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Is the Future Bright for Progressive Media?

A new book highlights how progressive media has achieved more influence than ever before. But there's still work to be done.

While the journalistic establishment, and even progressives like Bob McChesney and John Nichols wring their hands over the demise of advertising-driven corporate journalism, activists and journalists Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark have chosen to tell a different, more positive story about the future of media in America.

In their book Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (New Press), the authors take us on a celebratory journey through the relatively recent (over the past eight years) surge of independent, progressive media. The conclusion they reach is undeniable: by every measure, what we know as the progressive media and the netroots, "reaches far larger audiences -- millions of people every day -- and is decidedly more influential than ever before."

In the old days, it was considered a big success when a progressive magazine had 200,000 monthly subscribers. But today, there are a dozen or more blogs, magazines and online news sites that have enjoyed more than a million unique readers in a month. A recently formed Ad Progress Network, founded by AlterNet, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and joined by American Prospect, The New Republic and others, reaches over four million people. And by the way, progressive media is not in crisis, primarily because it is not dependent on one source of revenue -- advertising -- as corporate media is, but rather is often supported by a mix of grants, reader donations, advertising sales and list partnerships with the large non-profit advocacy sector.

Led by aggressive creative media makers like Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, John Byrne of Raw Story, and Mark Karlin of BuzzFlash, the new progressive media use a range of strategies and tactics that are far more hard-hitting and activist-oriented than the smaller print magazine universe that dominated progressive media for a long time. (Heck, the Nation magazine is 145 years old.)

But before the progressive media establishment gets too cocky about its role, there are still major weaknesses and some dark clouds on the horizon. Clark and Van Slyke don't sidestep the obstacles, spending the better half of the book weaving the challenges of the future with the success stories and promoting models of social networking and collaboration they feel can increase the progressive media's new-found influence.

What Are Progressive Media?

Progressive media are made up of a large collection of entities of all sizes and delivery systems. But by far, their largest audience is online.

Progressive media are ideologically diverse, ranging from liberal to radical. Roughly speaking, the thousands of people who make progressive media happen generally to believe in making the world a better place through their media efforts. They are fighting for a more fair and just society; the democratization of information; speaking truth to power and holding social systems and elected officials accountable (to name a few of the values progressives support). Many progressive media outfits practice opinion journalism and investigative reporting, while others are far more willing to use agit prop and highly successful organizing tactics for drawing attention to issues and causes.

And the term progressive is a catchall. There are many differences among these groups, in philosophy, kinds of journalism practiced, ideological orientation and business structure. Some of these differences may not seem so significant to the uninitiated, but among media practitioners they are noteworthy. For example, there is a canyon-sized gap between the hugely trafficked Huffington Post, and smaller entities with more narrow foci like Laura Flander's Grit TV, or ColorLines Magazine, or even some of the mainstays of progressive media like Mother Jones Magazine, The Nation, and Amy Goodman's influential Democracy Now! radio and TV show. Huff Po, with upwards of 10 times the traffic of the rest of the pack (with the exception of sits on top of the pile of media entities with progressive views, enjoying quality staff writing and the influential voice of its founder, Arianna Huffington.

The genius of the Huffington Post is that virtually every liberal progressive commentator with a point to make or idea to communicate feels they need to "blog" it on the "Huff Po," even though so many people push their writing there that much content can get lost. Yet, Huff Po is also home to a large amount of celebrity blogging, gossip and "tits and ass" coverage, like the infamous daily contests in which readers can choose the "best rack in Hollywood," or the best cleavage at the Golden Globes. Unsurprisingly, these features are often very popular.

While the influence of progressive media is increasing, and the progressive audience is larger than ever before (progressives even have representation on corporate TV, in the form of Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schulz), the justifiable cheer in Beyond the Echo Chamber is not the whole story.The recent demise of Air America radio reminds us that all is not well in the progressive media universe. In fact, there are several fundamental problems that loom large in terms of the long-term future:

1. Demographics is the first issue. While there are some small progressive media organizations run by people of color, the largest progressive media organizations with the most funding have audiences which are predominantly well-educated, white, often more than 60 percent male, with average ages in the boomer generation. This reflects the overall audience that follows news most closely in corporate media, and within the right-wing conservative media environment. This demographic fact is true across the board at the blogs, magazines of opinion and online news sites. The consequences are twofold: First, progressive media, despite their values, mirror the white male-dominated universe. (There are obvious leadership exceptions like Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation and the female editorial team of Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffries at Mother Jones, while the Women's Media Center, under the new leadership of Jehmu Greene, is working to improve a long-standing imbalance especially when it comes to female bylines.)

Overwhelming whiteness is not a progressive value; a lack of diversity has bedeviled progressive media for decades, as do class issues, given that progressive media have always been the home of mostly highly educated elites. Clark and Van Slyke tackle this challenge in the cleverly-titled chapter, "Pale, Male and Stale." Always highlighting the positive, the authors cite online growth in the African American community with some popular blogs. Then there's the highly successful campaigns of Color of Change. Last year, the organization launched a campaign against Fox News' racist coverage, pushing dozens of advertisers to abandon the Glenn Beck show and the diabolical racist rants of Rupert Murdoch's favorite organizing demagogue. And led by Roberto Lovato, a veteran of progressive media, was instrumental in forcing the anti-immigrant, birther-supporter Lou Dobbs off the air.

These major achievements demonstrate the clout of the progressive sector, and sophisticated strategy around race issues. But they also suggest there is a fundamental blending of organizing and online media tactics which blur the lines between journalism and pure advocacy. I'll leave the debate over whether this shift is the best evolution for progressive media for a future time, but it is clearly true that our biggest successes have come via efforts that many would not call journalism, or even media, but a new form of organizing that uses the media capabilities of the Internet.

2. A second challenge is funding. While progressive media is healthier than its corporate counterpart because it is not dependent on advertising, independent media have never been well-funded by foundations and wealthy individuals (although the survival of older progressive media depended on the loyalty and staying power of a handful of key individual donors). And the great recession is only shrinking foundation endowments.

One big funding success story is Media Matters, which tracks the corporate and right-wing media's many transgressions -- an important asset in the overall media ecology. Media Matters has benefited from the largesse of wealthy donors who are part of the Democracy Alliance, a group of progressive givers with big bucks.

But in the biggest recent personal investment in independent media, billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler chose to create ProPublica at $10 million a year, putting a former Wall Street Journal editor in charge for $550k a year; ProPublica tends to be phobic about all things progressive.

Pro Publica employs some very good journalists and produces quality work. But the organization is stuck in the old model of: "produce investigative work and somehow, magically, the problems uncovered will be solved." They lack substantial investment in marketing, promoting, and organizing on the Internet. All these elements are essential to achieving policy change in an era dominated by thousands of lobbyists and PR flacks, and hundreds of millions of dollars protecting the interests of every special interest imaginable.

3. The third challenge is probably the most fundamental. Despite its recent successes, progressive media is not yet up to scale where it can do serious battle with right-wing media. Most are familiar with the power of Fox and Rupert Murdoch, with the huge audiences of Rush Limbaugh and dozens of other right-wing shock jocks. And there are many more wing-nuts online and in magazines.

Conservatives have always invested big money in media and communications, while much progressive money goes to the myriad issues that individual donors prefer. It's as if they somehow count on the establishment media to blunt the right-wing media. Well, we know how that has worked out. Most liberal issues are held hostage by conservatives, and neglected by a seemingly overly timid Obama administration.

One set of numbers illustrates the problem: While progressives happily cheer MSNBC and Rachel Maddow's success, and more and more are glued to the tube each night, the continued dominance of Fox News on cable is overwhelming. Here's how audience numbers compared on January 27 on the day of Obama's State of the Union Address according to the site TV by the Numbers: Bill O'Reilly pulled in 4,067,000 viewers, Glenn Beck drew 3,140,000 viewers; and Sean Hannity had 3,636,000 viewers -- giant audiences, approximately three times the size or greater than Keith Olbermann's (1,159,000 viewers) and Rachel Maddow's (883,000 viewers). Clark and Van Slyke tackle this problem in their chapter "Fight the Right," pointing to the success of Brave New Films in harassing Fox News. But as we know too well, the Murdoch media juggernaut continues to roar along, hitting few potholes.