Education focus and niche marketing shine in independent startups

In my Independent Media class at Ithaca College, every student had the opportunity to pitch an independent media startup to be “funded” by the listeners in the room. Two of these pitches, to me, struck a chord with the independent media funders in the room: ABC & LGBTQ: Integrating LGBTQ+ issues into education, and Ultimate Insider: By Ultimate Players, For Ultimate Players.

These outlets stood out to me because they had solid business plans and were offering unique content—but they each had uniquely attractive qualities. I was into the mission of ABC & LGBTQ, and I was into the feasibility of Ultimate Insider.

ABC & LGBTQ integrates two of the most important institutions for facilitating social justice: Education and independent media. I was attracted to this business pitch, and I imagine many funders like the Park Foundation would be as well, because it addresses an issue like LGBTQ rights and knowledge with a top-down approach of both producing media and directly educating young people.

On the other hand, Ultimate Insider was the most solid pitch, in my opinion, because it had the most clear business plan, and the presenter showed a very clear niche-market and gap in the marketplace. Any funder would immediately see the potential of this outlet.

It's getting easier to lie: Branding vs Truth

In 2006, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) released a study showing that PBS Newshour—despite its branding as a completely “even-handed” news program, committed to including all voices—was not as fair and inclusive as it says. This study, and all of FAIR’s work, is intensely focused on holding news outlets’ words to truth, and holding their branding to facts. But time and time again, people and organizations in power, from presidents to media conglomerates, have shown that presentation—branding—is more important to much of the American public than the proven truth.

The satire news show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver spoke to this in one of their episodes during President Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton. Oliver pulled multiple examples of lies that Trump had told, cited fact-checking reports about those lies, and then showed Trump supporters’ response to those reports. What Oliver concluded is that, every time, the feeling (read: branding) that a politician is able to give their voters trumps the facts of what they're saying.

This problem is only a small subset of a larger issue: It’s getting easier and easier to lie. Radiolab, the science and storytelling podcast from WNYC Studios, proved this in their July episode “Breaking News” about new software that will make it easier and easier to fabricate people’s voices and faces.

There are a few driving forces that have caused these disparities between truth and branding, and between reality and constructed reality. One factor is that the development of the internet and technology has created a need for consumers to be more and more media literate—but our education system has not shifted to meet that need.

Now what we—as responsible media consumers, and the American public as a whole—need is not only an army of watchdogs who are dedicated to exposing powerful people’s lies. This, of course, is always something we’ll need. But what we need more, now, is a new tool, process, or set of guidelines for helping consumers analyze powerful people and organizations’ words, and see the actual truth behind them.

We need a new system for holding people and organizations accountable for their words in a way that meets the format and speed of today’s internet and media landscape.

A look at outlets from the top down, in every way

As I’m preparing to pitch my idea for an independent media organization that is both profitable and impactful to my Independent Media class at Ithaca College, I have thought about what specific aspects of an independent media organization are most important in 2017. Now, effective independent journalistic outlets can’t just be isolated or interact with their community. They can’t just be hard-hitting or engaging. And they can’t just have objective reporters or advocates.

Adam Westbrook wrote about effective journalism start ups in a 2009 blog post. He listed 17 checklist items for every startup to consider when developing their product, platform, and organizational structure. And I think that the three factors listed above—community-building, engagement, and balancing objectivity—are the most important factors for outlets creating effective journalism and stories on internet platforms. In short:

The outlets that have the most reach and impact, and more importantly, tell the fairest stories, are outlets dedicated to communicating with their reader base. This is important on a journalistic and entrepreneurial level—both of which have to be considered when launching a journalism startup.

At the same time, it’s incredibly important now for outlets to focus on the style and format of their content as much as the content itself. Outlets like The Intercept do this well—and I’ve written about this more in relation to new platforms like motion graphics.

Finally, more and more in recent months, journalists are coming forward denouncing objectivity. All serious journalists still recognize their primary responsibility to report the truth and represent all voices—however, it’s time for journalists and media consumers to move past the naive concept that journalists don’t have bias, and can approach any story without bias. Now, however, journalists can use this step to tell more effective stories by acknowledging their bias in a public way, and committing to transparency.

These are my opinions, following months of research into different independent news outlets for my Independent Media class, and following years of being invested in creating independent journalism. But I think many people equally engaged in independent media, modern journalism, and internet technologies would agree with the need for these focuses for journalism startups.

Motion graphics in independent media and modern journalism

Over the last year, I presented on Motion Graphics, Animation, and Modern Journalism at national high school journalism conventions in New York City, Seattle, and most recently, Dallas. I have been extremely grateful for these opportunities, and in preparation for my first presentation, I pulled from personal experience, original interviews, and research to concretely formulate my thoughts on how motion graphics and journalism intersect. Now, after presenting for the third time in Dallas, this November, I have put a lot of thought into how motion graphics intersects with not only journalism, but specifically with independent media.

In my presentation, I begin by laying down the basics of multimedia journalism and how technological advances like cell phones and social media have drastically changed the reporting process. In this section, I focus on a few important points:

First, these advances have made every single person into a journalist. This is an incredibly positive development, in my opinion, because of its aid to democracy, put simply; but it does present some problems. Now, journalists’ job isn’t just to report the truth—our job is also to help consumers filter through the media content created by inexperienced or unethical citizen reporters, and by creators with malicious intent.

Because of this, now journalists must focus on making their content engaging, as well as journalistically sound. This is problematic for journalism, if the focus on the content’s engagement comes at the cost of quality. But this also presents journalists with an opportunity.

These developments in technology, while sometimes giving journalists more hoops to jump through, have also pushed journalists to tell more effective stories, and to innovate in storytelling methods. This is where motion graphics comes in.

Motion graphics is the multimedia tool for today’s indy media organizations and independent journalists that want to tell effective and attractive stories flexibly. Motion graphics designers can create life and meaning out of any set of objects, or any text elements—and because of this, there is truly no limit to what stories you can tell with motion graphics, and how you can tell those stories.

I discuss these arguments more in-depth in the above video—but I strongly believe that learning motion graphics is a worthwhile investment for any young journalist, and I believe that there is untapped potential in how motion graphics can be used in the independent newsroom.

Citizens contributing to a disorganized, more reliable, journalism landscape

James Rainey’s “‘Citizen journalist’ broke Obama story,” a recap-style piece for the Los Angeles Times, tells the story of how Mayhill Fowler first covered Barack Obama’s campaign statements that small-town Americans turn to “guns, religion,” and nationalist sentiments when they experience economic frustration.

Fowler’s reporting is not the only instance of a citizen breaking a story with journalistically and “ethically sound” reporting, according to the LA Times article. Fowler did this without the backing of an established outlet, and she did it without the “professional journalist” title. But this one instance of citizen journalism is indicative of a larger shift in how the news media landscape functions as a whole.

Ever since as the creators of the internet sent the first message from computer to computer, the media landscape shifted very far from the institutionalized, strict-process industry that many media consumers viewed it to be. There had always been independent, non-conforming outlets and individual journalists—but the internet and the exponential speeding up of technological advancements and accessibility has given citizens an inside look into how news gets created, and has given them the tools to make their own content, unfiltered.

The pros of this shift: Media consumers now have immediate access to a greater, more diverse, selection of news content. The cons: This content doesn’t always come from “professional,” or journalism school-educated, journalists, and it has less proof of reliability. But the increased prominence of citizen journalism, and the addition of more multimedia tools and forms of storytelling, has done something else to the modern newsroom: It has broken down all barriers, and smashed all rules.

The way citizens approach news events when they perform “citizen journalism”—and, in the same vein, the way journalists started using tools like Twitter, and storytelling forms like motion graphics and interactive content—is a disorganized process with little structure or rules. And, unlike print journalism, there are no widely-used guidelines for how newsrooms should use this new media. In a way, citizens are learning at the same pace as the modern newsroom—and, at the same time, getting an inside look into the newsroom’s processes. This is one of the larger impacts, and most exciting impacts, of the journalism landscape’s trend towards 21st century coverage and journalism tools.

The Young Turks keep getting younger

So many of the resources and sources of content—whether that content be news media or otherwise—that today’s young people rely on could not have been possible without the internet. Its format and accessibility has given content creators a pass to make different content in different forms. But, along with a lot of freedoms, the internet has presented new questions and obstacles to content creators.

Because the internet allows for this unlimited selection of unique, different content, it forces media outlets and journalistic publications to directly appeal to their demographic in the most attractive way possible. The Young Turks, an independent and expressively liberal news outlet, is an example of a publication that could not exist without the internet for streaming.

As soon as a consumer sees their online presence, or even hears their name, they understand who The Young Turks appeal to. This outlet is for young people; and more specifically, people who do not trust the mainstream media because of the internet content and culture they’ve been exposed to.

In obtaining this demographic of viewers, this outlet followed the same path that other outlets like Vox Media, theSkimm newsletter, and many others have followed. Their content is not presented in a perfectly-wrapped, Times New Roman package; their content is quick, quirky, and in some ways, the antithesis to our decades-old newspapers and broadcast channels.

I personally think this—TYT’s punchy, energetic intros; Vox’s soundbite-length news explainers; theSkimm’s shockingly casual walkthroughs of stories—is an interesting development in journalism. And it has provided internet outlets with a new pathway to consumers.

However, these outlets are competing with the worst of the worst for space on this pathway. This same strategy is used by every organization that makes puppy videos, or recipe explainers on Facebook; and it’s the same strategy that’s used by social media groups with explicit political goals to change viewer’s perspectives.

This pathway of quirky, quick coverage is valuable—but then, the question of journalistic principles is what comes into play. These outlets need to find the balance of “attractive” journalism, and journalism that implements and proves that it’s implementing the principles, and the Code of Ethics. This balance is exactly what each news outlet needs to figure out to survive the internet.

Transparency as a filter for news media consumers

In his JohoTheBlog post “Transparency is the new objectivity,” David Weinberger accurately points out some obvious, while sometimes hidden, accusations about “objective journalism.” For most active and critical media consumers, any publication’s claim that they are completely objective is laughable. But we are only now nearing the end of news outlets using this claim as their selling point.

Weinberger introduces his argument by saying that “transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge,” and in the economics of newsrooms. Outlets used to, and sometimes still do, sell themselves on a claim of being objective—but one technological development has become a major obstacle in this business plan.

The internet has changed the media landscape in more ways than providing forums, changing advertising strategy, and spreading social media. It has made the media consumer into the media maker—and by doing so, it has completely unveiled how the sausage is made in the newsroom.

With the internet’s vast wealth of knowledge, consumers now have full first-hand experience and plenty of behind-the-scenes knowledge of what the process of making media is like. This has shattered the claim that news outlets have relied on to give them a competitive edge, and to appeal to ethos. But another claim has replaced it

Because consumers now have a wealth of knowledge about the inner workings of a newsroom, they are more likely to know when outlets are lying. Now, instead of attracting consumers by claiming objectivity, newsrooms essentially say the following to their consumers:

“We both know that our coverage will not be completely objective, and it will have some sort of slant. But, we’ll promise to tell you what we’re doing every step of the way—and because of that, you can trust us more than other outlets.”

This translates both to the journalistic process and to things like disclosing advertisers and funders—a strategy that many independent outlets implement.

I personally think that this kind of transparency is essential for newsrooms, and is not a negative development in the field of journalism.

But it does change, on a grander scale, the role of the media consumer: it makes them more active in what they’re reading, and gives them implicit agency. As Weinberger says, “Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.”

It is now the media consumers’ job to check on this transparency, and back up what they’re reading. But this is better than the other, non-transparent, alternative. And on the journalist's side, this is a blessing, and a pathway to a more reliable news media landscape—but journalists must overcome this default-state of having bias by proving to their readers that they have the drive and sense of ethics to ask all of the sides of the story for their input.

Keeping a balanced diet in media consumption

Last month, William Jacobson, a Cornell professor and the founder of political blog Legal Insurrection, was met with intense opposition by students and faculty who were convinced that he was a safety threat to the Vassar College campus. He was confounded by this response—as he wrote in his blog

Tomorrow evening, on Ithaca College’s campus, nationally-known second amendment activist Larry Pratt will be giving a speech entitled “Firearms are a human right.” He argues that, to prevent mass shootings like the one just earlier this week that left 26 dead, we need to equip students and everyday citizens with guns to protect themselves.

It’s not hard to imagine a group of students showing up to this event tomorrow with preconceived notions of who Larry Pratt is, with a close-minded goal of attacking the person rather than the ideas. In order to avoid situations like this, and like the one at Vassar, our education system and other institutions should dedicate more of their time to teaching media consumption.

Throughout history—and especially in today’s media landscape—it’s important to critically analyze the television shows, news content, movies, and other media we are consuming. To really understand media messages, consumers have to think about what the message is and the full context behind that message. Using a prescribed structure or system to this analysis is important to be able to fully analyze a piece of media, and to compare that analysis with the details of other media.

In my opinion, watching television media is like keeping a balanced diet—and watching one television show is like going through one healthy day. There are three components to this: planning meals; tracking progress; and adjusting diet over time..

Each of these components, while significant to anyone trying to keep a balanced diet, is also symbolic for anyone consuming television media. The overall goal with a balanced diet is to become a physically healthier person over time—but the goal with consuming television is to become a mentally healthier person over time. I personally think that “mental healthiness” in media consumption translates to a full understanding and, secondarily, an enjoyment of the content—and consumers can achieve that by using these three steps.

While a person on a diet starts by planning their meals for the day, a critical media consumer must go into any media intake with an active knowledge of their past media intake, and a plan for what they want out of the media. Just as someone might want a certain number of calories, and a couple grams of fiber, a media consumer should want to learn more about a certain subject, or figure out why the media creator focused on the specific arguments made.

After eating their meal, this hypothetical healthy person would want to track their progress in some way. This also translates directly to media consumption: After consuming your calories you want to add them to the total, and evaluate your next meal; and after consuming your media messages, you have to think about what those messages mean, and how they impact your world view.

Finally, this directly leads to the most important step to these consumers, and to everyday life. With the knowledge we take in, we have to critically think about that knowledge means, and how we should proceed going forward. This is the process of adaptability: It’s the only way we can become physically and mentally healthier over time. And it’s the only way we, throughout life, can learn new skills and perspectives, and improve as people.

Trust and transparency in nonprofit journalism

In his Slate article “Nonprofit Journalism Comes at a Cost,” Jack Shafer lays out the dichotomy of entrepreneurship in journalism: specifically, between advertiser-funded and reader-funded news outlets.

Shafer argues that each, while obviously bringing different obstacles for the journalists, these business models for news outlets present their own implications on the content being produced. He mentions the common arguments against advertiser-funded and corporate-owned news—that these ties with funders and corporations limit what the journalists are allowed to cover and criticize—but he also warned that nonprofit journalism presents similarly worrisome caveats.

In my opinion, nonprofit journalism is the perfect solution to the issues presented by advertiser-fueled journalism, as long as it’s done right. The difference between corporate news outlets and nonprofit, reader-fueled journalism is that the latter promises transparency, and discloses more information from behind the scenes than corporate, traditional outlets disclose.

Additionally, nonprofit outlets accept smaller donations from their reader base rather than large sums of money from corporations. This does two things: It establishes a direct connection between the outlets and their reader base, and more importantly, it avoids journalists feeling explicit or implicit pressure from their funders.

In my opinion, Shafer’s article didn’t successfully compare corporate and nonprofit media outlets as two equal evils, as it set out to do. He claims that nonprofit journalism leads to foundations and philanthropists donating money solely to send journalists out to fight their battles. But, as countless outlets have shown, this isn’t an issue, especially in comparison with their corporate, advertiser-funded counterparts.

Dave Zirin highlights unique and under-covered sports issues

Two weeks ago, independent journalist Dave Zirin visited Ithaca College to speak on the intersection of sports and politics. He’s known for a few things—most prominently, he’s the first sports editor for The Nation, an independent magazine known for investigative coverage of political issues at the national level.

Zirin made the case for his job to be created, and for him to fill it. After his speech, and from the Q&A session preceding it, Ithaca College students and faculty understood why the successful independent magazine made room for Zirin. To his work, he brings a wealth of knowledge of both politics and sports, a well-defined voice, and unique, critical opinions about the impact of sports on society.

In his speech, which was much more structured than the Q&A session, Zirin began by detailing how sports has always impacted politics and culture. An obvious example is Muhammad Ali’s career as both an athlete and a civil rights activist.

Zirin’s event was perfectly timed, as he noted in his Q&A, with it following the pushback from NFL fans and football players against Donald Trump’s comments on standing for the national anthem. Zirin discussed this moment in history from a political and a sports angle—and he did so while providing unique historical context.

One interesting point from Zirin’s Q&A before the event was that people are becoming more and more resentful of the people—the athletes—that they cheer for. He gave two main reasons for this: The percentage of white players is decreasing while the percentage of white viewers is growing; and viewers are identifying closer with management than they are with the players, due to things like fantasy football.

Personally, I walked away with a greater understanding of why sports are important. I have always struggled to find an interest in sports, but the two events with Zirin taught me how closely sports affects society, and how intricately sports is woven into people’s lives from an early age.

The intersection of independent media and health equity in Louisville

Out of the 50 biggest cities in the US, Louisville, Kentucky comes in last for overall health and fitness. I grew up in Louisville, and this ranking—which Louisville receives every year—always surprised me. I spent the last four months delving into this issue for Insider Louisville, an independent local news website, and released my coverage in a four part documentary.

In "A Picture of Bad Health," I examined the history of Louisville's problems with health, looked at what city government and community organizations are doing to address these issues, and discussed the underlying issues of inequity that have led to drastic problems with health in specific communities. You can see this third focus in A Picture of Bad Health: Part 3.

Working on this project taught me a lot about covering issues involving policy, government transparency, and inequity in small cities like Louisville. But it also taught me a lot about how change happens in these kind of cities. My final conclusion after completing the project: The ideal process of change is governments having open, transparent conversations with community organizations. But that won't happen.

Change comes from community organizations—and, more importantly, independent media—putting pressure on government to have these conversations. Change also comes from citizens supporting these entities that put pressure on the government.

My goal with the "A Picture of Bad" series was to give viewers an in-depth overview of Louisville's health problem and issues of inequity. My secondary goal was to equip them with the knowledge and context to help make a change. But finishing this project, I know the story isn't done, and I know that many of these lessons carry over throughout all of the country and the world.

Structure and constructive learning in "All Governments Lie"

Last Wednesday, I re-watched a documentary that first opened my eyes to the importance of independent media, and that put words to my skepticism of corporate media. “All Governments Lie,” a 90 minute documentary directed by Fred Peabody, is a detailed account of two things: the nature and implicit process of government corruption, and the field of independent media. The producers of the documentary, including Jeff Cohen and Peter Raymont, discuss the relationship of corporate media, independent media, and government by detailing the life of I.F. “Izzy” Stone, and by visiting modern indy outlets like Democracy Now!, The Intercept, and The  Young Turks.

I saw “All Governments Lie” twice—first, as a college freshman with little exposure to the concept of independent media, and second, as a sophomore with experience at two professional independent media outlets. Both times, I walked out of the Park Auditorium with a huge amount of information and inspiration.

This is the aspect of this movie that is the most impressive and the most effective, in my opinion: The producers of the documentary explain concepts like independent media, government secrecy, and advertiser-control of corporate media in a way that is equally accessible to people with no prior knowledge and to experts. This trait, in my opinion, has helped “All Governments Lie” reach their large audience and create a big wave in the documentary field.

One other strong suit of this movie is its pace and structure. This movie moves quickly, and consistently weaves information from different sources and locations. This not only keeps the audience engaged and entertained—but it forces them to construct their own understanding of the subject as they are watching, and makes the information even more retainable. The structure and flow of “All Governments Lie” uses the strengths of the current journalistic tools used by the independent journalists featured in the documentary.

Citizens hold government accountable not only through protesting, but through new media

The 24 years that Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was President of Tunisia brought immense oppression of the Tunisian people, undeniable corruption, and complete horizontal and vertical control over Tunisian industries and society. As Maha Azzam said in their CNN Opinion piece, “How WikiLeaks helped fuel Tunisian revolution,” “Anyone doing business in Tunisia, be they local or foreigner, would have been aware of the power and control of the Ben Alis, the Trabelsis and the coteries of power that surrounded them.” This corrupt rule led to an unemployment rate of 30%.

This authoritarianism is quantifiable through Ben Ali’s actions and policy—but it is also quantifiable through the lengths Tunisian citizens went to protest his rule.

In December of 2010, Muhammad Al Bouazizi—a fruit seller, determined to earn money to support his family—set himself on fire in front of a main government building in Tunisia. This, as journalists, human rights activists, and others have inferred, was his response to a police officer who took Al Bouazizi’s goods, claiming that the fruit seller did not have a permit. This drove Al Bouazizi to utter desperation, in a society where the government made no response to the citizens’ issues and needs.

This method of protesting was eye-catching, and for that reason, it was effective. But it was exponentially enhanced by internet and social media, which spread the visuals and the message throughout Tunisia and across the world. The ritual of lighting yourself on fire in front of a governing body sends a few direct messages: that the government is the direct cause of the protester’s anguish, and that the oppression the government has caused the protester is so drastic that dying from burning is a viable way out.

The protests in Tunisia and the subsequent similar protests in Egypt and Algeria speak volumes on the power of social media and citizen journalism—but even more so, the protests show the importance and driving force of independent media.

A defining characteristic of authoritarian regimes is their grasp on every balancing force of power, especially media. But the message this sends to journalists and citizens within those regimes is powerful: In time, it shows them that their voices are being pushed out of the mainstream, and it forces them to find a way of sharing their own voice. The members of the “Yo Soy 132” movement in Mexico used this powerful tool by streaming a fair debate over the internet in a time of extreme political control over the media. The rapid growth and spreading of these tools—social media, the internet, and all of the subsections offered by the web—have given journalists a new way to hold government accountable, and a way for citizens to join in and drive the conversation.

The impact of Project Look Sharp on education and service

During the winter break of my freshman year I reached out to the Project Look Sharp team, and I asked if there was any media or research work that I could do for them. All I knew was that I was interested in media production, and I was interested in education—but their internship application was only open to sophomores and upperclassmen. I took a shot in the dark, and emailed them.

Eight months later, I meet regularly with Chris Sperry, a founding member—I’ve been included in discussions about the future of Project Look Sharp’s services—and I’m working with the team on creating their new home page video. I’ve been extremely grateful for their welcoming attitude, and I’m extremely lucky that an organization that fits my skillset and my long-term service goals as a Park Scholar, is rooted at Ithaca College.

The term “media literacy” is thrown around a lot today—in the news, in research, and in today’s Park School classrooms. And there’s a reason for this: It applies to everyone in the world, at all levels of education. For Park students— the next generation of media creators and leaders—it’s essential that we fully understand the power that media messages have, and how to harness that power for good, and for truth. This lies in media literacy—but at the same time, it’s essential that young children, as early as kindergarten, begin to understand that the TV shows, and commercials, and social media content they see were put there by real people to influence their opinions.

Media literacy is a broad, and very applicable topic in education. Teachers know that it’s important, but it can seem hard to tackle. What Project Look Sharp has done is taken the core principles and goals of media literacy, and incorporated it seamlessly into the traditional educational process. They don’t advocate for weekly lessons on media literacy—they advocate for teaching about the American revolution, or climate change, or nutrition—by having the students from kindergarten through college analyze text and the media examples, and explain what they—themselves—are taking away from these materials. This does a few things: Through helping a student reflect on their own thinking, it allows the student to construct their own learning of a subject, and thus retain it better; It enforces at a young age the idea that media constructs what we know as true; and it equips the students to be able to deconstruct media messages they see in their everyday lives.

This kind of approach to education is more important now than ever. At the risk of echoing every educator and news program over the past few months, this country is at an unprecedented standoff over what is true. Project Look Sharp advocates for an approach to education that helps young students understand that the media has a huge impact on what we think what is true—that all media messages are created by people, with specific goals and specific strategies to attain those goals—and that they, the students, are responsible for the media messages they create.

Project Look Sharp understands that young people no longer experience the world through just conversations and books, but through the internet and new media—and thus, this is the transition our education system needs to make. In the Park Scholar Program, my broad goals are to impact the communities I am involved in through education, and through journalism. While working with students at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center during Media Club last year I used the project’s strategies for education, and I am working with Chris Sperry to increase collaboration between Media Club and Project Look Sharp.

Project Look Sharp has given me new perspectives on all of my goals in the Park Scholar Program -- and it has had a profound impact on the education world, and on young people’s lives.