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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.

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I always get a big laugh when people dismiss The Nation (or any journal of opinion) by saying that it "preaches to the choir" or is dogmatic or ideological or follows a party line. Barely a week has gone by in my years at The Nation when I have not had to answer a letter, a phone call, or, in more recent years, e-mail from an unharmonious dissident member of the so-called choir. And rather than march in lockstep, our contributors and staffers have disagreed, argued, feuded and debated, among themselves and in our pages, on matters of principle, practicality, politics, policy and morality.

Indeed, Navasky offers a dizzying catalog of the range of positions and issues that have been battled out on the pages (and, later, the Web pages) of The Nation , placing the current progressive surge in proper historical context. Throughout, however, he asserts the value of providing a weekly space to "question the conventional wisdom, to be suspicious of all orthodoxies, to provide a home for dissent and dissenters, and, to be corny about it, to hold forth a vision of a better world."

As Navasky -- who writes that the main role for The Nation has been to "serve as a forum for the debate between the radicals and the liberals” -- suggests, the progressive community is made of many factions of choirs. Sometimes these factions will join together around a certain political moment, event, or policy. But very rarely are they all in concert (with the monumental exception of their dislike for the former Bush administration), and more often than not, such alliances can quickly disintegrate.

A major question -- one we tackle in more detail in the next chapter -- is: who gets to define the choir? Age, gender, race, sexual preference, personal style, cultural preferences, and ideology all play into the creation and success of particular political outlets.

In the networked media environment, the trick is to learn how to regularly sync or "assemble" these diverse choirs for maximum engagement and action. As we note in the chapter "Build a Network-Powered Media," online platforms have offered progressives powerful tools to attract and organize their users, hold those in power accountable, and raise up those who share similar values and ideals. The result has been the rise of a dynamic infrastructure that has shored up the left's ability to affect the political process.

While early blogs showcased the insights, media criticism, reporting, and, yes, rants of individuals, they soon turned into political communities, offering a space for their users to help develop and debate political and social justice strategies. Discussion platforms -- such as forums for community comments and diaries that allowed users themselves to blog -- hastened the growth of the progressive choir, as did technologies that allowed bloggers to link to, feature, and argue with one another.

The key element for running such sites is regular conversations with users. The most successful "assemblers" don't just post a story or analysis and then lurk in the background and read comments and reactions. They dive back into the community debate, expand their argument, discuss users' reactions, and even sometimes reframe their own outlook based on community feedback. This is an inclusive process: Media producers may have the higher profile, but their transparency keeps them accountable to their community. Such two-way communication between the outlet and its community also allows for an environment of trust to develop. Bloggers and editors know that their site's ongoing influence is dependent on the community's knowledge that the media producer is credible and accessible.