This is an article I wrote back in the spring for Linchpin. It was published a week ago and I didn't even realize until today. It's analysis, not news, and I'm not sure how successful I am in going beyond stating the obvious, but I hope it offers some useful suggestions for thinking about alternative media work in smaller centres.
Becoming the Media in Sudbury
By Scott Neigh
Northern Ontario Correspondent
One useful insight that emerged from the upsurge in struggle that became visible in North America at the end of the 1990s can be summarized by a maxim often attributed to Jello Biafra, "Don't criticize the media, become the media."
The spirit captured by this statement was the same that informed the rise of hundreds of Independent Media Centres around the world in the years after the powerful challenge to the World Trade Organization mounted in Seattle in 1999. Yet more than a decade later, many questions remain about how those of us who are trying to transform the world can most usefully follow the instruction to "become the media." I am particularly interested in answering those questions in ways that are useful to those of us who live in the many smaller communities around North America where the media landscape, at least at first glance, appears to be an uninterrupted corporate desert.
The specific place from which I am asking this question is the city of Sudbury, Ontario, a community of just a hundred thousand people but also the largest city for at least a few hundred kilometers in every direction. Though Sudbury has a rich radical tradition of a particular sort, and is currently in the middle of a long strike by 3000 mine workers, the city's small size puts stringent limits on the amount of activist energy to be had. Therefore, though the city is implicated in the same provincial, national, and global issues as a much larger city like Toronto, and has its own particular local concerns, the amount and sophistication of movement infrastructure, including alternative and independent media, is inevitably limited. Add to this the particular moment in which I am asking this question, in which most movements across North America are at a much lower ebb than a decade ago despite the multiple crises facing ordinary people around the world, and the picture seems even more bleak.
A look at how most Sudburians learn about the world is no more encouraging. In some ways, Sudbury is lucky -- its role as a regional centre means it has more diversity of local corporate outlets than many other cities of comparable size, including two corporate newspapers and local CBC radio stations in both English and French, as well as all the usual national and international media that make their way to our newsstands and living rooms. Yet there are no consistent, visible, locally produced outlets for media of a more critical nature, and the local people who regularly connect to more critical sources from elsewhere are few and scattered.
I think, though, that the situation in Sudbury and in many other smaller centres is not as bleak as it might seem at first. In order to be able to really see that, I think it is necessary to further shift the ways we think about alternative media. We need to get rid of certain mainstream assumptions and adopt more of a movement orientation. Once we have done that, it is easier to see and value the hard work that ordinary people are already doing in centres that lack large, established alternative and independent media outlets, and to make better decisions for the future.
First, some definitions. I am understanding "media" in a very broad way to mean any efforts to create knowledge and disseminate it using printed, broadcast, or online texts, whether that is through a formal venue like a newspaper or through activities that are more ad-hoc and irregular, like making a 'zine and handing it out or doing a guerrilla video and posting it online. In my understanding, media that are "alternative" completely renounce corporate advertising, while those that are "independent" may still rely on it, but both have different kinds of content from the mainstream. There is a focus on bad things that get done to ordinary people and ordinary people fighting back and creating solutions. There is an emphasis on the voices of the ordinary people who are doing those things. There is an openness to reflect on systemic issues. The mainstream media notions of "balance" and "objectivity" are cast aside, ideally not in favour of the distortion and bias that critics of non-mainstream media sometimes accuse, but rather in order to take up a commitment to accuracy combined with a particular kind of rootedness.
All of those things add up to doing something useful. Yet it is very easy to leave it at that and conclude that the central concerns of alternative media should be limited to producing quality content (by our definition rather than the mainstream's) and getting it seen or heard by the largest possible number of people. High quality and broad distribution are important, but if those are our only criteria then we are left with no way to understand what actually is going on in Sudbury and countless other small communities like it across the continent, and with no tools to help us think strategically about what to do in the future.
Instead, we should be thinking of alternative media more explicitly in terms of movement building. The goal, much like social movement organizing as a whole, is to foster opportunities for all of us, particularly those hardest hit by oppression, to take the individual moments of resistance that are inevitably part of living within-and-against oppressive social relations and to express them in collective, critical ways. This means seeing alternative media work as being in part about creating opportunities for ever-widening circles of people to engage in particular kinds of practices. That is, we want increasing numbers to be able to seek out critical media sources, to engage with all sources in critical ways, to talk back to all sources and those who create them, and to engage in creating new critical media themselves.
When examined with these goals in mind, there is lots of useful alternative media work already happening in Sudbury. And, probably, in your town too.
What Is Already Happening
Accessing Mainstream Media
Though this is not usually considered part of alternative media work, strategic efforts to access mainstream venues can be crucial to giving people opportunities to engage with critical material. Mainstream outlets in smaller cities, though still full of problems and in some places gripped by a reactionary fervour that corporate media in larger centres can find it impolitic to match, can also in some situations provide moderately greater space for coverage of events or publication of well-written, timely op/ed pieces. Sudbury groups have sporadically used both of these spaces to inject critical content into the mainstream in ways that might be more difficult in larger cities.
A number of efforts in Sudbury take select material from the multitude of non-local online sources and filter them in ways that amount to appropriating them for local use. This overcomes, for populations with specific areas of interest, one of the key barriers that prevent many people from engaging with online critical media -- that is, there is just so much information online, it is hard to know what to look for and how to choose what to look at. For example, there is an email list, the Sudbury Social Justice News, which is primarily for notifying interested people about upcoming events in the community but which also sometimes circulates articles that are relevant to the events. Local activist group Sudbury Against War and Occupation uses its web site as a way to publicize among members and supporters material from the wider world related to the group's broad understanding of war and occupation.
Perhaps the most developed example of this in Sudbury is local activist Pete Paradis' Green Sudbury portal. Paradis follows hundreds of news sources himself, including the corporate dailies in many Northern Ontario communities and more alternative and independent sites from further afield that focus on green, urban, and community empowerment issues. He describes Green Sudbury as "hand picked, curated links and resources -- one stop shopping, a reader's digest on northern Ontario, green issues," and urban issues. Paradis' hard work at promotion and networking have built a growing profile for Green Sudbury in the local community.
There is sporadic use by local residents of online opportunities to respond to existing media sources -- most often, at this point, mainstream ones. The more people that do this, the more broadly it will become accepted as a 'normal' practice not just to consume media but to actively respond to it -- to engage in dialogue with it, in a sense.
In the most visible recent example, FaceBook and comment sections on local news sites have provided a space for striking mine workers and their supporters to vent their frustrations and make their voices heard. This has largely been done by scattered individuals in an uncoordinated way, and has been in response to both mainstream media distortions and the coordinated and vigorous right-wing campaign against the strike being conducted in comment sections and blogs. More generally, there are a handful of scattered and disconnected local bloggers (including myself) with very modest local readerships who produce online content that sometimes critically engages with other media sources, both local and non-local.
Building and Sharing Skills
The more people who feel confident writing, shooting video, running a web site, and all the rest, the greater scope there is for growing numbers of people to take up in a sustained way all of the practices I talk about in this article. Perhaps the most interesting examples of deliberately building and sharing skills for media creation in Sudbury have been through (and around) the arts and activism group Myths and Mirrors. Over the years, the group has engaged in community arts projects as well as experiments with film and 'zines and other media connected to issues ranging from the environment to mining to poverty. Their work often has a focus on getting youth involved, which gives them opportunities to build skills and to gain confidence about putting their work out there for others to see.
Creating original critical media content, even when its reach is small, provides opportunities that might otherwise be absent for those people who encounter it to engage with and respond to critical media, and it models the possibility of ordinary people doing this kind of work. In the Sudbury context, the same scattered few blogs that occasionally respond to mainstream media issues also occasionally feature original work. Activist formations concerned with particular issues have at times produced original work -- 'zines, pamphlets, websites, etc. -- in support of particular campaigns. Much of the work of Myths and Mirrors involves local original content. A few people close to the ongoing strike have used home video cameras and YouTube to produce and distribute material. The presence of all of this work over the years, however occasional and small its reach in many cases, has provided some Sudburians an opportunity to encounter critical media who might otherwise not have been able to do so.
This involves creating original content that does not just stand on its own but is explicitly connected in how it was produced and/or how it gets presented with other original content. In Sudbury, most local efforts creating media have been quite isolated even with respect to other local efforts. However, there are the beginnings of efforts to network local critical media production in Sudbury to work being done in other places. Not only does work produced in this way give folks in Sudbury opportunities to engage with local critical media but it makes it easier for those who wish to access a much broader range of material. Shailagh Keaney is "an independent journalist who has been writing critical media reports since 2008," much of it in Sudbury. She has been working with The Dominion, an online and print venue that is emphasizing getting local people to produce media about their communities and building networks both among the creators and in presenting the material. In a few of Canada's largest cities, The Dominion has been developing media co-operatives. This approach has the potential to offer not only networked content from a wide range of communities but also to provide a stable reference point and source of support and skill-sharing for local efforts in smaller places that are occasional and transient. It also provides models for how to build more sustained local alternative media initiatives when the capacity is there. Keaney speculates, "Perhaps Sudbury could one day have its own media coop web page with daily multimedia news coverage and updates."
What Is Not and What Could Be
The overarching lack in Sudbury, as in so many communities, is painfully obvious and it is the one I started the article with: far too little capacity and far too few resources to make all the kinds of media with all the voices and all the range of cheeky and subversive analysis that many of us would like. This hangs over every existing and potential piece of alternative media work -- every attempt to broaden the practices described above. It can be even more constricting for people and groups whose everyday lives are shaped by poverty, racism, colonization, and other oppressions. It is possible and necessary to strategize about ways to navigate this in specific instances, but it is unlikely to disappear any time soon short of a generalized resurgence of social movement energy on the continent.
What we can change, though, is how we relate to the opportunities that we have. Because of the ways that many of us think about media, even alternative media, I suspect that many of us don't automatically classify the various examples sketched out above as alternative media work. Because it is all so scattered and under-resourced, even those of us who do probably don't see the reason and maybe don't have the tools to put our decision-making about such things in the context of a larger movement to create alternative media and a critical media culture. I would urge us to start thinking in those terms, and as we continue to seize the fragmented opportunities that we have in our own local contexts, to do so with this understanding in mind.
Moreover, we need to start talking to each other about this stuff. Being in smaller communities may have its down sides, but it does mean that there is much more scope to meet and get to know the other people nearby who are working on cool things. Given the capacity limitations and the way that the existing work happens, this is unlikely to lead immediately to new, large, collective projects. But it may help build a bit of a shared sense of how to think about making deliberate decisions about alternative media work. It may allow our efforts to be coordinated to a certain extent. It may even allow for limited but new collaborations, like skill share sessions and efforts which begin to address the ways that some people, some voices, experience additional barriers to becoming the media, even in alternative and critical media contexts -- indigenous people, queer people, people of colour, people with disabilities, working-class people, women, youth, and more. Perhaps most importantly, it lays the relationship groundwork for the larger projects that will become possible as our movements grow.
The specific opportunities and barriers vary tremendously from community to community, depending on size, local political culture, resources, and the ways that other forms of marginalization factor in. Yet I think by embracing a movement orientation to alternative media work and recognizing the importance of supporting people in increasing numbers in taking up the practices of critical, participatory media culture, we can get a better handle on what we should be doing in a wide range of environments.
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and parent who lives in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of his writing, visit http://scottneigh.blogspot.com