NOVEMBER 2021 - Challenges Faced by Independent Media in the Digital Age
Editorial image for the “Shameless” ‘zine, featured on their website.
By: Donna Borges
It is easier than ever for independent journalists to create their own digital newspapers and magazines and share their own content. Online blogs and digital magazines have grown substantially since the advent of the digital publishing industry in 2010. According to PaperLit.com, Mequoda’s 2018 magazine consumer survey found that more than 40% of the over 3,000 survey participants read an average of 2.66 digital magazine issues in the last thirty days, marking an 11% increase since 2016. It is clear that digital media is on the rise, and much of this new wave of digital publishing is led by millennial and gen-z creatives, many of whom have created their own publications and online zines. Although it is easier than ever for journalists and bloggers to publish content independently, there are many challenges that come with the nature of publishing that these independent entities may not be equipped to handle effectively.
Traditionally, zines are mini-magazines published independently to share information that the mainstream may not pay attention to. According to an article from Medium, “in the 1960s, zines were widely used in political subculture movements, and they became increasingly popular in the 70s and 80s due to both the rise of the punk scene and copy machines.” Zines began to rise in popularity in the 1990s during the riot grrrl feminist movement before fading out of style due to new interest in digital communities in 1996.
However, there has been a resurgence of interest in “zine” content, and young independent creatives, activists, and journalists have begun to publish their own stories, reports, reviews, art, photos, and more through online platforms. Los Angeles Magazine recently featured a handful of gen-z led zines that operate primarily through digital platforms—“bucking the fixed spreads and polish of traditional periodicals and instead embracing social media as more than a promotional tool.”
Zines and independent publishing has always been important in sharing different perspectives and information that may not be picked up by the mainstream. According to an article by the Ryerson Review of Journalism, “these alternative publications are important,
especially when it comes to reading and hearing stories that are not typically represented in the mainstream.” But with the rise in popularity and attention to these digital publications comes the potential for legal and financial challenges that independent creators may not be equipped for.
Historically, print publications of any sort could rely on financial support from both the sale of the issue itself and the sale of advertisements in each issue. Prior to the internet, one of the only methods of advertising was through newspapers and magazines. With the decline in print and the growing demand for free online content, it is harder than ever even for the big news organizations to generate revenue—so how do small independent magazines make money?
The short answer is: they don’t. Many publications rely on a freelance, volunteer-based staff so that any and all revenue can be put towards new content. For example, Shameless is an independent publication that amplifies the voices of young women and trans youth in Canada and publishes a physical magazine in addition to online content published through their blog. Shameless publisher Julia Horel said in an interview with Ryerson Review of Journalism that “the magazine has always been volunteer-run, and that’s pretty critical in terms of how we survive” and added that “the magazine currently has no office, or paid part-time or full-time staff.”
In this case, any and all revenue goes right back into the production and promotion publication itself. Without the backing from large corporate news and media organizations, independent publications are often relying on their supporters and most likely out-of-pocket spending from their staff members. This lack of financial prowess can threaten both the publication itself and the individuals behind it in the case of legal action.
One of the greatest legal issues that can face any publication is being accused of libel. The book
“The Law of Journalism and Mass Communication” describes libel law as laws “meant
to protect an individual’s reputation. It allows a person who believes his or her reputation has been injured to file a claim against the party responsible, asking for monetary damages to compensate for harm and to restore his or her reputation.” Essentially, libel is the publishing of false information that could cause damage to one’s reputation, livelihood, or safety.
Many libel cases and other lawsuits brought against major publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post are settled out of court by the organizations’ robust legal teams and settlement budgets. For example, a $250 million defamation lawsuit that was brought against the Washington Post was settled out of court this year. Although the specifics of the settlement were not made public, one can safely assume the amount is more than any independent publication could afford.
Independent publications do not have the legal team or budget to handle any sort of lawsuit seeing as they do not generate enough revenue to hire a full-time staff—which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with lawsuits. Since lawsuits against corporate news organizations are often filed for millions of dollars, many plaintiffs are often hoping to reach a desirable settlement as seen in the Washington Post case. Since independent publications cannot afford to pay settlements, it would be virtually pointless for anyone to sue these independent publications. Due to independent publications not having enough money or a legal team to handle lawsuits, it may be more likely for a plaintiff to win the case. Generally, plaintiffs could send a cease and desist letter—defined by Wikipedia as a letter that requests that the publication “stop allegedly illegal activity and not to restart it.” However, there have been cases in which lawsuits have completely devastated and destroyed an independent publication.
In the case of Hogan v. Gawker, former wrestler Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media after the website published a sex tape between Hogan and his friend’s wife. Peter Theil, an entrepreneur that was previously outed as gay by Gawker Media, funded this lawsuit for Hogan, who ultimately reached a settlement for $31 million. Although this settlement was much less than the original $140 million awarded by the jury, Gawker still could not afford the settlement and filed for bankruptcy in 2016 according to First Amendment Watch.
This specific case shows the worst case scenario for independent publishing—complete and utter destruction via unmanageable lawsuit. With this new wave of independent digital media, it will be interesting to see if there will be new guidelines and laws put in place to protect independent journalists and creators online. The result of any lawsuit would be devastating to these digital zines, and losing these platforms would result in the loss of diverse perspectives and underground news from these subcultures as well.
Overall, as independent digital publications grow in popularity, their unique perspectives should be cherished and protected as we continue to see misinformation and corporate-led news dominate mainstream media. Although these independent zines may not have the same financial and legal backing that news corporations do, they continue to serve a great purpose in the realm of journalism and media.
Cease and desist. (2020, December 08). Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cease_and_desist
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Hulk Hogan v. Gawker: Invasion of Privacy & Free Speech in a Digital World. (2019, October 03). Retrieved December 09, 2020, from
Lee, E. (2020, July 25). Washington Post Settles Lawsuit With Student in Viral Protest Video. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from
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Merrilees, K. (2020, July 02). Zines Are Back. And Now They’re on Instagram. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from
Ross, S. D., Reynolds, A., &; Trager, R. (2020). The law of journalism and mass communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, an imprint of Sage Publications. Shameless Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://shamelessmag.com/