Phillip Smith

A progressive media alliance

Reservoir Dawgs: Dawn and Michelle from The Tyee, Matt, and Mason from This Magazine

This is just a quick re-cap of my speaking notes from a gathering that Dawn Buie, Matt Thompson, and I pulled together at the tail end of the Independent Press Association’s conference earlier this year. I felt that it was important to re-visit these thoughts, and to publish them here, as Magazines University approaches next week. A lot has happened since that gathering in San Francisco — a gathering that brought together people from Briarpatch, This Magazine, The Tyee, Maisoneve, and New Internationalist — and there are several conversations underway toward both a national Canadian gathering to explore these possibilities and several smaller events at a regional level to ensure that the necessary work happens at the grassroots and grasstops… but more on that later. First, the (slightly edited) transcript of that conversation:

Why are we here: the need for a progressive media alliance

Dawn, Matt, and I spent four days together on Cortez Island last September and we recognized that there was energy around this conversation; it’s a conversation that explores what it would look like if progressive independent media — online publications, print publications, radio, film, and grassroots organizations — could work together. 

Specifically, we were interested in practical opportunities for like-minded publications to share technology, skills, and knowledge. And, given the differences between our countries, to focus on this in the context of Canadian voices and values.

As you’ve seen here at the IPA conference, the US is faced with its own unique challenges and opportunities for independent media — and the same is true in Canada. The IPA, though a fantastic organizations, is clearly knee-deep in the challenges of its US members and, for me, there is a lot of work ahead to bring a similar effort to Canada. 

In Canada, there are different funding and support models for publications — or a lack of funding if you only publish online. There are unique challenges around fundraising and tax status differences. And, finally, we have our own unique laws, including those that extend to copyright, fair dealing, and media bans (think blogs and the federal election results).

I’m happy that Magazines Canada are here with us today, and hope that they’ll take this opportunity to look at the their role in being a part of the progressive independent press movement in Canada...

Human nature is collaborative

All that said: Dawn, Matt, and I have backgrounds that are thoroughly grounded in technology and in creating online experiences. Dawn is the Web producer for The Tyee — a fantastic example of the power of online media to be nimble, quick, and high-impact. Matt comes with experience from International World Television — an innovative initiative that aims to bring corporate-ownership-free and advertising-free TV to the world community. And, for my part, I’ve had the honour of working with both traditional and online publications, campaigning organizations, and progressive non-profits.

At that meeting several months ago, Dawn, Matt, and I committed to convening a conversation of like-minded publications to talk about the idea that technology provides an opportunity for us to work together... and to work together without getting into the quicksand of politics, ego, or competition. 

The reality is that each of your publications is already committed to sharing; as Canadian independent publications you each share readers, subscribers, donors, and Web visitors. Often, you also share writers, service providers, and — at some level — personal politics.

So, if we’re all sharing already, then why are we here to discuss it further? 

Because the Internet is evolving; and because that has a HUGE impact on independent publications. 

The Web is evolving

If you haven’t seen the Web video called Epic 2014 yet, it’s time that you watched it. It’s a simple video that tells the story of our times, the story of the evolving face of online media. In short: it’s the story of the battle between Google and Microsoft and the innocent bystander is the mediascape as we know it.

What is changing is the relationship between the audience and the media. Slowly but surely, new Web users grow up and become competent information warriors. And, as new generations come online, this will only become more true. These Information warriors want the news their way, when and where they want it. Traditional brand loyalty and trust is being challenged by citizen media sources, human-filtered news, and increasingly short attention spans. And, more often, the big corporate media is taking notice and changing their approach to online publishing. 

Our question is: are your publications ready for these shifts? And our invitation is: collectively we can help to build interoperability among progressive publications — in Canada and beyond — that makes it easy for us to:

  • Be an active participant in these changes
  • Stay ahead of the corporate media monopoly

The infamous Web 2.0

So, how is the Web changing and why does that matter to us? Well, you may have heard the term “Web 2.0” and — even though the meaning of the term often shifts — it provides a good place to begin our conversation...

In his article “what is Web 2.0,” Tim O’reilly describes a “distributed architecture of participation” that is at the root of a new information ecosystem. It is a shift that puts users and a better user experience in the spotlight. He sites the difference between Hotmail and Google’s Gmail as one example of the shift in user experience; and he points to communities like the Flickr photo sharing community as an example of user-focused design and the “perpetual beta,” a product that recognizes that the Web is evolving and that users are a part of that evolution.

This is an evolution — perhaps a revolution — where content producers are taking a back seat to community facilitators. And, as these technologies of cooperation are adopted by our communities, readers, Web visitors, and staff, we are brought even more closely together in a Web of interconnectedness. These connections are the fuel of the future internet and, as O’reilly describes, many companies like Amazon have figured that out. 

The article that coined the term “the long tail” describes how the ASIN — the Amazon Standard Identification Number — is quickly replacing the ISBN as the standard for data about books and serials, mostly because it contains data produced by users, like recommendations and purchasing patterns.

How are we, as independent publications, leveraging the power of user-generated content and data? 

The long tail

So, in the story of the long tail, progressive publications have an important role to play. As mentioned, many of you are already sharing information as intimate as your subscriber lists. So, as the cost of technology comes down and the opportunity cost of not adopting it goes up, another question is: are there more practical opportunities for progressive publications to be working together? 

In the article about the long tail, the author documents a theory of infinite consumer appetite: as long as there is something to buy, and a way to find it, — no matter how obscure the title is — there is a market for it out there in the world somewhere. The clearest example given is that of Amazon, where titles not on the top 3000 “best sellers” list are suspected to generate more overall revenue (though, that is now somewhat in question). So, there is a long tail of consumer interest that seems to have no end — if you produce it, someone out there will buy it.

All arguments of over-consumption aside, I think this presents an opportunity for independent publications. It tells me that as people are introduced to new titles, they will subscribe. And, this will happen even more if the titles come through social recommendations and personal interconnections.

There is an opportunity for us to explore how we — as a network of progressive publications — can help our readers, subscribers, and Web visitors create these connections.


There were, of course, several recommendations made to start our discussions that day — and a lot of excitement and conversation about the opportunities and challenges ahead — but, for the sake of building a little suspense (and having something to blog about another day this week or next), I’m going to leave things there for today.

Does this resonate for you? Do you work for or with an independent media initiative? For a progressive publication? For a media research department or a media justice organization? If so, why don’t you drop me a note so we can all continue this conversation together. Know of an organization or an initiative that is doing this work already — or an orgnaization that we should know about — why not drop their information in the comment form below?


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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