Alternative journalism is a fluid concept, often casually attributed to a wide array of media practices unified only by being different from the journalism in so-called mainstream media. Such a “definition” can encompass everything from local entertainment weeklies thick with advertising to the clandestine media of revolutionary movements. Recent scholarship has moved beyond this approach to focus on practices that challenge the communicator/audience divide typical of mainstream media, including the range of voices presented, the privileging of marginalized and excluded news sources over traditional elites, a conscious identification with the audience being served, and a conception of journalism that promotes social action.
Although the term is of relatively recent origin, commonly dated to the underground press of the 1960s, alternative journalism has been around as long as journalism itself. Dissidents have contested the terrain of mass communications since the beginnings of recorded history, from the underground printing presses used in eighteenth-century France to the anonymizers and remote hosting sites bloggers use today to evade local censors. Throughout the nineteenth century, Chartists and socialists made newspapers a central part of their efforts to build an oppositional working-class culture and campaign for their demands. In the twentieth century, Soviet Bloc dissidents circulated their ideas through Samizdat, underground writings reproduced by hand or with carbon paper. Despite an impressive apparatus of state terror, the Shah’s regime was toppled in Iran by dissidents who communicated their message through clandestine tape recordings and religious sermons. Pirate radio has been used around the world by guerrilla movements but also by community groups and unions looking for a means to give voice to their concerns. The photocopier facilitated an explosion of personal and highly specialized micro-media, often produced by people trying to create an alternative public space for community building and action. And today myriad alternative voices claim space on an Internet increasingly dominated by commercial enterprises.
Alternative Public Sphere
Alternative journalism, then, embraces advocacy and oppositional practices over objectivity, and does not so much serve its audience as constitute a process of cultural empowerment, creating and maintaining an alternative public sphere which enables diverse publics to speak in their own voice.
Alternative journalists have always challenged the professionalization that increasingly characterizes the mass media. The labor and socialist press of the early twentieth century combined staff reports with articles written by readers, often describing their own working conditions and local struggles. These newspapers were often published by cooperative associations that raised the necessary funds, elected editors and oversight boards, and convened regular public meetings at which editors reported to their readers, heard their concerns, and sought a mandate to continue. Labor newsreels and photo clubs in the 1920s and 1930s similarly gave voice to rank-and-file workers, not simply documenting their struggles but engaging those workers in communication as part of a broader emancipatory project that sought to transform participants and audiences alike. Community radio continued and expanded upon this tradition as early as the 1950s. More recently, groups such as the Independent Media Centers and South Korea’s Media Act have revived the tradition of training media activists.
Because of this close connection to the grassroots, alternative journalists have been able to break news stories or offer perspectives unavailable to established media, a phenomenon documented for the United States each year by Project Censored. Few who followed alternative journalists’ reports would have shared the otherwise seemingly universal astonishment at the US–British failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in postinvasion Iraq. Alternative journalists forced the horrors of slavery and child labor onto the national agenda, exposed war crimes in Chechnya and Vietnam, published the first accounts of the AIDS epidemic, and gave voice to victims of police brutality and political repression around the world.
From Underground To Alternative
Alternative journalists work in a wide variety of media, including newspapers and magazines published on behalf of youths, immigrants, minorities, social movements, and cultural and political outsiders. But the boundaries of alternative journalism can be remarkably permeable. In the United States, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies is a trade association of newspapers, many with roots in the underground press, that combine advocacy journalism (some quite aggressively, others only occasionally) with events listings and cultural coverage.
Pacific News Service (PNS) followed a different trajectory. Founded during the Vietnam war, PNS expanded its coverage in the 1970s to include alternative perspectives on Africa and Latin America, and reports on US issues told from what the editors described as a “chicken’s eye view,” or news from the bottom-up. More recently, it transformed itself into New America Media, syndicating (and translating as necessary) news and commentary from a wide variety of ethnic newspapers, and also sponsoring media for youth including YO! Youth Outlook, a website for homeless youth, and DeBug, a bilingual magazine for young workers in California’s Silicon Valley.
The Independent Press Association (IPA), founded as an alliance of left-leaning magazines, followed a similar trajectory. Its New York City office brings together ethnic and community newspapers in a regional association that promotes their stories to a broader public while offering an advertising co-op and other assistance to its member papers. When the national IPA collapsed, dragged down by the bankruptcy of its magazine distributor (killing several alternative magazines in the process), the New York office survived, perhaps because of its stronger local base.
Around the world, the periodical remains one of the most common venues for alternative journalism, including daily newspapers such as Germany’s die tageszeitung, founded in 1978 as a cooperatively owned daily closely aligned with alternative social movements. With more than 5,000 readers having paid in to the publishing cooperative, die tageszeitung harks back to an earlier tradition of workers’ publishing societies which played a key role in sustaining oppositional journalism in the face of a hostile political economy. More commonly, alternative dailies today serve immigrant communities alienated from mainstream media by linguistic or cultural barriers. A wide array of less frequent publications serve other disenfranchised publics, from Venezuela’s El Libertario to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’ the Worker.
Organizing An Audience
In a world where the channels of communication (broadcast outlets, satellite frequencies, or shelf space on newsstands) are increasingly controlled by transnational corporations and sold to the highest bidder, alternative journalists often struggle to reach an audience.
Alternative film and video makers have historically had to organize their own audiences. In the 1930s, the Film and Photo League exhibited its newsreels and films in mutual aid society and union halls. In 1968, the Argentine documentary and film manifesto Hora de los hornos was shown clandestinely, in private homes and other venues (with breaks built in for discussion during each four-hour showing). Today, independent documentarian Robert Greenwald largely relies upon house showings and online DVD sales to distribute his films on Fox News, the Iraq war, and Wal-Mart.
Perhaps the most prolific medium for alternative journalism is now the Internet, which has enabled many to publish their information cheaply and quickly, circumventing economic and other material constraints. Best known is Indymedia, initially founded in 1999 to facilitate coverage of the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle and which quickly grew to nearly 200 independent media centers operating in more than 50 countries on six continents. Indymedia centers make their facilities available to anyone wishing to practice journalism, reserving the right to remove material that violates their standards. The result is an eclectic combination of audio and video files, photographs, running reports, announcements, polished articles and commentary, some produced to professional standards and much of it more akin to raw notes.
Indymedia centers have also supported other alternative media. During the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, for example, Amy Goodman’s nationally syndicated radio program, Democracy Now, was produced from an independent media center, which also published a free daily newspaper offering accounts of events in the streets to supplement the photographs and reports posted online and bring them to a wider audience.
Many alternative newspaper, radio, and television outlets also rely on the Internet to make their content available. Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News is syndicated over the Internet and relies on the web to collect reports and organize its broadcasts. Costa Rica-based Radio Internacional Feminista broadcasts bilingual programming over the Internet, which is often subsequently rebroadcast over conventional radio stations. In Minnesota, the Workers Independent News Service’s daily newscast uses the Internet for direct access to listeners and to distribute the program to radio stations. The international trade union site LabourStart, based in London, in turn compiles WINS and other feeds for its international online audio service. In Argentina, alternative videographers have turned to the Internet for their Ágora TV, continuing the legacy of Utopia TV, closed in 1997 after five years of illegal broadcasts and relentless police persecution.
Crashing The Marketplace Of Ideas
Probably the most common venue for alternative video journalism today remains public access television. Cable systems in Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Finland, Guatemala, Norway, Uruguay, and the United States generally make time available to any citizen. In the Netherlands, organizations can secure regular broadcast time in proportion to their membership. Corporate-controlled outlets have also been harnessed to the cause. During the 2006 Houston, Texas, janitors’ strike, union members posted videos documenting their struggle to YouTube. Palestinian media activists have made similar use of the venue, although such journalism constitutes only a small fraction of the site’s offerings.
Alternative journalism achieves a broad reach through radio, with thousands of member stations in the Association Mondiale Des Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires (AMARC). There have been attempts to launch broadcast community television outlets as well. Italy has seen several low-power pirate stations in a loose Telestreet movement. In the summer of 2001, for example, Disco Volante Street TV produced short broadcasts addressing neighborhood concerns ranging from the conditions of undocumented immigrants to architectural barriers hampering the movement of the disabled, before the Ministry of Communication shut it down.
Today alternative journalists work in every medium, ranging from clandestinely circulated news bulletins to the Free Speech television network, carried on the Dish Network satellite service (and also distributing programming to many cable outlets). In South Korea, Labor News Productions has produced more than 100 videos since 1989 and trained hundreds of media activists. For distribution, they organize showings in union halls and other venues, play videos at factory gates at shift changes, broadcast over public access facilities on the country’s RTV satellite, and air labor programming over Hyundai Motors’ in-house cable system, a right enshrined in the union contract. Korean labor videographers work closely with other media activists in the country, but also participate in a growing international movement that in 2006 saw international labor media conferences in South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. The Indymedia movement is similarly international, even though limited access to the Internet hampers its growth in much of the world.
Although the so-called marketplace of ideas remains relentlessly inhospitable to alternative journalism, media activists are seizing on new technologies and underserved audiences in their continuing quest to forge a new kind of media practice.
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