themselves & lead healthy, fulfilling lives. Another role is to serve all those quirky little interest niches that can never be served adequately by mass media."
Christa (Ladyfriend): "It can operate on so many levels, but the area I'm personally the most interested in is its role as a creative outlet and networking tool for people of all ages, helping them to connect with other people who share their interests, share new information, and feel supported, valued, and motivated by a community that they might not be able to find at school or at work."
Prisoner Publication: "Multiple independent sources of events without wondering what global corporation owns them would be awesome."
Tim (Adbuster): Tim said he felt that mainstream media had little agenda past making money, or making sure lots of people are exposed to it, which is a radical agenda really. He said that large corporations happen to produce the news mainstream presses carry, and so the news that the mainstream media spreads is the corporate agenda, and they get a powerful voice in society due to this. He said he sees parallel media as being able to get the word out, but with news that is written by people other than primarily corporations.
Chuck (Infoshop.org): "Alternative media serve as the conduit for voices that aren't heard in the community. They serve as community gadlfy, muckraker, creative force, troublemaker, idea generator, and social conscience. The problem is that society shouldn't need the alternative media, because the media should be filling all of the needs of the community. Until we can get rid of capitalism and overturn the media monopoly the alternative media will have to play the role of outsider challenging the status quo. While some people like being part of the outsider, I see the main goal of the alternative media as leading and supporting radical social change that will upset the current system."
4. Where do you see alternative media in 20 years?:
Bradley (SC IMC): "That's a tough one! I have a hard time envisioning the future."
Lance (ETS!): "Hopefully, on the racks of the local supermarket check-out line, & otherwise more widely available than today."
Christa (Ladyfriend): "Geez, I don't know. I think that some of it will be more glossy and mainstream-accessible, and some (by choice) will remain low-budget and distributed by hand/word of mouth. Sort of the way it is now...only with more high-production options for those who want to reach larger audiences. I think that's already starting to happen."
Prisoner Publication: "Hopefully more tech savvy. Its still hard to find folks with tech skills that are interested in getting involved in such projects, and of course more accessible and more sources to choose from."
Tim (Adbusters): Tim said he saw alternatives to mainstream media taking over the world. He said it "still has huge growth in it," and that it is a great check for mainstream media at the moment, if nothing else. He said he did not believe that the parallel media movement could be "nearly as powerful as it is or will become, without the internet."
Chuck (Infoshop.org): "I really hope that there is no such thing as alternative media in 20 years. If we haven't defeated the media monopoly and brought down capitalism in 20 years, then we will have failed miserably. I'm optimistic about all the changes we will see by the end of this decade concerning media. The media reform movement has reached critical mass and is actively affecting not just the FCC, but the national debate on media. The American Left has finally gotten their act together and are fighting more effectively against corporate and right wing media. Just see Michael Moore's new movie or "Outfoxed." I agree with what my friend Jason McQuinn (editor of Anarchy magazine) has said about this. I want to be so successful as a media activist and anarchist that I don't have to do this anymore. Once we have achieved a full media revolution, anybody will be able to make media, which means that we won't have a need for media activists. I see my goal as an anarchist and media activist as being so successful that I can stop living out these roles."