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July 13, 2009, 8 a.m.

Five principles for developing a new media network from the Media Consortium’s Tracy Van Slyke

Shortly after George W. Bush’s victory in 2004, liberal magazines The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and The Nation held a joint crisis meeting. They emerged from the Rockefellers’ old “coach barn” at Pocantico with the goal of collaborating more closely in order to master new technologies, increase the impact of independent media outlets — and not lose another election.

More than four years later, The Media Consortium includes 43 left-leaning independent media outlets, including TPM, Salon, Ms., and Democracy Now!, ethnic media outlets like The Afro-Netizen, and multimedia groups like Balcony Films. They’ve spun off a progressive ad network and are working on a second major study on reader demographics.

I spoke with Tracy Van Slyke, who runs the Consortium out of her Logan Square apartment in Chicago, with a staff of “two and a half” people, some interns, and a budget of less than $500,000 a year. In some ways, it echoes the low-cost, high-reward forms of online organizing that liberal groups excelled at in the 2008 election.

“We’re lean and mean, but we’re really high impact,” Van Slyke said. “We’re not looking to build up a $10 million organization, we’re looking to really build enough support, keep the overhead capacity low, so we can put as much into projects and initiatives and supporting our members as possible.”

Since the Pocantico Conference Center seems to have become quite the cradle for media collaborations lately — I’ve been posting about a proposed network of nonprofit investigative outlets launched there last week — I asked her what lessons she’s learned while developing an independent media network.

From the ups and downs of coordinating the needs of major players and smaller outlets, Van Slyke said she’s distilled five central principles:

Just because you’ve started a network doesn’t mean everyone’s on the same page. “Networks are a new concept,” Van Slyke said. “You have to build those relationships. People still consider other organizations as competition for eyeballs or funds. You have to get over that into, ‘How do we work together for support of everyone?'”

Van Slyke said the Media Consortium members went through a long period of “dating” before they committed to making their collaboration official. Unlike the 30-plus investigative outlets who met at Pocantico last week and immediately inaugurated their network, the Media Consortium took several meetings to form, declaring its existence a year after their initial March 2005 meeting.

Be aware of how much capacity organizations have to play in the network on top of their daily organizational responsibilities. During the 2008 elections, the Consortium organized a series of live televised town-hall meetings focusing on communities and issues it felt were overlooked by traditional media. The series reached 9 million viewers, Van Slyke said, but it was also a lesson in the difficulties of coordinating a joint network project with staff members who had plenty of responsibilities at their individual organizations. “Everyone’s already working at max,” Van Slyke said. Even if a project fulfills the broad goals that each outlet wants to support, “you have to really figure out the concrete benefits they’re going to get” by being involved, she said.

All staff have to be involved in the process of planning joint efforts — not just the top leaders. Often, it’s the younger staff members who have conceptualizations of the future of journalism, and having them involved is really valuable. Just because the top brass of an organization signs off on a project doesn’t mean that you have buy-in from the middle management or the younger staffers who may be doing a lot of the work, Van Slyke said. To her, managing a media network is a lot like being a community organizer. (She has background in both.) “When you’re running a network, you need to know who’s working in each of those organizations and what their role is,” she said. “You have to be very integrated into all the different organizations.”

Start with lots of diversity from the beginning. The Media Consortium’s initial meeting involved a bunch of print-focused, older white men — the same kind of group that some have criticized for sharing the stage at future-of-news events, Van Slyke said. The group chose to reach out and make itself more diverse as it grew, Van Slyke said, but “at this point in 2009, we can’t be repeating that mistake over and over. We can’t start with the old guard and then think about bringing in the new leaders. They have to be integrated from the beginning: diversity of race, of gender, of age, and diversity of people who are experimenting with models.”

Because the goal of the consortium is to make independent media as a whole more influential in shaping the national discourse, the group welcomed smaller members who reached an audience that other outlets weren’t reaching, Van Slyke said. At the same time, she said, they had to know their limits. “I’ve stopped a lot of bringing in new members, because we’ve got a lot on our plate,” she said. “At some point it’s beyond our control.”

Balance the benefits of advancing the whole field and the benefits for individual organizations. One of the tensions in running a network is balancing the needs of the smaller players versus the bigger players, Van Slyke said — not unlike the issues I wrote about facing the new Nonprofit Investigative News Network. “They have different capacity, different levels of knowledge, all that stuff,” she said. “All our projects aren’t going to benefit every organization at the same time. We’re trying to have a variety of opportunities for people to benefit and participate. The more they put in, the more they’re going to benefit. That’s sort of a network rule.”

POSTED     July 13, 2009, 8 a.m.
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