ITHACA - Though independent media are often thought of as a phenomenon of the Internet, they have had an important role in every major upheaval or social movement in U.S. history.
So the students of journalism professor Jeff Cohen of Ithaca College are taught. Cohen is the first director of the Park School of Communication's year-old Center for Independent Media, and a veteran of mainstream television news networks.
"Much of independent media today is booming because of the Internet," Cohen said. "But our view of independent media is that it certainly existed before there was an Internet."
The role of the center is "the study of media outlets that create and distribute content outside traditional corporate systems and news organizations," the center's Web site says, and to present careers in independent media as an option to students, who are responding positively to the message, Cohen said.
Cohen and Park School Dean Dianne Lynch have brought in several speakers from the world of independent media over the past 14 months or so, including a documentary filmmaker, a muckraking author and a highly influential blogger. Each has drawn a crowd of students and resulted in an influx of e-mail messages to Cohen's inbox asking about internships with independent news outlets.
"I notice more and more each month that I get these e-mails from students," Cohen said. "Traditionally, if you have a journalism degree, you are thinking about going to work for a mainstream daily. But how many of them are hiring? Many of my students are now thinking of being entrepreneurs. Many are considering creating their own news startups."
In recent years, the presence of lone bloggers and their ability to pack a punch has grown. Each startup's success is determined by the ability of each blogger to get the story and present it well, much like traditional media, but also his or her ability to mobilize and deputize the readers.
"Having the people formerly known as the audience playing an active role in the content - that's really changed the terms of journalism," Cohen said. "Mainstream media are struggling to catch up to it. I'm not sure they ever could. Their notions of professionalism are one (reason). I think if you're at a corporate outlet, you tend to think of the audience as the audience, as consumers. There's the sense of these people who built this thing up from nothing, and so they have a different relationship with their community. They really think of readers as a community of kindred spirits, rather than the audience or consumers."
Not only that, but independent journalists are developing a reputation for getting the story right when some mainstream outlets fail to do so, Cohen said.
"My background, I have experience as a media critic and working in mainstream television news during one of the low points for traditional news, which was the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, which most of TV news got egregiously wrong, day after day, for months," Cohen said.
"I think the way independent news largely got Iraq right and mainstream outlets, including the front page of the New York Times, largely got it wrong, was a turning point in American journalistic history."
Lynch said that while she was the brain behind the creation of the center, Cohen has been the heart and intellect behind its evolution.
"I was delighted (when Cohen came on board)," Lynch said. "I told him, 'here's the idea,' and I knew he would do what he's always done and transform it quickly."
Unique among colleges
The center is one of a kind among institutions of higher education, though it has peers of sorts in centers for new media at various colleges and universities, or groups such as the not-for-profit organization Center for Independent Media, based in Washington, D.C.
"We take a different approach," Lynch said. "We look at how you transfer the legacy, ethics, accuracy and other aspects that are so important to traditional media in a rapidly changing media environment. It's a time for students to think about new types, new forms, new approaches to journalism. Students are standing on the threshold of a new career, in their minds, and are hearing about newspapers folding all over. The fact of the matter is, there are extraordinary opportunities in journalism right now. There are not extraordinary opportunities in traditional newsrooms."
Despite the apparent decline in the popularity and revenues of newspapers, the institution of journalism is stronger than ever, Lynch said.
"That's a business model failure, not a failure of journalism," she said. "It's a problem when those two get conflated. There is more opportunity for strong, accurate, fair journalism than there was a decade ago."
Cohen said he thinks that because traditional newsrooms, with their entrenched way of thinking about the Internet and readership, cannot keep up with newer, independent outlets, the system of many, smaller journalists with an army of professional amateurs (called pro-ams) helping pin down facts will eventually replace older outlets as the primary source of news for most people.
"When you consider the coverage of the recent election, the New York Times could have assigned 10 to 15 reporters and not dug up as fast and as thoroughly what the online community was digging up," Cohen said.
That doesn't mean the days of the caffeine-addled professional reporter are over, Lynch said.
"I believe that journalists will have role to play in the information age ... but it will be more of a give-and-take between reporter and consumer," she said. "The power dynamic is different. It will be a conversation. But we still need professionals whose life work it is to develop and present stories to readers. It's a full-time job, not a hobby."
Whether an independent outlet is published on the Web, on paper or broadcast, it is usually characterized by a maverick attitude, Cohen said. But, it's important to note that independent media are not synonymous with new media.
"The unique thing is we're defining it as not just new media," Cohen said. "And this is something I've stressed from the beginning, that the Internet has changed the media terrain for not just the Internet-based outlets; it has changed the media terrain for everything. It's defined by this independent strain - in U.S. journalism it has always been there - and it's booming because of the Internet and in its traditional forms."
As for when independent media will no longer be the alternative but the mainstream, Lynch said she sees little difference in the product of a mainstream outlet and an independent outlet, only in the way the product is created.
"It's a legacy question," she said. "The reason is because the pipelines have been limited. The assumption was that there was a limited number of presses. But there's no longer a limited number of presses. I find that exciting. The evolution of journalism is full of opportunity. That's a little unsettling, but that doesn't mean it doesn't lead us where we need to go. If we're talking about the legacy of traditional media - the principles of ethics, quality, accuracy, fairness - then I think we're already there."