Public Media in the US vs. in Europe

This week in class we had a really engaging class about the state of public media in the United States versus the state of public media in European countries. Professor Cohen said something that really resonated with me: in Europe, any journalism student would be vying for a public media reporting job after graduation. In the United States, we are competing for corporate media jobs and vey few, if any, list public media on their list. Why?

We watched a BBC interview of Prime Minister Tony Blair before the US/British invasion of Iraq, in which BBC anchor Jeremy Paxton aggressively questions the PM and also the audience of British citizens do the same. On multiple occasions, they interrupt, correct and poke fun at the PM, without fear or shame. Most of the students in the class watched with mixed laughter and horror. They have never lived in the UK and haven’t been exposed to the way journalists (and everyone else) demands answers from their government. As Americans, we have been conditioned to accept our politicians cheery-picking the shows they appear on, the questions they answer ad the people they speak to. For crying out loud, we even let politicians create the rules under which they debate. In the UK this would be unheard of, thanks to well-funded and protectively funded public media. One of my favorite shows to watch when I was living in London was the weekly “Question Time” on BBC, where members of Parliament interrogate the Prime Minister on live television. In the UK, these tough questions would not make British journalism students laugh and look on in horror, like we did. They would take then in stride, as they should — as we would if we had stronger public media.

I also really enjoyed our discussion of children’s public media in the United States. Professor Cohen told a story about his eldest daughter watching public access television as a child but still being bombarded with corporate commercials that sold things like sugary cereals that promote an unhealthy diet. I think he is right to demand a safe place on TV for American children. Our public broadcasting should be that place. When I was living in Spain, I was amazed to find their public access children’s channel while flipping channels in a hotel one weekend trip to Granada. The TV shows were educational cartoons that promoted healthy living. And there were no commercials — only PSAs about doing good in your community, recycling, voting and other positive messages. I hadn’t even considered how important something like that would be until I was faced with it, right there in my hotel room.


Is podcasting the new blogging?

With all the talk in our class about public media and radio, I wanted to post about one of my favorite new forms of journalism: podcasts.

I love podcasts and I listen to a few shows regularly. My favorites are Radiolab and Death, Sex & Money, both from WYNC (New York City’s public broadcasting station). I listen to them when I drive, cook and clean — they transform daily mundane activities into time for imagining, learning and feeling lots of emotions.

The comparison between blogging and podcasting comes from Nieman Lab: “Podcasting in 2015 feels like a lot like blogging circa 2004: exciting, evolving and trouble for incumbents.” The article hit the nail on the head for a lot of things I’ve been thinking about as I consume more podcasts and different kinds of podcasts. Joshua Benton writes:

The state of podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like the state of blogging circa 2004. The variety and quality of work being done is thrilling; outside attention is growing; new formats are evolving. We’re seeing the same unlocking of creative potential we saw with blogging, and there’s far more good work being produced than anyone has time to take in.


Yes. The first time I heard anyone outside of my journalism department mentioning podcasting was last spring, when all of my college-aged friends were losing their minds over Serial, a week-by-week podcast by NPR’s Sarah Koenig dissecting one court case. I should note that conversations about journalism and new media don’t happen often with my 20-something friends who do not study communications. So when they all started talking about it, independent of any mention by me, I knew it was something big. Podcasting had struck a nerve with young Americans, who have not really found a home in traditional media and who are the apple of the eye of all media advertisers. So I waited for a flush of interest and funding in podcasts to begin. I also started thinking that maybe podcasts would be the next big thing for independent media during some of our class discussions. We often talk about how a new technology is often the driving point for an indy media renaissance.

So, I’ve been asking myself, how will this play out? How will podcasts form and grow and change? Neiman Lab commented on how podcasting may take a lot of cues from blogging and learn a lot of similar lessons. Bennet writes:

  • One part of that old blogging world was professionalized, spawning smart digital outlets like The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

  • Another, bigger part was taken over by platforms like Facebook and Twitter that promised technical ease.

  • And the incumbent outlets that blogging threatened — print newspapers and magazines — ended up stuck in the middle: not savvy enough to compete with the new digital pros, not big enough to compete with the platforms.


He then goes on to break the podcasting revolution down also by professionalism, technology and incumbents. I think one of his strongest points is about how podcasting lacks the necessary technology to make a lot of money:

Nearly all audio podcasts are MP3 files — the same format that filled up your iPod with Nelly and NSYNC back in the day. Once they’re downloaded, MP3s are opaque from a publisher’s perspective: There’s no way to tell if they’ve been played once, a hundred times, or never. Tracking individual listeners’ habits — seeing what other podcasts they listen to, which ads they skip, or which episodes they bail out of early — is impossible for a podcast producer.

If advertisers cannot target their ads, if producers cannot track their audience, then the industry needs to find some creative solutions. I would go further to say that the independent industry needs to find some even more creative solutions that work for their business models and their ethics.

Overall, this was a really great article that made me think about how indy media makers might be able to take this bull by the horns. Since most of my non-media friends have not mentioned podcasts to me since Serial ended it’s first season, I have been waiting to hear whether or not any of them will mention it again, and if so who they are listening to. So, I’ll ask you, dear reader, who are you listening to?

A renewed appreciation for my own independent media experience

This week I had the pleasure of having dinner with a handful of highly motivated and accomplished students who all have interned at progressive independent media outlets. All of us had been financially supported and professionally guided while working in those positions by the Park Center for Independent Media. Since the director of PCIM, Jeff Cohen, is also my professor for this Independent Media class, there are naturally a lot of overlapping themes between our PCIM dinner conversation this week and our on-going class discussions this semester. Even though I have interned in indy media before, taking this independent media class has definitely given me a more informed perspective and a greater appreciation for those experiences. I have also learned that the organizations I worked for are part of a long history of progressive, fearless journalism in this country. By widening my understanding of indy media I have been able to understand aspects of my internship experience that I previously had not understood fully.

After my freshman year at Ithaca, I interned in New York City four days a week. Two days a week I spent working at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a national media watch group that publishes in a variety of formats, and two days a week I spent working at The Indypendent, a radically progressive monthly newspaper and daily blog in New York City.

At FAIR I worked on the daily blog and monthly magazine, Extra!  Every day I would come into the office and read the news (literally, the dream) — I was looking for reporting that did not stand up to journalistic values or ethics. I would write about what I found and research what others were talking about on the internet. One of my first investigative pieces was actually sparked by a reader tip that I dug into deeper. Now, having taken Jeff’s class on indy media, I understand that my experience was not an anomaly but instead one of the driving forces of good independent journalism. This course has taught me that the most successful indy reporters frequently interact with (the people formerly known as) their audience. Josh Marshall and many other famous bloggers got famous because they knew how to use their readership, or should I say their community, to the best of their journalistic advantage.

At The Indypendent, I learned how a very small progressive and independent newspaper can survive off multiple revenue streams. At the time, I was already really interested in how they kept the doors open, the printing press running and one fully-salaried employee employed. The Indy relies on a mix of revenue streams — subscriptions, donations, progressive foundations and advertising. The ads were what originally struck me when I started — I didn’t think indy publications took ads, but then I read this on their website:

Reach all the progressives, lefties, radicals and other awesome people that read The Indypendent! Placing your ad in The Indypendent means low rates, a great audience, and excellent exposure. We accept advertising for events, organizations and small businesses with a commitment to social justice, activism, and making the world a better place. We keep our ad-to-print ratio low.

Now, having taken this class, I understand the nuances to this notice much better. First, the Indy only accepts advertising from mission-driven organizations whose goals align with the Indy (which is a publication with outspoken political stances and goals). Because they share their goals with their advertisers, the theory goes that the ads will not affect their content. It also means that the Indy wants to see the advertising organizations to succeed and is this willing to offer them low rates. And lastly, the publication specifies that only a few ads will be accepted each time, so as not to crowd their pages with non-journalistic content.

This independent media class also gave me a better understanding why aggregation was such an important component of the Indy blog. The blog was updated daily but the publication’s paid staff is one person and the freelancing budget is saved for print edition articles. So it was often my task as an intern to find relevant, strong content elsewhere on the internet and get permission to republish it on the Indy blog. As an intern, I understood this was important but did not fully understand why until learning about aggregation in class. We’ve discussed in class how aggregation is a good method to supplement content for a low-staffed, low-budget publication. It is also a good way to develop an online community and following, by engaging with like-minded thinkers and media producers.

I am definitely glad I had both these interning experiences and also the opportunity to understand them more deeply through this independent media course. I would suggest both, together, as a formative experience for any IC journalism student.

YouTube: An Unlikely Indy Platform

For me, YouTube seems at first glance an unlikely platform for strong independent media. After all, it is owned by Google — an American corporate giant with a shady free speech past, as we’ve discussed in class. But we’ve also talked about how the platform has given all kinds of regular people the ear of the world. Non-celebrities are even making a living off YouTube — and becoming celebrities along the way.

The value of those voices being heard comes down to who those voices belong to and why they aren’t voices we hear on mainstream media. Like we talked about in class, some YouTube stars have tried to shift over into corporate media and have failed (for example, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks). A lot of YouTube stars thrive on YouTube explicitly because their content is not something the mainstream media has embraced. YouTube offers communities that are traditionally underserved and under-represented in the MSM to have their own outlet — a main tenet for many indy media outlets throughout history.

Perhaps the strongest example of how YouTube has served an under-represented community (and has strengthened that community through its service) is the LGBTQ+ community on YouTube. LGBTQ+ issues are not typically covered in the MSM (and when they are, not always favorably) and LBGTQ+ people are not typically represented as media makers. For years the MSM have made this community feel invisible. YouTube, as a crowd-sourced and community-run platform, has given the LGBTQ+ community visibility and a platform for education.

Someone very close to me frequently reminds me of the power of the quote, “You can’t be what you don’t see.” This person never saw positive representations of queer people in mainstream media and so, a young person, she felt her identity was invalid. But after she discovered the online queer community, she began to see (and talk to and listen to and learn from) so many people like herself. The internet, she tells me, is a place where she could finally feel safe being who she is because she finally saw so many other people who were like her — all the people the MSM left out of the picture when she was a kid. This, to me, is the immense and important power of independent media.

YouTube has given a platform for many stars who increase the visibility of gay people in the United States and many stars who offer education about LGBTQ+ perspectives and experiences. Plus they interact with their audience, a key factor for successful independent media makers now-a-days. I’m grateful for the work they do. Watching these YouTubers’ channels has been a way for me to educate myself and become a better ally. 

Here are some amazing YouTubers you should check out:

Living Rosa is the vlog of wives Tara and Mandi Rosa. Their YouTube description elaborates, “This channel is a way for us to document our life together as wives as we embark on our journey to start a family. With hopes of one day being able to look back and reflect on how far we have come, how hard we worked and how much we wanted to start a family. It is also a way for us to share our stories with the lgbt community and maybe meet some friends along the way.” Get ready to cry for happiness when they tell their family they are pregnant, and to absolutely melt when you see this picture of their OH SO CUTE baby girl (born this week!).

Ashley Mardell is a YouTuber who often brings other YouTubers “together” to talk about identity — I put “together” in quotation marks because she uses the technological platform to span time zones and create an online community without physically being in the same place as the people she speaks with — very YouTube of her! Examples of her educational videos are “YouTubers come out to parents” and “The ABC’s of LGBT.” She also raises visibility with videos about her personal life such as “My Depression” and “WE’RE ENGAGED!” Her channel has had 8.5 million views!

Everyone is Gay is the YouTube channel of Kristin Russo and Dannielle Owens-Reid — the author’s of This is a Book For Parents of Gay Kids. Their organization’s website states their mission as “providing honest advice to these youth while keeping them laughing; talking to students across the country in an effort to create caring, compassionate school environments; and working with parents of LGBTQ kids to help foster an ongoing dialogue and deeper understanding.” The YouTube channel is one component of their organization and is home to silly yet serious videos where they answer phoned-in questions. Russo is now the host / co-producer of PBS Digital Studio’s First Person, where she interviews people from the queer community.

Skyler Kergil is a transgender activist, writer and musician who documented his transition from female to male on YouTube, throughout his teens and early twenties. He highlights the physical and emotion journey he’s on, while bringing family and friends on to speak with him from time to time. Also check out his website here. He’s appeared on Russo’s and Mardel’s shows as well! (A great example of how YouTube has connected people and created a community.)

As I write this list, I am also thinking about the fact that all of the YouTubers I’ve mentioned so far are white and the inclusion of diverse voices is important. Kat Blaque is an African American transgender woman who is an opinion vlogger, children’s illustrator and feminist activist. She posts feminist and racial commentary on her YouTube channel, and she also does “True Tea” sessions where she provides advice to people who have written in.

OliviaHas2Moms is the channel of interracial moms raising a little girl named Olivia. Ebony and Denise share weekly vlogs about raising their daughter. The videos span from vacation vlogs to love notes to Olivia to parenting tips, such as “Toddler Natural Hair Routine” and “Potty Training Tips.” A good quote to end this list on? In an interview with “The Next Family,” Denise talked about the impact of their channel. She said:

A lot of people did not expect that two moms or being LGBT that there’s a future with it or that you can even have a family. We get those comments like, “Oh, my God. I admire you guys because I didn’t think that this was possible.” To be able to showcase that, it’s awesome. There’s not a lot of two mom or two dad representative on the internet.

Defining a Journalist

In class this week we have been discussing the danger of the government defining who is and who is not a journalist. As a cardinal rule, governments should not get to credential the press because it is the fastest way to have a press that is uncritical of power.

Those in power would only credential journalists who will serve the governments’ best interest — which was the exact opposite of what the founders of our country have in mind when they developed the First Amendment and the Constitution. The founders would not have been in power if not thanks to a dissident and free press; somehow, however, we have come to a time again in which our politicians have gained power not through a dissident press, but a mainstream one. Now, those politicians try to narrowly define journalists in order to maintain that power.

This week we read the Common Dreams article “Senator’s Attempt to Define ‘Real Journalism’ Blasted by Journalists,” by Sarah Lazare. Lazare writes about Sen. Diane Feinstein’s attempt to define who is a journalist during a debate regarding a federal shield law. But what was more worrisome was what the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer said:

“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y). “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”

Even the sponsor for the bill — who, in theory, should be journalists’ champion — wanted the bill to be exclusionary and to particularly exclude the most dissident of information disseminators.

I started reading different opinions on the internet, including the NAA’s Five Myths about the Federal Shield Law and documentary journalists Tricia Todd’s blog for HuffPost. I also looked around on the SPJ website and found that, a month after the Common Dreams, SPJ President Paul Fletcher blogged about the definition the Senate ended up with:

The definition is really broad, as it should be. It includes college journalists, freelancers, bloggers (particularly those with traditional legacy media experience in the past 20 years), anyone working for a “news website” and just about anyone else gathering information and disseminating it for the public good. It specifically excludes terrorists and there is language that would exclude groups like WikiLeaks.

And it has a safety valve: If there is disagreement a judge can decide.

Even after our class debate, I’m still thinking a lot about the issue — mostly asking myself, is there another way? I support a federal shield law. And I wonder, can we have one without defining what it means to commit an act of journalism?  Can we define journalism while we protect it? The First Amendment is noticeably brief on the subject, simply stating “the press” when referring who to protect. Can that continue to be enough?

Brave New Films documentary follows example of historical independent journalism figures

Recently I read the Washington Post article “His Fans Greenlighted the Project,” which reports on how Robert Greenwald got his fans to fund his documentary Iraq for Sale overnight in 2006 — before he even made the movie. The Post called is “a revolutionary idea.”

It was a brilliant idea and an idea that succeeded. But was it revolutionary?

I wrote in my historical independent journalism research paper about I.F. Stone’s Weekly. In the paper, I wrote that when I.F. Stone launched his weekly independent newspaper in 1953, in the frigid political climate created by McCarthyism, Izzy was smart in gaining subscribers. He employed what he called “piggy-back launching”: using the mailing lists of the defunct radical newspapers PM, the Star and the Compass to reach the right people. Izzy wrote in his autobiographical essay:

“The existence of these highly selective mailing lists made it possible to reach what would otherwise appear to be needles in a haystack—a scattered tiny minority of liberals and radicals unafraid in McCarthy’s heyday to support, and go on the mailing lists of, a new radical publication from Washington.”

Izzy’s newspaper got off the ground in the 1950s because he recognized that he had true fans who would believe in his new project and he found a way to tap into that fandom to fund the project. I wonder what Izzy could have done with the internet or how he would have launched his paper today. The thousand true fans concept that we’ve discussed in class comes to mind.

In his essay, Izzy doesn’t explain what that first mailing was — what did he send in the mail to those previous subscribers? Was it the first issue? Or did he get them to sign on with just a teaser of what was to come? I wonder how similar his method was to that of Brave New Films. If it was so similar, then was Greenwald revolutionary or adapting the same methods to updated technology?

The documentary was also lauded for being so community-oriented — it was primarily viewed in temples, churches, union halls and school auditoriums. This too was effective — though not revolutionary. As Rodger Streitmatter wrote in his book Voices of Revolution, one of the reasons the early labor presses were so successful were that they created a sense of camaraderie — workers would read them aloud to each other in union halls or other gathering places. Both the labor press and the Brave New Films documentary had vast impact because people consumed their reporting in groups where they could debate the content and plan further action.

I don’t think these connections takes anything away from the success of Iraq for Sale. On the contrary, I think these are arguments as to why it’s such a good example of great independent journalism — Greenwald learned from indies before him and built upon society’s technological advancements to make their methods even stronger. He might not be revolutionary but he is pretty inspiring.

William Jacobson and Legal Insurrection

This week my indy media class hosted Cornell law professor William Jacobson as a guest speaker. Jacobson is the founder of the conservative political blog Legal Insurrection. Our class conversation focused on how to create a blog and grow it over the years — hopefully all without losing money. I walked away with a greater understanding of what a financial undertaking a blog really can be.

Jacobson told our class with a chuckle that, in the seven years the blog has been live, he’s never had a business plan for Legal Insurrection because he never intended to start it. He also admitted that he probably isn’t doing everything he could to optimize his funding and readership. But the fact that shocked me the most is that he makes no money personally from the blog, even though he puts in a lot of his personal time to make it happen. Instead, all profit is turned into paying more writers and more content producers, to building the blog. Jacobson may not have the business plan perfected but he does have the serious commitment to and passion for the project — one that trumps personal gain. Jacobson seems committed to doing everything he can, with the free time he has, to keep the blog alive. I wish I had asked him this during discussion: what makes him keep going?

Financially, he has a number of funding streams to keep the blog going. He detailed to my class the myriad of funding methods he utilizes: from Amazon Associates, to Google advertising, to issue-based advertising, to donations. Each of these sources bring in a trickle of money that forms a stream of funding strong enough to sustain a daily blog with two full time writers and multiple other contributors, he said.

Jacobson also told us, that beyond funding, a blog cannot survive without others driving traffic to the site. He said this has become increasingly rare, as more conservative blogs are bought by corporate giants who keep traffic within their own site and do not link to other sources. When a more famous blogger links to his site, it can drive a leap of traffic to him for days (which often means more money in advertising). But this sense of community between conservative bloggers in disappearing, he said.

When it comes to the smaller community involved in his blog specifically though, Jacobson said he feels that has remained strong. He said his site’s comment section has been successful mostly because commenters must make a Legal Insurrection account to be involved in discussion, which means most people commenting are committed community members who add meaningful content to the conversation. This point made me consider that camaraderie is just as important a commodity as capital when it comes to launching a successful blog.