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What’s the future of journalism? Tracy Van Slyke knows

The future of journalism: it’s the subject of books, panel discussions, and countless blog posts and news articles, most of which revolve around the ways we can fund media after the shift to the Web. Tracy Van Slyke is the former publisher of In These Times magazine, and is the project director at The Media Consortium, where she works to connect and strengthen progressive voices in the new media age. Van Slyke co-authored, with Jessica Clark of American University’s Center for Social Media, the book Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media, where they examine how the age of the Web has opened up opportunities for media makers to not only continue to produce quality journalism, but expand their reach and impact to effect political change.

She took some time to talk to Sarah Jaffe about the progressive media in the age of Obama, media’s role in social justice efforts, and the changes she still hopes to see.

Sarah Jaffe: I guess we can’t start a discussion of the progressive media without talking about the end of Air America this week.

Tracy Van Slyke: Air America was its own unique model in a lot of ways. Investors put a lot of money in a model that takes many many years to work, and they were looking for a very quick return on their investment, which is not the way the media works in general, and especially not for-profit media. Then each time ownership switches hands everybody’s got a brand new idea of what’s going to happen. Starting from the beginning again, there’s no way to create momentum.

It did launch a lot of progressive media darlings, from Laura Flanders to Rachel Maddow to Al Franken becoming a member of the Senate. There’s pros and cons to Air America’s story.

SJ: Doing old-school radio doesn’t really fit into the kind of new media model—they were getting there with the new website, but…

TVS: The traditional way of radio communicating is still vitally important. The right still dominates the media landscape. I don’t think we figured out how to do radio for the left the way they figured out how to do media for the right. Mimicking the Rush Limbaughs of the world and just making a left version of that certainly doesn’t appeal to me. I think that was an issue, although I think they tried to move away from that over time.

Progressives have really demonstrated how to operate online, but incorporating that into a one-way communications model is interesting.

things have changed...
things have changed

SJ: Money and funding are less of the subject of your book, but definitely a huge part of the problem.

TVS: That’s a whole other book, and you’re not going to come up with an answer in a book about business models. It’s really about the experimenting and the learning and the evolution.

A lot of the organizations that we feature do have successful business models, but it isn’t what we write about. We write about their media production in this new networked media environment, why that’s successful and why does that matter?

SJ: There are some innovative ways these companies have figured out how to make money, but in a lot of them it still comes down to advertising and a lot of free labor.

TVS: There’s a mix, some advertising, a lot of free labor, foundations or individual donors with large pocketbooks. We do see some instances, like with TalkingPointsMemo, who did sort of a deliberate callout for fundraising for a specific thing that Josh wanted to do. Which is somewhat different than what other organizations do.

I think that’s something we’re going to be seeing with some different spaces, like Spot.us. Recently Page Williams did this article that no one would pick up, although she was an incredibly well-known reporter, so she self-published it and asked for support afterwards. I think we’re going to see that sort of crowdsourced fundraising being replicated on a more institutional-infrastructure level.

SJ: It seems to work with TPM because crowdsourcing is such a part of their journalism.

TVS: What they’ve done is they’ve built up a community who is very invested not just in accessing the journalism, but being part of the reporting team, and very interested in accessing the opinions of the top dog at TPM, Josh. They’ve created this really great recipe to communicate with their audiences and interact with them, so it’s much more natural to go to that audience and ask for money. Although they only do that on very rare occurrences.

The audience and users see them as people that they can actually interact with, not just people behind a wall. Not every journalism organization is going to do that. You have to ask: what is the best way to interact with your users?

SJ: You say, “Address readers as members of communities.” I know you come from an organizing background as well as media, can you talk about how that drove you to found the Media Consortium?

TVS: I’ve always been fascinated with how journalism and media can impact the world. The organizing, actually providing the tools for people to organize and take action themselves, has been the other side of me. I think a couple of years ago, people would freak out if you put that in the context of journalism, but with the changing landscape and technology and online environment, the two not only naturally fit together, but it’s imperative for media organizations to figure out how to interact, how to embolden their audience in different ways, for a couple of reasons.

Journalism organizations, particularly progressive media organizations, always struggle to define what their impact is. They’re always pushed aside as just preaching to the choir, but the right’s been doing that for 30 years and they’re pretty powerful. Even preaching to the choir, giving them the tools to go out and fight their own fight is incredibly important.

And by the way, there’s a lot of disagreement among the progressive left—they’re not one homogenous group.

When Jessica and I started this work 6 years ago, it was really to understand: how does this system work and how do we understand what impact it has? A lot of funders, investors and even audience members didn’t realize the importance and the impact that it has on our landscape.

Combining those two elements, the need to show impact and to support the organizations that make that happen is like a melding of my two worlds.

And literally, on a future-of-media level, journalism organizations have to figure out how to do this. Amy Gahran says that media has programmed the audience to be passive receivers, which is not their natural element. Journalism and progressive media organizations have to find that combination of being comfortable producing media but also moving their users, engaging their users in ways that can impact the larger political landscape.

Visit beyondtheecho.net for more info
Visit beyondtheecho.net for more info

SJ: You mention Indymedia briefly, which came out of very specific organizing, but doesn’t really get acknowledged in the blogosphere. We get this strange self-congratulatory note among the mostly-white middle-class educated male punditocracy there sometimes. You quote Rosen talking about the culture of those who like leading the legacy media, but there’s plenty of that in the blogosphere as well.

TVS: I think the models that many of them have created are fantastic. I think there’s a blindness when you get to a certain point. A lot of people say that the Internet is open so everyone has access, but if you already have power, it’s that much easier for you to decide who else has power, and who doesn’t, and what’s important and what’s not.

In the “Beyond Pale, Male and Stale” chapter, we do talk about the opening up of gender diversity and communities of color, and I think that crosses a lot of different areas of the media system.

In the book, we did focus on specific examples that you could follow over time, of media organizations that had a broad impact on certain political moments. That does not dismiss in any way the importance of the Indymedia movement and the role they have played and the role they still play for many, many people.

While we’re lauding a lot of these organizations we do point out a critique of what we’re still missing. And some people aren’t going to like that. They’re like “I do my thing, you go do your thing.” And it’s harder than it sounds. We’re going to have to figure out how to force those people at the top to either reexamine how they do work or how they broker partnerships, or we’re going to have to really invest in these communities developing enough power so they can rival the others.

SJ: You talk about fighting the right as a strategy, but occasionally it seems like too many media outlets are focused on fighting the right and not on putting forward alternate narratives and ideas.

TVS: It’s one strategy of a multipronged strategy. What we point out about fighting the right is it’s not just about being reactive, it’s about being proactive, putting out strategies. To me that’s one major difference from the sort of reactive fighting-the-right mode we’ve been in for years.

The right still does dominate, we have to recognize that. If we back off, they’re just going to swallow even more. At the same time, that shouldn’t be the role for every progressive organization. Once again, it’s about what is the message of that organization, where do they fit in the overall progressive media landscape, what impact do they want to have?

From GRITtv to Mother Jones to the Nation, everyone’s doing it, but how much do you want to make it of your strategy, how in-your-face and transparent are you going to be about it, and what’s going to happen because of that?

SJ: Cohesiveness was easy when we had Bush to hate. These days we’re fighting each other as often as anything else and it gets very nasty. I rather worry that we’re using the same strategies we honed on the right.

TVS: We’ve gotten too good for our own good. It’s difficult to watch in one sense because over 2004 to 2008, the relationships that were built felt really profound. The actual personal relationships that were built were really fundamental to all this work happening. I’m not in all the conversations and fights and all the different fractiousness, but unfortunately the learning curve when you’re back in sort of “power”–it’s not a fight over one monolithic enemy, it’s a fight over legislation and policy.

I’m hoping that the relationships that were built were cemented enough that the fractiousness and fighting can go back to actually having conversations with each other. And that’s not to say that everyone needs to be on the same message, or they need to do the same thing, but we don’t want the verbal flamethrowing.

SJ: Rick Rowley said on GRITtv that the success of left movements comes from “one no and many yeses” but it seems at times like the many-yeses part gets forgotten.

TVS: We were united a few years ago, and in every one-big-no movement there’s all sorts of little disagreements. I’m sure on the right now there’s all sorts of little disagreements, but we feel like we’re fracturing. It’s really important to think about what do we want as a landscape, as a movement, as media production. How do we get there?

SJ: Before this got to be so messy, health care organizing was led for a while by FDL and HCAN.

TVS: What FDL did was they moved from just preaching to the choir to assembling the choir, where the transparency and relationship they had with their users, the trusted opinion and reporting, really allowed them to take the step of saying, “Let’s take this action collectively.”

And it had profound effects on different elections, on different media moments. How we can start replicating that and going back to that is really important on a larger structural level.

Some things are going to shake out and be OK in six months, and some things are going to fracture. But once again, media organizations individually, collectively need to start thinking about the overall long-term success both of the progressive media and democracy itself.

SJ: Obama’s response to the netroots for a while seemed disdainful, but do you see the return of Plouffe and the quick response to Citizens United as hopeful signs?

TVS: It was interesting, wasn’t it? I think he was probably going to come back for the 2010 election cycle anyway. From the debate over OFA to how the White House has engaged with the netroots, there was sort of a strategic recognition that they’ve lost control of driving the message, not just a moment-to-moment level but for the long term, and they needed that.

SJ: How do you see this model expanding to global media organizing? How can we network not just within the US but around the world?

TVS: In many ways I think the world is doing it better than we are sometimes. In developing countries in Africa, everyday people are using their mobile phones to report on what’s happening and it’s being housed and coming back to them—we’re not doing that here. But that’s also because in many of those places they don’t have an established media system, and as many stones as we can throw at our mainstream media system, it exists.

I think there’s a lot of lessons that we can take from around the world in terms of engaging citizens in the process and what that can do for news production and dissemination of information.

I hope we can learn from humor from other countries as well. Sometimes we seem very serious with our politics. I think we need to not lighten it up, but create media that doesn’t just appeal to our political senses, but to our other senses. That’s how you’re going to start engaging other communities in the information and the news that is really important for their lives.