Indie Media's Moment

The economic downturn has been hard on both independent and corporate media. But now there's an opportunity for independent media outlets to chip away at mainstream media's market share.

Despite the fact that Canwest filed for court protection against creditors on Oct. 6, 2009, several already well-paid directors, executives and other senior members of Canwest management will share $9.8 million in Key Employee Retention Plan (KERP) bonuses. In an article [1] for rabble.ca, Gary Engler contrasts this extravagance with the fact that media workers are losing severance pay, pensions and jobs; shareholders are taking huge losses; and suppliers are receiving "a few cents on the dollar at best."

It is frustrating to know that those people who mismanaged the Canwest media empire are not bearing the brunt as much as media workers, shareholders and suppliers. However, there is now an opportunity for less wasteful media outlets to chip away at Canwest's market share. Rather than let other domestic or foreign media conglomerates step in, we should help independent media use this waste of resources as an opportunity to become the cornerstone of our media ecology rather than just the alternative to big media.

What is independent media?

Independent media is often referred to, but rarely defined. It is structurally independent from the two most powerful institutions in our society: government and corporations. This autonomy allows independent media more freedom than big media to be openly critical of power, and it makes outlets more reliant and accountable to everyday people.

Independent media typically relies on support from some combination of donations/members, foundations, NGOs/unions, commercial advertising and volunteers. Most independent media outlets also have an overt social mission that creates an orientation and ethos of public service rather than the narrow commercial interest found in many media corporations.

Independent media organizations are however, marginalized and in need of a reliable financing mechanism that maintains their ability to act autonomously. We know that our current media system creates an obstruction for an open public sphere, but the obstruction is not just the dominant corporate media system and its matrix of filters, it's also our inability to create a mechanism to fund a public service independent media system.

Fixing our media system is not simply an issue of better networking of existing projects; we must develop a sustainable independent media infrastructure, while also providing stable and reliable funding to individual projects. We can't continue to rely on individual independent media outlets that are scrambling for funds for the next story. To compete with big media, independent media need to become the incubators of journalism experiments. While some are trying, it is very much an uphill battle when daily sustenance becomes a preoccupation.

Coming together to power independent media

The economic downturn has been hard on both independent and corporate media. And yet, there seems to be enough money to give particular management personnel extravagant annual bonuses. It is quite obvious that Canada's media-funding model needs to be reevaluated and remixed. In so doing, independent media should be prioritized by policy makers, citizens and civil society.

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