Introducing: The Watershed Media Project

The Watershed Media Project is a new initiative to research and develop grassroots funding, production and promotional models for independent, public-interest journalism and media.

Watershed is a nonprofit, fiscally sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media; it is also a slow-media project that will eschew the frantic pace and expectations of today’s digital startup culture in favor of small, simple, incremental goals achieved over longer periods of time.

My intent is to cultivate Watershed as a venue for research, analysis and related blogging; it also will encompass and manage and as test platforms for its overarching hypothesis, to wit:

Grassroots funding and production models for journalism can more effectively serve key public-interest needs than institutional news media and monetized news products.

Call it a hypothesis-in-progress; maybe it’s a little too confrontational. We’ll be picking it apart with gusto over the coming months; meanwhile, please consider two jumping-off points.

The first iwatersheds a link to “Post -Industrial Journalism,” a crucial 2012 manifesto by Emily Bell, C.W. Anderson and Clay Shirky, in which they memorably declare that “there’s no such thing as the news industry anymore,” and call for “new forms of organization” within which to develop and drive the practice of journalism in our democracy.

The second point is this excerpt from a forthcoming essay of mine written for Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that advocates for designing communities that are radically adaptive to the conditions of unique local “bioregions” and watersheds. It’s a veritable gusher of metaphor that can hardly be stemmed:

Information is like water. Our survival depends on it. It’s harmful or healthful depending on its origin, and on what people do to it before it gets in your system. Its use and availability is enormously profitable, and of the highest humanitarian and social concern.

From the community meeting hall and the local-news blog on up, the free flow of information is the water cycle of democracy, sustaining entire ecosystems of civic discourse and cultural exchange.

Just as estuaries and watersheds are vulnerable to industrial activity and unsustainable development, democratic institutions and processes are deeply influenced by commercial and financial interests. Mass media is a toxic mess, awash with false memes, fear mongering, destructive double-standards and routine ethical compromise. Media equivalents of Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima happen all the time. Pollution accumulates in the mental environment like mercury and PCBS in the water tables.

My first significant publishing gig, back in 1992, was as editor of Planet Drum’s annual journal Raise the Stakes — issue No. 22, which in retrospect was a somewhat prescient edition. We dug deep on topics such as cultivating native food crops, seed saving for diversity, permaculture “food forests” that bear diversely all year long, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA farms), organic and least-toxic farming — topics that would in subsequent decades end up inspiring marketing and political campaigns alike.

That linkage between ecology, sustainability, culture and history has stayed with me over the years, and when Judy Goldhaft from Planet Drum asked me this past summer to write something for their print newsletter, the dots began to connect up.

Having just returned from the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver, I was impressed by how Planet Drum’s vision of sustainability had so much resonance with commonplace media-reform and future-of-journalism metaphors such as “information ecosystem” and “news ecology.”

These are easy metaphors, even seductive, and yet taking them seriously begins to compel questions. What, for example, are the funding watersheds that sustain these media-based ecosystems? How does one measure and ensure their health and sustainability?

The questions run deep, the terrain they open up is broad. Watershed Media Project will serve as home base for a few hopeful expeditions and surveys.

In the coming months you can expect a standalone home page plus regular project updates, and your comments and feedback are most welcome throughout.

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