By Melissa Marek-Donahue, Contributing Writer of High Plains Reader

There is no mistaking the need for a free and independent media. Even before the media encapsulated all the mediums of today, it was understood that a democracy relied on the people’s ability to share and discover truth, with freedom of the press a core part of the Bill of Rights. 

Koichiro Matsuura, the former Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization noted in 2006, “Free and independent media serve as a vehicle for sharing information in order to facilitate good governance, generate opportunities to gain access to essential services, promote accountability and counteract corruption, and develop the relationship between an informed, critical and participatory citizenry and responsive elected officials.  [They] are associated with a range of benefits […] including the recognition and strengthening of basic human rights, a stronger civil society, institutional change, political transparency, support to education, public health awareness and sustainable livelihoods.”

Unfortunately, much of the independent voice has been tempered by profits and external interests.  And the skills and space necessary to create a media that can function as Matsuura envisions are not readily available in our community.

The People’s Press Project (PPP), however, is working to change that. Founded in May 2010 to address media justice issues in the region, the PPP helps to make citizens creators of media rather than simply consumers. By providing the necessary education and tools to individuals and groups, the PPP helps to bring voice and visibility to the numerous injustices, changes, thoughts and victories that occur within our community.

The core of the PPP is education in media and public relations to empower the disenfranchised, focusing on bringing a voice to those who typically lack a place in public discourse – such as New Americans, the LGBTQ community, communities of color, homeless populations, the elderly, and the working poor – as well as new journalists, students and nonprofit organizations.  The PPP has held numerous public trainings on a variety of topics including media justice, using new media, accessing mainstream media,  and audio and video recording and production, but the PPP also interacts in small groups and one-on-one to help teach those who need to learn about the media.

Communications students work with the PPP to learn about ethics in journalism and have a chance to research, write and find an audience, giving practical experience where there would otherwise be little opportunity in our community.  Moreover, the PPP works with students in other fields who may someday need to tell their or their clients’ stories.

Ashley Overman, a social work student at MSUM, began working on a project with the PPP this semester. Overman states, “In working with the People’s Press Project I am receiving the opportunity to learn a lot about media that I didn’t know, and I am learning new skills with technology that will be beneficial to my future career as a social worker. In a very short amount of time I have learned so muchabout the media, how important it is to help out the little guy, and to hold the large companies accountable.”

Cindy Gomez-Schempp, the PPP Board Vice President, argues just how important this type of education is, especially for those who will end up working in nonprofits serving the needs of the community.  “Most nonprofits don’t have someone who is just responsible for marketing and PR.”  She states that the education these students receive through the PPP will give them the tools to make a broader difference, and engage the community in their work.  Ultimately, this has the power to create systemic change, countering racism and other injustices.

Beyond education, the PPP also brings transparency and accountability to local government. By recording local government meetings and then broadcasting them on the internet, those who would otherwise be unable to attend meetings are now able to be a part of what is happening.  The veil of secrecy is lifted as well, with public officials aware that their words will be recorded and made available to their constituency.  This has practical purposes: for example, a Fargo community member was able to go through the PPP toaccess a copy of a public government meeting that she used to lobby for Home Sweet Home Elder Care. Absent this work, she may have been unsuccessful in sharing the plight of caring for the elderly without adequate resources from the county.

Finally, the PPP serves as a vehicle for those with little access to the media. Not only are individuals taught the skills needed to navigate the media, but the PPP builds opportunities to interact as well.  Along with the education and public availability to the local government, the PPP assists in real issues. In 2011, students worked with the PPP to promote World AIDS Day for the Minnkota Health Project, providing high quality videos at no cost to Minnkota. PPP has similarly helped other organizations in this way, including the production of PSAs for FirstLink’s Walk of Hope for Suicide Awareness.

This weekend, community members will have the opportunity to learn more about the PPP, independent media, and how they can be part of transforming our local media. On Saturday, February 18, The High Plains Reader is co-sponsoring an event for the PPP at the Plains Art Museum.  The “Friend” Raiser for Independent Media will feature multi-media presentations, encouraging attendees to envision independent media and realize its importance in our community. 

Keynote Speakers Nikki Zinke and Gerri Stowman are experts in the struggles that result from a lack of independent media. Zinke was the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Valley City Times-Record until she was fired in July 2011. Zinke lead the Times-Record to win North Dakota Newspaper Association’s First Amendment Award and developed a reputation for unbiased reporting, but was terminated by the external corporate ownership, in arguably large part, to maintain a non-controversial newspaper that would please business and governmental interests to make the newspaper as profitable as possible as the corporate ownership. Stowman, a professor of mass communications at MSUM, has found the elimination of independent media leads to students unable to practice journalism, with no one looking for reporters to cover the real, local news that impacts the community. PPP’s collaboration with Stoman’s students and at other local colleges results in more in-depth local reporting of hard hitting news that readers can then enjoy in the HPR.

Making the “Friend” Raiser a true multimedia event, Bertha Vazques will be displaying her artwork at the event as well.  Vazques, an artist and sculptor originally from Chimbote, Peru, creates political art through various compelling mediums, engaging viewers to think rather than passively observe.  Michael Pink, a talented singer/songwriter originally from West Fargo, is also scheduled to perform at the event and is expected to play some new music material

An MSUM social work student assisting with the event, Kelsey Latt states, “I think the most important part of the event is that whoever attends can learn more about media and social justice and how to incorporate the two and bring them more into the community.  It would be helpful for the community to be aware of the People’s Press Project and how it helps to get people’s stories out.”

Ultimately, the PPP is giving power back to the citizens of our community, and making the media once again a tool to inform and create change.  Duke Gomez-Schempp, Lead Organizer of the PPP, states the importance of the project:  “PPP trains individuals on how to get the media’s attention, create and define media messages, and use media technology to affect change. These changes in infrastructure and knowledge base have cumulative effects – especially in rural communities – and create opportunity,access, and accountability. The tools and skill sets provided through media justice projects, over time, will help reduce systemic racism in media.”


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