Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Leah Nelson is HECUA’s student blogger for Media and Movements Fall 2021. Leah is a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in independent studies. Read on to learn about their classes at the Saint Paul Neighborhood Network.
When I went to film school at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, my professor said, “if you ever want to know the why of something in the media, follow the money.” This advice was meant to illuminate the reasoning behind narrative and stylistic choices found in corporate media, which extends all the way from Hollywood blockbusters to the Star Tribune. Alternatively, media outlets that do not receive funding and/or try to remain impartial to capitalistic outcomes of storytelling are defined as independent media. Independent media organizations’ mission statements and goals often suggest that following the money can lead to misrepresentation of people and communities, false information and limited perspective.
The value and necessity of independent media has been consistently emphasized throughout my time in the Media and Movements program. The importance of disrupting dominant media narratives has been reflected in our coursework via assigned projects and readings, our conversations with guest speakers such as Niko Georgiades and Mel Reeves, and in our work at various internship sites such as the St Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN.)
As a class, we meet twice a week at SPNN, an organization that promotes independent media makers by providing equipment rentals and accessible studio space to the community. Two of my classmates, Axel Santo Domingo and Marissa Mazetta, intern at SPNN, helping produce content for public access television and educate others on creating media. On SPNN’s website, the organization states that “Too often, the dominant narrative is controlled by those with money and access because they have the tools and resources to disseminate a story.” SPNN fills a critical role in our community by consciously counteracting oppressive systems created by financial barriers that prevent marginalized voices from being heard.
One of the many things that I enjoy about the Media and Movements program is that class doesn’t meet on a campus but instead within the community at SPNN. There, I can meet other people who already work in the fields I am interested in. While checking out equipment at SPNN, I briefly met one of SPNN’s New Angle Fellows, Adrian Wilson. He is an emerging documentarian, who is in the process of making a film called, A Letter to Bryson, The film is a letter to his six year old son about what it means to be black in America. In his GoFundMe bio for the film, Adrian shares that he observed the huge impact that a cell phone video had in the hands of an individual in exposing police violence in the murder of George Floyd. This inspired him to make a documentary, representing stories that are not captured or ignored by major news outlets.
I was honored to interview one of our guest speakers from earlier this semester, Niko Georgiades, for an audio assignment to create a short podcast. Niko is one of the founders of Unicorn Riot, a local media outlet known for live streaming protests. In the interview, Niko echoed my former professor in saying, “The media is controlled in so many ways by the state, the state is controlled in so many ways by corporations. These folks [in corporate media] have to make money. They have to keep the status quo, and when they start to challenge the status quo, they might lose ratings, they might lose sponsorships, or the ability to stay safe. And we’re not here for that. We’re here to create a platform and continue the platform and not be corporate controlled… it is imperative to have independent media outlets that are not beholden to these power structures.” Niko emphasizes that Unicorn Riot is different from corporate media because it does not have a hierarchical organizational structure and does not pander the content they produce in order to please donors or maintain grants.
My class joined the Inequality in America program to speak to Mel Reeves, an activist and editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in Minnesota. He spoke about the importance of independent media, not because it is impartial, but because it is more likely to include perspectives that are not seen in mainstream media and, thus, tell a more complete story. He also mentioned how outlets like the Star Tribune, are more likely to provide perspectives that challenge the status quo. For example, mainstream media outlets did not provide adequate coverage or in depth analysis of what it meant to vote Yes on Question 2 in the recent election. Mel suggested that issues like police reform are too controversial for mainstream media to wholly address without losing political and financial support from the political and financial power structures that exist in Minneapolis. Mel concluded by strongly advising us students to go into independent journalism careers because they do more justice for the community and are more gratifying than working in mainstream media.
Having class and opportunities to connect with practicing independent media filmmakers at SPNN inspires me to seek out and create independent media myself. I wish more people knew about SPNN’s work in our community, especially the film equipment rental memberships available to the public for a low cost. Providing accessibility in filmmaking is fundamental to increasing the visibility of marginalized communities and stories, which contributes to dismantling oppressive systems in Minneapolis and elsewhere. I am fortunate to have heard from such talented and thoughtful independent filmmakers who are forging new narratives in a world monopolized by mainstream media outlets. Their words and work inspires me to critique the media I consume and always fight to tell the whole story, never simply to follow the money.