Tracy Van Slyke: Fighting for Media & Democracy

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Most industries are facing difficult times right now. Media, and independent media in particular, have long faced uphill battles, but the economic emergency is pushing many state and local newspapers to fold. As the bad news continues, I wanted to speak with someone about the possible ramifications of these losses.
Tracy Van Slyke, former publisher of the progressive, independent magazine In These Times, is the program director of the The Media Consortium, a network of the country’s leading independent journalism organizations. (Full disclosure: Feministing is a member.) From their website:

“Millions of Americans are looking for honest, fair, and accurate journalism. We’re finding new ways to reach them. Our strategy has three focal points: Making Connections, Building Infrastructure, and Amplifying Our Voice.”

Here’s Tracy…

What do you think about the rise of mainstream newspapers disappearing and/or going web only? And what do you think the possible effects will be on readers, residents of these states and ultimately the country?
I’m really torn about this issue. The recent decision of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to go to web only and the closing of the Rocky Mountain News are just the beginning. Mike Simonton, a senior director at Fitch Ratings recently said, “In 2009 and 2010, all the two-newspaper markets will become one-newspaper markets, and you will start to see one-newspaper markets become no-newspaper markets.”
I strongly feel that the disappearance of local (and national) journalism is dangerous for the very foundation of democracy. The danger was noted in a recent Princeton study, which the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur summed up:
“The shutdown of a newspaper has an immediate and measurable impact on local political engagement, according to a new study by economists at Princeton University. Assessing the consequences of the closing of the Cincinnati Post at the end of 2007, the researchers found that fewer people voted in subsequent elections, fewer candidates ran in opposition to the incumbents and that, as a result, the incumbents had a better chance of being returned to office.”
And this is not just about elections. This is about covering underserved communities, providing transparency of the government, businesses, community leaders and more. This is about knowing the people that make up the community, from the everyday way they lead their lives to how they react to small and sweeping changes.
But let’s be frank. Local newspapers have been cutting their reporting on these important topics for years. The economic crisis just brought more focused attention to what has been a long-term problem. Is there any bright side to this downturn? New models are emerging. There is a renewed energy and passion to keeping critical information and news flowing. Some laid off journalists are starting their own web-only news sites. New models, such as the one created by the Center for Independent Media, are training and supporting local journalists and bloggers to work at state-wide news sites. And everyone from non-profit organizations to everyday journalists is taking up the call to action to fill in the gaps left by the newspapers. I find this exciting as the control of information and decisions about what is news, are no longer left to a small group of people. This, of course, brings up questions of finding quality information, but I think we’re going to start seeing all of this shaking itself out in the next few years.
How is the economy affecting independent press? What are some examples of outlets that have folded or are on the brink of folding because of economic hardships? And are the business models similar in any way or do the majority of independent media run on foundation money and donations?
Independent media outlets may have a small (very small) advantage as they adapt to this crisis because they’ve always had to operate in a “lean and mean,” environment, stretching their comparably smaller budgets to go as far as possible. Corporate media outlets have had tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to play with and are now shocked at their swiftly emptying pocketbooks.
But independent media outlets have been hurt and it will get worse. Layoffs and salary cuts have happened at many independent media outlets. Independent media, and especially non-profit independent media, traditionally has a different business model than corporate media. While corporate media relies on advertising revenue to make up the bulk of their income, independent media relies on foundations, small and large donors, advertising, and subscriptions (if they are print outlets.) But this does not make them any more stable than corporate media outlets. Foundations are losing their portfolios by the tens of millions and cutting, if not outright, stopping grants. Many independent media outlets rely on a few big donors to close any budget gaps — so if one or two donors disappear — the media outlet is in immediate trouble. I don’t believe any national independent media outlets have had to close their doors as of yet due to the recession, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes by the end of the year.
Through meetings and collaboratively built projects, The Media Consortium works with progressive independent media outlets across the country to strengthen a fact-based community of independent press. What do you see are the major differences between mainstream media and independent progressive media outlets?
I believe that there are some fabulous reporters that work for the mainstream media, but the very structure of mainstream/corporate media is that they are beholden to the corporations that own them — who focus more on profits and the bottom line than actual reporting. This results in cutting extremely important reporting that might not seem as “sexy” as local gossip, weather and sports. Of course, I think, these corporate owners shot themselves in the foot as their audiences look for alternative news sources for this critical information that was cut out of the newspapers.
Why I love progressive media, is that it focuses on those very stories that the mainstream media continues to miss or deliberately ignores. The progressive media is doing the investigations that mainstream media does not. They are listening to and reporting on the individuals and voices you won’t hear in the mainstream media. This quote by John Pilger, editor of the book Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism That Changed The World, sums up my feelings about the very essence of journalism and what I believe the progressive media fully embodies, “Without it, our sense of injustice would lose its vocabulary and people would not be armed with the information they need to fight it.”
What are some examples of differences in coverage the stimulus package and AIG bonuses? What are some issues the Media Consortium’s Weekly Pulse is blogging on that you think the mainstream media hasn’t been doing a particularly good job in covering?
I’m going to turn this over to two amazing Media Consortium staff, Zach Carter and Lindsay Beyerstein, who every week, round up the best of the independent media on the economy (Zach) in the Weekly Audit and healthcare (Lindsay) in the Weekly Pulse.
Says Zach, “The differences on the stimulus package coverage were pretty striking. Mainstream media covered the stimulus plan as if there was a serious debate among economic experts concerning whether or not the plan would ‘work,’ and fueled this illusion by using very few economists as sources, relying instead on politicians and pundits. Independent media not only referenced, but detailed differences between major schools of economic thought and emphasized the overwhelming consensus between them that government investments in infrastructure would boost the economy. In short, independent media treated the issue as one with a straightforward economic solution, while mainstream media portrayed it as a political contest. While mainstream publications were bogged down in shallow debates over individual items (volcano monitoring, D.C. mall refurbishing, etc.), independent media was talking about John Maynard Keynes and keeping teachers employed.
“The sheer intensity of the public outrage over the AIG bonuses has forced mainstream outlets to be less forceful than usual in their defense of the executive class, but they continue to discuss the legal situation surrounding the bonus contracts without explaining that contracts can be legally renegotiated under a host of different circumstances which apply to the AIG case. I have also seen almost no coverage of the tremendous scandal surrounding AIG’s counterparties, information which also broke last weekend. The counterparties disclosure revealed that the government has been using AIG as an under-the-table bailout conduit for Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America and several banks in France, Germany and the U.K. That story is only being written by journalists in independent media.”
Lindsay adds on healthcare, “On the whole, the established media hasn’t done a very good job covering the healthcare reform debate. There’s a failure to start at the beginning and walk the public through the most basic questions like, ‘What is single-payer health insurance? What’s the difference between the government providing insurance for everyone and the government delivering healthcare?’ The mainstream media doesn’t give as much attention to women’s health as it should. It’s not so much that the coverage is bad. The problem is that it’s ghettoized and ignored, so I try extra hard to make sure that issues like abortion, contraception and prenatal care (all covered by outlets in the progressive media) are part of the Weekly Pulse.”
What are some upcoming projects in the pipeline? And what are some examples of past projects the Media Consortium carried out to better serve and inform the public?
During the election, The Media Consortium worked with our members to produce “Live From Main Street” (LFM), a series of town halls held around the country. Each town hall focused on a key national issue through a local lens and was broadcast on multiple television, radio and satellite channels and written about in print and online outlets. LFMs became a grassroots-focused town hall tour of America, hosted GRITtv’s Laura Flanders, and facilitated by an unprecedented alliance of independent media makers and regional, grassroots activist organizations. From its conception, LFMs offered a powerful opportunity to break the elite-focused, horse-race mold of mainstream election coverage and bring the conversation back to where it belonged: with the people and issues our candidates were meant to represent.Topics ranged from civil rights, voting rights, the definition of national security according to women and more. You should check out the clips, because just because the election is over, it doesn’t mean these issues have been solved. Overall the town halls reached over 9 million people.
We have our MediaWire project that Zach, Lindsay work on, along with our immigration blogger, Nezua. Our goal with this project is to showcase the first-rate independent journalism produced by our members, bring their work to larger audiences and build the influence of their journalism. With these goals in mind, we built a series of one-stop shops organizing and offering the best in progressive, independent media. We have partnered with to organize our members content into wire ladders covering immigration, health care, economy, and stimulus plan. Every day, audiences can go check out each of these ladders, access the latest news from progressive media, vote on their favorites, and add additional stories. But we don’t stop there. We then leverage new media tools and platforms to get these stories back out to new audiences (i.e. you!). The weekly blogs round up the best stories from the progressive media and are then distributed out across the blogosphere. (They are available for free if anyone wants to put them on their organizational or personal blogs!) We also have widgets and rss feeds that anyone with a web site can place and wa la! — they have the latest headlines from progressive media on their site. And let’s not forget the twitter feeds (check out The Media Consortium site to follow on twitter) and Facebook page. The point is to get these critical stories out to targeted and new audiences that want and need this kind of information to help inform their daily lives.
Also — we have just launched the Independent Media Internship program. We are placing 12 interns at 12 independent media outlets in 2009, starting this summer. And we pay the interns a stipend! The dual purpose is to develop the talent of young dedicated journalists as well as support the core functions of our members. (If you want to know more and apply, go here! We want kick-ass ladies!)
We have a lot more going on, including deep research into “strategic game changers” for progressive media that will support their journalism in this swiftly changing media environment for the long-term success and impact, networking our members together to share information and collaborate; projects to support additional and alternative revenue generating opportunities, and oh so much more. But I won’t bore you all with that!
You are also the co-author of the blog Build the Echo. Going forward, what do you see as the must-haves of progressive media? And do you see the ultimate goal as changing the political landscape and/or/while better informing the general public?
I do the blog with my “partner-in-crime” Jessica Clark who was my colleague at In These Times magazine. When we were at ITT, we wrote a few articles and created visual maps that documented the infrastructure, gaps, and impact of the progressive media.
We’re now working on a book on the impact of the progressive media between 2004-2008 for The New Press. (We have to be done with the first draft in a couple weeks. Cross your fingers for us!) The blog is where we track a lot of stories that are informing the book, examining all sorts of news about media trends, business models, cool new tools and more. What can I say? We’re media geeks!
My thoughts are probably applicable to the entire media landscape, but I want progressive, independent media to be the leaders in this arena:
1) Allow your audiences to play. Loosen up control on your stuff and offer opportunities for your audience to get involved in story generation, creation and dissemination. Bring them into the idea generating/story planning process. Allow them to help gather resources, relevant articles, interviews and more that can be integrated into the final product! They will have much more buy-into your journalism, donating and supporting, and disseminating the media to their networks, friends and family.
2) Provide the space for your audiences to self-organize. Diving into the previous concept a little more, take a page from the Obama playbook to allow your audiences to use the media to activate themselves and their networks. Instead of just commenting on articles, provide the space/platform to allow audiences to self-organize that allow them to take action, whether it’s creating action groups, petitions, fundraising for a specific cause and more.
3) Collaborate. Coordinate. Share resources. Where you may be weak on editorial focus, distribution, audiences, partner with someone who is strong. Work together on editorial projects. Don’t be competitive and close yourself off to new partnerships that can strengthen your journalism, help it reach new audiences, and potentially bring more revenue in or save you money on the back end. You don’t have the option to be a lone ranger anymore!
There’s so much more, but I’ve gotta save it for the book!
Is there anything you would like to add? How can readers become more involved in independent progressive media?
Become the evangelist for your favorite independent media outlet. Tell your friends, families and colleagues about the stories you are reading or the videos you are watching. Explain what it means to you and what you think they can get out of it. Share stories on Facebook or twitter. Shout it from the roof tops.
Don’t be afraid to give feedback to the media outlet — good or critical. It’s important they hear from you.
Donate. If it’s $5 or $5,000, these media outlets are struggling and every little penny helps. It takes a lot of time and money to produce quality journalism, analysis and more. If you want it, help them produce it.

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