Local innovators offer a “Minnesota model” for media reform


“The Twin Cities have been an epicenter for media consolidation,” notes the National Conference for Media Reform program book. “Both daily newspapers have been bought, sold, and downsized by conglomerates. The alternative weekly is part of a national chain, too. And the TV and radio airwaves are dominated by some of the nation’s biggest media companies.”

Yet the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is also home to some of the country’s most exciting alternative media projects. Representatives from several local alternative and non-profit media organizations spoke Friday afternoon at an NCMR panel called “Minnesota Model: Countering Corporate Media.” Panelists included Jeremy Iggers, executive director of the Twin Cities Media Alliance; Vickie Evans-Nash of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder; Janis Lane-Ewart, executive director of the non-profit radio station KFAI-FM; Kathy Magnuson of the Minnesota Women’s Press; and Sarah Lutman of Minnesota Public Radio. Moderator David Schimke of the Utne Reader opened the discussion by pointing to the impressive diversity of local media. Meaningful debate, he said, “only happens when citizens are informed.”

“We’re not interested in people’s immigration status,” said Twin Cities Media Alliance executive director Jeremy Iggers, correcting a mistaken interpretation of the term “citizen journalism.”

Iggers spoke first, recounting the history of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, which he described as having arisen from frustration with mainstream media. The Media Alliance, Iggers noted, both publishes the Twin Cities Daily Planet—a Web site featuring citizen journalism and showcasing the best work of community media—and promotes media literacy through classes and training. Noting that the Media Alliance means to be inclusive rather than exclusive in its use of the term “citizen journalism”—“we’re not interested in people’s immigration status”—he explained that the Media Alliance and the Daily Planet aspire “to bring together the base of knowledge in the community with the kind of standards and values that have always characterized professional journalism.”

Following Iggers, Evans-Nash described the mission of the Spokesman-Recorder, a 75-year-old newspaper created for and by the Twin Cities’ African-American community. “Our goal each week,” she said, “is to tell original stories.” She emphasized the importance of community-based media, especially insofar as they can take advantage of local knowledge. “We try to make sure that when we bring someone in to tell a story, they get enough background to understand what’s going on.”

“Countering the corporate media,” said Lane-Ewart, speaking next, “is probably the subtext for KFAI’s mission.” When the station was founded in 1978, she explained, its founders saw it as very important that there be a place on local airwaves for “someone like the person sitting next to you.” The challenge for KFAI in recent years, said Lane-Ewart, is to involve “the next generation” by incorporating younger voices in addition to the baby boomers who had dominated the station’s programming. The station now offers youth training integrated with its public affairs programming.

“Countering the corporate media is probably the subtext for KFAI’s mission.” -Janis Lane-Ewart

Magnuson, taking the podium after Lane-Ewart, said that the Minnesota Women’s Press was founded to answer the question, “What would the news look like through women’s eyes?” The newspaper, said Magnuson, covers both stories that aren’t covered elsewhere and stories that simply “aren’t being told with a women’s lens.” As an example of her newspaper’s distinctive angle, Magnuson cited its coverage of Shipside, a play based on the true story of a local mother who attempted to kill herself and her children. Mainstream coverage of the story, Magnuson said, focused on the mother’s psychology rather than the challenging circumstances in which she lived; the Women’s Press story, she said, helped to correct that imbalance.

Speaking last was Lutman, who acknowledged the size discrepancy between MPR and the other organizations represented on the panel. “We’re a big old organization,” she said, “with a $70 million budget.” The next step for MPR, said Lutman, is to “move beyond broadcasting” by engaging listeners in public forums. Lutman and her colleagues, she said, have been pleased to find success in their attempts to share MPR’s model of public engagement with other stations in other cities. “There are people who think that, because of our unique civic spirit, things that work in Minnesota can’t work anywhere else. We’re proving that wrong.”

Jay Gabler is assistant editor of the Daily Planet.