What’s the Difference Between Mainstream and Activist Journalists? From the IMC at the WTO to the PPL at the DNC

iPhone and Android charging station at the PPL for independent bloggers in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention

Countless news stories tout how the Internet has transformed this election, but how has political media coverage shifted in the digital age? To help understand this question, it’s useful to recall one of the birthplaces of political movements and Internet reporting.

When I was preparing to go to the recent Democratic National Convention (DNC) to research labor and activist groups, I was intrigued when a friend connected me to The PPL, a blogging space in Charlotte for non-credentialed journalists. It reminded me of the Independent Media Center (IMC) in Seattle during the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999.

Digital media scholars often describe the so-called Battle in Seattle as a pivotal time for enabling activists to project their own story to the world, as this coincided with a global launching, or at least awareness, of the IMC. The IMC was a (mostly) online space — pre blog/pre social media world — where activists were posting stories and photos in real time of what was happening in situ, such as the tear gassing of protesters in Seattle.While it sounds routine now in the age of Twitter, it was novel back then. For those of us on the ground in Seattle, however, the Internet still paled in comparison to the mainstream media coverage – and misinterpretations of what really happened.

So I was curious what would change during the 13 year span of my time then in Seattle as an independent filmmaker and freelance journalist to now as an academic researcher and blogger in Charlotte.

In 1999, the dawn of the social media explosion, it seemed as if there was a clearer distinction between mainstream media journalists and independent activist journalists.They had the resources, mass audience, scores of journalists and the ties to power while we had the streets, narrow audience,scores of activists and ties to social movements.

So has this dynamic changed? If the journalists at the PPL and the DNC are any indication, not much has shifted and in some cases the division between activist/independent journalists and mainstream/corporate journalists has actually blurred. Independent bloggers want to be more like mainstream journalists than some of their activist predecessors.

Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, at the PPL in Charlotte during the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

The PPL was an incredible resource for people like me. It gave me a space to work, eat junk food, and most importantly, connect with others working at the space. And who else was there? This is where the definitions get tricky.

In fact, I was struggling with my own identity there. I was in Charlotte doing academic research but also blogging – both for my own blog, as well as for Mobilizing Ideas, this social movement studies blog. I had my videocamera, as I was videotaping some of my interviews, so I also felt the urge to document various happenings, as I used to be a full-time documentary filmmaker. This self-inquiry of my own role there inspired me to question how to situate the PPL into the (new) media landscape.

If you go to The PPL web page of attendees, you can see the range of organizations and groups represented. There were a few other academics like myself. I ran into Daniel Kreiss, a communications scholar from UNC-Chapel Hill, who is actually studying the media production of journalists, bloggers and others at the DNC – “from jumbotrons to text messages.”

And the spectrum was wide – everyone from a blogging girl scout from Charlotte to a mainstream journalist from Australia who simply didn’t get his official credentials into the DNC in time to be in the main arena. I also chatted with bloggers from labor unions, progressive think tanks and tech companies.

Despite activists being there, however, this space was not intended to be a re-incarnation of the IMC. It did have activist cred, however, as Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman spoke on the opening night.The PPL, though, seemed to align more in the realm of people aspiring to be part of the mainstream than challenging it – with a big dose of Obama-boosterism if the “Meh Romney” and “Kittens for Obama” buttons lying around were any indication.

Every day, Democratic party big wigs came through the PPL, often unannounced. One day, both Nancy Polosi, the House of Representatives Minority Leader, and Anthony Foxx,the mayor of Charlotte, walked in. When I heard that Foxx was there, I picked up my video camera and walked over to the crowd of people smiling at them. I am studying groups that either support or oppose collective bargaining rights for public employees. And Charlotte has been a hotspot around this issue with labor disputes with city employees ranging from sanitation workers to firefighters, so I asked the mayor his position on collective bargaining. He gave a vague answer and then walked away, but I persisted and asked him again.

Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte, at the PPL with independent journalists documenting his visit during the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Afterwards, PPL bloggers flocked over to me. “What was that about?” I was asked repeatedly – the conversation usually turned into me asking them why it seemed so shocking that I should be asking a politician a challenging question.

Yet to be fair, people who have been excluded from the mainstream media, from Native American to Appalachian activists, made up a large portion of bloggers who were at the PPL.

And I am the last one to be holier than thou. In fact, I got sucked into searching for the various DNC party scenes for the night, and dabbled in free food and liquor myself.

One of these parties was specifically for The PPL and sponsored by Team Obama. There, I met a few social media staffers on Obama’s campaign, including Melissa Ryan, who does Progressive Media Outreach to Bloggers. She said that the campaign is not treating bloggers like the mainstream press, but instead are treating them like a constituency and helping them out as much as possible.

But do bloggers want to be like the regular press? Answering that question requires a separate research project from my dissertation. And certainly, defining bloggers as one group-think blob is disingenuous. Ultimately, though, we (as the blogger blob) all want a big audience and legitimacy, but didn’t the IMC journalists want that too? Perhaps, but they also had an activist agenda.

How did legitimacy manifest at the DNC? Legitimacy through credentialing was part of the package at the DNC. It was more than needing a badge for entrance to the secure areas. Yes, police presence was fierce. But the PPL advertised that they were offering credentials. I honestly didn’t know what that meant before I arrived, though I soon found out that it officially meant little, except access to, well, the PPL space. Unofficially, though, it meant a lot to others I encountered who assumed I was “media” because of my camera and my PPL badge. It even convinced Homeland security at one point.

What credentials one had (and for where) was epic at the DNC. Some had credentials for the Time Warner Arena, where the iconic delegates and their signs filled the floor in front of the podium where the speeches were made, but often press shared these passes with each other. At the convention center, however, was where mainstream media outlets staked their real estate claims. No, this was not because of their IDs but because each of the news outlets posted signs proudly proclaiming their affiliation. This did include online-only media, such as Politico. But the heavy hitters for the print press was the Washington Post with about 30 people, according to one observer, though they cut back from recent years, the AP and of course the New York Times, but it was the broadcast TV networks that had the most space, which aligns with how most Americans still get their news – from the TV.

All of these journalists were there, but what were they covering?  Jeff Jarvis, a journalist himself, asked that question and more in his post to the estimated 15,000 journalists at the RNC, “Reporters, Why Are You in Tampa?”  He even asked if they were just going to interview people “wearing funny hats?”

Ah, as if on cue, enter Justin Peters, whom I ran into at, yes, the PPL. Justin was my editor for a piece I wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review. He said he was observing the media spectacle at the DNC and had noticed that journalists were flocking to anyone dressed the least bit outside of societal norms. His solution?  A bit of ethnomethodology. He went to a costume store, put on a funny hat, went to the convention floor, and sure enough journalists targeted him for interviews, which he promptly did, as idioticallyas he could muster. Yet he was forthright about his affiliation when asked.

But if mainstream journalists, who had the credentials to be on the arena floor, were struggling to find a compelling “story” in the middle of the official-ness of the DNC, what of the independent bloggers of the PPL?

Were they contributing to the same cacophony that Jarvis was lamenting? Were they challenging the Democratic Party or going to the wine and cheese parties or the free massages by the Huffington Post? We’ll wait for Kreiss to give a more comprehensive analysis, but my sense was that with some exceptions, independent bloggers are actually dependent on many of the same norms and strategies that traditional mainstream journalistares.

At one of the larger DNC protests, March on Wall Street South, a few tweets went out lamenting that there were more journalists at the march than protesters. I’d argue that it wasn’t for a dearth of protesters but a deluge of journalists. (And I blogged here that a more apt comparison was that there were more police officers than protesters).

And it is this context – of understanding that an estimated 1000 people at a protest in downtown Charlotte is not a bad turnout but pretty darn high for the Southern Queen city, that differentiates the IMC journalists with many of the PPL bloggers: understanding the context.  Just like what happened in Seattle was not simply about the smashed windows and overturned newsboxes, yet that’s what was in the headlines in the mainstream press back in 1999 despite the activists that had converged from around the world.

Unlike the IMC staking out its activist beachhead in Seattle in 1999, the PPL in Charlotte exemplifies the blurring and expansion of political blogging since the WTO resistance. Yet independent media did not start with the IMC, despite these claims.  Thousands of independent newspapers, newsletters, radio and public access TV shows proliferated in the analogue era. The difference, though, is the immediacy, reach, and interactivity. Older outlets would just go to a smaller subscription or listener base. But does having a wider audience, or at least potential audience, now make independent, perhaps activist, journalists and bloggers, crave more of the so-called legitimacy of the mainstream news media?

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “What’s the Difference Between Mainstream and Activist Journalists? From the IMC at the WTO to the PPL at the DNC

  1. Pingback: Do independent and activist bloggers see themselves as journalists in the digital era? | Jen Schradie

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