USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





The Wired Left Awakens
AlterNet leads a resurgence of progressive news sites

Will a handful of big corporations control virtually all the news published on the Internet? On some days it certainly appears that way, especially in light of the report last month that four companies control half of all the traffic on the Web.

The prospects for independent content sites seem grim today, what with Salon running low on cash and the zines Feed and Suck closing up shop.

But one voice of grassroots independent journalism has recently begun to thrive. More surprising still, its point of view offers a decidedly left-of-center tilt.

The secrets of AlterNet's success? It's not out to make money. And it's riding a wave of public anger about the Bush administration's less-than-compassionate policies on the environment, energy, civil rights and other issues that tend to send progressives into a frothy lather.

While the right has long ruled the Net by dominating message boards, polls and peer-to-peer sites like FreeRepublic (see my column last fall on conservative news sites), the political left has been comparatively silent. That may be changing.

Don Hazen, AlterNet's executive editor, says the site's traffic has soared 500 percent since President Bush took office, in much the same way that conservative sites and publications flourished under Clinton. The site now attracts about 200,000 unique visitors and gets 1.6 million page views a month ? numbers akin to Suck's and higher than Feed's ? compared with 40,000 visitors nine months ago.

'The conservative slant of Bush's administration has been a Godsend for us, and for other left-leaning organizations,' says Hazen, former publisher of Mother Jones magazine.

The left wakes up and smells the coffee

Other left-leaning news sites have also begun to make Net denizens sit up and take notice:

  • TomPaine.com, funded by the non-profit Florence Fund, publishes commentaries and stories on subjects overlooked by the mainstream media. The site runs ads on the op-ed page of the New York Times on topics like the drug war and welfare reform.
  • Workingforchange.com, a slick, left-leaning news and links site, was launched in spring 2000. It's run by a shoe-string staff and owned by the do-gooder long-distance telephone company Working Assets.
  • The CommonDreams news service offers breaking news and views for the progressive community.

This abbreviated list doesn't include online magazines that publish original Web content like Mother Jones, The American Prospect and The Nation, advocacy groups like CorpWatch, publications like Grist Magazine or The Black World Today, and organizations like the ACLU, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network.

AlterNet, which launched on the Web in 1998, is a branch of the Independent Media Institute, a not-for-profit public interest media company in San Francisco. Originally called the Institute for Alternative Journalism, IMI was formed in 1983 by a group of alternative-newspaper editors as a syndication service for weeklies, and it continues to do so today, with 160 papers using stories written for the service.

Recalls Hazen: 'Several years ago we realized we had all this great content, and it just made sense to make it available to the public on the Web.'

The early versions of AlterNet had a funky design, but the site underwent a major overhaul on May 29. The result? A more sophisticated look and back-end functionality (discussion boards, searches, article purchases) powered by RealImpact, a division of Seattle's RealNetworks that has provided online technical services at cost to progressive organizations since March 1998.

AlterNet relies on 300 different sources for its content offerings ? some from publications like Salon or The Nation, others written by staffers or free-lancers. Of its $600,000 annual budget, a third comes from syndication income and much of the remainder from foundation grants.

The syndication arrangement is simple enough: Client newspapers select the stories they want through an online selection process and pay a modest fee (say, 10 cents a word). AlterNet shares half the revenue with the writer, who retains all publication rights. The stories also appear on AlterNet's Web site.

The site has an executive editor, creative director, managing editor, a senior editor/staff writer, and two part-time writers. Last month AlterNet reorganized its content and broadened its reach to concentrate on five hot-button news categories: the drug war, globalization, health and the environment, human rights in the United States and the concentration of media ownership.

The death of content sites

While part of the site's success is driven by users seeking an alternative to the conservative political headwinds, AlterNet also benefits from the dwindling number of free-standing content sites.

'There's less and less content available as other content sites disappear,' Hazen says. 'I certainly do not dance on the graves of Feed and Suck and others who've come before us. It's just that there's no business model for small, creative literary sites that I can imagine. To succeed you need a hybrid model of revenue and subsidies. The Nation, the New Republic ? no magazine of opinion makes money on its own. Salon's got to face the music ? they're about to run out of money.'

A big spurt in traffic came in March after an article by Tim Wise in which the writer charged white denial in the spate of school shootings, particularly in Santee, Calif. The article exploded around the Net and drew coverage in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.

'Wise's article would never have appeared in the mainstream media because it was so in-your-face,' Hazen says. 'We try to let writers use language that's as strong as they need.'

Hazen points to a number of articles that he says 'you wouldn't read in a daily newspaper or weekly magazine,' including:

  • An article excoriating the FCC for censoring radio stations and liberally quoting offensive song lyrics.
  • Girls Will Be Boys, an account of the rising number of transsexuals at women's colleges. 'You might read about it in the New York Times a year from now, but we're the ones put it it out there first,' Hazen says.
  • The 13 Scariest White Guys in America, a swipe at conservative politicians, media moguls and other power brokers. 'We tried to pitch it to the New York Daily News and the New York Post but were told it was too explosive,' Hazen says.
  • Anatomy of a Media-made Drug Scare, a look at the media's one-sided assault on a prescription drug used to treat chronic pain.

'We look for stories that will provide a different perspective or unorthodox opinion or a particular angle that's been overlooked by the mainstream media,' Hazen says. 'We seldom break a story with our reporting. Our strong suit is in giving the analysis and alternative perspective.'

Hazen has observed the working of the media machine for well over a decade.

'I'm not from the knee-jerk paranoid school that believes big media is censoring everyone's thoughts,' he says. 'You can find some great journalism in the dailies. But I think how certain publications play particular stories can have a big impact. You might be able to find some of these stories in the media, but it doesn't enter the public dialogue if it amounts to two paragraphs on page 20 of the New York Times. It's how the story gets presented and advanced and echoed that gets it onto the TV talk shows and radio stations and into America's living rooms.'

A focus on issues and policy

The problem with mainstream media ? including online media ? is that they've become a sort of Distraction Machine, Hazen suggests. 'The media are less about censoring stories than they are about presenting gossip and trivia,' he says. 'We prefer to focus on issues and policy and how it affects real people's lives.'

Too often newspaper and broadcast newsrooms look at the alternative press, zines and small Web sites as irrelevant purveyors of fringe journalism. But the truth is that they also play a significant role as the front-line shock troops that catapult controversial or novel subjects onto the public's radar screen.

'I think it's true that there are layers of the culture, and you may find things in the alternative weeklies or magazines or online media that percolate up to the surface and break through,' Hazen says. 'Some of the dailies are catching on to the fact that people like to read about controversial, in-your-face topics and subjects of interest to the younger community. If you look in the back pages of the alternative weeklies, you'll find this incredible world of relationships and sex that you do not find in the mainstream dailies. The alternative culture in this country is really about the matching up of sexual orientations and races and lifestyles, and we're pretty alert to that.'

AlterNet recently launched a turbo-charged web crawler that will search 50,000 stories from AlterNet and its content partners ? including Salon, The Nation, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, Utne Reader and others ? by the middle of this month. 'It's sort of a mini-LexisNexis for the left,' Hazen says.

AlterNet has its flaws. In May the site ran a poorly labeled satirical news report about the White House serving genetically modified food ? a report that was picked up by online and print publications, including the Nation, which had to publish a correction. The site dismissed complaints by readers who fired off angry e-mails about the misleading article, suggesting they just didn't grasp satire. But Hazen now acknowleges, 'I guess the labeling was too subtle.'

On the whole, however, AlterNet's brand of alternative journalism provides a counterpoint to the increasingly corporatized media world. 'The media marketplace has become dominated by corporate conglomerates,' Hazen says. 'In the old days, newspapers came at you from all perspectives. It's only been since the '50s and '60s that newspapers have turned away from their roles as advocates of strong opinions and turned into these homogenized, mealy-mouthed, info-entertainment machines.'

It's unlikely anything can change that, but it's refreshing to see outfits like AlterNet challenge the media's infotainment machine by offering a much-needed burst of grassroots insurgency.