Providing a voice for disenfranchised people—those who are already disadvantaged and whose subsequent plight is uncovered by the media so that they become permanently, institutionally held down—is the role of independent media. Make a list of groups of people you don't hear from or about in the mainstream media: ethnic minorities, non-white individuals, mentally or physically handicapped, homeless people.

Most of these groups have been able to cultivate some sort of Internet presence. I'm most interested in taking a look today at that last group: the homeless. 

Mark Horvath (on Twitter, @hardlynormal), was homeless fifteen years ago on the streets of Hollywood. He managed to navigate the system and, with odds stacked against him (as is the case with the majority of homeless people) worked his way toward a three-bedroom home. That was fine for a little while, but the economy crashed and he neared homelessness again.

He now owns the website We Are Visible, a resource to help homeless people empower themselves through social media (Read a full history and better description of the site and Horvath HERE). In the landscape of homelessness today, it may seem surprising, but many people without homes have access to the Internet...or even have their own laptops as one of their very few possessions. We Are Visible features very step-by-step tutorials about how to set up and use an email account ("It's simply the way the world communicates"), how to use Facebook to promote interconnectivity of the homeless community, how to set up a Wordpress blog, or what the deal is with Twitter ("Within the circle of 'tweeters' you'll create, people will be talking about what matters to you").

On the "Why Social Media" page, a user named @beckyblanton does the best job at explaining the importance of social media for the homeless community. She explains, "Nothing is more powerful than our stories. Whether it's story told in pictures, or story told in words, stories change people. Social media and blogs are how and where we tell our stories. Stories connect us to the world. No matter how rich, how poor, how young, how powerful or how weak, stories change us. Homeless people have one story - or so people think. No one bothers to stop and ask the homeless for their story or even expects to see a story other than, 'I'm broke, addicted, mentally ill, angry, hurt and dangerous.'It's up to you to add to, or go beyond that negative story. If you ever wanted the keys to life, to possibility, to freedom, social media and a blog are those keys. Get them. Use them. They can change your world." 

Because God knows the mainstream media's not going to change the world for you.  

A version of this piece was cross-posted on the Advocacy Blog for Ithaca College Habitat for Humanity, for which I serve as the chair of Education & Advocacy. 

Current president Cristina Fernández Kirchner and former president Nestor Kirchner
I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina during the spring of 2010, and during my time there, a hot topic of discussion was El Ley de los Medios (essentially, "the media law"). When I read about the death of former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner a few weeks ago, an article reminded me about the discussion, and it reminded me of some of our conversations in class. 

Basically, like the United States, Argentina has found itself in a similarly conglomerate-run situation. Except instead of all media being controlled by five companies, like in the US, Argentine media is controlled mostly by two or three. The biggest of these is Grupo Clarín, which owns one of the top-selling newspapers in the country, tons of radio stations, and two-thirds of Argentina's cable network. 

The Basics:
The current president, Cristina Fernández Kirchner (wife to her now-deceased predecessor, Nestor Kirchner), pushed through El Ley de los Medios a little over a year ago, in October of 2009. It's the first real replacement law regarding the media since a reform during the 1976-1983 military junta-led dictatorship that allowed media concentration. You can read all of its specific points HERE (If you read Spanish, of course). 

The new law applies only to audiovisual communication and is primarily designed to put limits on the concentration of media ownership into the hands of just a few companies. Among other provisions, the law said that a single company could hold no more than ten radio and TV licenses, could not control more than 35% of the market, and could not own both a broadcast channel and cable network in the same market. The Kirchners and overwhelming number of Senate members who voted for the bill (44 in favor vs. 24 opposed) said that the bill would provide a greater diversity in the public airwaves and make access at communications easier. The law also requires 70 percent of radio content and 60 percent of TV content to be produced in Argentina, as well as stipulations that cable TV networks host channels maintained by universities and indigenous groups.

The Controversy: 
Various media sources in the country have criticized the Kirchners for having an ulterior motive with the bill. They say the Kirchners were looking to silence their critics, since they have traditionally pointed the finger at big media groups, particularly Grupo Clarín, for unfair and biased media coverage.

Now, I don't pretend to understand the enormously complicated history and current state of corporate ownership and potential presidential corruption in Argentina. It's a country still reeling from its military days and economic crash less than ten years ago, so it's hard to trust anyone's opinion or perspective about what's going on. What I can say, however, is that breaking up media conglomerates is always a good thing. Restricting Grupo Clarín and the other huge companies in Argentina from owning too much can only result in good. We've discussed the institutionalized censorship and conflicts of interest that can appear in journalism when all media is concentrated in the hands of few. United States officials should look into Argentina's law, remove any of the potentially hidden corruption, and enact something similar.

The Coverage:
What's also interesting about this topic is to look at the various coverage of the decision about the law in other publications. The New York Times focuses on the press-censoring angle, The Economist attacks the Kirchners with forceFox News suggests it "replaces a media oligopoly with a state monopoly," and The Wall Street Journal provides perhaps the most biased coverage, equating El Ley de los Medios with a "crackdown on the free press."

Independent news sources coming from within Argentina, however, gave fairer coverage to those in favor of the law. The Argentina Independent and blogs like Patria, Si, Colonia No gave their support, providing a diversely different viewpoint from Clarín and other conglomerate-run news sources; the former published the headline "Kirchner ya tiene la ley de control de medios" ("Kirchner now has law granting control over media"). 

You should also note that civil society groups, Nobel Peace laureates and human rights organizations were generally huge proponents of El Ley de los Medios. When left to decide whose perspective I side with more - business conglomerates or human rights groups - for some reason, the decision's not hard.

Of course, it makes perfect sense for these mainstream U.S. publications to speak out against the new media law; they represent Big Media, and they're surprised and concerned at the Kirchners' blatant violation of the Capitalistic Credo. They're probably quite a bit surprised that the United States' attempts to shock Argentina into a purely capitalistic society (as Naomi Klein so gracefully details in The Shock Doctrine) have been sort of foiled. After all, if a similar law were to pass in the United States, it's these corporations that would be affected. And you can't cheer on the diversification of media outlets and voices when you're terrified that a success story from the bill's implementation could screw up your own shot at making more money and controlling more stuff. 

We've been talking a lot in class over the past few weeks about the topic of disclosure, and why it's especially important in blogs. Yes, independent blogs or sources are not held to the same standards of accountability that mainstream media publications (supposedly) are. But if you have biases for or against a certain subject or have a personal connection with someone you're interviewing, it's probably a good idea to make that clear and be transparent. 

I've been trying to do that in my last few posts, paying particular attention to preface "Buzzsaw magazine" with the phrase, "the magazine I co-edit," to ensure that there's no question about my own biases. This may just be a class blog about independent media, but practice makes perfect, so I figured I'd start right away at making this a habit.

Still, the idea has its detractors. No one's arguing that disclosure isn't important, but some people think it's a murky issue. One of those people is Josh Catone, who now writes for Mashable.com. When he wrote for Read Write Web back in 2007, however, he wrote a piece about disclosure and blogging ethics. 

He wrote, reflecting on a columnist who came under fire for not disclosing a personal connection to an interview subject, "What if the columnist in question had not been a family member, but a former co-worker? Or someone whom the radio DJ had interviewed in the past? Is disclosure still necessary? Or what if the columnist and DJ had been romantically involved in the past but aren't any longer? Does she need to discuss her sex life on air in the interest of journalistic integrity? You can see that it becomes quickly confusing, and at times overtly personal."

It's something to consider: where do we draw the line? If we're trying to disclose in the interest of eliminating perceived bias, where is the point where our connection with a person could influence the way we interview or cover them? If a kid from my elementary school days goes on to write a book, and I interview him for information, should I preface everything by saying that I knew the expert as a child? Or if I get information from a professor who my best friend received a bad grade from, am I expected to explain that? How much is so much that it becomes absolutely ridiculous? 

It's a difficult question, and one for which I'm sure an answer, at least one that makes sense to me, will become a bit more apparent as I continue to write and ensure that I'm disclosing potential sources of bias. 

An edition from Spring 2010
Independent journalism generally begins in one of two ways: someone notices a void in journalistic coverage of a topic, area or population and decides to try to fill it, or someone thinks that a publication’s coverage of something they care about is shitty, so they try to show that they can do it better. In the case of Cake magazine, the most “underground” journalistic media source at Ithaca College since the foundational years of the magazine I co-edit, Buzzsaw, the latter is true.

 Then-sophomore Ryan Bryant had written a few music reviews for The Ithacan, the college’s weekly newspaper, and he disagreed with the style and management structure of the paper. So he banded together with fellow music aficionados who felt variously unhappy with the way the existing publications on campus (including Buzzsaw and Imprint Magazine) handled music criticism. He decided to start his own and become editor-in-chief. Bryant wanted to focus on Ithaca’s local music scene, not on mainstream music, and feature whatever groups he wanted to.

 At Cake, he explained, “We’re a fan of people who don’t approach their music in the way that people like Rihanna or Katy Perry approach their music.” He added that the magazine is very democratic and purposefully without a rigid leadership structure. He said, “Every writer brings what they want—the writers really control the magazine.”

In its first semester, back in spring of 2009, Cake operated like a truly underground publication, surreptitiously printing 200 copies each month with the Ithaca College library printers, stapling them together and coloring in the magazine’s title with Sharpie marker. Since becoming an official, Student Government Association-sanctioned club, the magazine has expanded its print run to 300, using SGA funds to pay for the IC Printing & Duplicating services. They have been incredibly successful for a new organization, printing 4-5 issues each semester and even coordinating a Cake-stamped concert with Caution Children and These Electric Lives. Just last month, they published their 14th edition, and they've been written about by The Ithaca Journal and The Ithacan, the very publication they rebelled again. 

Even without the shady, print-on-the-downlow style that formerly defined Cake as a defiant “indy media” source, Bryant says the magazine has been able to maintain its independent spirit by continuing to publish whatever the writers and editors feel is interesting, without hierarchy, without taking orders from any higher-ups and by focusing on artists that have that indy edge themselves. Past editions of Cake have featured interviews with musical artists like Sia, Imogen Heap, Blitzen Trapper and Love & Logic, the band of IC alum Paul Canetti.

Bryant, a cinema & photography major, graduates this spring, and while he doesn’t have plans to continue with music journalism and reporting in any official capacity, he does encourage students with a similarly unsatisfied media desires to create their own rather than contribute to something they feel is unsatisfactory. How’s that for a slice of sweet advice? 

In one of my journalism classes the other day, my professor brought up the topic of citizen journalism and independent media, asking the class' opinion. Most of the class seemed unimpressed, denouncing it as unnecessary and with its own bevy of problems. It'd be fine if they earned "credentials," one student said. But when pressed to find out what those "credentials" would entail, the student couldn't respond. Other classmates said that indy media was fine, but it didn't really have a big impact or make any huge waves yet.

Rebecca Coffman and I beg to differ. Taking a page from the books of the folks behind "What the Fuck Has Obama Done So Far?," the website that was launched last week to highlight the Obama administration's accomplishments, we created "What the Fuck Has Indy Media Done So Far?," devoted to everything we've been learning about this semester. The fact is that Indy media is essential to the future of journalism in our country. There needs to be that alternative, and there's irrefutable proof that it's doing a better job at its mission - disseminating the news and holding people in power accountable - than corporate sources.

CHECK OUT what Rebecca and I produced!

They're not complex  PowerPoint presentations, but in today's journalistic landscape, with both independent and corporate sources, online photo slideshows are all the rage. And they certainly have their advantages (see slideshow).

But they also risk encouraging reader apathy. As someone who's clicked through more than my fair share of "The Cities with the Most __" and "The __ Most Hideous Celebrity Transformations" sort of slideshows, it's obvious that websites' reliance on photo slideshows in order to have consistent new content has gone a bit overboard in the past several years. Often, the slideshows involve very little information with very few links, begging the question of whether they're effective news-communicating items at all.

Of course, some photo slideshows are incredible, and there are definitely advantages to visually connecting a photo with a chunk of information about a perhaps-difficult-to-read-through story. But sometimes, I feel like that 24/7 television news cycle that we critique all of the time - the dilemma presented when you have to fill so many hours of airtime - seeps into the Internet news. To keep readers coming back and refreshing your site, are we relying too much on the repackaging of recent news into photo slideshows to produce content every few hours
Apparently, I'm the last person on Earth to have seen this ingenious new website, "What the Fuck Has Obama Done So Far," but I finally got directed over to it, and I'm incredibly impressed and really taken aback. For me, it's a perfect example of the independent power of the Internet and new media that's actually making a difference.

In the past few months, I have been admittedly stubborn about the "lack of action" that I perceived from President Obama. I suppose I was one of those "Why is all of the good stuff not happening now" kind of voters, and I was especially miffed at his stance on gay rights. 

But WTF Has Obama Done So Far reminded me of all of the small, little, isolated great things that the Obama administration has accomplished in the past two years.   The website, a simple, click-through-and-see-the-vast-range-of-accomplishments serves its purpose, making all of the awesome available in one place and telling idiots like me to stop complaining...stuff is definitely going down and getting done.

That's not to say that we shouldn't still be critical citizens; it's better to be overly critical than to be apathetic. But I think that my previous stance may have ignored the bureaucracy of the United States that doesn't go away just because there's a new sheriff in town. 

Hats off to WTF's creators, Shavanna Miller, Will Carlough and Richard Boenigk, who are now reveling in their unofficial press tour pimping out their indy web site and proving once again that regular citizens can recognize a need for a website or news source and simply create it on their own. The 4 million-plus views that WTF has reportedly received since its inception last week don't lie. 

Post-presentation, some Ithaca College kids with Kristof
The day after watching a citizen activist transform into a spectacular journalist (in Josh Fox’s Gasland), I saw a presentation by a spectacular journalist who transformed into an activist. Nicholas Kristof, one of the journalistic authorities on the genocide in Darfur and the importance of women’s education around the world, came to speak at Syracuse University

Kristof may not have started as an independent journalist…he worked for The New York Times and was, in fact, the newspaper’s very first blogger. But he is an outstanding example of a journalist who was passionate about a unique, difficult-to-report story and turned that passion into a lifelong, hugely important career that’s resulted in a George Polk Award. Now, Kristof writes books with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, about female access to education, including Half the SkyChina Wakes and Thunder from the East. Together, the two have won a Pulitizer Prize, making them the first husband-wife duo to win the award.

The speakers introducing Kristof echoed Amy Goodman when she said that Kristof is not content to do simple reporting—that he wants to “give voice to the voiceless” in other parts of the world.

In an example of more direct activism from Kristof, while covering the brothel system in Cambodia, he was so affected by the situation of the girls forced into that institutionalized corruption that he purchased two of the girls and gave them back to their families. His decision was a controversial one, but activist-journalist Kristof justified it without regard for the journalistic, “that’s not objective” bullshit. 

He said, “What we’re dealing with is not just tragedies, but opportunities as well: That you can take people who are squandered assets and turn them into productive, useful assets for their families, their communities, and their countries.”

Kristof gave advice on how to make people care – how to combat “Afghanistanism,” if you will: “If you want to call attention to mass rape,” he said, “it does no good at all to write about the issue on a mass basis; people aren’t interested in 1,000 people being raped. But they can be interested in one person being raped.” That is, find the face of the story, make people care about that face, and inspire them to save that face, which, naturally, will improve the situation of other similarly tragic faces. 

I’ve been blogging about LGBT-centric media sources for the past few weeks, and exploring this topic got me thinking seriously about the impact of these writers. If we can assume that the overwhelming majority of their readers identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered themselves, aren’t they already part of the cause? Isn’t writing about advocating for gay rights simply preaching to the choir?

To understand better, I spoke with Mike Lavers of EDGE, a network of local GLBT news and entertainment sites, where he serves as the national news editors and provides coverage from New York City.

He explains that LGBT-specific news sites are important because of the wide range of issues and diversity of perspectives present in the LGBT community that can’t possibly all be represented in mainstream media or general news outlets. These sources cater to their niche by providing thoughtful, extensive news and commentary on important issues beyond simply gay marriage and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which get huge amounts of play in broader media.

He says, “It allows you to delve into the complexity of the issues; it gives you the space to explore the nuance of the stories and the broader trends. We look at things that haven’t been covered by other reporters or other LGBT publications. It goes back to the question of ‘What’s the hole in the coverage, and how can we fill that?’”.

At the same time, he cautions, working for a LGBT-only (okay, how about LGBT-mostly) publication has its distinct disadvantages. He says, “It’s hard not to be pigeonholed as a gay reporter if you’ve been covering a specific beat for a specific publication.” That is, other employees or readers may come to associate you as “the gay journalist.”

In terms of advancing the movement, Lavers admits that part of the goal with EDGE’s content is to get the more breaking, new, less-covered information picked up by more widely-disseminated publications, which may or may not be corporate media. It’s a strange paradox, for sure: Publications like EDGE are writing because their views are not being discussed in the mainstream media, and yet their “sermons,” if you will, would not be distributed beyond “the choir” were it not for the same mainstream media they’re dissenting from

A few weeks ago on 30 Rock, the Tina Fey-headed NBC show about the production of a Saturday Night Live-style variety show, corporate media was once again skewered. This time, Fey's Liz Lemon learned about "vertical integration" from Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghey, an NBC higher-up who represents all that is unethical and self-interested in the land of TV. Here's the clip: 
30 Rock's been making jokes like these since its start back in 2006. But for the first time, I was struck by just how badass Fey's jokes really are. Her show is owned by NBC, which is owned by GE, and yet her characters reveal the hypocrisies and corruption within Big Media in nearly every episode. 

There're the show's parody of product placement in this clip, and the widely-discussed "Kabletown-GE merger" in the show, an obvious send-up of Comcast swallowing NBC whole in the real world by merging with GE. 30 Rock ridiculed NBC's decision to program "Green Week" into its creative line-ups, and it made clever fun of the network's total mishandling of the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien debacle from the spring. 

But how does 30 Rock have the freedom to blatantly criticize the corporate media and its own owner? Why is parody viewed as less damning than a serious news report about the dangers of corporate entanglements? GE has said that it's in on the joke, but the concepts that 30 Rock attacks are serious business practices and backroom deals that are actually happening in the real world. Why do they "get away" with the criticism?

And it's not just 30 Rock. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert prove with their shows that they can critize big media even when Comedy Central is owned by Viacom. If these comedians are speaking out and exposing hypocrisy, then why aren't news stations and media analysts with the corporate media platforms? 

Can someone get Kenneth the Page to help out with this investigation?