Beyond the Margins: A Roundtable on Radical Publishing
This roundtable assembles members of left publications based in Canada and the United States to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing radical media in the current political, economic, and cultural climate. Although Canadian Dimension, Media Co-op, Briarpatch, Left Turn, and Z Magazine have varied histories and different approaches to production, funding, and distribution, each retains a commitment to activist media, to publishing critical and radical viewpoints, and to developing alternative models of producing media within and against capitalism.
Jordan Flaherty is a member of the editorial collective of Left Turn, an anti-capitalist magazine written and edited by organizers and activists. His new book, Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, will be published in February by Haymarket Press. He is based in New Orleans.
Cy Gonick is the publisher and coordinating editor of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Canadian Dimension magazine, which has been publishing since 1963. Gonick is also the executive producer of CD’s weekly radio show, Alert.
Dru Oja Jay is a member of the editorial collective of The Dominion newspaper and an editor/member of the Media Co-op, a reader-funded and member-run news co-operative. He is based in Montréal, Quebec.
Dave Mitchell has been editor of Regina, Saskatchewan-based Briarpatch magazine since 2005. Briarpatch has been publishing since 1973.
Chris Spannos is an editor for ZNet, a project of Z Communications (home to Z Magazine, Z Media Institute and Z Video). All Z projects are oriented toward promoting a fundamental social change in current oppressive world conditions. Chris spent six years volunteering at Vancouver Co-op Radio and is currently located in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Recently, both popular discourse and conversations on the left have focused on the question of crisis, including the financial crisis and a related, ongoing crisis in corporate and mainstream media. As publishers of radical and left media, how does the current climate of crisis affect your work?
Cy: Canadian Dimension has been around for over 45 years and we’ve been through crises before. Crises are both exciting and difficult times for magazines on the left. We experience a financial crunch because some advertising money – of course, we don’t get a lot of advertisers, but such as they are – comes in much more slowly, so a cash problem arises from that. The exciting thing is that we have found over the years that when mobilizing is beginning, when demonstrations are held and demands drawn as tends to happen in a crisis, then there is a strong surge of interest in ideas and wanting to communicate. And so we find that our subscriptions and readership rise significantly. That’s beginning to happen now, but we’re not anywhere near where we expect to be.
In 1970, which is less than 10 years after we started, our circulation was about 2,500 or 3,000. Over the next five years it rose to 7,000, a massive increase due to all the political activity. Then it gradually fell back, and then began to rise again with the anti-globalization movement in the 1990s, and it’s continuing to increase. In that sense, editorially, this is a good time for us. And we hope we’re responding well.
Dru: We’re in a situation in Canada where, most broadly, there’s a lack of basic understanding of what’s going on in the world. The media neglects to present the basic facts. Today [September 24, 2009], for example, there’s an article in La Presse that talks about the situation in Honduras, and nowhere is it mentioned that the troops have been firing live bullets. You have a total lack of basic information on a daily basis. What we set out to do with The Dominion is provide a basic level of information about what Canada is up to in the world and what powerful forces within Canada are doing. That led us to focus on foreign policy, because it’s a major area that gets very little accurate coverage outside of independent media. Another main area of focus is relations with Indigenous people within Canada, which are either poorly covered or not covered at all.
We’ve tried to give the small number of people working on these issues tools to inform themselves and the people they encounter and to raise the level of awareness of what’s going on, which is a precursor to mobilizing. Obviously, as Cy said – we haven’t seen it in the same way because we haven’t been around for 45 years – when there’s a major mobilization or a major resurgence of interest or political activity, it’s important for infrastructure to be there for people to get informed rapidly. We’re in the early stages of trying to build that infrastructure. The Dominion has been around for six years, but the Media Co-op locals in Halifax, Vancouver, and Toronto are an attempt to do that on a more local level – to provide a venue for social movements, for people who are looking to engage local issues. We want to provide a venue for them to share information, but also to provide a larger network of support for the kind of journalism and information we want to publish in general. That’s how we’re trying to respond to the current situation.
Dave: As Cy and Dru said, the economic crisis is an opportunity for alternative media. What we’re seeing in the crisis for journalism is that it’s creating a vacuum, especially for local and regional media. Briarpatch, probably against anybody’s better judgment, has taken this economic time to leap into a new publication. We’ve just launched The Sasquatch [in 2009], which focuses on provincial news and current events in Saskatchewan. This has enabled Briarpatch to focus on national and international issues while still serving our local support base.1 Publications whose purpose it is to sell audiences to advertisers are in big trouble. Publications like the ones participating in this discussion, which seek to produce news for an audience, are less affected by the economic crisis and can really use this time – when people are sitting up and paying attention – as an opportunity to give them information to make sense of what is going on.
Chris: I have conflicted feelings about the current political, economic, and cultural climates. On the one hand, I see more potential than ever to reach a receptive audience. In the US, and I think it’s similar in Canada, the majority of the population is against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that’s hopeful by way of having sympathetic readers or listeners. There is potential to build movements, but reaching those people is very difficult. The highest subscription rates for Z Magazine, in the 1980s, were aorund 15,000. Today it’s dropped significantly, to only 5,000. The magazine is struggling. Of course, the new climate imposes this on all print media and all print publications are struggling. We’re at risk of having to make serious changes. We’ve already cut back on the number of pages we print and on the quality of paper we’re using. We’re worried. This is a very relevant discussion for us because we’re getting ready to enter a fundraiser. The bottom line is that we need money to reach people and to be sustainable. That money can either come from a subscription base, from advertising, or from some kind of government funding or benefactor.
Jordan: We think the crisis has made our work as independent media makers both harder and more important. The US military has not withdrawn from Iraq, but the US media has. The US broadcast network news divisions have stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq. And more than 525 US magazines went out of business in 2008. There is certainly a crisis in media distribution and funding. Consumption of media hasn’t gone down – if anything, it’s gone way up. But as more and more people have become accustomed to getting their media online and for free, who will fund journalism, especially independent, grassroots, and non-corporate journalism? We’re struggling with these questions.
Each of your publications has different operating and funding models. How do you fund and distribute your publications? Are the people who contribute paid? Why have you chosen to operate in these particular ways?
Jordan: The Left Turn editorial collective has eight members spread around the US. I’m in New Orleans, and we have folks in New York, California, DC, Chicago, and North Carolina. We don’t have any paid staff. All the work is done through email and conference calls, and we get together once a year for a meeting. We have about 20 folks around the country who do writing, distribution, proofreading, the website, finance work, and other aspects of the project. We have a little office space in New York, but it’s not really used. The magazine was started in 2001 and was mostly run by one person, Bilal El-Amine. He moved to Lebanon in 2004 and handed it off to a group to take over as a collective. So, instead of being people who wanted to start a magazine, we were all organizers in different movements who had a magazine fall into our laps. We didn’t know the rules of doing a magazine, so we were making it up as we went along. We’re always thinking about how this can be useful to movements rather than how we can create a magazine that will be profitable. Because we have this model with no paid staff and no office, we’ve actually been really successful. When we took over the magazine it was in debt and we’re financially fine right now. We’ve doubled our circulation in the past five years. We feel the magazine is better than ever. It looks better; it’s sometimes slightly longer. Our circulation is around 5,000 copies per issue.
We don’t want to be the magazine of the broad left, but a magazine written by and for people directly involved in social movements, so we feel our audience is a smaller core. We’re not trying to grow much more, but we feel happy with who we do reach. In terms of distribution, we have a base of subscribers and sustainers. Many bookstores have lost money and have gone under when distributors went bankrupt, so we have lost distribution opportunities there, too. A big part of our model is grassroots organizations and other distributors. We send out bulk copies, anywhere from five to 100 copies, to grassroots organizations that we admire across the country, and they send us back $5 to zero dollars per issue, on average about $1 per issue. They sell it or give it out to people. We feel like we have a direct, one-on-one relationship with the people who read the magazine because we’re in touch with this grassroots network. Many of them write for the magazine. They are people doing work we really admire and value.
Cy: Canadian Dimension as an organization sounds something like Left Turn. We have a large editorial collective that operates on the internet and is made up of people from across Canada and a few US members. All the editorial work is done on the internet, which has totally changed the way we function. Our magazine is older than others represented here. We’ve gone through many different models, but with the internet it’s radically different and improved. Our members are all activists, and while some are university based, most are not. They’re in the labour movement, Aboriginal movements, the women’s movement, and, increasingly, the environmental movement. Their input reflects their involvement in these movements. We have a little office in Winnipeg, which does the business end of the work. We’ve been blessed with excellent people who come out of the university student movements and the student press. Financially, we are very much dependent on readers; we always have been. Until a few years ago, we never took money from governments. What we are totally dependent on is not just subscription money but donations that come from some subscribers on top of their subscription. Currently, many subscribers do this, and that’s really what has kept the magazine alive from the beginning, and as much now as ever. We do take some advertising, mostly from unions and left-wing publishers; we have no problem with that.
In terms of paying people, we have always had this policy: if people have regular employment, university or not, we don’t pay for their articles. We pay journalists, writers, and low-income folks, and we pride ourselves on this. We pay a pretty decent fee for articles and artwork. As the economic crisis unfolds people are hungrier than ever for money, so we make sure we pay on time. What’s been happening with us, maybe more so because we’ve been around for so long, is that much of our material is coming from younger writers, which is great because they bring readers with them. Many of them are low-income, so we’re putting more money into getting material from writers than we have in the past. So far, we’ve been able to do that without major issues. If we can’t pay, if we’re in a financial crunch, we appeal to our readers. And they come through, as they have always come through.
Chris: When Z was created, its mandate was focused on ending oppression in all aspects of life. The project communicates that in the content it carries: the magazine and website run articles that focus on gender, class, race, decision-making, ecology, and international relations. But aside from being explicit in its mandate and advocating social transformation, the project also sought to reorganize its internal structure. The founders tried not to replicate racist/sexist/classist divisions of labour within the workplace in producing media. It’s one thing to try to do that in ideal conditions and another to do it in the real world and try to fine-tune it on a day-to-day basis. Under current circumstances, we are all paid the same. We try to have a high degree of self-management in the workplace; we organize our own activities according to our responsibilities and the need to help out around the office.
We have five paid staff and we try to pay all contributors. Z operates on subscriber-based funding for the magazine and sustainer-based funding for online media. We don’t accept payment for advertising and we don’t chase down government grants. Ethically, we’re opposed to advertising. The magazine runs free advertising for good causes that fit politically with the mandate. But on principle we’re opposed to selling our readership. The problem with grants is that organizations become reliant on them. Take my experiences at Co-op Radio in Vancouver. Thirty percent of our funding came from listeners, 30 percent came from provincial funding, and 30 percent from federal funding. Every year, not only did we have to struggle to keep up listener-supported funding, but we also didn’t know if we were going to get provincial or federal funding. Luckily, Michael Albert and Lydia Sargent at Z managed early on to build something that was strictly subscriber-based. Another thing that positions Z in a unique way is that it was one of the first websites catering to the left. If we tried to do what we’re doing today, from scratch, it probably wouldn’t fly. It’s grown and evolved over the years so that even though in the current climate the print magazine is struggling, we’re able to maintain it by subsidizing it with online donations. So ZNet subsidizes Z Magazine. We’ve got a sustainer base of 5,000 people, they donate $1 or more a month, and we need to develop that to keep both projects going.
Dru: The Dominion and the Media Co-op have certainly been inspired to a large extent by the discussions and the thinking behind what Z Magazine and ZNet have done. Michael Albert’s famous essay “What makes alternative media alternative?” has certainly been a big influence, even if we’ve been frustrated by our inability to live up to it. We started out with the idea that everyone would do a little bit of everything but quickly realized that specialization would be much more efficient. Consequently, we try to make sure that nobody is getting the brunt of the work that nobody else wants to do, while also focusing on individual competencies.
We started out with some necessary naïveté. If we had known then what we know now, I don’t know if we would have started the project. Six years ago, a few of us started The Dominion. The idea was to start a left-wing national newspaper because that was what was needed. We thought we’d just start doing it and hoped the funding would come through. We’ve evolved quite a bit since then. We were an all-volunteer operation from the beginning, and then we got a few large donations that allowed us to put in some extra time early on. In the first year I was paid for at least a few months – basically my rent was covered, which allowed me to work on the paper. We’ve evolved in the sense that we realized that if we want to meet the ambition we have, which is to make something that can reach a significant portion of the Canadian population, then we’re going to have to re-think everything that we’re doing. We realized that we could continue to limp along as a volunteer organization and keep a steady stream of volunteers coming in, putting in a lot of hours and then burning out, or we could try something else. After a lot of different ideas, based on a number of influences and discussions, we came up with the idea of starting a media co-operative.
The idea behind the Media Co-op is that it will be the publisher, or the parent organization, of The Dominion. Within the current media model, people are used to getting their news for “free.” The problem is that people are used to picking up a paper for $1; they have no idea that the money that’s paying for that journalism is coming from people who are advertising in that newspaper. The idea of a media co-operative is that you’re not just a consumer or a customer, but you’re actually someone who is involved in every aspect of the Co-op, and there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. We need people to contribute money to make the journalism happen, but we also need people to write, to edit, and to organize, and they have to be paid.
We have reader/members, who contribute financially but they’re also invited to get involved by telling us what they want to see covered, what angles we’re missing, sharing story ideas, and even contributing research to stories. There are also editor/members, who are the organizers who keep everything together and ensure a high standard of journalism. We have contributor/members (writers, artists, video producers); they’re the people who are paid through the Co-op to do work. That’s the ideal scenario. We’re currently in our second year of operation. We have about 150 people signed up as sustaining members, which means they give $5 or more per month to financially sustain the Co-op. That’s been a major focus of this past year. We’ve done a huge amount of work getting people to sign up. With that money we’re able to pay, in an extremely meagre fashion, some part-time staff at various rates, depending on negotiations that happen within the collective and based on people’s needs. We’re currently able to pay $100 to two writers per month to write an article. It was actually easier when we didn’t pay anyone, as now we have to decide who gets paid. It’s a difficult balancing act to transition into a paying model.
We are also setting up local organizations. In order to get a broad base of support, we can’t just have a nebulous organization that doesn’t exist anywhere but tries to exist everywhere. We wanted to have a locally rooted aspect to the Media Co-op. We started what we call locals in Halifax, Vancouver, and Toronto. Once we get a certain number of sustainers in each local, we can pay local writers to cover local issues and we will invite all of our members to participate in deciding what gets covered and how it gets covered. It’s been a really interesting experiment so far.
We decided to cover the new midwifery legislation in Nova Scotia and we got a dozen people posting long comments telling their own stories about their experience with the current laws, and those provided a rich background for the journalist who ended up writing the story. That’s the kind of thing we’re hoping to do in the future: draw on the expertise of our membership and their understanding and lived experiences. This is our first year of operating and the idea is to rapidly expand the number of sustainers to a point where we can pay all of our writers and engage a very large membership through our website. We’d like to have several layers of editorial content, starting with things people post on the website, moving to stories that are approved by an editorial collective, and then taking the best content, putting it in The Dominion and distributing the paper across Canada through the locals.
Dave: The Media Co-op model is one of the more exciting things I’ve been hearing about. The funding question and where we get our money is something that we’ve all been banging our heads against repeatedly. There are lots of fixes but no easy answer that enables us to sustain our work and pay ourselves well and produce the quality journalism that’s needed and that we want to produce to compete with bigger magazines and newspapers. Briarpatch’s funding model has evolved over the past 36 years. It’s about one-third fundraising and donations from readers (we do twice-yearly appeals), one-third subscription and newsstand sales, and one-third advertising. We also get employment grants and postal subsidies from the federal government. We spread that out thin enough that we’re not too dependent on any one source and can adjust as needed to changing circumstances. A non-profit organization run by a volunteer board publishes the magazine. We’ve got a core staff of two that is full-time and unionized. A little over a year ago, we started consistently paying contributors. We set a rate we can meet, which isn’t as much as we’d like to pay, but we’re hoping to raise it over time. Previously, people were largely volunteering their craft for the magazine. But we recognize that creating a sustainable alternative media movement means being able to pay people to do it. We rely on volunteers to help with fundraisers, stuff envelopes, and do the mailing of the magazine, but we’ve really tried to prioritize paying people for their work when we can, and that starts with the core staff. It’s an effort to create a sustainable job for people who will stick with it over time, to avoid the burnout phenomenon of people moving on to jobs that can actually pay them. It is always a work in progress and we’re always looking for new revenue streams or funding models that will allow us to do the work we want to do without compromising our integrity.
Are your publications connected to any movements? Is radical publishing itself a political act, or do you feel that publishing needs to be integrated into larger struggles?
Cy: Canadian Dimension has always been connected to social movements of one kind or another. It didn’t start out that way, but it became that way quite a while ago and it continues to be. Politically, it’s inseparable. We are a reflection of the politics of the movements, and hopefully we make some contribution there. I think what happens over time is that the politics of the left have expanded into areas that it never bothered with before. Our magazine has drastically changed its content as a consequence. A few issues ago, we put out a queer issue, which is something we’ve never done before. The issue was produced by individuals who are involved in queer movements around the country. We’re now putting together an issue related to the Copenhagen meetings [published in December 2009], produced by people involved in eco-socialist movements in Canada, including a contingent of Indigenous folks. Along with Indigenous movements, we have produced an “Indian Country” issue each year, and each issue we do has some content on Native issues. Those are relatively new, but we’ve always been connected to labour and peace movements. Our project is a political project in itself, but it lives or dies based on its connection with the movements.
Dave: One of the roles that the radical press plays is creating space where activists from different social movements can connect and exchange ideas. One of the things we’ve been seeing with the proliferation of online media and social media is the fragmentation of communities, where everyone’s identifying with their own communities of like-minded people. The alternative press can be the glue for the broader left, or broader social movements, so activists can share strategies across movements. One of the reasons we started The Sasquatch is because, in Saskatchewan, there are a lot of social movements but they’re not talking to each other, and there’s no space to share ideas and information. Briarpatch used to play that role when it was a regional publication but it can’t do that anymore now that the majority of its readers are outside the province, and we see that as an important role that the alternative press is well-equipped to fill.
Chris: As far as being connected to movements, of course we believe it’s fundamentally important. I think the content, and the people who write for us reflect that, and the people who donate and participate reflect that. But I think it’s equally important to reach out beyond movements when resources allow, to engage others, and I wouldn’t want to limit our discussion. That’s an aspect of how we see our publishing as being a political act.
Dru: In terms of our relationship to movements, it’s been tricky. There is a tension between being totally movement focused and providing the larger context. Instead of attempting to speak just to movements, we see our role as attempting to connect a broader audience to what movements are up to. I also want to be a little bit cautious when using the word “movements.” When I think of a movement, I think of thousands of people. A lot of the movements we deal with are effectively only a couple hundred people at most, unfortunately, and even that might be optimistic. So when we published an issue on foreign policy, for example, the idea was to connect people in a broader way to the sort of work that’s going on. The relationship to movements comes in the hope that the special issues we produce will be tools for social movements and also inform people beyond those movements’ limits. We’ve always been motivated by trying to connect the people who live in Canada to the effects that the people who represent them are having in the rest of the world. Take the coup in Haiti that overthrew a democratically elected government. Canada is complicit in a campaign of repression through which thousands of people were killed or have become political prisoners. When that kind of thing happens, there’s a real need to connect as many people as possible to what’s going on. That’s been our main goal in terms of how we try to relate to movements. The fundamental problem is that there are only ever a few hundred people actively working on that question, even though it involves egregious crimes on an international scale. There’s still not really a movement around it significant enough to affect policy, so we see our role as trying to broaden as much as possible the potential for people to get involved and be informed.
Jordan: We share a lot of common ground with other folks on this discussion. We try to have the magazine written by folks directly involved in movements, which means working with first time authors, or those who don’t have much experience with writing. We want that firsthand perspective, but we also don’t want glorified press releases. We want people to be honest and to give real insight and critiques of work they’re doing and the work that’s happening in their movement. We want to link local and international issues. The Middle East in general and Palestine in particular have been an important part of our magazine. Our analysis is that if you’re concerned about social justice, what’s happening in the Middle East and the role of anti-Islam and anti-Arabism in US policy is a really important part of the analysis. We are always asking ourselves wider questions, like: is a movement publication an important part of movements? Is it the right thing to be doing? Does it strategically make sense? Even though we have been growing, we wonder if people still read publications the way they used to. How much are other forms of media, such as online media, taking over that role? How long will it keep making sense to do a print publication? I don’t have answers to any of these questions but I do think they’re important. Things have changed rapidly and in major ways. When people read things online they don’t really absorb information in the same way; it’s not the same thing. But to be working on a publication now is not the same thing as 10 years ago and certainly not 50 years ago. The number of people you can reach and the way you can reach them has changed, both in terms of people’s habits and in terms of distribution, such as the decline of bookstores.
Cy: We’ve never considered stopping publishing and moving totally online. We do have a website and we know the numbers, but what we’ve found, interestingly, is that most of the people who visit our site are not readers of the magazine and relatively few – surprisingly few – of our subscribers go online. We have a weekly radio show that is aired on campus/community radio stations across the country and is podcasted. It’s been lots of fun. It’s making a real contribution and bringing new people into Dimension politics. The radio show is an extension of the magazine; we interview people who write for and who are in the magazine.
In terms of social movements and a commitment to them, we too extend ourselves beyond social movements. For example, we’ve made a decision to bring into the magazine much more culture: artists, photographers, poets, filmmakers. We devote a significant amount of space and money to the culture front. The magazine looks a lot better and we’re hoping it brings the politics of the magazine to a broader audience and connects us with artists.
Dru: Culture is an interesting question. We’ve been struggling with and have had an arts section off and on. The focus has been on explicitly political art, for better or worse. What we’ve settled on for now is covering art that comes out of political situations, even if its not explicitly political, such as art that comes out of social movements, displacements, or mega projects – the kinds of things we cover.
As for writing for social movements versus trying to address broader audience, I think both are important. We’ve decided to try to involve a broader public and expose them to information about what’s actually going on, but it is extremely important to have a space for the discourse around movement building, strengthening, and sustenance. We try to do that, but we’re more about straight journalism, like: this is what’s going on in this location, and this is what movements are doing.
How do you deal with questions of race, gender, and class in terms of who participates in your publications and who is represented?
Cy: We’ve been going for decades, and it’s been a struggle for us to have more balanced contributions in terms of race, gender, and age. What’s happened in the last five or six years is that as we are getting younger contributors – most of the people who write for the magazine are in their 30s or younger – and contriutors tend to be far more diverse. We have more women, more people of colour, and particularly Indigenous people contributing, and so that issue is solving itself to a large degree simply by the fact that this generation of activists seems to be much more diverse in terms of gender and race than earlier generations, and that’s a wonderful direction for the magazine.
Dru: Since we’ve started paying some of our writers, we’ve struggled with the question of who gets paid. Overwhelmingly, the people who are the most willing to ask to get paid or who submit pitches consistently and are a little more pushy about them – not in a bad way, just more assertive – are people who tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. That’s been something we’re trying to assess on a regular basis. We need to encourage people from other backgrounds to submit pitches for paid articles. And I think that ramping up the participatory aspect of the Media Co-op will help. We’re trying to focus on a community-organizing model in bringing people into the Co-op and asking them to participate in defining coverage.
Chris: In my experience, people from the constituency you’re talking about – white males – those who feel that they have more power or control, will submit something and just expect us to run it. Even when it’s people whose content is often run, you question one thing and it turns into an argument. That’s something I’ve mostly experienced with men, women much less so. If you want to have content that’s more balanced for race, gender, and class, even if you try to pursue a bunch of people to alleviate that imbalance, it’s still very difficult. Our content is still predominantly written by men or produced by men. It’s a problem we struggle with. We try to solicit for gender balance, and it very rarely works out.
Dru: Five out of six of our paid staff – of which I am not one – are women. To perhaps illustrate the situation, I was invited to participate in this roundtable and asked if I could bring other people onto the call but then I got busy with other things and forgot to pass on the word. Or I mentioned it briefly and didn’t follow up. I think it underscores the constant vigilance you need to keep those dynamics from perpetuating themselves. If you let them go, they tend to reproduce the dominant structures.
Jordan: When we add editorial collective members or when we think of authors, we think about race and gender, but also queer and trans identity, what parts of movements contributors come from, geographically where they are, and age; we try think about all of these factors. We feel we’ve been successful at incorporating these questions of representation into our work. But there are still challenges. For example, a lot of times when we do articles on the economy or labour, we find that there are a lot of white males writing on those topics. As Dru mentioned, people who come from more privilege are often more aggressive about pitching their work. In general, we think this question of representation is an important issue, and we spend a lot of time thinking about it and challenging ourselves.
Dave: I’ll second what Dru said about the need for constant vigilance about these things and the need to set up structures to ensure some balance. It feels like recently, in the past six months, balance has shifted to greater numbers of contributions by women and people of colour. We’ve shifted to more of an issue-focused approach, so that each issue is focused on a particular theme, and we send that call for submissions out widely, and I think it gets it into broader circles. I haven’t yet made sense of what that means or if the trend is going to continue. It may be more about a need to specifically ask people who have first-hand experience with various struggles and invite them to contribute rather than a general call for submissions, which tends to reach people who really have a beef or who feel entitled to weigh in on any subject.
There are many challenges involved with publishing radical and left media, including the lack of money and resources to sustain these projects. What other challenges do you face?
Chris: A challenge that I see is to build radical left media solidarity. Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of print publications go under; even with the web experience, we all struggle to maintain and grow and become sustainable. We’re all constantly struggling with where to get money. Talking to each other is nice, but if it doesn’t lead to long-term infrastructure and building of our movements, then we don’t learn from it, and I’m not sure what the point is exactly. We are all facing similar problems and I think we should be trying to deal with the question of alternative media solidarity.
Jordan: These moments to communicate and collaborate with other publications are really valuable. We really appreciate the chance to connect and collaborate with folks at the Allied Media conference, which is an annual gathering of grassroots media folks. Every year there are fewer and fewer folks doing print publications, but it’s a great chance to gather and collaborate with other media makers. The last US Social Forum was a really exciting moment for us. We were able to connect in-person with thousands of folks whose work we admired and found out that they read and appreciate the magazine. We were part of a coalition of groups called Another Politics is Possible that organized several panels at the social forum, and those direct collaborations are exciting. We’re all on same page with challenges: the money, the distribution, and other issues, but it is really exciting to have these moments to collaborate. We also collaborate with Make/shift and $pread magazines, which have similar distribution and structural ideas to ours. Color Lines has a very different model than the rest of us because they have funding from a foundation, but they still face many of the same issues and we have gotten a lot out of our collaborations with them.
Dru: There have been so many attempts to start some major collaboration that fizzled out. I’ve been involved in a few instances of trying, but it’s been hard to get people together. Perhaps because it takes a lot of energy, with one person bottom-lining it, and nobody has any leftover energy after dedicating themselves to independent media. That said, part of the mandate of the Media Co-op and The Dominion has been to support and direct attention to other independent media sources. We’ve put links to other independent media on our website, hopefully increasing their Google ranking and sending people their way. With the Media Co-op, we have exciting opportunities to use whatever momentum we generate to direct attention to existing projects. We don’t want to compete with anyone; we want to cooperate. Technologically there are interesting things we can do, in terms of bringing in RSS feeds from other locally relevant blogs or podcasts or whatever is out there and automatically making these part of the news feed. I started a website called Independentmedia.ca, which I haven’t updated in years, but I’m thinking about making a structure where people can promote all independent media. It’s an ongoing process that is moving slowly, but I think it’s an important one.
Dave: In the four years I’ve been involved in Briarpatch I feel that there haven’t been major successes, but there have been incremental improvements in terms of the quality of journalism and production, and some increases in circulation. But at the same time I feel that the political culture of the country has shifted significantly to the right. It feels like we’re losing ground. Funding for magazines and the Publications Assistance Program which provides mailing subsidies to magazines is in jeopardy. It’s a challenging time.
Dru: The challenges are infinite. When we’re talking about even the most basic goals of transforming society into something more sustainable and respectful, it’s just so overwhelming that you have to latch on to the little bright lights that you have. It’s a monumental amount of distance to go from here, especially given what Dave is saying about the shift to the right in Canada.
Despite these challenges what do you consider to be your project’s achievements?
Cy: Our main achievement has been to keep an anti-capitalist voice alive in Canada for nearly a half-century. We have done this through careful fiscal management, keeping our pages open to diverse opinion within the anti-capitalist left, and incorporating new issues as they emerge within the politics of Canadian activists.
Dru: One success was our special issue on the tar sands. Before most people were talking about it, three of us took a trip up to northern Alberta and talked to a lot of people, did investigative work, and took photos. The result was this massive issue about the Athabasca tar sands. We published 12,000 copies and distributed them and held events across Canada. The issue was gaining momentum, but in some ways we were able to crystallize the analysis at an opportune moment. We have yet to replicate that. We tried with the mining issue but it didn’t have the same momentum. Apparently Jack Layton carries a copy of the tar sands issue around. The Globe and Mail contacted us for information and a few months later did a week-long series on the tar sands. To my knowledge they had never done anything outside of the business section on the tar sands before that. La Presse did a series on the tar sands, too. I’m not taking credit for it, but getting out ahead of the curve with something that had a broader view might have helped push things in the right direction.
Another big success is just starting the Media Co-op: we’ve been able to go from nothing two years ago to having 100 people who are willing to stake between $5 and $100 a month on the promise of reader-funded media that is cooperatively produced. It’s not a success yet, but it’s very promising to me, and makes me really excited and and a bit scared about the work to come.
Chris: As far as thinking about challenges and successes, I agree that a lot of time has passed since massive amounts of people came out against the bombing of Iraq, but I think mass opinion is still against the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and I think that has to do largely with the work we’ve done to counter some of the propaganda that was coming out when the invasions began. Time has passed and things have happened to shift the debate, but I wouldn’t want to overlook some of our successes. Even though we focus on the incremental everyday challenges, I think we can and do make a difference. But I do think we need larger victories, whatever that translates into. It would take coming together around a serious shared understanding of the goals that we all have. But obviously I think we all share the belief that this is possible, or we wouldn’t be grinding away everyday trying to do the kind of work we do.
1 Unfortunately, after producing eight issues, The Sasquatch suspended publication in spring 2010 due to financial difficulty. For details on The Sasquatch’s experiences, see http://sasquatchnews.com/with-heavy-hearts-an-announcement-from-the-sasquatch/.