What Does “Independent Media” Mean? Birthday Contemplations From the Truthout Staff

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Today, on Truthout’s 14th birthday, the Truthout team is reflecting on why we work here. For many of us, that motivation includes a commitment to the practice of “independent journalism.” However, not everyone agrees on what that term means – and in recent years, it’s been reinvented so often that we decided that some definitions were in order. What follows is a compilation of our staff’s thoughts on the meaning of independent media, and the place of “independence” in a rapidly changing journalistic landscape. Happy birthday, Truthout!

Lauren Walker, visual editor:
Media are a resource, as precious as they are necessary to the humanity that birthed them. They’ve become a utility through which we understand our neighbors on local and global scales, and are not limited only to the news: Music, film, art and writing all fall within this great umbrella of human communication. Unfortunately, and not unlike many other utilities, the most unbound expressions of these media are increasingly being subsumed by corporate media behemoths. In order to see our potential futures in film and art, to hear our struggles and triumphs in music, to feel the suffering of our own and be best equipped to aid them, we need voices freed from the stifling hand of corporate interests seeking only to cater to a tiny moneyed, monochromatic minority. We need our media to be candid, fierce, raw and searingly truthful about the world in which we live, so that we might propel ourselves, and humanity, into a brighter future for all.

Joe Macaré, publisher:
“Independent media” should mean staying independent of political parties and candidates – yes, even the ones we like! – and maintaining financial independence (for Truthout, that means not taking ad money, whether it’s from corporations or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). We should also be clear on what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean taking a “view from nowhere” or abstaining from having an editorial stance on the urgent moral issues of the day. Sometimes, that might mean taking stances that are perceived as controversial, politicized or “biased”: asserting that trans women are women, that Black lives matter, that Palestinians have the right to defend themselves and deserve liberation, that sex workers deserve labor rights and human rights. But if it is true that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, then today’s fiercely debated controversy will be tomorrow’s widely accepted basic human decency. Media outlets that equivocate on such issues, whether they call themselves independent or not, will not be judged kindly by posterity.

Dahr Jamail, staff reporter:
Unfortunately, the term “independent media” has been obfuscated and watered down from what it once meant. For myself, someone humbled and proud to work for Truthout, independence as a journalist has never been more important. “Independent” means free from corporate control and money, free of government bias or control, free from the agenda of an editor following orders from the company’s owners. This is why Truthout is the most independent media outlet I know of: because our reporters have freedom to report on the stories we believe to be important, in a way that gets to the root of the issues. Any journalist who cannot say they have this liberty in their work is simply not independent.

Independence means being able to say, “Wait a minute!” to the status quo – to reach beyond the things we think we know.

Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief:
The phrase “independent media,” in itself, doesn’t really mean anything inherently good or authentic or true. Occasionally, “independence” is even used to justify a kind of strange freedom from public accountability. Yet to me, in the context of Truthout, it still represents something meaningful: a desperately needed defense against the ways in which so many media outlets use their platforms to perpetuate harmful and oppressive structures, sometimes in an effort to maintain funding sources, sometimes simply to protect the interests of the powerful. This strategy of status-quo maintenance tends to translate into publishing primarily “clickable” stories – stories that are aimed at garnering both high traffic and a high level of reader consensus (whether the goal behind that traffic and consensus is to increase advertising revenue or to demonstrate a “wide reach” to potential nonprofit funders). The “clickability test” is dangerous, because often, the most vital stories focus on people who are not famous and often not deemed “clickable” – marginalized people whose stories regularly slip under the radar. There are other crucial stories that may not guarantee high traffic or a high level of consensus: for example, stories that imagine radical new ways of structuring society and living in the world. “Independence,” for me as an editor, means an ability to actively choose challenging and provocative stories. “Freedom of speech” is not enough. We need real freedom to interrupt, to complicate, to question. Independence means being able to say, “Wait a minute!” to the status quo – to reach beyond the things we think we know.

William Rivers Pitt, senior editor and lead columnist:
I have been honored to be a writer and editor in independent media for going on two decades. What does it mean to me? When Edward R. Murrow of CBS took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his show’s main sponsor, ALCOA, threatened to pull its funding. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly said they’d cover the cost of the most important broadcast of the series, because the money wasn’t important. The information was, and was released, and McCarthy fell to dust. That is what independent media means: We pay our own freight without corporate sponsorship, and we tell the truth people won’t see, hear or read in “mainstream” outlets at which checks are signed by major corporations or military contractors. We lay it out to the limits of our abilities, without fear or favor. Oh, and a note to our “mainstream news” friends: We are the mainstream now. Print is fading, the big TV news networks are roundly disdained and the generation that reads tablets instead of newspapers simply doesn’t trust you. They trust us, deservedly so. Welcome to the future.

Britney Schultz, associate editor:
Independent media, by definition, is free of influence by government or corporate interests. Many “alternative news” outlets claim to be independent, yet they sell out space on their sites for advertising. Additionally, journalism schools instill the idea of “fair and balanced” reporting, free of bias. While this makes sense in theory, in practice, no news can be unbiased because reality is not unbiased. Still, there is a difference between pushing a one-sided agenda and challenging the mainstream narrative. Truthout does the latter. As our mission statement says, “we will spur the revolution in consciousness and inspire the direct action that is necessary to save the planet and humanity.” This does not mean that we have all the solutions to all of the world’s problems; rather, we publish possibilities that are often ignored by “non-independent” media and allow our readers to draw their own conclusions.

US journalism is being strangled by the very structures it’s intended to stand watch over.

Kelly Hayes, community engagement fellow:
“Independent journalism” is one of those terms – like “organic” or “fair trade” – that’s been so thrown about that few people are sure exactly what the label promises anymore. Such appropriation is rather inevitable, when it comes to language that means to illustrate that something exists outside the depressing predictability of what fuels or reinforces oppressive structures. With a handful of corporations controlling 90 percent of US media, a corporate-controlled government and reporters who take marching orders from officials who provide information, it’s not surprising that anyone in US journalism would want to dress themselves up as “independent.” It’s been clear for some time that US journalism is being strangled by the very structures it’s intended to stand watch over. For the sake of survival, US media has allowed itself to be refitted into a machine that serves the very forces that are gutting the earth and stripping away our liberties. Outlets that once produced crucial content have gone the way of Darth Vader, carving out their humanity and autonomy to serve the empire. In this day and age, when someone doesn’t know the answer to a question, they’re usually encouraged to “Google it!” For better or worse, that means journalists – good and bad, independent and thoroughly owned – are writing the pages of history, as it will be understood for some time to come. For that history to be worth more than a US history book in a Texas grade school, we have to challenge ourselves, our publications and our readers to dream beyond brain candy headlines and government press releases, and engage with the truth of our times. Whatever term you ascribe to that pursuit, it’s what’s left of real journalism in this country.

Candice Bernd, assistant editor and staff reporter:
One of the reasons I sleep soundly at night is because I don’t have to struggle with any cognitive dissonance between the journalism I produce and my own deep-seated, passionate hatred of the advertising industry’s relentless war against our very sense of self. Just hearing an ad makes the very fibers of my being recoil in disgust. I’ve enabled every kind of pop-up blocker and privacy-tracking extension you can think of on my internet browser. I avoid the television like the plague. I do this because I know high-powered advertising agencies are spending vast amounts of time and resources to research ever new ways to make me feel inadequate (unless I buy X product, of course) and influence even my subconscious thought patterns. The everyday nightmare of loud, clashing colors and even louder, predatory (but friendly sounding) voices trying to hawk me another product I don’t need represents the culture of consumption that’s driving the global climate crisis and the ongoing mass extinction of thousands of species every year. While many have become concerned about environmental degradation and pollution, fewer seem as motivated to begin the process of cleaning up a different kind of pollution: mental pollution. Every jingle, corporate slogan and logo that occupies space in my brain is a contaminant of my mental environment. Advertising-free outlets like Truthout are not only free to do the work of reporting on climate justice movements, but we’re also free to support healthy mental environments free of advertising pollution.

Ziggy West Jeffery, development director:
As an avid news reader and the development director at Truthout, I think a lot about independent media. To me the characteristics of media independence are clear-cut – no ads, no paywalls and no corporate or government funding. The fact that Truthout lives up to those ideals is why I work here. In fact, we go further by not selling our readers’ information or sending you sponsored email messages. Being independent, to me, is about creating an environment that inspires people to personally invest in something they believe in. I believe our readers take time out of their busy lives to support us for exactly that reason, and in turn their support enables us to do the work they value!

Mike Ludwig, staff reporter
The definition of “alternative media” has always been more solid in my mind than that of “independent media.” A media source is “alternative” if it provides information that cannot be found in mainstream corporate sources, such as cable TV or local daily newspapers, which are readily available to most consumers. The alternative media encompasses a broad spectrum of outlets and publications, ranging from local alt weeklies and movement publications to zines and even YouTube channels. Defining “independent” media is a bit more difficult because a publication can be independent in some ways but not in others. An alt weekly, for example, may be a small, locally owned business and therefore independent from the “corporate” media, but the advertisers can influence its editorial content by threatening to pull their ads if the weekly publishes something they don’t like. Certain publications may not run ads, but be backed by mega-rich investors who meddle in editorial matters. I don’t know that any news media outlet has figured out a way to be 100 percent “independent” and sustain a budget for publishing and operating costs, but Truthout has come pretty close. We are supported by donations from our readers, not by ads or corporate investors, so we are only beholden to you. That sets the bar pretty high.

Mark Karlin, managing editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout:
To understand independent news, it is important to note that the presentation of all news is subjective. Even in what are normally considered “objective” news stories, the details that are included and the word choice all evidence a certain perspective. In most cases, the selection and presentation of mass media news is heavily influenced by corporate and status quo interests of the most powerful in society. In essence, what is determined to be news – and what is most important – is subjective in and of itself. There are only two measurement tools for progressive, independent media: a commitment to social and economic justice, and a dedication to accuracy without consideration of external influencers. Truthout pursues both fearlessly.

Independence from corporate advertising does not guarantee independence from white supremacy, sexism and other structures of oppression.

Alana Yu-lan Price, content relations editor:
As a journalist who started out in community media, I’ve always found the term “independent media” to be slightly nebulous. As Jo Ellen Green Kaiser of the Media Consortium points out in her conversation-opening reflections on progressive media, community media outlets tend to define themselves more actively in relation to what they stand for and whom they serve: For example, the Madison Times newspaper – the community newspaper in my hometown where I first learned the ropes as a freelance reporter and editor – was founded as a Black-owned newspaper and seeks to cover social justice and civil rights topics of interest to Black, Latino and Asian American communities, as well as local renters, immigrants, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people. In contrast, independent media outlets tend to define themselves in a negative fashion, not through the communities they serve but through the forces they are free of – forces such as corporate funders, state agents and advertisers. This principled approach to funding sources can have powerful effects but does not necessarily guarantee that a journalism site will remain accountable to struggles against injustice. Is a nonprofit magazine that refuses to accept advertising but is beholden to foundations led predominantly by wealthy white people with their own priorities, values and demands more “independent” than a community newspaper that accepts ads from the owners of small local businesses and seeks to serve a particular racial or ethnic community? Sometimes, but sometimes not. Independence from corporate advertising does not guarantee independence from white supremacy, sexism and other structures of oppression. I’m excited by Truthout’s continued efforts to expand the conversation on independent media by linking questions of funding to broader questions of editorial intention and accountability.

Adam Hudson, reporting fellow:
It’s hard to say what “independent media” means because many media organizations that purport to be “independent” or “alternative” or “progressive” are not truly independent. Especially nowadays with the internet, a lot of news outlets are obsessed with clickbait because it’s the new form of generating ad revenue. Meanwhile, some independent or progressive media outlets function as campaigners for the Democratic Party. At this point, I think the jury is still out on what independent media truly is, because the internet has shifted the business model and old paradigms of media. Even media organizations that try their hardest to be free of government and corporate influence and tell good stories struggle to remain independent in this landscape. It’s hard to build an independent media model that keeps its employees on a living wage. I think a better question to ask is: What is good journalism, period? Good journalism, to me, challenges orthodoxy and power wherever it lies. It provides crucial facts and information to the public so that they can make informed political decisions in their lives. So when it comes to issues like war and police brutality, good journalism doesn’t just repeat what the police or generals say in press releases. It speaks to the survivors and contextualizes the issue. Clickbait is useful for solely generating clicks but it doesn’t make for good, quality journalism. Institutionally, it is important for media to be free of government, corporate, rich individual and political party influence. What that looks like in a successful model in today’s age is still being worked out. As the internet shifts the paradigms of media, it’s important to keep in mind what good journalism is and practice it, no matter what the media landscape looks like.

Erica Moriarty, electronic publishing intern:
Independent media strives to hold government officials and corporate executives accountable for policy and actions. This accountability is only managed through freedom – the freedom from government and corporate interests. This freedom and independence typically comes in the form of funding and finance in the hopes of producing media that is in the people’s interest.

Matt Surrusco, copy editor:
Readers never have to decipher whether an article is a news story, sponsored content or some advertorial hybrid devised in the dark corners of a corporate news organization, where the line between the newsroom and business operations continues to be blurred. Journalists, writers and editors are beholden to their readers, themselves and the truth – not to corporations paying to maintain a website that churns out aggregated fluff that garners clicks from target demographics, rather than investigative, original stories that challenge mainstream narratives. The news is not influenced by who or what pays reporters’ and editors’ salaries, but by what the public needs to know to uphold their civil and human rights, to struggle in defense of their democracy, and to promote a more just, equal, peaceful and sustainable world. That is what it means for media to be independent.

Annie Stoddard, administrative manager:
What is independent media? Media that does not have any influence other than the truth. Media that gets all of the facts, not just bits and pieces. Media that cannot be bought and paid for. Media that tells the real story and not just parts of the story that are influenced by outside factors. Media that the public can depend and rely on to make informative decisions in their everyday lives.