The level of interactive debate on social, cultural and political matters is steadily growing thanks in large part to alternative forms of media. Right now they are offering up a rather iconoclastic and refreshing assessment of news and contemporary events. News and commentary have never been more interesting and diverse than they are today under the influence of independent media.
Today there are blogs and web-based media outlets of all kinds covering a broad range of interests and issues. Some would argue that many of them are instruments of the mainstream media. Well they may be, but a growing number of them are not, and what most of them offer regardless of their origin is a rich mix of immediacy and interactivity - a marked point of difference - and accessibility. And regardless of the political or cultural stance an alternative media outlet might take, it is those flexible characteristics that make up part of its growing appeal.
Cheap and open access to discussion and debate, particularly on web-based platforms, has opened up a field once the preserve of the recognised commentariat to the population at large. This feature, highly developed in much of the alternative media outlets, is an invaluable asset to consumers of news and current events. Mainstream press, be it radio, print or television, is by and large one-way traffic. The capacity of the average media consumer to respond to perceptions of bias or misinformation, or even poor performance and standards, is limited. In many ways alternative media represents a return to the days of open public discourse once carried out in places like Hyde Park and still today in The Domain, with PC’s and laptops taking the place of soapboxes and podiums.
In response to a question regarding a “coming of age” for alternative forms of media, I would argue that alternative media has come of age already. In fact the concept of coming of age probably has no relevance to alternative media at all, as it implies these newer forms somehow comply, or need to comply, with a set of traditional benchmarks and a linear progression towards an agreed “position” in the market place or society. Alternative media is developing its own markets and its own measures of success. The old media rules no longer apply.
Journals such as On Line Opinion, Australian Prospect, Margot Kingston’s Web Diary, New Matilda and Crikey! together with the myriad of offshore based outlets offer a dynamic alternative to the mainstream press. And the long list of alternative media publications can be further augmented by the plethora of single issue web sites dedicated to any social or political cause you could care to name.
Alternative media has also spawned commercially successful entertainment packages. Two of the most enduring radio entertainment vehicles can be found in the characters of Roy Slavin and H.G. Nelson. You can add to that and the stable of personalities that make up the Coodabeen Champions, born out of what is best be described as alternative programming for radio over 20 years ago. Even the now commercially successful Rove McManus cut his teeth on Public Access Television as well as the stand up comedy circuit. As we stand by and watch the concentration of media ownership, these newer vehicles of news dissemination, entertainment and relatively open debate represent renewed diversity and offer a breeding ground for new talent.
Dedicated media analysts may have an idea on the uptake of these alternative forms of communication. But even the casual observer can not ignore the simple proliferation of alternative media and the strong implication that the community is hungry for whatever they are producing at the moment. It may be that a media hungry Australia, desperate for variety, is reading alternative media products as well as mainstream news. But the fact most of the larger news outlets also have web-based platforms, where most of their editorial, opinion and feature pieces get a run, suggests they are aware of the challenges posed by alternative media publishers.
Many alternative media outlets are self-declared not-for-profit setups with a greater interest in the message than the market. It is more important for them to disseminate the information than to profit by it. Clearly the greater the audience the better they will feel about their efforts. But any coming of age is probably best measured by survival and relevance rather than overt financial success or grappling a chunk of market share from a Murdoch or a Packer. Crikey! could be seen as a variation to this. Others may follow suit but I would suggest commercial success is not the driving force behind much of the alternative media sites around today.
The capacity of alternative media to influence outcomes, a benchmark that might be applied to the major players, is also limited but there are some notable exceptions. One only has to look at the demise of the American broadcaster, Dan Rather, who allegedly brought his retirement forward as a result of the influence of an American blog site, to see how alternative media can impact on the world at large.
Another blogger seems also to have claimed the scalp of a senior CNN executive, Eason Jordan who, while addressing some delegates at the recent World Trade Conference in Davros, allegedly made some statements about the conduct of the US military and the deaths of journalists in the Middle East.
While these are only isolated events it is highly likely they will be replicated from time to time as the alternative media network extends itself further around the globe and into the less affluent corners of the world. Whether or not bloggers and other forms of alternative media will unearth another Watergate or Khemlani affair is yet to be seen. But these publications do represent renewed diversity in a sadly homogenised media environment and we are all the richer for that.
The real power of alternative media is not to be found so much in its capacity to shape a debate but rather to provide an environment in which a sound debate can be had. And that is something the major players seem to lack. In the case of mainstream media the debate is largely conducted between members of the commentariat on their terms within the confines of their own agenda.