Why the Media Consortium Sunsetted… And What’s Next

Members of the Media Consortium circa 2017

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — Audre Lorde

On June 14, 2018, at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, the Media Consortium met for the last time. The organization stopped public operations on June 30, 2018 and closed on December 31, 2018, having achieved its long-term goals and fulfilled its mission.

The largest vision of the Media Consortium — building a media system that is just and equitable — of course is not anywhere near done. However, after a year-long visioning process that concluded with the Detroit gathering, the Media Consortium as a body has determined that the work to come demands a new approach and a fresh start. We sunset in order to nurture a radical rethinking of the structure of media organizations and the broader media ecosystem, a rethinking centering racial justice and rooted in grassroots communities.

Mission Accomplished

The Media Consortium has achieved the goals we announced at our founding. In our 2005 Pocantico Declaration, members declared that the purpose of the Media Consortium would be to amplify the voice of progressive independent media; increase our collective clout; and strengthen and transform our individual businesses.

Over the past thirteen years, thanks especially to the work of former director Tracy van Slyke and former associate director Erin Polgreen, the Media Consortium built a sturdy, economically sustainable business model for progressive news centered on individual donors/members and supported by related external revenue. This model, based on using social media to drive traffic to email newsletters and then converting subscribers to donors, has now become the centerpiece of independent news business efforts elsewhere. For the Media Consortium, the strength of this model has been demonstrated by the fact that even as the number of establishment news outlets fell dramatically, the Media Consortium grew by 200%. Outlets like Mother Jones, Truthout, Bitch, The Real News Network, Rewire and The Young Turks have developed budgets well into the seven figures and become strong voices in the national media.

Starting in 2011, executive director Jo Ellen Green Kaiser (later joined by associate director Manolia Charlotin in 2016), focused on building a strong collaborative culture. Told that news outlets would never agree to work with each other, we proved this “common wisdom” wrong with our coverage by 25 outlets of the takeover of the Wisconsin capital in 2011 and with the Occupy May Day effort in 2012 that involved 65 outlets. In the six years since, the Media Consortium ran over forty collaborations, from a six-outlet look at pesticide use in Kauai to the recent #DisHonoroll project on campus sexual assault. Now, collaboration has become an institutionalized journalism practice at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State and at establishment outlets like The Guardian and ProPublica.

The Media Consortium embarked on collaborative efforts out of a belief that collaboration would lead to increased impact. To test that hypothesis, we partnered in 2014 with Prof. Gary King of Harvard on a scientific study to measure whether collaborative stories on particular topics changed public conversation on Twitter. That effort led to a groundbreaking report King published in Science magazine in 2017 demonstrating that even small outlets can have an outsize effect on public conversation when they work together. Goal achieved: impact created and proved.

Members never saw the Media Consortium simply as a means to improve their own outlets. An important objective of the non-profit Media Consortium was to support the entire independent media sector. To that end, we focused heavily on media policy at a time when the independent sector has faced existential threats ranging from telecom ownership of the internet to arrests of independent and citizen journalists to the growing dominance of platform monopolies. In response, we worked closely with allies in media policy on net neutrality, joined RCFP to sign over two dozen amici briefs in support of First Amendment rights for all acts of journalism, and supported efforts behind the scenes to push back against the platforms. To build the capacity for reporting on these threats, we ran a Media Policy Reporting Project, training over 50 reporters in the beat and producing over 300 media policy focused stories.

We thank OSF for funding our business-focused Innovation Labs from 2009–2011, the Voqal Fund for supporting our impact study with Prof. King in 2014–2017, and the Media Democracy Fund for funding our media policy work. Profound gratitude to the Quixote Foundation for its vision, and especially to the Wallace Global Fund, which provided general support from 2010–2018. Special thanks to the Foundation for National Progress, which served as our fiscal sponsor and gave us in-kind support, and to the New Economy Coalition for their fundraising support and partnership on the New Economy Reporting Project.

The Challenge of Racial Equity

A strategic review in 2015 led Media Consortium Director Jo Ellen Kaiser to lift up racial equity as the most critical challenge facing the progressive news sector. Progressive news in 2015 was still largely run by white people, still assumed a white audience, and, though attempting to cover issues impacting communities of color, did not have relationships with those communities. Mindful that “diversity” efforts had not succeeded in addressing these specific challenges, The Media Consortium chose to focus on equity instead of diversity and inclusion. Instead of building a “pipeline” for journalists of color, the Media Consortium began efforts to build workplaces where journalists of color would be the decision-makers, the wielders of power instead of its top-down beneficiaries.

From 2015 the Media Consortium has pursued that goal by

· Hiring Haitian-American Manolia Charlotin in 2016 as Membership and then Associate Director;

· Creating a TMCinColor listserv in 2016 as a safe space for journalists of color;

· Paying for 60 members to take a full-day racial equity workshop run by Race Forward in 2016;

· Using travel grants to ensure that 50% of speakers at our 2016 conference were journalists of color;

· Changing the conference format in 2017 to an unconference to give every participant the opportunity to shape the organization’s direction;

· Using travel grants to ensure that over 50% of participants at our 2016, 2017, and 2018 conferences were journalists of color.

This work, and the intentions around it, have already produced concrete changes among Media Consortium members. Bitch Media and Yes! magazine reorganized their staffs as a direct result of our 2016 meeting. Members like Scalawag, The Real News Network, Berrett-Koehler, and Democracy Now! found support for their already-existing efforts to employ a racial equity lens in their work.

As we moved deeper into equity work, however, we recognized that going further would require resources the Media Consortium did not have and was not able to obtain. Most journalism foundations seem more interested in funding mentorship, fellowship and pipeline programs that move journalists of color from place to place rather than funding programs that create opportunities for journalists and business-side staff of color to obtain positions of power where they currently work.

We also came to understand that the best way to build a racially equitable journalism sector would be to center media and media makers already working in communities of color — to build power from the grassroots to the grasstops, rather than keeping power at the top and drawing individuals up.

We also came to understand that the Media Consortium was not the best container for such work. It was founded by a small circle of elite, white-run (and mostly male-dominated) independent outlets, and despite efforts to democratize and diversify its membership, the organization’s history continued to structure its programs, in much the same way that our skeletons determine our body size and shape.

The work of racial equity is deeply rooted in a set of social, moral and political values. Promoting racial equity (as opposed to racial diversity) means believing in the necessity of intersectional analyses of race, gender and class; believing that capitalist economies rely on the exploitation of black and brown people; and believing that white supremacy, patriarchy, mono-lingualism, ableism, and other power analyses are real and must be sites of contestation in our culture.

Journalism institutions — including journalism schools, journalism membership organizations, journalism foundations and the largest news outlets — generally don’t want to hear these perspectives. Indeed, in their recent desire to appeal to the “Trump voter” or “middle America,” journalism institutions have been rejecting overtly values-based work, even as they admit that true journalistic “objectivity” does not and cannot exist. That means the work of racial equity in media is going to have to move to social justice spaces if it is going to find resources and partners.

Where We Go From Here: Movement Journalism

The journalism world is innately conservative — not in its partisan politics, which skew liberal Democrat, but in its refusal to adapt to new circumstances and a changing world. Nothing stands still, however, and there are exciting new efforts happening right now in the journalism sector.

New Voices New Jersey and New Voices North Carolina, run by Free Press and supported by the Democracy Fund, point to a community-centered vision for journalism. City Bureau in Chicago is receiving generous support because they have developed a model for centering community that also maintains many traditional journalistic practices. The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has built collaborative ties between community outlets across Boston. Allied Media Projects has worked for over a decade to promote local media makers in Detroit, particularly individuals who cross boundaries between art, education, and reporting. And there are exciting projects happening in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Arkansas; Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

At our Detroit gathering this year, Media Consortium members were most enthusiastic about an effort begun by Anna Simonton which she has termed Movement Journalism. So were attendees at the Allied Media Conference, where Movement Journalism track sessions were so full that people were turned away at the doors.

Movement Journalism argues that social justice movements — and grassroots civil society efforts generally — should be as important to journalists as are Wall Street numbers or pronouncements by politicians. If we think the stock market rising is a story, why isn’t the rise of a people’s movement a story? If we will run a story about a politician’s ideas for affordable housing, why shouldn’t we run a story about a land trust that actually is making affordable housing a reality right now?

Movement Journalism is about empowering people in a community to tell the stories of their community — with journalists supporting them, rather than vice versa. Movement journalists are as willing to sit down with activists and advocates as establishment journalists are to sit down with politicians and bankers. Movement Journalism insists journalists be transparent about our values, even as we pursue a craft that requires us to follow a story where ever it leads.

We are pleased to announce that the Center for Movement Journalism launches on January 1, 2019, with generous support from the News Integrity Initiative and the Foundation for a Just Society — and the remaining Media Consortium funds (approx. $24,000). The Center’s first co-directors will be Anna Simonton and Manolia Charlotin, who will begin by launching a fellowship program to build capacity for grassroots storytellers from the American South. The Center also will launch a national training program in movement journalism run by Lewis Wallace and Mia Henry. Jo Ellen Kaiser will provide operational support for the Center’s first six months.

As the Center for Movement Journalism comes into being, outlets and individuals that were members of the Media Consortium will continue to work on specific projects together: continuing to fight back against platform monopolies by supporting new tools for content distribution and audience engagement; researching new economic models for journalism including coops and public funding; identifying organizations already doing grassroots journalism training and developing a curriculum based on best practices; and sharing power and building power by supporting hubs of local community news outlets, especially those that center communities of color.

The work continues.

“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”
 — Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut