Independent media has the power to not only project the voices of the oppressed, but change mainstream narratives by bringing their issues to the forefront.

By Amanda Stewart, for The StoryBoard

On June 23, the Hamilton Independent Media Awards hosted a discussion panel at the Central Public Library in downtown Hamilton on the importance of independent media within a democratic society. 

The panel consisted of Michelle Both—managing editor of Unpack Magazine; Luz Hernandez—director of La Presencia Latina; Ryan McGreal—editor of the online news source Raise the Hammer; Nahnda Garlow—co-editor of Two Row Times; Terri Monture—human rights & equity representative of The Canadian Media Guild, and Joey Coleman—freelance independent journalist with the online news source The Public Record. Moderating the discussion was longtime Hamilton Spectator columnist Jeff Mahoney, who, although employed by a mainstream media outlet, has managed to maintain integrity and an independent voice within a corporate and shareholder-dominated world.

Mahoney opened the event with commentary on the role independent media plays in this current frontier of great social change, and the immense value it has in providing ordinary people with a diversity of voices. Independent media has the power to not only project the voices of the oppressed, overlooked, shunned and neglected, but it can completely change mainstream narratives by bringing those voices and issues to the forefront, sparking immense social change. However, independent media is not without challenges.

A common refrain among the panelists was the ongoing struggle of financial sustainability. As any freelancer knows, it can be difficult to produce media on a limited to non-existent budget, in one’s free time, and with or without volunteers. Being the conduit for often muzzled marginalized voices has its own specific problems. As Hernandez noted, it can be difficult when reporting information while representing a particular community, (in this case the Hispanic community), while striving to remain unbiased.

Garlow touched on The Two Row Times’ specific intention to avoid academic language in their reporting. Their goal is to keep the language as accessible as possible in order to create an environment of approachability and to provide an authentic voice for the very community they represent. This is often disregarded by mainstream media as unprofessional journalism.

Monture highlighted a current plight concerning employment within media as well. Unionized journalists are losing their jobs at an unprecedented rate and mainstream media is struggling to figure out how to best monetize freelancers. This creates problems that need to be addressed. While mainstream media is profit-driven, it also provides jobs for journalists. If all of the journalism jobs disappear, and all news sources become independent productions, then what will the future of journalism look like? Will freelancers operate with or without the same protections that unionized journalists have? What will media unionization look like in 5, 10, 20 years from now? The Canadian Media Guild has their fingers firmly on the pulse of this transition and recognizes the vital need to help freelancers navigate these new waters. But independent media must be as equally present and involved in contributing to shape the future of media.

An intriguing part of the discussion involved advertisers and media. The relationship between advertisers and mainstream corporate media can often be an adversarial one in which advertisers seek to control content and and limit journalistic integrity. This dynamic can cause the public to become distrustful of the content that is produced. The relationships between advertisers and independent media within specific communities (for example: newcomer, Hispanic, Indigenous) is far more symbiotic. The non-profit groups and businesses that tend to advertise in independent media spaces have a shared bottom line as well, but it’s one that is defined by the common interests of community, whether that be to better their community, amplify their voices, or to challenge stereotypes and to change narratives present in the broader culture.

A central theme of the discussion concerned the question of where media—both mainstream and independent—is headed. As Coleman stated, “the golden days of mainstream media are over.” He argued that the MSM is desperately seeking to survive in a rapidly digitizing and increasingly independent world, and is looking to the independent media world for answers.

Monture noted that many MSM outlets now have employees who do nothing else but to monitor social media platforms like Twitter, searching for what they hope will be the next big story. This is very different from the past, when reporters actually had the time and resources to seek out people and their stories. Monture also noted that in some cases, fishing for “the next big thing” on independent news feeds can lead mainstream media to look too closely, or to focus on singular issues and miss the complete picture.

Panelists argued that that independent media’s influence upon mainstream media has caused the MSM to undermine its own existence and to slowly make itself irrelevant. One example is the considerable gaps in news coverage in mainstream media publications. As Mahoney commented, the MSM has sections such as Business/Finance, Entertainment and Lifestyle but they do not have sections such as Labour, Newcomer and Indigenous. Independent media has all of those sections and more.

By constantly focusing on the number of “clicks” they can generate in a day, the MSM neglects the most important element: people and the stories that matter to them. Independent media is not shackled by the profit motive, and can therefore focus on the issues that are directly relevant to people and their communities. The bottom line for the MSM has always been, and still is, money. The bottom line for independent media has always been to bring issues kept in the dark into the light, bringing and neglected voices to the forefront.

As Monture stated in her closing comments: “Independent media is the heart of democracy.” Truly it is, for regular citizens and their concerns are the heart of independent media. The more mainstream media clings to an outdated, profit-driven model, the more independent media grows—and the more essential it becomes for social change and true democracy.

Amanda Stewart is a member of The Hamilton Independent Media Awards board.

This article originally appeared on the StoryBoard’s website, and is reprinted here with permission.

Illustration photo by Curtis Kennington, via Flickr.