Challenging Orthodoxy – The Political Economy of the Left Press: Content, Distribution and Audience

Round Table Discussion – Anarchist Bookfair 2012

The 2012 anarchist bookfair hosted an interesting discussion on the Irish alternative media, entitled ‘Old Media in the Age of the Internet‘ the talk focused on the continued relevance of left wing print media in the internet age.  The discussion looked at issues of production, including content and aesthetics, the role of radical publications, the relationship between the publication and its audience, and distribution. The session also included some discussion on Irish mainstream journalism and the lack of space therein for left wing ideas or working class representation.  This is a brief report of some of the major issues of the  discussion, focusing on content, audience and distribution, the entire discussion can be watched below.

The panel discussion was hosted by Ciaran Moore of Dublin Community Television and included Andrew Flood of the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM). The WSM produce a free newspaper workers solidarity and a free journal The Irish Anarchist Review which is published twice a year.   The discussion also included James Redmond of Rabble magazine, an interesting  youth orientated publication which draws inspiration from the 1960s radical press. It publishes quarterly with a run of 5,000 copies. James describes the magazine as being positioned ‘between the left and the city.’ They were joined by Scott Millar of Liberty, the official newspaper of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union and  Kevin Brannigan of Look Left  a broad left bi-monthly which while sponsored by the Workers’ Party, has an independent and broad left editorial. Finally the panel included Angela Coraccio  of the anarcho-feminist journal RAG which she describes as having a ‘niche’ audience.

Content:   All on the panel agreed the importance of quality content and good production values, Rabble in particular plays a lot of attention to aesthetics and while overtly political talks to young people about issues they are interested in such as the DIY music scene.  Rabble believes that the radical media needs to be transformative and should bring their audience with them.  James sees rabble as a space where readers can share their experiences and see their reality and hear their own voices reflected back at them.  This is where the title Rabble comes from.  As rabble is a quarterly journal they tend not to cover time sensitive stories such as individual protests or gigs. They believe it is important that the readership sees themselves within a radical publication and it reflects their interests.

Scott Millar discussed the need for a left press to appeal to a mass rather than niche audience.  Scott Millar discussed how Liberty with a new editorial team had changed the paper over the last eighteen months from a publication of photographs and statements of union officials  into a news driven paper focusing on workplace struggles. Millar made the point that a print publication (distributed on a mass level) will come up against much more legal and political opposition compared to an internet publication, this he believes this  be educational for those working on the paper as well as acting as a greater challenge to power structures in Ireland. He also sees the paper as the core organisational driver of an organisation or party.

Andrew Flood disagreed maintaining that this was probably the case up until the 1990s but  that now people engage with information in a very different manner.  He discussed the two way communication processes on social media sites such as Facebook, where feedback through ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ is readily available. In fact the WSM is now the second biggest Irish political party on Facebook. Millar pointed out this is obviously an extreme skewing of the actual social and political weight of the organisation and pointed out that this kind of metric can give a false impression of reality. The WSM however is still committed to print media as a way of opening up discussions with groups of people.  Andrew pointed out that monthly or bimonthly newspapers are of little use when there is a need to make a statement or an intervention on an issue immediately, for this he said the internet allows for instant publication, and indeed may allow for an intervention with the mainstream press.He gave the example of the story of where Gardai were taped joking about raping political activists in Rossport. While the story wasn’t immediately picked up by the mainstream media the Shell to Sea publication of the tapes picked up 70,000 listeners within 24 hours.  His main point was that the internet gives small organisations a reach which would not be possible by using print alone.

On the other hand RAG sees their role as documenting experiences and struggles, for this reason they are wary of an internet only publication and prefer to have a physical production.  Angela maintained while an internet publication may be easier to produce that it may also be easier to forget. The process of producing the journal also produces a community.

Look Left’s content is drawn from the wider left wing movement, the editorial committee  includes anarchists, left republicans and labour leftists, the Workers’ Party aim is to create a mass read broad left publication rather than the traditional in-house publication.  The journal is developing reaching a greater distribution and adding extra pages.

Ciaran made the point that many of the writers in the current left press have learnt their trade and indeed built up audiences by blogging. Scott Millar made the point that the Irish mainstream press is pretty incestuous and drawn from a very narrow class base and betrays a very narrow ideological viewpoint. Most writers of a left wing ideology end up teaching in faculties of journalism rather than working within the mainstream press because there is no space in the Irish mainstream media for those voices.  Therefore he believes the left have to make an intervention beyond the left speaking to one another and create organs which offer a voice to ordinary people.

Audience:

Ciaran made the point that unlike online readership where you can count both individual readers and time spent on pages in print it is much more difficult and he posed the question how do you build audience? ,Scott said he would like to think 10,000 to 15,000 active trade unionists are reading Liberty every month.

The WSM have two separate audiences for the newspaper and the journal, for the general it is  assumed there is an interested and somewhat knowledgeable audience while the paper is aimed at the general public. The publications are also  published  in conjunction with the WSM’s much larger web presence.

Rabble do not believe they have a captive audience but are in a process of constructing an audience; by giving their perspective readers a voice within the magazine.  The readership in turn play an important role in the distribution of the paper. 

RAG tries to stay away from being too academic, and their audience tends to be very specific, many of the articles are of a very personal nature.

Distribution: 

Distribution is one of the more difficult areas for alternative print media, Andrew of the WSM discussed how that organisation moved away from charging for their papers a few years ago, due mainly to the amount of time devoted to ‘sales’ in the past for very little return. Instead the WSM produces a free sheet to be dropped in doors, though now the organisation has moved towards handing  out the newspaper at marches and other political events. Workers Solidarity is produced six times a year with a run of 4,000 copies.  The paper is funded by the members themselves, but  Andrew pointed out, the paper was loss making when sold and the difference in cost in not considerable.
For Rabble distribution is done both through a readers network and in cafes and music venues; as the publication does not look like a typical left newspaper it is easier to distribute it in such places, a strategy used by communist publications in the sixties. Rabble is still developing its distribution networks. Most of their fundraising comes through raising money at gigs. They would like to be reader funded, but one issue James mentioned was because of free content availability on the internet, people in general do not expect to have to pay for content.  Kevin from Look Left made a point that he believed that if people paid for a publication they make a greater commitment to reading it.
RAG’s distribution is small and usually at bookfair type events, though Angela saw the importance of the journal in documenting. Liberty is distributed throughout SIPTU and Easons though it is unclear how many of the print run of 35,000 copies are actually read. Look Left is available throughout Ireland in bookshops and newsagents as well as distributed through the Worker’s Party network, it has a print run of 10,000 copies. Kevin said he believed that it was important such publications should be available nationwide especially in areas without much  political activity. He also made the point the distributors are happy to distribute any magazine or paper which will sell and they don’t care about the content.  (However CMR does make the point that the near monopolisation of print media distribution by Easons and Independent News and Media is still a very serious issue in the development of a mass readership left press. And INM has certainly made use of its monopoly position in the past).  Both Kevin and Scott pressed the need and possibilty to eastablish a mass read media, or what Scott called a left media institution, of which he believes an audience exists.
Conclusions?
Scott Millar talked about the need for the left to reach out to a mass readership, which he believes necessitates a print editition. He called on the need for a left media ‘institution’. Kevin Brannigan discussed the value in a print edition for actually meeting and discussing with people and he believes a sole internet publication may lead to a political disengagement.
The issue of political economy was discussed and how the print media by its very nature is expensive to produce and therefore is paid for by private advertising leading to a generally right wing ideology and the question was posed if it is possible to have a left wing mainstream paper?  Scott Millar maintained that most countries have a left press of some form and the lack of one in Ireland represented a failure of the Irish left.  He maintained that the fact that the Irish media has become so narrow in recent years it offers an opportunity and a space to the left to produce a long lasting media institution.  On wider political policy the dumping of cheap British publications was discussed as well as alternative models such as the Canadian and Norwegian models where progressive tax policies are geared towards the development of an indigenous press.
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