What is the Alternative Press? A few definitions…

No one term adequately describes all of the various types of publications and sources of information that fall outside of the mainstream: independent, dissident, radical, underground, subversive, non-corporate, progressive, grassroots, activist, anarchist, small, alternative…

Similarly, no one definition adequately describes all of the publications or types of publications included when one refers to the alternative press. Often, the alternative press is defined by describing what it is not: it is not mainstream or corporate-owned, for example. This of course begs the questions: what is mainstream? and what constitutes a corporate-owned publication? Other criteria used to describe the alternative press include a publication’s content, its means of production and ownership, whether or not a publication seeks social or political change, and whether or not the publication is intended to generate a profit.

Or perhaps the alternative media (to paraphrase Amy and David Goodman describingDemocracy Now!) represent and give voice to the mainstream who are ignored by the mainstream media.

The excerpts below represent just a small sample of the various definitions and descriptions of the alternative press. Included as well are a couple of excerpts pertaining to the dissident and radical press which, depending on the definition used, may also be considered alternative.

Alternative, small, independent, radical, dissident… a few excerpts:

Charles Willett, founder of Counterpoise and author of numerous articles on the alternative press, suggests that the Alternative Press expresses “whatever ideas lie beyond the pale, whatever is not accepted, not permitted, not available in the corporate and government mainstream” (1999).

Nancy Kranich suggests that “alternative” is the term “most apt” to describe small and independent publishers since these publishers “counterbalance the corporate media” (2000).

Debates about the differences between mainstream and alternative media often see mainstream media as “maximizing audiences by appealing to safe, conventional formulas” and alternative media as “foregoing the comfortable, depoliticizing formulas to advocate programs of social changel” (Hamilton 358).

U of T Faculty of Information Studies Professor Juris Dilevko and York University librarian Kalina Grewal (1997), in their study of academic library collections of socio-political journals, distinguish between corporate and non-corporate owned publications: “corporate, for-profit publishing entities support a dominant social paradigm” whereas “smaller, independent publishers, usually non-profits challenge the assumptions of the sataus-quo” (362).

In their study, a journal was considered to be published by a corporate publisher if that publisher published more than one journal title and if the title was “subject to an auditing of its circulation figures by a recognized auditing agency…” (363). Since auditing figures are used to lure and reassure advertisers, the use of auditors suggests that a title is intended to earn profit for its owners (363).

Chris Atton, lecturer and scholar of alternative media, draws attention to Michael Traber’s notion of alternative media: “Traber argues that the conventions of the mass media marginalize the role ot the ‘simple man and women,’ foregrounding instead the rich, the powerful and the glamourous” (52). The Alternative media, on the other hand, have as their primary aim social and political action: “to change towards a more equitable social, cultural and economic whole in which the individual is not reduced to an object… but is able to find fulfillment as a total human being” (52).

Moreover, Atton notes how Traber identifies two broad areas of the alternative press: the “advocacy press” (which presents “alternative social actors” (the poor, the oppressed, the maginalized, etc) as the “main subjects of the news), and the “grassroonts press” (which is “produced by the people whose concerns it represents, giving it a position of engagement and direct participation”) (52).

Professor of Journalism Rodger Streitmatter, consistent with the definition of dissidence (thinking or feeling differently; disagreeing; differing), defines the dissident press as publications that offer “views that differ from those of the conventional press” (xi). Moreover, to warrant inclusion in his book on the history of the dissident press, a publication “not only had to offer a differing view of society but also had to seek to change society in some discernable way” (xi).

John D.H. Downing defines radical media as media that is “generally small-scale and… that expresses an alternative vision to hegemonic policies, priorities and perspectives” (v). However, he qualifies this definition by acknowledging that it is almost oxymoronic to simply speak of “alternative media” because “everthing, at some point, is alternative to something else” (ix). The extra designation radical, he contends, helps “firm up the definition of alternative media” (ix). He then offers a fairly lenghty definition of what differentiates radical alternative media from more conventional, mainstream media. I will mention only one of his ten points: radical alternative media serve “to express opposition vertically from subordinate quarters directly at the power structure and against its behavior;” and “to build support, solidarity, and networking laterally against policies or even against the very survival of the power structure” (xi).

Bibliography (sources for the excerpts above):

Atton, Chris. “A Reassessment of the Alternative Press.” Media, Culture & Society 21 (1999): 51 – 76.

Dilevko, Juris and Kalina Grewal. “A New Approach to Collection Bias in Academic Libraries: The Extent of Corporate Control in Journal Holdings.” Library & Information Science Research 19.4 (1997): 359 – 85.

Downing, John. Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, c2001.

Hamilton, J. “Alternative Media: Conceptual Difficulties, Critical Possibilities.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 24.4 (October 2000): 357 – 78.

Kranich, Nancy. “A Question of Balance: The Role of Libraries in Providing Alternatives to the Mainstream Media.” Collection Building 19.3 (2000): 85 – 90.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.

Willet, Charles. “The State of Alternative Publishing in America: Issues and Implications for Libraries.” Counterpoise 3.1 (January 1999): 14 – .

Mount Allison University Libraries

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