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.