Mail & magazines: Death in the digital era

In 2007, The Boston Globe published an editorial exposing the impact of United States Postal Service (USPS) rate increases on small magazines. While rate increases are bad news for any publisher, the Globe emphasized the big vs. small business tension that really lay under the increases; Time Warner, publisher of over 100 magazines including Time and People, created the rate increase plan that threatened to put small publishers out of business.

In early 2014, the USPS revealed they’d be raising rates again; the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) approved a two-year 6-percent service rate increase for all bulk mail, periodicals and packages. This came with a three cent increase in first-class mail postage as well–the largest rate increase in 11 years, a 4.3 percent jump regulators allowed on top of the customary 1.7 percent adjustment for inflation.

But while that small jump on letter postage won’t necessarily stop people from mailing a letter, the added mailing costs for magazines may lead to increased subscriptions prices and lower subscription rates. For large-scale publishers like Hearst, Condé Nast and Time Warner, this shouldn’t prove entirely debilitating, but for smaller and independent publishers, those increases could be their downfall.

And this is a bigger issue than the downfall of printed publications in the media world–it can affect the circulation of information, alternative viewpoints, and fuel for public debate.

“Price protection has also been crucial for small magazines, helping them to add politically and socially diverse voices to the public arena,” the Globe wrote in 2007. “Without income these publications can’t survive, and the public loses out when those voices are silenced.”

Though the recent rate increases are only active for two years, it’s hard to say they won’t be back soon after they’re discontinued. In January the Newspaper Association of America, the MPA – Association of Magazine Publishers, and the Direct Marketing Association, a marketing industry trade group, filed an appeal to reverse the rates, while the USPS filed one to make them permanent.The PRC denied the USPS appeal, saying they’ll only allow the USPS to charge increased rates for as long as it takes to recover from the financial recession damage, but the rates will stand, as planned, until 2016.

The good news is, the Internet and blogosphere makes the overhead publishing costs virtually nonexistent, so the public debate can continue. However, for independent magazines who want to pay its editors and writers to create quality content, the Internet doesn’t provide the financial support that subscriptions and print ads once did.

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Beacon Reader – Crowdfunding the journalistic way

Most people are familiar with both Kickstarter and Indiegogo–the main crowd-funding and fundraising platforms used by entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations, students, filmmakers, activists, travelers, and, apparently, people making potato salad. Because of the high overhead costs it takes to make most films and documentaries, independent efforts for these types of video journalism projects are often seen on crowd-funding sites, or searching for funding via the internet in other locations.

However, Beacon Reader, takes this idea to the other side of the journalism world–the writers. Reporters with passion and interest in a particular issue or topic can  take the time–and the Internet’s money–to pursue these interests, do investigative reporting, and produce content that isn’t regulated by an editor, corporation, or large organization that puts the brakes on whatever they’re unearthing. I think it’s pure genius.

Essentially, Beacon is helping to keep the blogosphere free of clutter. Rather than each of these writers creating blogs focused on each topic of their interest, filling up cyberspace with posts and attempts to amass content and gain an audience, loyal followers, and subsequent ad revenue to fund further reporting, they can ask for money upfront to tackle the projects that really matter to them. And, if the topics are relevant enough that they matter to other people too, it’s a win-win situation; writers get funding, and subscribers get honest, well-formulated content on issues they care about.

The only flaw I see in the system is a lack of reach; if the only way to access Beacon content is by pledging support to a writer, the content is staying within an audience that already cares. Shouldn’t the point of funding an producing quality journalism be to spread knowledge–especially new and groundbreaking knowledge that can impact society–as far and wide as possible? Our job as journalists is not just to tell stories, but to tell stories that lead to a greater public understanding of the world around us, and to encourage consciousness of the reality we live in, rather than to just exist.

That being said, Beacon is onto something. As the site and model of crowd-funded journalism grows, perhaps it can improved to disseminate its content to the general public. And, it’s worth wondering if the next version of charity gift-giving (when you ask for donations to a certain charity or non-profit rather than birthday, graduation or holiday gifts), will be the gift of supporting a writer investigating something like Latin American supply chains’ effect on locals, the battle for net neutrality, climate change, or Egypt’s refugees. Now, as the holiday season approaches, the hardest decision will be picking which journalist to fund.

Dominating the blogosphere

BusinessWeek ranked the top-earning blogs back in 2007, including I Can Has Cheezburger?Talking Points MemoPerez Hilton and Mashable in the list. Though the blogosphere was in its beginning at this point, these blogs maintained their top spots and are still well-known blogs today or launched into successful blog networks–and they all started with a passionate blogger with a unique idea.

For example, I Can Haz Cheezburger touted about half a million visits per day in 2007, and the blog network site, cheezburger.com, that it switched over to in 2012, boasts the same visit numbers seven years later. Featuring silly cat photos and captions, I Can Haz Cheezburger arguably launched the era of the meme. It expanded into this niche with dozens of mini-sites like Failbook, Memebase, So Much Pun!, Rage Comics and The Daily What, for form a network that received over 20.8 million visits in the last month. Though it has been replaced by BuzzFeed as the internet time-wasting black hole, Cheezburger is still successful and profitable today. Crazy to think it all started with a few friends and cat captions.

Perez Hilton still runs his celebrity-sleuth-based blog, which has now expanded into mini-sites as well: CocoPerez, Perezitos, FitPerez, Teddy Hilton and PerezTV, focused on fashion, celebrity kids, fitness, animals, and videos, respectively. Now a decade old, Hilton’s blog averages 12 million unique visitors per month.

Not all successful niche blogs are built on “fluff” content; Talking Points Memo demonstrated the use and popularity potential for serious news blogs, and maintained its audience until now, when it gets more than a quarter million visitors daily. Mashable has become a go-to spot for those staying updated on the digital and tech scene, and has over 40 million unique visits.

Today, more and more blogs are emerging and talking the stage as main online news sources, rather than just supplemental sources of entertainment. Well-known The Huffington Post (with 79 million unique visitors each month) and popular women’s lifestyle site Refinery29 (with 11 million unique visitors each month), are essentially online versions of current print media sources.

So, to all the people that tell me print media is dying and raise an eyebrow at my choice to pursue journalism, there’s still journalism going on, it’s just taking a different form: blogs.

Twitter fights for #Transparency

If independent media is rooted in journalists saying what the mainstream press isn’t, then Twitter is a pretty good place to find a lot of citizens, journalists, and citizen journalists doing exactly that. But when the government is inhibiting Twitter’s ability to be transparent, it poses an issue.

Twitter announced yesterday in a blog post that they are suing the U.S. government in an effort to loosen restrictions on what they can publicly release about the national security-related requests it receives for user data.

According to CNN, the lawsuit was filed in a federal court in northern California in Monday. Twitter is arguing that, “its First Amendment rights are being violated by restrictions that forbid the disclosure of how many national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court orders it receives — even if that number is zero.”

Twitter is right to point out that, even if they receive no court orders or national security letters, the public has the right to know what’s being done with their data, and Twitter has a right to publish how often the government is seeking it out. More than anything, this is a message about defending mediums and forums for unfiltered public voice, as well as company and media transparency–all things key in making independent media the change-making force it has been through history.

The Twitter team is keeping the public updated on their fight through blog posts and, of course, 140-character blasts on their @Policy Twitter page. Here’s to hoping that they’re successful in their lawsuit, for the sake of avid Tweeters and indie journalists alike.

Free Press & ‘Free Love’

I have a special interest in women’s issues, so I couldn’t help but read Rodger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution chapter on ‘Free Love.’ Most people (myself included) would associate the ‘free love’ movement with the ‘hippie’ era of the late 1900s; in reality, it started almost a century earlier with the independent press of the Victorian age.

In the 1860s, The Revolution, the feminist publication by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began to question the sanctity of the marital vows that permanently tied a woman to her husband. In 1871, Victoria Woodhull began her crusade for sexual reform through Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly–a paper she published from New York City with her sister, Tenesee Claflin. The paper advocated “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!” (its slogan) and insisted that bad marriages were the root of many social problems. The Word, another sexual reform journal run by couple Angela Heywood and her husband, Ezra, featured pieces with explicit language and uncensored proclamations of sexuality as “divine,” and not a marital duty. Moses Harman launched a bi-weekly newspaper called Lucifer, the Light-Bearer to voice his provocative opinions and arguments that were too radical for the Victorian press.

These publications faced relentless attack and censorship (namely from Anthony Comstock), financial barriers, and social rejection similar to other dissident press, but were unable overcome them and make a tangible change in the marriage system.  Though these publications admittedly didn’t directly impact American society in the way other dissident journals did (take for example The Liberator or Mechanic’s Free Press), their risqué coverage still encouraged the discussion about marriage, female sexuality, and both public and private gender roles. They pushed the envelope and opened people’s eyes to the things unsaid–including important women’s rights topics beyond sexual freedom, like domestic abuse and abortion.

Now, think of how comfortable we are with explicit material in the media–especially in the digital sphere. Miley Cyrus (with your overuse of phallic symbols) as well as Cosmopolitan (for your refreshingly honest but blush-worthy sex, love and health stories), I’m looking at you. The press censorship of discussion on abortion, relationships, sex and health is certainly at a low, yet the idea of truly challenging marriage isn’t active in the media today. While divorces are now commonplace and acceptable, the idea of rejecting marriage altogether is still foreign to our culture. The Woodhull, Heywood and Harman publications certainly helped introduce the radical topics of sexual reform to the American public, which are alive and flourishing in discussion today, but we’re still clinging to the world of life-long monogamous relationships. One can only guess if and when this will be challenged enough by independent media to truly change the constructs of society, not only in America, but worldwide.

Streitmater’s Voices of Revolution: lessons from the earliest dissident press

In reading the first three chapters of Rodger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution, there were three particular points that struck me most: early dissident presses established the concept of an open forum, made a tangible impact, and that the issues championed by these publications are timeless, despite the impact they’re making. Though the examination of independent media thus far in my Independent Media Issues & Challenges class has opened my eyes to these tendencies in modern dissident press, seeing the success stories and failures of historical revolutionary media makes those points all the more salient.

Open-forum-style media has ballooned with the blogosphere, providing the ultimate anonymous commenting system for the public to engage in discussion, media criticism, and activism with a few key strokes and clicks. While I was aware this facet of independent media is widespread today (especially on sites like Jezebel and The Huffington Post, where users cannot only comment but generate content), I didn’t realize it was so engrained in the revolutionary media of the past, beginning with the Mechanic’s Free Press by William Heighton in the early 1800s. By making room for letters from frustrated workers, he created the open forum that is now a “hallmark of the dissident press.”

Many mainstream media players and followers of only mainstream media consistently denounce independent media outlets as the needle-in-the-haystack publications, often overlooked and not valued. However, a glimpse into history shows that even the smallest voices, if they advocate loud enough, can be heard by the mainstream consciousness enough to change their minds. Modern-day mainstreamers may dismiss environmental blogs like Tree Hugger as radical and extremist, but in 30 years, when their points about climate change and environmental preservation have finally registered with the public and we’re taking action as a nation to combat our impact on the environment, these publications will be praised as initial voices of a positive change–just like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Often regarded as the most radical and outrageous but the epitome of dissident publications, The Liberator championed the abolitionist cause without a hint of moderation. Yet, despite the mainstream media’s initial evaluation of Garrison as a “fanatical terror,” once slavery was officially abolished, these outlets, like The New York Tribune, praised him: “But now and then comes a man like Mr. Garrison to show us our mistake; to prove was virtue there is in fidelity to a single labor; to accomplish some great work vital to the progress of man.”

Dissident media not only encourage the voices of the oppressed and champion causes that result in real societal impacts, but their causes are timeless and relevant; though labor laws have been passed since The Mechanic’s Free Press, slavery has been abolished since the time of The Liberator, and women won the right to vote after the close of The Revolution, the fight for fair working laws and racial and gender equality are alive and strong in the independent media today. In particular, the movement started by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to advocate women’s choice for abortion, eradication of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and the establishment of equal pay for equal work are championed now not only by independent media like Feministing.com and Ms. Magazine, but also by mainstream women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, which are publishing articles like “Women’s Rights Advocates Protest Texas Abortion Bill” and “Tackling the Gender Pay Gap Through Negotiation.”

For those who consistently dismiss dissident and independent media–how can you argue against history?