Youth Media Entrepreneurship

May 28, 2007

Youth Radio was featured this month in Sara Melillo’s article, Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean Non-Revenue, in the online journal, Youth Media Reporter. Melillo describes how youth media organizations are exploring ways to make money from their products and services to drive resources back to young producers, the sponsoring non-profit, and local communities. She closes with a useful list of references for youth media producers to consult as they consider ways to match what they’ve got with market needs.

I’d add to Melillo’s very practical list something a little more conceptual–a chapter called “Looking to Get Paid” from Robin Kelley’s 1997 book, Yo Mama’s DisFUNKtional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. The book pre-dates many of the current developments in digital media culture/industry that have kicked off the latest wave of entrepreneurship by young producers. But Kelley’s observations historicize what’s happening today and provide a way to think both hopefully and critically about how young people “put culture to work” by imagining ways to turn their play and pleasure into “cold hard cash.”

So often, what I’ve noticed in scholarship about these themes, is you’ve got the business writers and economists who don’t really deal with culture, and then you’ve got the culture critics who pretty much reduce young people’s desire/effort to make money from their creativity as either 1. doomed to failure because inequality won’t budge, or 2. evidence that they’ve been co-opted. Kelley brings a much more nuanced story.

In terms of Youth Radio’s take on all this, I often think of the organization’s earliest work as growing from an entrepreneurial instinct back in 1992, when the original group started writing commentaries for local radio broadcast. It’s not that they were making any money, but they definitely noticed and helped create an appetite for youth perspectives on every major social issue. Now, national news outlets  routinely contact Youth Radio and other youth media groups to solicit young people’s takes on topics ranging from the war in Iraq to public schooling to parenting and sexuality. Fifteen years later, as we have expanded our own entrepreneurial work, some of the “bottom lines” we’ve talked about as we consider different ventures include:

• We won’t “sell” youth knowledge without youth input, leadership, and final editorial say
• We can’t ever cross the firewall between journalism and marketing
• Revenue generation should feed rather than sap organizational sustainability

All of this work unfolds against a backdrop of intense public interest in making money from youth media (or, more commonly perhaps, making money from young people through media). The good news is, the nation cares about teenagers again—everyone’s talking about them. What’s more, the public is focusing for once on what young people know and can do. Adults are recognizing that young people’s digital media experiments hold important lessons for how we design everything from learning environments to marketing campaigns to investment strategies.

The bad news is, many policy makers, pundits, educators and scholars continue to position young people in one of three roles with respect to digital media culture.

Savvy Socializers: Young people’s masterful uses of social networking sites have transformed the way we think about identity, friendship, and the flow of information.

Authenticity Consultants: Young people hold coveted knowledge as arbiters of what’s next. Who better to tap (but rarely compensate) as advisors on public relations plans and venture capital portfolios?

Victims in Waiting: Young people face new risks online, including exposure to sexually graphic content, violence, hatred, and exploitation.

Missing from this line-up is a focus on young people as enterprising producers and distributors of socially meaningful content. We know very little about the strategies young people devise and deploy to produce media through entrepreneurial projects that promote equity and enfranchisement. Those are the strategies, in my view, that we need to support, document, and understand.

Youth Media Citizenship

May 18, 2007

In a short paper posted on the Spotlight Blog, W. Lance Bennett assesses two paradigms related to youth citizenship. He says, based on measures like faith in the government and conventional public institutions, young people are trending downwards as “dutiful citizens”; but if you see evidence of civic engagement in informal, issue-specific, peer-to-peer mobilization efforts, “actualized” youth citizenship is on the rise.

That’s just one contradiction that comes up when you start looking into the status of civic engagement in youth culture, especially as it relates to media. Young people are casualties of media privatization, to the extent that they find themselves ever more alienated from media ownership and influence; and yet they comprise the single most coveted commercial market and in this sense wield considerable power to sway what gets on. Young people lead the world as media innovators, redefining how we form identities, find friends, play games, make decisions, and learn; and yet those marginalized from digital privilege struggle for access to meaningful roles and tools of media production. Powered in part by the advent of citizen journalism and online self-publishing venues like blogs, social networking sites, and user-curated outlets, young people have never had access to a richer array of options for telling their own stories and framing knowledge and the news. And yet what sociologist Eric Klinenberg describes as “re-regulation” by the FCC has enabled media conglomerates to take over local print, radio, and television outlets around the country at striking rates.

Pretty much everything Youth Radio does is motivated by an effort to engage and collaborate with young people as active citizens and producers of culture. A Youth Radio story that aired yesterday on the public radio show Marketplace is just one example. Alana Germany explores civic engagement in one of its conventional manifestations–youth interest and involvement in electoral politics. In the words of Youth Radio’s announcement about her story, Alana checked out U.S. presidential candidates’ MySpace sites, weeding through the good, the bad, and the plain embarrassing…to issue a critique of the job they’re doing trying to reach young voters through one of pop culture’s most potent portals.

Youth Voice and Media Justice

May 18, 2007

With our book deadline rapidly approaching, I’ve been working on a chapter where we talk about what it means, and what it takes, for young people to develop a “point of voice” through media production. Here are some thoughts…

Point of Voice

Point of voice combines two phrases—point of view and youth voice—that youth media practitioners, policy-makers, and theorists invoke all the time. The idea of claiming a point of view acknowledges the value of young people’s particular and diverse perspectives, while recognizing that everything they—and all of us—see is shaped, enabled, and constrained by the specific vantage point we occupy. Without abandoning principles of rigorous reporting, espousing a point of view suggests that a detached perspective is not always the best nor even a possible way to get to the truth. Truth itself, once revealed, has a point that can cut through silences, misunderstandings and lies and sharpen focus on new insights and actions.

In media production, though, claiming a point of view is not enough. Making media means translating a vision into a statement, hence our shift from view to voice, from seeing to expressing, from taking in the world to speaking out the word (or the picture, or the sound). By invoking voice, we find ourselves in tricky territory. Youth voice is both a highly useful and hugely problematic reference, almost unavoidable to describe youth media work, and yet sometimes misleading in its implications. The trouble starts with a spirit of celebration many of us who work with teenagers tend to bring to youth voice—a surprising impulse, given that the broader public persistently regards youth with fear if not thinly veiled disdain, framing young people as criminal, pathological, apathetic, chaotic, disappointing. Perhaps in reaction to this view, adults who want to align ourselves with young people can sometimes overplay their all-goodness and power. Youth voice no doubt holds serious potential as a site for solutions, and certainly we are among the first to insist that young people need a voice in policy-making procedures, public debates, cultural narratives, and in community organizing. The problem is, many of us rush to youth voice as an answer instead of a starting point that raises a slew of new questions, none simple.

What happens when young people and their adult collaborators—the latter often also gatekeepers to resources and influential others—don’t see eye-to-eye about what’s “best” for youth? How can young people who exercise their voices through media maximize the impact of their stories, given massive changes in the media landscape as it relates to business, politics, education, and culture? What are the potential consequences for young people whose stories never go away—as a result of today’s permanent searchable digital archive—even if their “points of voice” radically change? And what opportunities are available—and not available—for young people to build on their one-off media stories in ways that actually transform their own personal trajectories as well as the cultural narratives and social institutions that structure their lives? What is the relationship, in other words, between youth media expression, social action, and justice? These are the questions raised, not answered, when young people assert a public point of voice.

“Spreading” Youth Media

May 7, 2007

MIT professor Henry Jenkins and his colleague Joshua Green say we’re moving into an era of “spreadable” media:

Jenkins: “Spreadable content is designed to be circulated by grassroots intermediaries who pass it along to their friends or circulate it through larger communities (whether a fandom or a brand tribe). It is through this process of spreading that the content gains greater resonance in the culture, taking on new meanings, finding new audiences, attracting new markets, and generating new values. In a world of spreadable media, we are going to see more and more media producers openly embrace fan practices, encouraging us to take media in our own hands, and do our part to insure the long term viability of media we like.”

The youth media field has been feeling the effects of “spreadable media” as a dawning cultural and industrial reality for some time. The instinct to repurpose and circulate stories across all sorts of scrappy (in the best sense of the word) and established outlets is second nature for young people who know how to make and move their messages to maximize audience reach. At Youth Radio, a recent example is Anyi Howell’s series about racial profiling as a rite of passage for black men in the U.S.–a story he put out in various forms (some FCC-friendly, others not) through MySpace, iTunes, National Public Radio, KPFA, community events, and print (the latter an article he wrote about his specific methodology for spreading the story).

That said, as Youth Radio’s News Director Nishat Kurwa pointed out at a recent editorial meeting here, the idea of spreadable media poses some specific challenges for youth media producers… especially its invitation for fans to remix and rebroadcast pre-produced stories at their whim. Jenkins uses the example of Stephen Colbert to illustrate this fan practice. Comedy Central invited viewers to cut up and re-edit Colbert’s interview with a U.S. congressman, making the raw footage available online-a brilliant way to disrupt journalistic authority by handing over the power of the final edit.

Here’s Jenkins:

“So, at a time when other producers are sending out cease and desist notices to shut down mashups of their content, Colbert is encouraging you to re-edit and recontextualize incriminating statements from his show (and believe me, what made the sketch so funny when it first aired was the whole series of potential meanings behind seemingly innocent statements once he planted the idea in your head.) Of course, none of this has stopped Viacom from trying to get Colbert Show segments removed from YouTube in what is surely a classic example of a media company speaking out of both sides of its mouth at once.”

That all sounds great. But here’s the thing…it still implicitly positions young people in the fan spot, media superstars like Colbert as the original makers viewers can now mess with by re-editing their segments. It’s a whole different deal when the person telling the story in the first place is young and in many ways marginalized from big media production. Let’s say that young person is sharing an extremely personal story. Let’s say she’s worked for months and months to stir up the courage to disclose something about her life. Or let’s say he’s negotiated painstakingly with collaborators to craft a narrative they all feel fairly represents their shared story. Or let’s say the organization she’s working with to tell the story has a youth development mission. And let’s say it’s taken a whole lot of strategy and work to guarantee that for once, young people and not some adult spokesperson on their behalf have final editorial say over what they want to express through media and how they want to tell it.

Under these conditions, the idea of “locking” a final version of your story, rather than inviting others to have at it, can hold serious appeal. Especially when we know how the stories of marginalized youth have been persistently distorted by the press and public.

None of this is to say “spreadable” stories or media that invites the public to go to town in the remix is not the way to go. It’s only to raise the question… assuming Jenkins is right, that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” is it ever possible that the spread itself can kill the story?