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National Conference on Media Reform Panel: Online Organizing

Panelists: Tim Karr, Free Press, formerly with MediaChannel.org; Lauren Coletta, Common Cause/Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition; Bob Fertik, Democrats.com; Noah Winer, MoveOn.org

Tim: MediaChannel launched on January 28, 2004, with zero members. We had 80,000 by Election Day, all online. I was paying $60,000 a year for the software. But Open Source and blogs have made this kind of organizing much more affordable. The movement to resist Sinclair's [biased] program on Kerry was blog-driven, zero-cost. My blog, MediaCitizen.org, was one of the first to break the Jeff Gannon scandal. I went from 500 or 1000 hits a day to 120,000.

How to get a blog noticed: I read a lot of blogs and see what works. I reach out to other blogers; I have my 30 favorites. I e-mail them, list them in my blogroll (a blog-specific links page). They do the same. Be an expert on your topic. Say something intelligent and notify other bloggers. Build a mainstream media list (specifically including local contacts found at congress.org). Bloglines is a blog host that includes blogrolling and automatic RSS syndication, and it integrates smoothly with Firefox browser.

Bob: I set up an online Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1996 that raised about $25. Started Democrats.org in 2000, the same year that Zack Exley of MoveOn created Trust the People yahoogroups in every city.

Blogs are the best organizational tools we've found. Now, we've launched BlogCall.org: an attempt to network progressive bloggers like BuzzFlash, Talking Points Memo—which has made Bush's Social Security plan dead on arrival—Daily Kos, etc. [author's note: this site offers calls for blog entries on chosen topics; you don't have to be famous to apply.]

On organizing during the election: The Republican National Committee developed in-state grassroots leaders, but we parachuted people in from the blue states. They were united, and they made it fun. We can learn from them. [To which Noah responded: "The best messengers are neighbors," people who are already known and trusted.]

Noah: How to send effective e-mails: You all have access to e-mail. Make it skimmable. [As a reader,] I look for 10-20 seconds, to triage. Subject line and first paragraph are crucial: explain, don't try to be clever. Include a "clear, compelling, urgent and easy ask." Make the case that the action makes a real difference; walk them through their impact: how and when the petition will be delivered, etc. Our e-mails are usually two or three paragraphs before an action link.

Our format: Broad overview, ask (action step), deeper description, ask again. Substantive, third-party, validation encourages pass-along to the less politicized. Be personable, readable, reasonable, don't yell, and don't use jargon. Be warm, colloquial, and friendly. Don't forget to capture e-mails when people take the action. All of MoveOn's more than 3 million members joined as a result of taking an action.

How to contact MoveOn: use the action forum on the website, and let the members sift it. The organization pays attention to those that get a lot of comments; all staff get a summary of the top 20 posts.

Lauren: Two and a half years ago, we didn't take advantage of the technology. We had 25,000 on our list. Our e-mails were complex and technical. The list was dedicated, hard-core; we had response rates of over 50 percent. But we watched MoveOn jump from 1000 to 1.1 million, and we copied them. We put out a lot of information before the FCC vote, about public broadcasting funding and independence—and 50,000 more joined our list. Tell a story to people, and people will forward that. A lot of our staffers blog. We're working hard on ethics, encouraging DeLay to resign. The Daily Kos [influential progressive blog] will pick it up.

We're exploring the idea of [incentives such as] points and premiums. We do have to be ahead of the curve; our petitions are no longer forwarded like mad.

My goal is to get people off their computers, face-to-face. You can organize MeetUps for free, although different people show up each time, and they don't always stay on the agenda. [Audience members told her it's no longer free; $9 per month this year, going to $19 per month next year.]

Audience Suggestions:

Organizing face-to-face gatherings: Instead of MeetUp, Yahoogroups can be used, for free. The built-in polling feature is an easy way to gather RSVPs, and the groups can be set up by region. Also use regional blog communities.

Blog publicity: Use track-backs: mention popular blogs and they'll automatically link.

Filmmaker Danny Schechter, owner of MediaChannel.org: Use the affiliate model, rather than the competitor model. Build alliances instead of enemies. MediaChannel now has 1300 affiliates, providing content and spreading the message. On MoveOn's scaling down of its public stance against the war: Don't jump when the Democrats burp. If they don't talk about the war, talk about it anyway. Is there a way within MoveOn to discuss this and have interactivity? This is not about replacing rush Limbaugh with Al Franken.

Frank Melli of greensphere.org is willing to set up a National Town Meeting on these issues (he's done this for organizations like the UN): http://www.greensphere.org/contact.shtml

Resources (from panelists and audience)
http://www.publicknowledge.org/ (news about intellectual property and media reform)
http://www.MediaCitizen.org (Tim Karr's blog)
http://www.blogcall.org (progressive blog network sponsored by Democrats.org)
http://www.meetup.com (online tool for organizing in-person gatherings)
http://www.yahoogroups.com (easy, free e-mail discussion list host)
http://www.congress.org (among other things, allows you to build a list of journalists in your community)
http://www.citizensmediarights.org (online home of the Media Bill of rights coalition)
http://www.techsoup.org (resources and software discounts for nonprofits)
http://www.democracyinaction.org (much less expensive online organizing software: $200 per month for lists of 100,000, price varies with size of list)
http://bothand.org/ (online dialog group moving beyond partisan yelling to meaningful conversations between people with widely different politics)
http://www.drupal.com (resources for bloggers)
The Mainstream Media Project: http://www.mainstream-media.net/ (places respected progressive voices on mainsteam talk radio)
http://www.freepress.net (organizer of this conference, currently setting up a media action center)
http://www.indymedia.org (international, multilingual news and resource center for independent media)
http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/ ("Don't Think of an Elephant" author George Lakoff's site about reframing dialogue; he is creating a language training handbook for activists

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Peace & Politics and Down to Business, the author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, and the founder of the Business Ethics Pledge campaign.

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