Special Extended Post: Exploring The Bilerico Project's impact on LGBT-specific news, commentary and analysis

In December of 2008, The Advocate, the granddaddy of U.S. publications focusing specifically on news pertaining to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, was in crisis mode. After 41 years of bi-weekly publication, readership had fallen drastically, advertisers were fleeing and its ownership had changed hands countless times. Print media, of course, was failing across the board, but in the case of The Advocate, the crisis caused the editors to refocus the entire magazine, booking more celebrity covers, scaling back its investigative journalism efforts and amping up the fluff content generally seen in less hard-hitting queer publications. The Advocate used to be the LGBT version of The New York Times, breaking new and interesting stories about the gay community, nabbing the most ground-breaking interviews and fully exploring every angle to gay rights issues that plagued the time.

At that point, however, it seemed to be trading in its esteemed legacy for a shot at staying afloat in an increasingly challenging market. In a cost-cutting move by corporate owners Regent and Here Media, publication went monthly instead of bi-weekly, and by November of 2009, the staff admitted its defeat; the magazine ceased publication as a stand-alone, newsstand and subscription-based entity. It would now be whittled down to 32 pages each month and packaged with Out magazine, which, to continue with the mainstream media parallels, could be the LGBT version of PeopleAdvocate.com, the press releases raved, would still be delivering all of the news and commentary fit to print about the LGBT community.

But readers dedicated to understanding gay-related issues were unimpressed with the bare-bones, inverted pyramid news updates of The Advocate online, so they scoured for other media offerings to satisfy their cravings.  That’s where queer-focused online blogs stepped in to claim the newly-available market as their own.

One of the most important of these LGBT blogs is The Bilerico Project, an independent, citizen journalism-focused blog still owned by its original founder, Bil Browning. The site closely follows The Huffington Post’s successful “group blog” model, publishing news reports, editorials and analyses, primarily those pertaining to LGBT communities, written by experts in a wide array of fields and disciplines.
Ithaca College may have its fair share of debatably frustrating academic issues in its journalism department, but several journalism schools across the country are getting it right, passing my “Is This Worthwhile Education” test with flying colors.

The colleges I’m talking about are networked together in a really exciting initiative called News 21, a national endeavor to reinvigorate journalism schools and be truly groundbreaking in the way that they explore important, pertinent issues with in-depth reporting, investigation and interviewing. News 21 is one of the few organizations involving my generation that not only recognizes that the face of storytelling and reporting is changing, but is also actually doing something explicitly awesome to ensure that they can keep up with the times as journalists.

The universities involved with News 21, an effort sponsored largely by two major foundations, include eight from all parts of the country: Arizona State, Berkeley, Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina, Northwestern, Southern Carolina and Syracuse.

The website featuring the work that’s been completed so far by the universities is, for lack of a more descriptive word, beautiful. Its visual presentation is inviting and stunning, with some standouts being the “California in Crisis” page, bedecked with postcards from different regions of California struggling with an array of difficult issues, and the “Brave Old World” superstory, which boasts incredible photography and heart-wrenching video about what it’s like to grow old and physically deteriorate. I honestly get emotional reading and watching these stories. Syracuse’s “Apart from War,” which details the lasting consequences of today’s war veterans across the country, is particularly powerful.

News 21, with its gorgeous multimedia features and compelling storytelling, is a real inspiration to student journalists, showing us how to think outside the box and engage our readers (and viewers, and listeners) in something exciting and important that makes us care. 

Is it bad that I’m more than a little jealous I don’t go to one of the News 21 schools?
Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications is supposed to have one of the best journalism programs in the country. The faculty includes some of the brightest thinkers in the field, from War on Drugs expert Todd Schack to Peace Journalism guru Matt Mogekwu. The Ithacan continues to win award after award for its weekly coverage of the campus and surrounding area. And, of course, the college is home to the Park Center for Independent Media and has attracted huge indy media stars, including Arianna Huffington, Jeremy Scahill and Josh Marshall. (For transparency’s sake, it should be noted that PCIM was founded by Jeff Cohen, who is my professor and the advisor for Buzzsaw, the student magazine I co-edit).

So why, in this school that seems to be a haven for progressive, forward-thinking journalism, are the academic curriculums still passing on outdated practices and demonstrating how to conform to the corporate press?

I’ve seen many examples in my two years as a Park School student that promulgate this notion: we should idolize The New York Times and happily fork over the membership fee for the esteemed Society of Professional Journalists and revere the Associated Press as The King of All That Is Awesome and Objectively Sound.

But those observations don’t matter in this blog post. No, the particular occasion that drives this rant is my Journalism Ethics class, taught by Mead Loop. Today’s topic was about the Values, Virtues and Loyalties of the Fourth Estate, where we listed and discussed the philosophies that drive journalists.

At one point, we discussed where journalists’ loyalties should lie. The audience, one student brainstormed. Yourself and your own moral code, another posited. Other possibilities were thrown out: your family, your sources, your friends, your country, your religion, your employer, your advertisers. Professor Loop asked us to rank these loyalties in terms of importance, assuming that “Self” was #1, since the Universal Ethical Principle in Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development says that the individual must make his or her own decisions based on their own perception of ethics.  When the majority of the class responded that the second most important loyalty was to the audience, Professor Loop looked surprised, murmuring, “That’s really interesting.” He reasoned that in some situations, the reader is certainly the most important, but that in other situations, journalists may find their loyalty to their sources, or to their employer, more fundamental because without their sources, they’d have no story and without their employer, they’d have nowhere to publish.

I half-laughed during the class. Surely this statement would be followed up with an explanation that bad journalists value their loyalty to their sources or employers over that of their reader. But no follow-up emerged, and we all walked out of class having been instructed that your primary loyalty as a journalist depends largely on the situation.

            The idea that we as journalists have a loyalty to our employers is laughably ridiculous. Glenn Greenwald proves the right way to do it every time he deviates from the official perspectives of his own employer, Salon.com. But this is the philosophy of the corporate journalism world, and that’s what’s being preached to some IC journalism classrooms. Of course, Professor Loop and others with similar mindsets don’t call it “corporate journalism.” Instead, it’s “professional journalism,” whereas everything else is simply “citizen journalism,” said with a sneer.

            I understand that a Journalism Ethics class is supposed to serve as an exploration of our personal moral codes, and that some students may ultimately value job security over getting out the real story, no matter what cost. But the fact that an educational institution like Ithaca College is not discouraging this distortion of loyalties is insane. If we as journalists are not universally viewing our accountability to tell the reader the full truth as best as possible, as the most important value in our field, then we are failing. There are already enough colleges teaching over and over and over again that objectivity is king and media conglomerates are the way to go for a big paycheck and a national stage. At Ithaca College, we shouldn’t be taught how to conform and work with the mainstream media; we need to be taught to change and challenge that behemoth. And what’s the best way for us to do that? Through independent publications and courageous storytelling that doesn’t confuse its intended goal.