Where Will We Get the Next Rachel Maddow?

The progressive media sector has suffered a few sharp blows in recent weeks. On Jan. 21, Air America Media unceremoniously folded, citing a "perfect storm" in the media industry. Just a few days later, a survey from Public Policy Polling revealed Fox News to be the most trusted television news source -- echoing Fox's continued ratings domination over CNN and MSNBC. Even old "crash the gates" Markos challenged progressive media's power to influence Democrats or inspire newly disillusioned voters in a recent blog post. "Our media machine is tiny," he wrote. "We don't have the power to move our base around."

None of this negates the tremendous impact that progressive media makers and outlets -- from straight journalism organizations, to blogs, to citizen activists swarming social networks -- have made. Growing in force, visibility, and organization over the past decade, networked progressive media efforts have steadily been winning victories against the right's behemoth noise machine. Together, progressive blogs, sites, magazines, radio and TV programs, documentary films, and Web 2.0 projects reach millions of engaged, active users. Progressive media has led the way in using a combination of traditional and social media platforms and campaigns to drive stories into the mainstream discussion and affect local and national policy.

These victories, large and small, will continue to build -- but only if progressive media makers and funders commit to funding and supporting ongoing innovation. What's more, they need to invest in systematic evaluation of what has worked, how best to collaborate, and what risks to take next. Based on the research we conducted for our book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media, here are three suggestions for strategies that progressive media makers -- large and small -- should pursue over the next year.

Work together, but don't speak in one voice
Unlike the right, progressive media makers and outlets should resist organizing around lockstep talking points -- the pernicious "echo chamber" effect that blunts debate and oversimplifies issues.

They can, however, amplify one another's efforts by teaming up to cover different aspects of a pressing story, or aggregating streams for multiplatform coverage of an important event. This way, journalism organizations like Mother Jones and the Prospect can still retain independence and control of their content, while more movement-oriented outlets like Brave New Films are free to work with activists, nongovernmental agencies, and community groups. Social media tools and platforms are making it much easier to create projects that draw the best coverage from multiple sources. Given the current crisis in journalism revenues, this isn't just good politics; it's good business.

Involve as many networks as possible
By connecting strategically around shared issues, policy stances, and events, makers and outlets can harness what we term the "four network layers," to distribute content, challenge frames, affect policy, and drive change. This isn't just about tapping into the "netroots" or creating some progressive ├╝ber-Web site; it's about embracing decentralization to harness the power of our increasingly linked communications system.

To help drive strategic discussions, we've created visualizations of these four layers, which include:

  • Networked users: These are everyday people who use social and mobile media platforms to share stories, videos, and campaign information with friends, colleagues, and those concerned about similar issues. Many of these networked users are becoming content creators as well.
  • Self-organized networks: These ad-hoc online communities form on or across social media platforms, like the clutch of voters in Iran who used Twitter tags to report on their rigged election or groups that have formed around the health-care debate. Media makers can tap into these networks to amplify coverage or keep pace with a cresting issue.
  • Institutional Networks: Hosted by advocacy groups like NOW, online campaigns like Barack Obama's MyBO, or progressive organizing hubs like MoveOn, these are more durable networks that can serve media makers as a reliable pool of users who want to read more about a topic, serve as sources, or crowdsource investigation.
  • Networks of Institutions: These demonstrate the true power of networked progressive media, connecting users, self-organized networks, institutions, and media outlets together for coordinated coverage and campaigns, such as in the fight for net neutrality.

    Just as talk radio served as the support structure for the rise of conservative commentators, these network layers can serve as the gridwork for growth and impact of progressive media. (Of course, this relies on some larger technology and policy trends -- go universal broadband access!)

    Move beyond pale, male, and stale
    Finally, progressive media outlets need to lead the way in recruiting younger, more diverse, and more entertaining voices. While blogs and magazines like Feministing, Jack and Jill Politics, and ColorLines have done a great job of generating original and often entertaining coverage and opinion by nontraditional progressives, legacy outlets still need to step it up. It's only by drawing in younger voters, women, and people of color through creative, relevant, and inclusive coverage that an effective coalition can be built. Plus, we're beyond bored with the white male punditocracy.

    But, whatever strategies outlets and makers employ, it's time to get moving again. As The Washington Post reported on Feb. 1, conservatives are already hustling their online and offline networks. "The ability of a single e-mail to shape a message illustrates the power of the conservative network -- loosely affiliated blogs, radio hosts, 'tea-party' organizers and D.C. institutions that are binding together to fuel opposition to President Obama and, sometimes, to Republicans," writes the Post's Jerry Markon. Conservatives are particularly energized, he reports, by having a common enemy.

    Sound familiar? This same dynamic fueled the growth of the progressive network in the Bush years. It's no time to fall apart.