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While working at the Edmonton Journal in 2002, Lisa Gregoire’s editors told her to “cover the riots” at the G8 Summit in Kananaskis. But there were no riots. Instead, there were peaceful rallies and playful campaigns like, “I’d rather go naked than wear Gap.” Gregoire produced articles about these non-violent demonstrations and about the effects of globalization, all of which got hacked, buried in the back pages, or went missing altogether. So she quit.

“The only reason they sent me,” Gregoire says, “was because they were expecting some kind of violence – a sensational story – and they wanted to make sure I was there to cover it.”

Only when she began writing for an independent alternative news website, AlbertaViews, did Gregoire find editorial freedom. While the site could only offer from 20 to 50 cents per word, the trade-off was worth it.

Independent news sites, like AlbertaViews (also a magazine), offer writers like Gregoire the opportunity to delve into complex subjects and explore multiple perspectives. The sites have recently proliferated on the internet as mainstream media conglomerates continue to congeal. But while it’s easy enough to create a website, it’s difficult to operate one successfully by producing credible and engaging content among the existing clutter.

There are two main challenges that hinder success, says Stephen Kimber, the director of journalism at King’s College in Halifax: finding an audience and finding the resources. “Alternative media don’t attract major advertisers, and readers are often unwilling to pay for information online,” he says. As a result, it’s hard for these sites to generate original noteworthy content.

“Still, these sites are important,” says Kimber, even as clearing-houses for recycled material. “They allow people anywhere to have access to information they might not have known existed otherwise.” Of course, criticisms of alternative media sites abound too. They have been condemned for aligning themselves along particular ideological lines and disturbing the conventional notion of good journalism by foregoing objectivity. But some say this is precisely the appeal.

“I’m interested in somebody who has a point of view similar to mine, because they’ll ask the questions that I want answered,” says Toronto Star-columnist Linda McQuaig. “I don’t want to read my own views confirmed, but I do want my sensibilities addressed in the material I’m reading.”

Ultimately, different independent sites offer varying grades of functional, fresh, and quality content – mostly while making do with a tight budget. Here are four online publications you should know about, and how they measure up.

1. rabble

Functionality: 5/5 Judy Rebick launched rabble on April 18, 2001, with the help of progressive journalists and activists across Canada. The site neatly fuses social and political writing from a range of sources. The top navigation bar allows visitors easy access to columns (by writers like Rick Salutin, McQuaig, and Thomas Walkom), current news (original content or recycled from publications like Asia Times and This Magazine), a discussion forum, a social justice events calendar, and much more.

Freshness: 4/5 The site is highly interactive, with two particularly popular features: “auntie.com,” a political advice column, and “babble,” a popular discussion forum. So far, 90,806 political posts have been added by Layton-lovers and Harper-harpies, and 121,232 comments have been posted about what’s hot in the news. “Babble makes our site unique,” says editor Sharon Fraser. “We’re approaching 8,000 babblers and they continue to be the backbone of our site.” rabble also offers a free email subscription for keeping track of newly posted articles.

Quality: 3.5/5 The site maintains a grassroots feel, often voicing the perspectives of activists who may be discounted by mainstream media. “Our politics are clearly on the left,” says Fraser. “We are sometimes criticized for not telling the other side of the story – but we usually say, ‘This is the other side of the story.'” Still, with limited funds, rabble isn’t producing the original investigative reporting they say they would like to.

Making Do: 4/5 To defy the notion that progressive equals poor, rabble has launched a fundraising campaign called rabble:remix. Rebick and Fraser hope to add a progressive jobs board, classified ads, and more in-depth reporting to upgrade the site. You can check out their progress online; they are tracking donations and have so far raised $35,137 (about 88 per cent of their goal.)

2. Straight Goods

Functionality: 4/5Straight Goods (SG) proclaims to be a “watchdog working for Canadian consumers.” Currently, it offers articles and columns about challenging the church, media scandals, the politics of cancer, and other hot topics. While the site is easily navigable, only the homepage – slightly cluttered with headlines – is free. Paid subscribers have full access to a 4,600-item archive.

Freshness: 3.5/5 The site includes a scant classified ads section and a not-so-booming discussion forum, where a handful of people chat about everything from equal-marriage legislation to corporate crooks. But two unique sections are: “Consumer Power,” which provides information on how to be an ethical consumer; and “Media Files,” which sheds light on the media we consume and how it is produced.

Quality: 3.5/5 “Straight Goods sifts through information and selects the most trustworthy sources and interesting writing,” says editor Penney Kome. “We point readers to information they would never find otherwise.” The site collects material from a wide array of sources, including Vancouver-based The Georgia Straight and the Star, but original, in-depth features are lacking.

Making Do: 4/5 “We can’t afford to pay writers,” says Kome. “We work on a shoestring.” SG makes ends meet by charging for ad space and by making much of its content available only to subscribers. Regular subscriptions cost $30, but a $20 discount is available for students, freelancers, Wal-Mart employees, and other low-income readers. Weekly email bulletins alert readers to newly updated articles – these are available for free.

3. Indymedia

Functionality: 1/5 The Independent Media Center (IMC) was established in 1999 by activists in anticipation of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington. Since then, IMCs have been set up by on every continent to provide “radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth.” Unfortunately, the site’s homepage looks like one radical mess. Lack of organization and tons of clutter make it hard to access information, as do the oft-broken links.

Freshness: 3.5/5 “One of the big advantages of online publishing is that everyone is potentially a publisher,” says Bill Mitchell, the editor of Poynter Online. “It’s a healthy new dimension.” Indymedia gives anyone the chance to voice an opinion without censure. The global site allows contributors to coalesce against worldwide social and political turmoil.

Quality: 2/5 The site claims, “There is no approval before an article is posted – everything is immediately displayed after submission.” It’s hard to call this kind of reporting credible, but the writing does create a sense of solidarity among international IMC members. Visitors looking for wholly reliable information, though, might want to consult other sources.

Making Do: 1/5 The IMC techies have been trying for years to decentralize the number of IMC sites that are currently occupying one server, without much success. The tech group is asking for allies to donate as much as they can via a “support us” link on the site’s homepage (it works too!). Of course, the request is so buried that it’s understandable why Indymedia is in need of a major cleanup.

4. Electronic Intifada

Functionality: 4/5Electronic Intifada (EI) began in 2001, a year after Palestine’s Second Intifada. This site is packed with information that is organized, accessible, and thorough. It offers visitors historical, legal, cultural, and political information about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The four cofounders, who make their homes in Minneapolis (Minnesota), Chicago (Illinois), Holland (Europe), and Vancouver, update the site regularly.

Freshness: 4/5 Dr. Laurie King-Irani, one of the site’s cofounders, says EI‘s most popular aspect is its diaries – live reports from people on the ground in occupied Palestine. The site also offers breaking news reports, media trends (for example, how Palestinian voter turnout was “grossly exaggerated”), reports from advocacy groups like Reporters Without Borders about journalists in danger in the Middle East, techniques activists can use to communicate effectively with the media, and more.

Quality: 3/5 The site began when the founders noticed reports by the mainstream media were completely at odds with reports they received from the ground. “In the beginning, the site was very much activist-oriented,” says King-Irani. “We wanted to give activists the tools to critique media portrayals in a responsible, mature, intelligent way.” The site maintains a Palestinian slant, but cofounder Arjan El Fassed suggests this perspective is missing from mainstream news. “Too often, we aren’t getting the whole story. What we do at EIis deliver the missing part,” he says. “We call it supplementary news, rather than alternative news.”

Making Do: 3/5 In 2002, the EI team decided that instead of critiquing the media, they would become the ideal. But, despite getting between 300,000 and 1 million visitors every month, money has been tight. In 2004, EI‘s expenditure came to about $60,000 and the site survived only because volunteers do most of the work. “EI will not reach its potential without more investment,” says El Fassed. “We need more people on the ground and bigger budgets for editing and translation.”

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About the author

Lisa Sarrancini was the Director of Circulation for the Spring 2005 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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