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Decentralization and Authority at the Media Co-op

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Decentralization and Authority at the Media Co-op

[Disclaimer: I don't speak on behalf of the Media Co-op, but I speak from the Media Co-op. Others may very well disagree with things I say, or wish to express things differently. I hope that they do.]

Recent controversies have resulted in a few people contacting me and asking me, and pressuring me, to take stuff down from the Media Co-op web site. My answer is the same for each one: I cannot.

The baseline assumption seems to be that this organization is top-down in the same way many others are. Because I'm one of the people who has been working on the Dominion and the Media Co-op since the beginning (that being 2003), I'm assumed to have some kind of omnipotence or at least massive influence when it comes to the operations of the project.

In fact, we're working to make an organization that is the exact opposite of that state of affairs, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Our current overlapping structures

The Media Co-op consists of a few different, overlapping things:

  • The Locals (Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto, so far) which are responsible for operating their respective web sites. These web sites all feed into the central MediaCoop.ca site, where people can post work that does not pertain to a particular Local.
  • The three kinds of members: readers, contributors and editors. If they are geographically situated within a local, members may also be a part of a given local.
  • The Dominion, which draws from the coverage of the locals, frequently pays local members for their work, and has its own editorial standards and policies.
  • A central staff, which overlaps to a very large extent with the Dominion's editorial collective, which is responsible for many of the daily operations of the co-op and its publication, the Dominion.

Since it's inception two years ago, the Media Co-op has been in the process of building a structure that embodies participatory democracy, and is resolutely bottom-up.

Media from below

Our decentralized structure has been one of the main contributing factors in the rapid growth of the Media Co-op, from nothing a few years ago into a network that generates thousands of posts per year, not including comments.

What bottom-up means to us, is that the central body of the Media Co-op serves the membership and the Locals, and it doesn't get to tell the Locals what to do. That doesn't mean that we don't have debates and disagreements, but it means that final authority over local editorial decisions rests at the local level.

It's part of a broader philosophical shift, where instead of an organization being led by a central leader, it is "led," inasmuch as the word applies, by the energy and engagement of grassroots-level activity. The institutional structure is there to nuture the grassroots activity, help it rapidly self-replicate and amplify it so that it can reach a greater audience and achieve greater influence.

(I'm not saying we're doing these things particularly well in all cases, but rather I am speaking to our intentions and overall direction.)

The results are always going to be mixed, and plenty of people will do things in one part of the network that people in another part disagree with, and maybe even take some heat for. But we collectively recognize that we're all stronger if we keep building the network together. The self-confidence that's instilled and the innovation that results when people are given autonomy far outweighs the instances of conflict that may result. (That said, it's not always easy to convince everyone of this during a conflict.)

Lessons and future directions

In many ways, the creation of functional networks that combine the flexibility of autonomy with the concentrated strategy and resources that a cental organization affords (while keeping that central organization accountable to its constituents) is a development which is very much in its infancy. (That is not to say that it's a new idea; Indigenous traditions of radical democracy go back thousands of years; the challenge that's only just being met is how to adapt and spread the practices within the present reality.)

Indymedia.org showed that it was possible for a media network to grow from nothing, into a globe-spanning network of autonomous media outlets in the span of a few years, but it suffered from an inability to adapt to new challenges and make decisions collectively. (That said, many IMCs are still going strong and doing amazing work.)

Greenpeace (to name just one example) took the opposite approach and centralized its operations with fierce efficacy. It has the opposite problem: enourmous amounts of money and organizational capacity under central control, but little impetus to do anything with it. (Quite the opposite, as it turns out.)

Venezuela is experimenting with the extremely interesting model of communas, but that's just starting. The Spanish Civil war gave us a few fascinating examples. Then there was that moment in Argentina. There are the Haudenosaunee, the Zapatistas, the Aymara and many other Indigenous traditions that are from-below in their political structures. The pieces and precendent for this kind of organization/network are everywhere, but to commit to building such a thing is to commit to intensive and occasionally messy experimentation.

Two basic things that I've learned:

  • The more decentralized the operation, the more there needs to be a solid basis of agreed-upon policy and principles moving from the outset.
  • The larger the organization/network, the more important it is for people to be educated about the activities of all the parts they'll be participating in decisionmaking about.

I am personally committed to precisely this project. This is why, when people tell me that I'm "not serious," that I'm "hiding behind the structure" and "only interested in sectarianism" as some recently have, I don't take it personally. Decentralized, bottom-up organizations are an unfamiliar phenomenon, and I hope that in the years to come, the ideas behind them will be less and less foreign.


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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Montreal
Member since January 2008

About:

Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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Comments

Required Reading!

Thanks for posting this Dru.

Agreed!

 I second that, Dawn !

Personal and political conflicts and living somewhere small(ish)

Dru, thank you for posting this.

Drawing on one of the things you've said, I want to share a few thoughts on organising in smaller urban areas, and the impact movement divides happening elsewhere have on local organising.

I agree completely that as you say, "The larger the organization/network, the more important it is for people to be educated about the activities of all the parts they'll be participating in decisionmaking about," but more than that, I think that it is important to recognize how decisions will impact the different parts of the network.

This I think will be the biggest challenge that the Media Co-op will face in coming years.

There is a challenge, I think, in large urban areas like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and others, to understand the impact of internal conflict within those local movements on smaller communities. So while organising in Halifax is very rarely going to have an impact in Montreal or Toronto, the organising in Toronto and Montreal is often going to have impacts in Halifax.

This is partly because there is more information and more actions coming out of large urban centres, but it is also because in Halifax, it is important to cast a wider net when organising. There is a need to spend more time working in coalition with a wide variety of groups and individuals, while continuing to push a radical analysis. This is the reality of living in a small city (Halifax has 100,000 on the peninsula and 300,000 in the wider Halifax Regional Municipality).

As an organiser in Halifax, I find it sometimes frustrating when disputes between organisers  spiral into personal attacks and spill out onto the internet, because complex debates often become reduced to debates over who called who names, and who misinterpreted who, and away from the topic of the actual conflict. And I am usually not even aware of long-standing personal conflicts, or long-standing organising tensions that add even an additional layer that is lost.

By the time things reach Halifax, the debate is already polarized, and then local activists face the pressure of mediating between all the people who have been offended by one side of a conflict or another.

As the media co-op grows, and new locals sprout in smaller places, it will be important for local organisers to understand and respect the diversity of the communities that we work within. A conflict that may be super present and pertinent in one area, might not be on the radar in anothher. More though, it's possible that when those conflicts spill onto the web and spiral into personal attacks on all sides, they will have broader impacts that may be more far-reaching than anticipated.

Who decides when to lock comments on snitchjacketing slander?

In this utopian bottom-up media community? This looks like were headed back to indymedia days when trolls ruled the roost

Hi there Derrick, Have you

Hi there Derrick,

Have you actually contacted any members of the VMC editorial committee? If the conflict is so intense that you cannot, you may wish to initiate some kind of mediation.

Posters

Not sure on what basis you decide what is slanderous, but we're careful that claims made on the site can be backed up. Folks posting stories related to personal experiences can request that comments be turned off. Makes sense to me. As for the trolls: you wish!

The alternative media will not eat itself

Hi Dru - et all.

Great posting and super appreciated. Gives me great confidence within the media coop that this type of semi formal structure exists.

Surely I am here because of this, and hope to remain for a longtime as well.

Makes plenty of sense and shall serve us well. Provided (as I stated in my heading) that we do not eat ourselves.

I have a long history of social justice activism and community involvement - grassroots/collective and formal non profit.

I have less involvement in media (major corporate - much less - other than fighting it) and certainly not with the level of involvement I am now currently having at the Vancouver Media Coop.

I am looking forward to getting to know more of those involved with the editorial board, website development and just general organizational happenings wihin the Media Coop and The Dominion.

We are all in this together. (Nine Inch Nails)

Tami Starlight

VMC

Coast Salish Territory/Vancouver

 

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