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The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice



This paper considers the question of whether journalism can be considered to be a social practice. After considering some of the goods of journalism the paper moves to investigate how external goods can corrupt the practice and make it somewhat ineffective. The paper therefore looks to consider ways in which the goods claimed have been better served in ‘radical’ journalism. Bristol Independent Media Centre is then evaluated as an example of an active project in which the goods of community are pursued through an inclusive form of participatory journalism.
Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice
The Goods of Community? The Potential of
Journalism as a Social Practice
Lee Salter
This paper considers the question of whether journalism can be considered to be a social practice. After
considering some of the goods of journalism the paper moves to investigate how external goods can corrupt
the practice and make it somewhat ineffective. The paper therefore looks to consider ways in which the
goods claimed have been better served in ‘radical’ journalism. Bristol Independent Media Centre is then
evaluated as an example of an active project in which the goods of community are pursued through an
inclusive form of participatory journalism.
Fifteen years ago James Aucoin1 implored researchers and educators to contribute to a project of
applying MacIntyre’s concept of ‘social practice’ to journalism. The concept of social practices has
been developed by MacIntyre as part of his ‘Aristotelian’ project to explain the capacity of human
beings to act in accord with their nature as social, dependent rational animals oriented to commonly
agreed rationally ordered ends. However, social practices come to be dominated by the ‘external
goods’ of money and power, mediated by capitalistic and bureaucratic institutions, and are
consequently prevented from facilitating human flourishing as human beings and the practices in
which they take part are instrumentalised and oriented to the acquisition of external goods. In
contrast, a practice is a
coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods
internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of
excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result
that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are
systematically extended.2
Practices cannot be understood as deriving from compulsion, managers or money, but as embodying
historically developed standards of excellence, serving the practice, the product and the community
in which it takes place. For MacIntyre, this historical grounding of practices serves to enable the
practitioner to understand its purpose, to enable newcomers to learn it through knowing it as a
‘tradition’, and to enable the observer to have some limited external understanding of the practice.
Once the practice is known (and perhaps mastered), changes can be introduced. The concept of
tradition in this sense is not conservative, but obliges one to reflect on the past and have a concern
for the future of the practice.
Not all social activity can be considered a practice, however. For MacIntyre social practices should
nurture the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty (to which one might add, if we accept
MacIntyre’s argument that we are dependent rational animals, solidarity) in the individual
practitioner. Further to this, as MacIntyre refuses to separate the individual from her social
existence, the virtues learned through practices enable the practitioner to become good for the
community, and the practice itself should contribute to the rationally understood goods of a
community. In view of this, I would like to consider the possibility of sustaining the goods of the
particular practice of journalism within existing communities in tension with institutions of capital
and the state, rather than focusing on romanticised fishing and farming communities. To this end, I
follow Coe and Beadle’s suggestion in this Special Issue that,
1 James L Aucoin ‘Professionals or Practitioners? The MacIntyrean Social Practice Paradigm and the Study of
Journalism Development’ presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and
Mass Communication, Kansas 1993
2 Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, London 1981 p187
34 Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
Lee Salter
The question is…better seen not as the identification of the practice-based community as such but
rather of the ways in which actual existing communities move towards or away from those standards
through which a practice-based community is to be understood.
In this paper, following the methodological approaches of critical theorists3, I consider the potential
for journalism to take place as a social practice. Though the bulk of research has shown
institutionalised journalism to have been corrupted in many respects,4 following Adorno’s argument
that theory ought to ‘dissolve the rigidity of an object frozen in the here-and-now into a field of
tensions between the possible and the actual; for each of these two – the possible and the actual –
depends on the other for its very existence’,5 I suggest that we ought not treat corrupted forms of
journalism as the practice as such. Rather, I suggest that we consider the potential for a social
practice of journalism in other contexts. To this end, radical media histories6 illustrate potential
forms of journalism and media practices that have been marginalised by the development of
mainstream journalism. The traditions of radical media have been reinvigorated more recently by
the flourishing of social movements and the use of new technologies. I use a case study, based on
four years of ‘participant observation’ (or, more accurately, participation), of the Independent Media
Centre (IMC) movement to illustrate the potential for a social practice of journalism that pursues its
internal goods and the goods of community. Again, IMCs ought not be considered in a state of
stasis, but should be considered as dynamic, responsive and changeable – indeed, they encourage
criticism as a learning process to aid development. The significance of this latter is that I am not
attempting to positively demonstrate that IMCs are in fact and unproblematically practice-based
communities – not least because they take place amidst an institutional order which is itself corrupt.
Rather, the aim here is to consider potential and to point out how that might be realised or
repressed. Here I suggest that because IMCs are grounded in local communities, they can be key
sites of struggle in community politics, as illustrated with the case of Bristol IMC.
Journalism: Internal and External Goods
The question Aucoin raised was whether and how journalism can be considered a practice – to
which I add, the question of what sort of practice can it become? As he notes, the status of
journalism has been contested for decades – especially in relation to the concept of ‘professionalism’.
Discussions of the latter generally refer to the perceived need for journalists to attain certain
standards as journalists, but also in relation to goods of the communities or publics they supposedly
serve.7 These standards should be attained and retained, for some, as in the professional medical and
legal fields, by autonomous, self-governing professional associations. However, this impulse to
professionalisation has been easily resisted by those who argue that it would lessen the ‘freedom’ of
journalists to pursue the truth. For journalism to play a role in so-called democratic societies it calls
upon liberal democratic values such as freedom of speech. This freedom would be restricted under
professionalisation by restricting the parameters of the practice and also by restricting the possibility
of participation.
The freedom pursued by journalists enables them to pursue what we might refer to, in MacIntyre’s
sense, as goods that are ‘internal’ to the practice and ‘goods of excellence’. The pursuit of truth is
often described as the chief ‘good’ of journalism, and its pursuit takes place in the interests of
3 Alasdair MacIntyre ‘Social Science Methodology as the Ideology of Bureaucratic Authority in Knight K The
MacIntyre Reader Polity Press, London 1998; Theodor Adorno ‘Sociology and Empirical Research’ Trans.
Graham Bartram, in Paul Connerton. Critical Sociology. Penguin, Harmondsworth 1976
4 Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John N. Clarke and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging,
the State and Law and Order Palgrave, London, 1978; Herman E and Chomsky N Manufacturing Consent:
The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Vintage, London 1994; Franklin B Newszak and News Media
Hodder Arnold, London, 1997; Roy Greenslade Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits from Propaganda
MacMillan, London 2003
5 Theodor Adorno (op cit) 238
6 James Curran and Jean Seaton (Eds.) Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain
4th ed. Routledge, London 1991; Raymond Williams R The Long Revolution Penguin, Harmondsworth 1965
7 On the problems associated with the competing orientations of journalists, see Robert J Rosen
What Are Journalists For? Yale University Press, New Haven 1999
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The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice
citizens. The pursuit of truth requires certain techniques of journalism, such as witnessing,
verification, interviewing and so on. However, practices are not simply techniques or skills (such as
bricklaying), though they do require the exercise of them, but are social goods such as building (of
which bricklaying is a part), and their internal goods should contribute to ‘the narrative unity of
human life’ and to ‘a wider tradition’ – the latter becomes ‘the goods of community’.8 Within this
complex, virtues such as justice, courage, truthfulness and solidarity can be achieved and sustained
within the shared tradition of journalism.
At the same time, however, the bulk of research into journalism argues that the ‘external goods’
pursued by the institutions within which journalists work have come to dominate the practice.
Indeed, although MacIntyre points out that ‘the history and structure of a practice is never to be
identified with the history of and structure of the institutions which are the bearers of that
practice’,9 understanding the history of institutions can help us understand the limitations placed on
the practice. This directs our attention to the problems not just of the institutions that directly
sustain journalists, but also of the ‘secondary’ institutional structures with which they interface and
of the institutional order as a whole.
The domination of external goods over journalism has taken a number of routes. In the very first
instance, the materials used by journalistic institutions (offices, computers, desks, light bulbs and so
on) are produced under a capitalist mode of production. This means that the autonomy from
capitalism, even in ‘public service’ institutions, is limited – they have to pay for the means of
production. The response of private news organisations has tended to be to integrate into that
system – to buy and rent the means of production, and cover those costs with revenue raised by
selling journalistic products. Thereby journalistic copy is sold in the form of news outlets
(newspapers, television stations, news shows etc) and syndicated articles, and the audience is then
moulded to form a specific consumer group – ‘public goods’ are replaced by managerially ordered
customer satisfaction. The creation of consumer groups serves a double purpose – it continues to be
produced for the recognisable commodity that is the news outlet, but also as a recognisable
commodity itself, access to which is sold to advertisers. In this sense the idea of ‘a public’ or ‘a
community’ is weakened as competing journalistic products compete for different fragmented
consumer groups, whose separateness is reinforced through such competition. The ultimate
institutional goal of corporate media institutions is to generate profit from these activities.10 To
ensure this occurs, a layer of executive management is necessary. Removed from the production
process, the executive layer supposedly ensures the business as a whole runs efficiently and that it
meets the needs and desires of the major investors and advertisers.11 This means that executives are
able to consider the journalists and their work solely in terms of the capacity to generate surplus
value for primary and secondary institutions. The journalists themselves are managed through a
hierarchical system of non-executive editorial management. The commercial nature of private news
organisations also creates a division between journalists and their communities – as readers and
writers or, more to the point, as producers and consumers.
The need to speak to a specific consumer group goes some way to affecting the particularity of
journalistic practices and news discourses, but there are also some generally dominant institutions
that affect journalistic practices and news discourses. Despite journalistic claims to ‘objectivity’,
liberal-democratic understandings of politics pervade the general outlook of corporate news
organisations and, all too often, the orientation of individual journalists. This does not mean that
journalists are forced or otherwise compelled to adopt a particular explanatory framework. Rather,
more general patterns of recruitment ensure that only those whose worldviews follow a general,
liberal democratic framework are selected. Noam Chomsky explained this process to the BBC
journalist Andrew Marr, after he misinterpreted Chomsky’s propaganda model as implying that
journalists deliberately ‘self censor’. Chomsky replied, ‘I dont say you’re self-censoring - I’m sure you
8 Kelvin Knight Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre Polity, London 2007
9 Ibid p144
10 Ben Bagdikian The Media Monopoly Beacon Press, Boston 2004
11 For example, AOL Time Warner is 73% owned by U.S. Trust Co, Capital Research, Axa, Barclays Bank,
Citygroup bank, Wellington Management Company, State Street Corporation, Dodge Street, Cox and other
corporate investment groups (September 2005 stock portfolio)
36 Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
Lee Salter
believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you
wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting’.12 The political beliefs of such journalists are based on the
idea that legitimate sovereign power is invested in the legislature and the executive, and as such they
should be subject to journalistic scrutiny. This scrutiny assists the voting public, to which the state
responds. According to liberal ideology, this mediation requires journalists to adopt a passive
position in relation to the world of activity; their role is to communicate what is happening without
interfering. Accordingly, mainstream news can serve to sustain the hegemonic position of a
particular political order: public problems, often perceived and amplified by journalists, can be and
should be resolved by the institutions of state. The practices and institutions of journalism interface
with dominant political institutions, and consequently tend to marginalise and discredit other
forms of political activity. News discourses come to presume and protect certain dominant norms
and values – the sanctity of property, the basic rights of the state and capital, the benevolence of
foreign policy, the idea of the nation state, the legitimacy of standing armies, the ‘reasonableness’ of
political positions, the need for economic efficiency and so on.
Again, this ‘interface’ imposes a certain form on news organisations. In the first instance, journalists
in news organisations are positioned to correspond with the order of the state. This ordering allows
the state to become a privileged actor in news discourse, and in turn management in news
organisations take on a hierarchical form that serves to order and discipline news production. This
makes possible a chain of responsibility through which explicit and tacit agreements (such as
Defence Advisory Notices, individual defamation law, rules on court reporting, official secrets
legislation and so on) on stories to cover, and how to cover them, can be managed. The dominant
form of use of broadcast news media reflects a dual interface with the economic system and the
Despite reservations over the imposition of media institutions on the practice of journalism, it is still
held by most journalists that they do pursue certain social goods such as the truth, justice, the public
interest, checks on the powerful and so on. These goods might be said to require journalists to
nurture the virtues of honesty, justice and courage. Clearly there are challenges to their capacity to
pursue these goods, but their self-belief is – with good reason – often referred to as a ‘powerful
occupational mythology’13 or the ‘occupational ideology of journalism’,14 which Deuze breaks down
into public service, objectivity, autonomy, immediacy, and ethics.
If ‘ideology’ is understood as the construction of a myth that denies the reality of the situation, then
perhaps there is a clear ‘occupational ideology’ of journalism. However, the claims of journalists can
also be read as aspirations. Few journalists would argue that they are always already free to pursue
‘the truth’. And those who do tend to be journalists working in institutions that very consciously try
to balance the internal goods of journalism with the external goods pursued by the institution (for
example, The Guardian is run as a trust, and Reuters is run as a not-for-profit company). To this end
Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism15 (the claim that journalism’s first obligation is to
truth, that its first loyalty is to citizens (especially to provide citizens as members of a public with a
forum for criticism), that journalists must be independent of those about whom they write
(especially the powerful), that its essence is a discipline of verification and its accessible style of
writing, and that its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience) can be read
as standards of excellence to which good journalists aspire.
Whilst we can understand the aspirational quality of the claims of journalism, we must also
recognise the futility of these aspirations within bureaucratic institutions that are guided by the
interests of capital and the state. For MacIntyre certainly, the power of the individual will was
rejected as a possible strategy a long time ago. Instead, Knight explains that MacIntyre suggests
collective solutions to the more general problem of social practices and community under
12 BBC The Big Idea – Interview with Noam Chomsky February 1996 transcript [online] Available at http:// accessed January 2006
13 Meryl Aldridge M and Julia Evetts ‘Rethinking the concept of professionalism: the case of journalism’ The
British Journal of Sociology 54 no 4 (2003) p 547
14 Mark Deuze ‘What is journalism? Professional identity and ideology of journalists reconsidered’ Journalism:
Theory, Practice, Criticism 6 no 4 (2005)
15 Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel The Elements of Journalism Atlantic Books, London 2003 pp 11-13
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The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice
bureaucratic capitalism. In the first instance, there should be a refusal of the dominant institutional
order and a ‘refusal of co-optation’. At the same time, non-co-opted cooperative projects should be
initiated on a local level – in the first place because ‘a local network of social relations affords little
room for duplicity’ and it can ‘afford participation in rational deliberation and decision-making to
all’.16 Such participation does not, of course, consist in liberal democratic state legitimation, the
restricted form of secretly writing an X on a piece of paper periodically. Rather, it consists in
practitioners cooperating in ‘active projects’, cooperatively and rationally considering common goals
and appropriate means to achieve these. Participation in these active projects in which practices can
be situated allows participants to cultivate virtues, whilst being able to identify opposing forces
(generally, managers who are motivated primarily by ‘goods of effectiveness’ such as power, income
and efficiency). Such projects should facilitate the breakdown of barriers between the roles one
occupies, so humans are not compartmentalised. They must also be defended against the general
‘systemic’ constraints of institutional power, ultimately with the intention of destroying those
institutions that ‘systemically generate injustice’.17 To this end, the power needed for ‘self-defence’ is
nurtured on the basis of the virtues learned in good practices.
The dominant institutionalised forms and conventions of journalism do not exhaust the potential
forms – and it is potential that interests me here. To be sure, a number of studies have drawn
attention to other ‘alternative’ or ‘radical’ traditions of journalism, which can be regarded as the sort
of ‘active projects’ noted above. For example, against the dominant liberal history, James Curran18
has outlined a ‘radical’ history of the press in Britain wherein thriving radical workers’ presses
declined because media barons, pursuing the external goods of money and power, worked with
politicians to create a media market in which social practices that did not work within the
constraints of capitalist enterprise became marginalised. Catherine Squires,19 John Downing20 and
Chris Atton21 have traced the marginalised practices of ‘radical media’ among various subjugated
groups throughout the twentieth century.
Such projects are in marked contrast to the tradition of ‘objective’ journalism that emerged in the
US in the mid to late nineteenth century22 (Stephens, 1988: 262), to a degree driven by the
enlightenment faith in positivistic, empirical scientific knowledge.23 The idea of the detached,
objective scientist, who can access a neutral understanding of an objective social world and is able, as
David Hume had insisted, to distinguish between fact and value has resonance with the
occupational ideology of journalism24. We might object to this ‘Anglo-American’ model on basis of
the MacIntyrean arguments against Humean empiricism and against the ‘view from nowhere’.
Certainly the claim that the ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ of mainstream journalists prioritises and
naturalises the dominant institutional order raises important questions about the practice of
journalism. In contrast, whereas corporate journalist practice often pursues self-contained goods,
radical projects are part of the practice of ‘making and sustaining … human community’ whilst
opposing domination and exploitation, and should be evaluated on this basis, or rather, should be
evaluated simultaneously on the basis of the performance of the individual, of the group and of its
particular value to the community.
We might, then, think again what purpose journalism should serve as a social practice. At the
moment, its main function is what might be termed ‘critical legitimation’ – that is, whilst it does not
doggedly serve the particular actions of the dominant institutional order, it rarely questions the
16 Kelvin Knight, 2007 (op cit) p 180
17 Alasdair MacIntyre, cited in Kelvin Knight, 1998 (op cit) p 187
18 James Curran and Jean Seaton (op.cit)
19 Catherine Squires C ‘The Black Press and the State’ in Robert Asen and Daniel C Bouwer Counterpublics
and the State State University of New York Press, New York 2001
20 John Downing Radical Media: Rebellious Communications and Social Movements. Sage, London 2001
21 Chris Atton Alternative Media. Sage, London 2001
22 Mitchell Stephens A History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite New York: Viking, New York 1988
23 Dan Schiller Objectivity in the News: The public and the rise of commercial news University of Philadelphia
Press, Philadelphia 1981
24 It should be noted, however, that this is not the case for all social practices of journalism in all cultures.
Indeed, Daniel C Hallin and Stylianos Papathanassopoulos ‘Political clientelism and the media:
southernEurope and Latin America in comparative perspective’ Media, Culture & Society 24 no 2, 2002 argue
that today journalists in southern Europe and Latin America have maintained their traditions of advocacy.
And as mentioned above, radical traditions survive in North America and northern Europe.
38 Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
Lee Salter
institutional order itself, to which it gives discursive priority. On the other hand, a MacIntyrean
social practice of journalism will serve the good of the community in which it takes place (and, one
would hope, the good of community itself). To this end, it would prioritise and defend the
community and social practices that take place within it – it would act as a communications
network not merely for the community, but of and by the community. It would be the community –
that is, there would be no separation between the community and the journalist. Such a journalism,
therefore, would address MacIntyre’s concern that
Politically the societies of advanced Western modernity are oligarchies disguised as liberal democracies.
The large majority of those who inhabit them are excluded from membership in the elites that
determine the range of alternatives between which voters are permitted to choose. And the most
fundamental issues are excluded from that range of alternatives.25
For MacIntyre, as noted above, this situation requires a politics of local community, in which there
is ‘a shared practical understanding of the relationships between goods, rules and virtues’, in which
‘practical questions receive answers in action’, and in which
those who hold political office can be put to the question by citizens and the citizens put to the
question by those who hold political office in the course of extended deliberative debate in which
there is widespread participation and from which no one from whom something might be learned is
It is through such rational political participation that citizens can, and must, deliberate about and
order the goods they pursue, but at the moment deliberative forums in which ‘ordinary people’ are
‘able to engage each other in systematic reasoned debate27 are often inadequate. Part of journalism’s
role in a practice-based community would be to facilitate this process of deliberation not by
observing people and events, but by involving people and being part of events. One would expect
the practice to enable citizens to participate as citizen-journalists in ongoing discussions, in
‘conversational groups28 that are linked to practical activity. This expected because in the first place,
rational discussions have to allow people to participate on their own terms, and it is through
practical activity that people have the experiential goods with which to discuss and act on the basis
of those discussions.
As noted, there are traditions of radical journalism that have adhered to such forms. From the
eighteenth century to the present day, radical media have been linked to local communities and
embedded in the practical activities of social movements. They are based on the practical, rational
self-activity of ‘participants’, usually affording participation to anyone from ‘whom something
might be learned’. The relations between participants are non-instrumental or, as Habermas puts it,
communicative. Production in radical media projects tends to be unlicensed, or at least exists in
tense relation to the state, and organised on a not-for-profit basis.29 The projects are financed by a
variety of funding mechanisms, including grants, financial and equipment donations, fundraising
and voluntary cover-prices. Some make connections with institutions, such as television studios in
universities, to gain access to resources at no direct cost to themselves.30 To this end, radical media
projects try to escape direct steering by the money medium, insofar as it is subservient to the aims of
the practice.31 A consequence of the suppression of financial considerations is that content is not
commodified, but usually non-copyright and can be shared, reprinted and redistributed. In turn,
distribution tends to rely on cooperative agreements with local shops, cafes and bars, street sales (or
25 Alasdair MacIntyre in Kelvin Knight 1998 (op.cit) p 237
26 Ibid p 248
27 Ibid p 239
28 Alasdair MacIntyre ‘Some Enlightenment Projects Reconsidered’ in Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley
(Eds.) Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy Routledge, London 1999 p 250
29 John Downing (op.cit)
30 Douglas Kellner Television and the Crisis of Democracy Westview Press, Boulder Colorado 1990
31 For accounts of the impact of the reorientation of radical media projects to the pursuit of external goods,
see Herbert Pimlott ‘Mainstreaming the Margins: the transformation of Marxism Today’ in James Curran
(Ed.) Media Organisations in Society. Arnold, London 2000 and Gholam Khiabany ‘Red Pepper: a new model
for the alternative press?’ Media Culture and Society 22. (2000)
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The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice
free street distribution), mail subscription and delivery, and reader reproduction. The Internet has
made distribution cheaper and easier, with some paper and video publications encouraging people
to print or copy onto disk and redistribute.
Because access to production in many radical media projects is open (though prone to cliquishness,
itself a corruption), and because there is no need to divide functions into business and editorial
sectors, production relations of radical media projects tend to be very different to those found in
systemic media. In contrast, labour in radical media projects tends to be cooperative, with a minimal
division of labour between the roles of editor, writer and technician; there tends to be internal
democracy and no hierarchical management structures. Accordingly, the ‘institutions’ are built up
around the practice.
Because most radical media projects are open to a high degree of participation by ‘ordinary’
members of the public, and because they tend to reject the forms of ‘professionalism’ – especially
neutrality, passivity and asserting a view from nowhere – of mainstream media organisations, the
content produced in such projects often appears very different to that produced by most corporate
news organisations and is provided through the interface with social and political movements
embedded in the community rather than with the state. This in turn raises the possibility of
nurturing virtues – those participating can, potentially, learn to participate in an important,
solidaristic, community-based social practice, and contribute to a politics of ordering goods, and –
perhaps more frequently – criticising ‘evil practices’.
Radical media projects make innovative use of technologies, using photocopiers, cheap video
cameras, cable television, and radio transmitters, often making their own, or altering existing,
technologies, such as some pirate radio groups that ‘hack’ radio frequencies and transmission
equipment. Generally, these forms of use of technology tend to be subsumed under communicative
processes, as opposed to the instrumental processes evident in their deployment in corporations.
Practical involvement in radical media projects tends to take place at a number of levels: first, in the
political activities, such as campaign groups, demonstrations, direct actions, camps, festivals, squats,
public meetings and so on, in which the projects’ participants partake and from where much of the
content comes. Secondly, in the process of production, such as in editorial meetings and other
decision-making meetings, fundraising, distributing, printing/broadcasting and so on, the former of
which often take place in pubs, cafes, private houses, community centres and the like. Finally,
practical involvement takes place in the production, consumption and response of participants –
engagement with content does not consist merely in production, consumption and response within
media, but also in the calls to action which are often an integral part of content.
New Technologies, Old Practices
In recent years a number of writers, researchers and journalists have suggested that Internet
technologies have significantly challenged the ‘old order’ of society, whether positively32 or
negatively.33 Similar claims have been made about the effects of the Internet on journalism, whether
negatively, by facilitating inaccuracy, rumour, lying, hyper-individualism and ultimately the
destruction of the practice of journalism, or positively, by allowing journalists to bypass restrictive
institutions, to reconfigure the relationship between the journalists and readers, or by facilitating the
development of new collaborative practices of journalism.
It should be noted at the outset that I do not accept that a communication technology has
determinate effects on the society in which it is used. Technologies do not fall from the sky – the
process of technological development is very complex. For all of the new communication
technologies that are adopted, there are many more that are not. Very often the adoption of a
technology depends on its profitability, or at least its utility to those controlling productive
resources. As Raymond Williams put it,
32 See for example, James Slevin The Internet and Society Polity, London 2000
33 See for example, Gordon Graham The Internet: a philosophical inquiry Routledge, London 1999
40 Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
Lee Salter
[a] need which corresponds with the priorities of the real decision-making groups will, obviously, more
quickly attract the investment of resources and the official permission, approval or encouragement on
which a working technology, as distinct from available technical devices, depends.34
Furthermore, such a ‘need’ is often historically or culturally specific, as are the particular paths of
development. I refer to this specificity as a ‘form of use’. Specific dominant needs that are
interpreted as preferred uses come to shape or form the technology, imposing a ‘dominant form of
use’ which in turn may restrict or manage other uses.35 This restriction and management is imposed
through technological design, legal regulations and institutional direction. However, none of these
restrictions is complete. For example, the design of a technology may lead to unforeseen uses, legal
regulations may be contradictory, difficult to apply or simply resisted, and institutional forms may
change in response to new technologies, or the technology may allow people to bypass the
institution. The limits to control can be exploited and pushed back by those, perhaps of radical
traditions, seeking to develop alternative forms of use and alternative social practices. Of course,
these limits may also facilitate the use of communications technologies for malign purposes – the
point is that it is not the technology as such that matters, but the form of use.
It should be clear by now that the potential that a new communication technology might hold for
dominant institutions or for radical traditions may or may not be realised. Before moving to
consider the potential for radical journalistic practices using the Internet, I would like to illustrate
how managers in existing dominant institutions might restrict the potential of new technologies.
When new technologies of production are deployed in dominant media institutions, the systemic
constraints under which they operate in turn constrain the potential for improving the practice as
such – technological potential is repressed because of the dominant orientation towards external
goods. Generally, the utilisation of new technologies in (news) media organisations is controlled by
managers with the intention of increasing ‘efficiency’ and cutting costs.36 Rather than allowing, say,
journalists to do more journalism or engage the public more effectively, the tendency has been for
the deployment of new technology to be dependent on cuts in funding. This has meant new
technologies often result in journalists being made redundant, being re-skilled and spending time
that might otherwise be spent engaging the community – or seeing how a technology might help
improve the practice – carrying out technical tasks such as editing. As Simon Cottle explains in his
study of the deployment of new technologies at the BBC,
new technologies, multi-media news production and associated practices of multi-skilling at this
[Bristol] BBC newscentre have, despite corporate and management claims to the contrary, contributed
to the production of more standardised news treatments and formats, and led to more superficial
journalist involvement with selected news stories and their sources37.
Ultimately, Cottle’s research shows that the ‘“radical” promise of new digital technologies is not
borne out’ and when their deployment even in non-commercial institutions such as the BBC is
motivated by the desire to cut costs and reduce the number of people involved in production, it is
‘unlikely to encourage “radical new directions in programme making”’.38 Because of managerial
control over the deployment of digital technologies as a means to increase the workload and decrease
costs, Cottle found that, amongst journalists, ‘[t]here was no consideration … of how palmcorders
or videophones, for example, could provide the means for increased audience news access or even
34 Raymond Williams Television: Technology and Cultural Form Fontana, London 1974 p 19
35 Lee Salter ‘Structure and Forms of Use: a contribution to understanding the role of the Internet in
deliberative democracy’ Information, Communication and Society 7 no 2 (2004) pp291-309
36 Henry Braverman Labor and Monopoly Capital: Monthly Review Press, New York 1974; Hanno Hardt’
Newsworkers, Technology and Journalism History’ Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7 (1990);
Michael Bromley ‘How Multiskilling Will Change the Journalist’s Craft,’ Press Gazette, 22 March 1996
p16;Michael Bromley ‘The End of Journalism? Changes in Workplace Practices in the Press and Broadcasting
in the 1990s,’ Michael Bromley and Tom O’ Malley. A Journalism Reader Routledge, London 1997; Simon
Cottle ‘From BBC Newsroom to BBC Newscentre: On Changing Technology and Journalist Practices’
Convergence 5 no 3 (1999)
37 Simon Cottle, Ibid p 38
38 Ibid
Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice
opportunities for limited editorial control, or how e-mail could facilitate audience feedback and/or
enhanced source interventions, or how the internet could be harnessed to locate and expand the
range of regular news sources’.39 The dominant form of use persisted.
However, new technologies are not always and completely subject to a dominant form of use.
Although bureaucratic managers will try to impose dominant forms of use, and dominant
institutions will impose limitations on other uses, sometimes, as with radical media practices, actors
can take advantage of the potential of a technology and subject its use and development to radical,
communicative needs. I will illustrate this by reference to a particular project, Bristol Independent
Media Centre.
Bristol Independent Media Centre
Independent Media Centres (IMCs, are part of a tradition of radical media
projects, and draw on the more recent practice of ‘public journalism’, wherein journalists embed
themselves within the community.40 This is to say that they consciously situate themselves in the
traditions of radical media, and firmly against the traditions of mainstream news media.41 They also
draw on more recent traditions in computing – mainly the ideas that have motivated computing
and software engineers, which Barbrook and Cameron42 referred to as the ‘Californian ideology’,
specifically, the development of cooperative communities built around specific projects. The best
known of these ideas are found in the ‘open source’ and ‘free software’ movements, wherein software
is left ‘open’ potentially for cooperative communities to develop, change and use freely according to
their specific needs (though, again it should be said that there is nothing ‘good’ about open source in
abstraction of its form of use). Open source and free software differs from ‘closed’ software insofar as
it doesn’t impose an institution-like order on the possible uses of it – it can be built around or
adapted to particular needs, without necessarily restricting the possible uses of others. In this sense,
if we consider technologies and software as having institutional qualities, ‘open source’ allows those
institutional qualities to be decided by users. Open source ideas have now moved beyond software
and have come to encompass almost all forms of cultural production – whether film, music, games,
books, or journalism. This idea of using open source software and production to open up
production to ‘widespread participation’, ‘from which no one from whom something might be
learned is excluded’ is perhaps best exemplified by Wikipedia, but IMCs differ insofar as they are
rooted in local communities and aim towards facilitating practical activity for those communities
within and outside the web site.
The first IMC was set up in 1999 to act as an information clearing centre during the anti-capitalist
protests in Seattle. Soon, the IMCs expanded globally and locally, from South Africa to Burma and
Bristol to Jerusalem, with each centre linking to the others. The IMC network as a whole is based on
‘principles of equality, decentralization, and local autonomy’, which are derived from ‘the self-
organization of autonomous collectives that recognise the importance of developing a union of
networks’43. This means that each IMC can – within general boundaries of the Mission Statement
and Principles of Unity – develop its own modes of operation.
The primary interface of IMCs is not the state, but ordinary people and groups within
communities, hence the slogan ‘dont hate the media, be the media’. Rejecting the understanding of
news reporting as the reserve of a select group of institutionalised ‘professionals’, IMCs aim to
develop an architecture that encourages as many ordinary people as possible to participate.
Participation can take place on many levels. People can be involved in the news production process
by collaboratively writing features, contributing reports, or commenting on stories through the
39 Ibid p 40
40 See Robert Rosen, op cit
41 IMC The IMC -A New Model. Walcot-Upon-Avon, Hedonist Books 2004 p 14
42 Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron ‘The Californian Ideology’, 1995 [online] Available at http:// accessed January 2005
43 IMC (op cit) p 33
42 Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
Lee Salter
‘open publishing’ system. The content tends to be proactive insofar as it tends to encourage
participation in local community politics, social centres, associations, campaigns, community
groups and so on, whilst marginalising commercial and state institutions.
Ordinary people can participate in any of the groups on legal, editorial, process or technical aspects
of IMCs. As such they can help change any of these aspects, through involvement in collective
decision making, and as a consequence there is no need for a managerial layer.
Furthermore, people can set up their own IMCs. The motivation for this latter may be simply a
desire for local news coverage, such as with Bristol IMC, or a response to a specific event, such as
Zambia IMC being founded in response to the Conference of Parties of the United Nations
Convention on Climate Change,44 and Washington DC IMC being founded to cover the World
Bank/IMF protests in 2000.45 As long as it is willing to subscribe to the IMC’s Mission Statement
and Principles of Unity, and is able to sustain the site, the new IMC will be integrated to the
network, and participants will be able to use the IMC’s tools, resources and domain name (for
example, or
The IMC ‘network’ serves to link the individual centres, participants and movements, to each other
and to share resources across them. In this sense, individual IMCs and the Confederated Network
are similar to the social centre movement46 and the World Social Forum. Like these, IMCs focus on
local resistance and active politics at the local level, but also seek to developed internationalist,
solidaristic links across locales and across borders. It is in this sense that a local politics of
community opens up into a solidaristic politics of humanity.
To participate fully in Bristol IMC can be to learn how to act virtuously. As there are no corporate
or governmental backers, participants must rely on their shared understanding of what goods
Indymedia serve (which are themselves open to discussion), and pursue those goods as they see fit.
The important issue here is that through the use of emailing lists and physical meetings, participants
are able to cooperatively determine and reflect on their practice. Due to the degree of autonomy of
IMCs from each other it is difficult to generalise about participation. However, most IMCs in the
UK are made up of a core of media activists who are most readily able to run the computer and
software systems. Others may lead projects for community outreach, publicity and fundraising,
feature-writing. At Bristol Indymedia, for instance, there is a PO Box for mail, a pub is used for
open meetings, email lists are used for general discussions and decision making, a local independent
cinema is used for screenings, core participants who lead projects number around 8, the number of
people who subscribe to the main email list is around 20, though the number of people who
contribute stories and reports is unknown – there are regular postings on anti-militarism campaigns,
cycling campaigns, asylum and human rights, on reclaiming public space, on climate action, animal
protection and local government politics, many of which come directly from people involved in
such campaigns. The Bristol collective is one of the few centres around the UK that is physically
autonomous from the UK collective - its web server is hosted as a private address in Bristol rather
than being hosted on the main IMC UK server.
As ‘institutions’, IMCs are interesting because they are in a sense part of the practice of journalism
and of community; that is to say, they do not separate their ‘institutional’ functions from their
‘practical’ ones, and therefore do not need managers to run them. Bristol IMC also provides space
for others to determine, deliberate and reflect on their activities, for it is used by most of the activist
groups around the city – for peace campaigns and refugee support groups, to help build trade
unions, to attack political corruption and the cooption of local projects, to organise resistance to
gentrification and capitalistic development against the interests of the local community and so on.
To this end, Bristol IMC aims at nurturing the virtues of justice and solidarity among participants
and in the wider community.
Without the financial, political and legal institutions that support corporate media workers, and
with the commitment to open architecture, IMC participants must embody the courage needed to
act on the basis of their reason alone. There are no automatic institutionalised procedures (and no
44 IMC (op cit) p 124
45 IMC (op cit) p 43
46 On the social centre movement, see Lucy Finchett-Maddock’s paper in this Special Issue.
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The Goods of Community? The Potential of Journalism as a Social Practice
legal departments) to deal with problems they face as a result of open architecture – they must deal
with each problem as they face it, on their own, as independent practical reasoners. For instance, in
2005 the police requested access to Bristol IMC’s IP logs (the logs containing the computer
identification of those using the site) because someone had reported on, and advocated, the sabotage
of trains carrying new cars through the city. Bristol IMC (as all IMCs) guarantees that participants
can retain anonymity if they wish, so the request meant that the collective faced a dilemma – remain
true to their principles, or face possible legal action. The collective decided to remain true, and the
home of a participant, and the location of the web server, was raided, computers seized, and the
participant arrested. Despite this (and similar actions against IMCs across the world47 see Salter,
2006), Bristol IMC retained its integrity.
Bristol Independent Media Centre, and others like it, is not without problems, though the problems
it faces cannot be addressed as discrete problems – they must be understood in the context of the
broader cultural context. This is to say that they are problems that affect social practices as such. The
problems that the collective face are numerous. First, the limited resources (which cannot be
otherwise in a society in which resources are controlled by capital), in which I include human
resources (as IMCs rely on voluntary labour, most participants view their work for IMCs as
secondary work, insofar as without paid employment they cannot eat), means that funding and
participation is sporadic and often only temporary, which can threaten the continued existence of
Secondly, the choice of refusing to interface with the dominant institutional order does not mean
that the institutional order reciprocates – one’s existence within such an order usually involves some
compulsion to conform. For example, IMCs are not only subject to the attention of the state, but
also to the use of law by private institutional actors – ‘take down’ notices are often used by the
powerful subjects of IMC reports to prevent or remove publication and discussion of reports on
issues of genuine concern. One of the most notorious spats of legal wrangling took place when
reports from the ‘Smash EDO Systems’ campaign on actions against that arms manufacturer led
lawyers for EDO Systems to issue a threat of legal action for defamation against the UK
Independent Media Centre. Again, UK IMC participants acted courageously and refused to be
intimidated, suggesting that ‘war mongerers’ (the term objected to by lawyers) was actually an
accurate description of the directors of EDO systems. Nevertheless, the use of law against IMCs has
led some to consider becoming Incorporated Bodies so that individual participants cannot be held
legally responsible for what goes on on the websites. IMCs are slowly being drawn into the
institutional order.
Thirdly, although IMCs do have a sense of the good they serve, in a culture in which people are
unaccustomed to reasonably discussing goods in public and in which people are taught to leave
decision making to an elite within an hierarchically structured and bureaucratically ordered society,
the untutored participation in such an activity may yield unfortunate results – whilst participants
usually give good reasons within discussions, they less frequently accept or agree reasons48. This
raises significant problems in terms of facilitating what MacIntyre refers to as ‘serious intellectual
enquiry’49 or ‘systematic reasoned debate’.50 These problems are not, however, exclusive to IMCs,
but seem to be more general problems of a culture whose communicative resources are, as Habermas
puts it, ‘systemically distorted’,51 These general social conditions present a significant problem for
IMCs – if they are to remain open to anonymous participation (which is regarded as necessary to
protect participants, especially in countries where participation is dangerous), then they must
address the fact that some participants may intentionally or unintentionally disrupt and disturb
47 Lee Salter ‘Democracy & Online News: Indymedia and the Limits of Participatory Media Journal
ofMedia, Arts, Culture 3 no 1, (2006) pp336-355
48 This finding stems from my PhD work on the Internet and communicative ethics. Having analysed 134
discussion threads in a week-long period and another 41 threads two years later, I found that whereas most
participants offer substantive reasons in discussions, they seem less inclined to accept reasons offered by
49 Alasdair MacIntyre in Kelvin Knight (Ed.) 1998, (op.cit) p 238
50 Ibid p 239
51 Jurgen Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action: The Critique of Functionalist Reason. (trans.
McCarthy, T) Polity Press, Cambridge, 1987
44 Philosophy of Management Volume 7 Number 1 2008
Lee Salter
discussions. At the moment this is addressed by moderation and removal of disruptive
contributions, and, infrequently, banning participants. Learning how to deal with such
communicative problems under conditions of general systemic distortion is an ongoing challenge
for IMCs.
Finally, IMCs exist within an institutional order in which they are marginalised. This
marginalization takes place not just at the material level of access to resources, but also in terms of its
existence on the Internet, the development of which has become so much driven by the external
good of money. Without going into detail on the technical elements of search engines, IMCs, as
non-commercial entities are systematically excluded from Internet portals, which are most people’s
point of access to the Internet, and they are marginalised from even the best search engines. So, for
example, even on Google the big corporations dominate a search for ‘news’, with the first alternative
news source, National Public Radio, appearing at position 32 and the next, Alternet, appearing at
position 82. Global Indymedia does not appear until position 115, one position above Chemical
and Engineering News. This is despite the fact that in 2006 Google registered more than 50,000
Web pages linking to the IMC UK home page from outside the IMC network (on the basis of
which it ‘ranks’ pages). Similarly, though Yahoo reported over 900,000 links to the global IMC site,
it does not register any of the IMCs among the top 300 returns for ‘news’.
Despite the shortcomings of IMCs as practice-based communities, they do demonstrate the human
desire to collectively engage in the pursuit of social goods. IMCs are a clear example of community
self-organisation with the aim of improving the ability of ordinary people to pursue social goods
through discussion and action. Participants in IMCs benefit from being able to learn and
communicate what is wrong with their communities and beyond, and from being encouraged to do
something about it themselves, especially without a managerial section moderating these goods in
the interests of customer satisfaction, investor relations, advertising rates and so on. They are also
able to benefit from participation within this new social practice of collaborative journalism by
learning the virtues of truthfulness, courage, justice and solidarity as a result, or even condition, of
that participation. To deal with the challenges faced by a collective which does not operate within
the dominant institutional order, or rather, which seeks to resist and oppose this order, require the
exercise of virtues, constant contemplation and discussion of the goods served by the practice, and
patient learning about how to achieve these.
The last and perhaps most important question, however, is one that is unaddressed by Bristol IMC
– what is the end of the collective and whether it seeks to destroy the institutional order that causes
it to continually exist on the margins of public consciousness. Certainly Bristol IMC’s ‘neutrality’ in
this respect (at least formally, if not substantively) resembles that of mainstream media, especially in
contrast to other IMCs. For instance, the UK IMC contrasts with Bristol in referring to itself as an
‘interactive platform for reports from the struggles for a world based on freedom, cooperation,
justice and solidarity, and against environmental degradation, neoliberal exploitation, racism and
patriarchy’, and firmly commits itself to a struggle against ‘all systems of domination and
discrimination’ and for ‘radical change’. Its fundamental commitment is to support agitation for
social change by ordinary people, without tying itself to the bureaucratic organisational forms that
MacIntyre charged with subverting the potential of Marxism.
Lee Salter
Dr Lee Salter ( completed his BA, MSc and PhD in politics in London.
Having taught and researched political theory for a number of years, he is now Senior Lecturer in
journalism and cultural studies at the University of the West of England. His research interests and
political activities include media criticism, radical media and politics, critical political economy,
critical theory and public communication.
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