Launch Your Own Media Empire

The do-it-yourself communications revolution

| July/August 2002 Issue


In a fit of pique late last summer, I started a newspaper. Well, not a newspaper exactly, and it was more like a fit of excruciating pain, but, well . . . I should explain. I live in a city with a single daily newspaper, one that employs more sports columnists than city beat reporters. Five years ago, during a mayoral election that seemed all-but-ignored by local scribes, I began recklessly fantasizing about how I could save our local civic culture by launching my own daily newspaper. I solicited printing bids, churned out business plans, ran the numbers, and waited for somebody to tell me I was crazy. Months passed. Years even. I had breakfasts, lunches, and fractured conversations with rich people, sort-of-rich people, and people who knew rich people, and pretty much everybody agreed it was a great idea. Nobody was writing any checks, though, and when one particularly blunt billionaire finally intruded sufficiently on my fantasy to set me straight ("There are better charities," he opined), I dragged myself homeward convinced there was no room in the media for idealists anymore. So I packed away my dream in that part of my psyche reserved for failure and went about my business. I put up a fence in the backyard. I fixed the front steps. I mowed the lawn. And late on a Sunday night in July, I checked into the emergency room with a kidney stone attack. My wife, who knows about such things, suggested that my kidney troubles may have been connected to my giving up on the newspaper idea. So I began thinking about a way I could satisfy that yearning without mortgaging our family’s future on a quixotic print adventure. So, on August 13, 2001, I launched the premiere issue of The Minneapolis Observer, a weekly e-mail digest of "all things Minneapolitan" (www.mplsobserver.com). It was an immediate success: A couple of dozen people read it, a few even ponied up $12 for a year’s subscription, and I felt a lot better. Such is the life of the independent press, but before you slap the "pathetic loser" tag on our ilk, look around. Do-it-yourself media are taking over. We’re more than a decade into the well-documented zine revolution, an era that gave us such masterpieces as Rollerderby, Fat!So?, Temp Slave, Race Traitor, and The Idler. And recently technology—and the increasing conservatism of mainstream media—have given rise to a new round of feisty journalism. BEGINNING WITH THE Zapatista revolution in Mexico and finding its American voice in the 1999 Battle in Seattle, Internet-based activist journalism is revising the rules of reporting and redefining the relationship between the observed and the observer. In Seattle, and later in Washington and Quebec City and Genoa, "indy media" activists openly flaunting their political views became the reporters, zapping their dispatches into a rollicking online network of reporting, opinion, and conversation that scooped the TV networks and newspaper correspondents at the same time it was rewriting the rules of journalistic engagement. "People all over the world are dipping their storytelling toes in the water," says Mathew Arnison, a member of the Indymedia Tech Collective, in Punk Planet (May/June 2001). "One of the big things with open publishing is this whole idea of getting away from a central bunch of editors or writers who know how to do journalism, know how to tell other people’s stories, and are professional and so on. Open publishing could make the tall tales of the Internet truly visible and accessible outside the mega media monopolies. And that’s good news for 99.9 percent of the planet’s population." But do-it-yourself-media is not limited to the anti-globalization activist out on the barricades. All over the world, regular folks are picking up digital cameras and doing local-access TV shows (yeah, The Minneapolis Observer’s on public-access TV, too), jury-rigging low-power transmitters for pirate radio operations, and cranking out print or Web zines featuring their particular view of the world. It’s all interactive, it’s all gloriously seat-of-the-pants, and it’s changing the way we will approach media in the future. "In breaking down barriers, and sharing ideas with friends and peers, we are creating a new front in the cultural war to decommodify information and our lives," says Vancouver Indy Media Center volunteer Shane Korytko. And make no mistake, it is a war. As Punk Planet points out, probably the first person to understand the significance of Net-based activist journalism was David Rondfelt, a researcher at that icon of military industrialism, the RAND Institute. In a 1993 article, Rondfelt predicted that the rise of "all-channel" communications networks would come to dominate the media as the technology revolution matures. "Conflicts will revolve less around the use of raw power than of ‘soft power’—that is, media-oriented measures that aim to attract rather than coerce," he explained. "This may well turn out to be the next great frontier for ideological conflict." That conflict is already under way, according to some observers, as mainstream media experts labor mightily to discredit indy media reporting, as the FCC continues its baffling war against low-power radio, and as politicians debate ways to control content on the Internet. But to hear Chris Burnett of the Los Angeles Indy Media Center tell it, the movement is already too strong to be squashed. "The model we created cannot be controlled by a central body," Burnett says. "It exists fundamentally because it is decentralized and embodies principles and values that are antithetical to corporate culture."
The larger question facing the DIY media movement may be the ability of a bunch of unpaid workers to sustain it. After all, hundreds of zines and local-access TV shows bite the dust every month, and millions of Web sites sit unattended for months as their founders move on to other callings—or just burn out. Is it possible that this lovely movement will simply fizzle out when its collective energy expires?
"Our ability to survive will be directly connected to our ability to maintain a strong social infrastructure that can maintain a decentralized network intact," says Burnett. "The more social ‘nodes’ that exist, the stronger we are." Burnett is concerned mostly about the indy media network, but the energy generated by social contacts is just as important to the future of projects like The Minneapolis Observer. So when I get together with my ragtag band of media-makers tonight to tape our local-access TV show, we’ll be sure to include a few post-production beers as we reaffirm the true manifesto of the do-it-yourself media boom: Revolution’s gotta be fun.