From the Pages of

Z magazine


Michael Albert


For four days this March, The Institute for Alternative Journalism hosted a Media and Democracy Congress in San Francisco. Hundreds of progressive media people attended, including representatives from periodicals, newspapers, newsletters, radio stations, watchdog groups, video projects, production companies, and telecommunications projects, plus independent media workers, writers, journalists, producers, cartoonists, photographers, and so on. It was a unique turnout with an impressive agenda, including:

  • Help alternative media meet, talk together, and develop better ties
  • Share lessons to help those present improve their own projects
  • Begin collaborations to make the world of independent and alternative media greater than the sum of its many parts

The Congress was immediately successful regarding point (1). There was plenty of time to meet and talk with people. Point (2) depends on the ingenuity and energy participants at applying lessons learned to their own efforts around the country. Point (3) requires serious organizational follow-up, but also offers the greatest promise.

"Consumers" of progressive media often ask its producers, why not get under one roof? Why not share and cooperate? Why duplicate effort?

Of course, this sentiment can be taken too far. Magazines have different readerships, resources, agendas, and political aims. Ditto for other media projects. Also, there is no single correct answer on how to do things. There needs to be diverse projects and approaches, and many efforts rather than few.

What is not good, however, is that each of these diverse efforts sees the others as unconnected, or, even worse, as competitors for resources, consumers, and content. Somehow, those committed to speaking truth to power must all benefit from each other’s efforts. This was the impetus of many people at the conference, and is the promise of point (3). Indeed, an explicit instruction of the conference was that participants should go home, distill what they’d heard, and make suggestions for forthcoming collaborations. We decided to fulfill our "assignment" in public, to air the views and enlist new voices in the exchange.


As a vehicle for alternative media collaborations, we suggest creating a Federation of Alternative Media Activists and Supporters (FAMAS). We hope others will assess, refine, alter, amend, extend, and generally improve the suggestions offered here for program and structure.

FAMAS might include, we believe, producing organizations (such as publishers, radio and recording production projects, film companies, watch dog groups, media institutes), distributing organizations (such as alternative book stores, speaker’s bureaus, radio stations, activist organizations and conferences, etc.), producing individuals (such as writers, film producers, cartoonists, reporters, researchers, web spinners, public speakers, photographers, rock performers, folk artists, comedians, etc.), and also progressive and alternative media "consumers" (such as readers, listeners, viewers).

Membership would presumably be based on support for the Federation’s aims and on agreement to fulfill relevant responsibilities.

The Federation could have a decision making board composed of representatives from a rotating, sample of member organizations and communities. Policy could be proposed by this board or by members, voted on by the board and then the membership, and implemented by paid staff. In ballots of the membership, institutional and individual members might each vote only on the policies that directly affect them. Campaigns and projects could be implemented by the FAMAS staff, with assistance from the board. Electronic media could be used to tie all members into an online community for discussion, debate, agenda development, polling, and information exchange, with assistance to all member organizations in setting up, linking, and training for use, etc.

As its on-going goal, the Federation could seek to enlarge and enhance alternative journalism and media communication of all kinds, within the mainstream or via alternative structures. FAMAS could affirm that alternative media institutions (and individuals) should strive, as possible, not to replicate cultural, economic, and gender dependencies or structural biases common to mainstream institutions and that all Federation members should be committed, as possible, to acting on behalf of the entire alternative media community. How much and what this aim would include (eliminating racial and sexual bias, incorporating multicultural lessons, reducing income and job quality disparities among staff, increasing internal democracy, making way for younger participants, reducing or eliminating dependence on commercial ads, etc., would be matters of organization policy as FAMAS evolved). At a minimum, FAMAS could provide tools and training to enrich members’ understandings of democracy and justice in media, of available media options and opportunities, and of both technical and organizational methods for avoiding elite biases and for doing research and production valuable to the broader social communities we serve.

But to make the entire FAMAS community larger and stronger, as well as more than just the sum of the many parts, another project could be to promote the community of institutions in a collaborative manner. For example, FAMAS might initiate a campaign to educate audiences to the general importance of supporting alternative media by purchasing its products, donating to its campaigns, spreading the word about its existence, improving its content through submissions and critique, writing letters to promote debate, etc. Second, FAMAS could sponsor mass mailings, ads, and events to publicize lots of alternative media services at once, with options to subscribe to or purchase multiple offerings at discounts.

Another related effort could be to urge (or perhaps require as a condition of membership) all member institutions to make their mailing lists available free to all other member institutions (the actual cost of providing these lists is minuscule), and to enact a parallel campaign to (1) educate the progressive public that progressive mailings are essential to building alternative media institutions, and (2) educate existing alternative media organizations that it is in everyone’s collective interest that each organization and project benefit from the outreach of all. (3) FAMAS could also urge that at public events—concerts, conferences, public talks, rallies, etc. there is always an alternative media presence, and could even organize and mobilize that presence in a collaborative fashion.

Similarly, FAMAS could urge that every member organization make its content available free to significantly smaller member organizations with non-overlapping audiences. Thus, monthly periodicals like MJ, the Nation, the Progressive would make their articles available to local weekly newspapers and newsletters or other smaller publications not in the same genre. Major radio stations and producers like Pacifica could make their shows available to smaller stations in other regions, free, after some delay. FAMAS could serve as or could work with existing service bureaus, having all the appropriate materials, written and audio, available to be faxed, e-mailed, or sent on disk, paper, or any appropriate medium, to any appropriate media outlet wanting it. Writers would get the initial payment, from the first (largest) publisher (which is all they would have gotten otherwise) as well as great visibility from additional appearances of their work. The increasing size of the alternative media community that FAMAS would promote in this and other ways would, additionally, mean more funds available to pay better fees to writers, program producers, and so on. Issues like these would of course have to be assessed more widely, and worked out in practice, to develop an institution like FAMAS.

FAMAS could also act as an agent for freelance writers, photographers, audio production people, film makers, performers, web page spinners, artists, etc. Individual freelance producers could submit their materials to be made visible in some simple and indexed manner to all FAMAS member organizations. Member organizations could then request material from the freelance providers and conduct payments straight to them. This could be done in many ways, of course, and the task FAMAS would face, as in other facets of its operation, would be to find a collaborative approach beneficial to all involved.

Another role of FAMAS could be to facilitate mutual support alliances. These could be within a single type media, with the Federation bringing print publishers like Z, the Nation, In These Times, Dollars and Sense, Covert Action Quarterly, Labor Notes, and local weeklies, etc., into mutual contact, say (an effort that is already underway), or bringing into alliances film and TV producers like Global Vision, Flying Focus, and Paper Tiger, etc. Or it could occur across media. In this latter case, FAMAS could try, for example, to get radio like Pacifica or progressive college stations or Alternative Radio to promote alternative print media in their area, and to get the alternative print media to run the station’s program schedule. Or to get speakers bureaus like Speak Out to promote FAMAS members and media offerings, and vice versa. Or to get progressive music performers to have alternative media presence at their shows, and alternative media to review their work. Or to get information providers and creators in touch with telecommunications projects like the Institute for Global Communications, IGC, LBBS and the new ShareWorld, and vice versa. More generally, FAMAS could facilitate each member bringing other member’s offerings to the attention of their readers, listeners, or viewers by referencing, reviewing, reporting on, and otherwise promoting their offerings.

FAMAS could work with alternative publishers, bookstores, and distributors to try to enlarge and strengthen the network of alternative outlets for political material through stores and agencies, or at events, conferences, and talks, etc.

FAMAS could provide a way for activist organizations like NARAL, Citizen Action, Act Up, Food Not Bombs, the Center for Campus Organizing, the Center for Third World Organizing, the SEIU, the New Party, NOW, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, DC SCAR, the Green Party or Greenpeace, etc., etc. as well as more local, community and grassroots projects to communicate their needs to researchers, periodicals, or other information providers like Political Research Associates, the Center for New Democracy, URPE, the Institute for Policy Studies, etc., and the various relevant magazines, newspapers, and radio shows, as well as a way for the providers to get reports and stories/interviews from the grass roots efforts.

FAMAS could also serve as a clearing house for interns and as a bulletin board for jobs. And, more, it could act as a channeling mechanism for each producer like FAIR, MJ, WBAI, Sojourners, Solidarity Magazine, Third Force Magazine, The Women’s Review of Books, etc., to provide lessons to others and learn from the technical, organizational, and social lessons and innovations of others, or even to share technical resources, when appropriate.

Another possibility would be for FAMAS to undertake fund-raising for its membership, globally, in one package. No member would go to foundations like New World or Veatch, for example, or even to large donors who weren’t directly affiliated with them. Rather, the Federation would go to the funding community at large and say support alternative media, support truth in the mainstream media, here, now, through us—or not at all. FAMAS would then channel the donor support in accord with the specific desires of the community of media activists. It is one-stop grant making. The Federation would be responsible to disperse moneys raised according to some internally agreed norms, bylaws, or votes, etc.

As to content, the Federation could propose areas of focus or information campaigns such as keying on affirmative action, or on corporate responsibility for poverty, etc., so that there could be a degree of coherence in the member organization’s communicative efforts.

FAMAS could also promote free exchange of ideas, fight censorship, fight media monopolization and particular Congressional bills, such the recent telecommunications bill and other reactionary media policy at the national level, and could provide defense for FAMAS members under attack by the Right.

FAMAS’s work could be funded by payments from member institutions and individuals. Each separate person joining as a freelance writer or artist, reader or viewer, could have a yearly dues to pay. Each organization could likewise have a fee, pegged to its size and budget. As the agenda of FAMAS becomes larger, and its financial needs greater, so too will its member organizations’ and individuals’ benefits.

The Federation we are suggesting, in line with the ideas and impetus of the Media and Democracy Congress, would act so that folks now receptive to alternative media become more supportive, so that folks who have yet to encounter alternative media hear about it, and so that every alternative media project and institution, from research groups, to media watch groups, to film projects, to weekly radio shows, to recording artists and companies, to telecommunications projects, to alternative bookstores and distributors, to speaker’s bureaus, to publishing houses and weekly or monthly periodicals, etc., each benefit from the advancement of all others and contribute to that advancement as part of its daily agenda. Solidarity with autonomy.

It is a change in mindset, so that alternative media projects and producers transform from competitors for audience or money to allies in a broad consciousness raising project throughout society.

There were roughly 640 attendees at the Media and Democracy Congress. If you asked what is an alternative media institution, how should it be structured, what should be its agenda, where should its funding come from, what is the relative importance of different types of media activity, what should be the norms for deciding content, etc., there would be many different answers for each question. Z’s answers, for example, would not be shared by many other folks there, and vice versa. It is possible to have this diversity sink us. But it is also possible to recognize, instead, that we as a community have so many underlying needs and goals in common that our diversity can become a strength rather than a weakness, and can facilitate rather than obstruct collaboration.

FAMAS would not reduce all its members to some common denominator. FAMAS would not be a coalition around a few shared sentiments. FAMAS would instead promote the mutual support that all its members need, making the whole much greater than just the sum of its parts. This seems to us to be worth working for.