Getting Discovered

getting_150.jpgIn a recent Youth Media Reporter article, Dave Yanofsky of Uth TV argued that much youth media could be more innovative and of higher quality. Yanofsky believes that organizations will have an easier time creating compelling media that “pushes the envelope” if they find high-profile outlets to distribute their work. When young producers know their programs will reach a wide audience, he reasons, they push themselves harder to create top-notch media.
As someone who has curated numerous compilations of youth-produced video, I do not share Yanofsky’s belief that there is a dearth of high-quality media in the field. I have seen an abundance. I do, however, share his desire to get more audiences exposed to youth-produced media. Having spent much of my career working to that end, I’ve learned that connecting with “high-profile media outlets” is not the best way to go. Distribution through the local and grassroots sector has often proved to be a more effective strategy for helping the field accomplish its goals and reach a wider audience. And now, in 2006, the Internet presents unprecedented opportunities for distribution that we must carefully consider.
When it comes to distribution, youth media suffers from many of the same obstacles that have prevented American independent film and video from achieving broader dissemination—namely, the commercial monopolization of the film and television industries and lack of a large-scale viable public television system, despite massive and continuous advocacy efforts by leaders in the field. Yet unlike independent media, we remain without a solid infrastructure. We don’t have a range of distributors, a broad base of foundations, exhibitors, programmers, educators, and institutions that collude to build and sustain a viable distribution system. Without this infrastructure, distributing even the highest-quality youth media is and has always been extremely difficult.
In 2001, I conducted a national survey of youth media organizations for Video Machete. These groups confirmed what we suspected—there is far more work that is distributable than their organizational and financial capacity allows. Consequently, much youth-produced media never finds a home in the world beyond the organization where it was produced.
And curators of youth media projects have few clear ways to stay abreast of work being produced in the field. As a curator myself, I cannot call up multiple distributors to order preview titles of the most compelling new works. After calling MediaRights and ListenUp!—the two main groups that solicit youth video—I must phone and email over a hundred groups, individual teachers, and high school media programs around the country.
Our survey confirmed another important fact: getting media picked up by high-profile, national distributors is not always the goal of youth media educators, nor should it be. The adults collaborating with youth producers are not compelled by a singular objective of broad distribution. They help youth produce media for many reasons, including to help young people grow as individuals, to teach them skills, to foster dialogue and create ways for both virtual and in-person communities to learn about and engage with the authentic and too often neglected perspectives of young people.
Despite these varying goals, I have found that most youth media practitioners are united by a pervasive sense of purpose—the desire to help young people create media that make audiences stand up, pay attention, witness young people’s talents, acknowledge their strengths, and listen to their views. We see that when youth become actively engaged in their communities while collaborating with peers who share their concerns, they learn to see themselves as change agents, not marginalized members of what social theorist Henry Giroux calls the “fugitive culture.”

When youth become actively engaged in their communities while collaborating with peers, they learn to see themselves as change agents.

When their work is received by audiences who pay attention, youth begin to understand that their views can be taken seriously. They begin to see themselves as people who belong in the public sphere.
With this goal in mind, the final media product and its public exhibition take on a heightened level of importance. But this does not mean that the best audiences are the broadest audiences–the kind achieved through high-profile media outlets. Having their media viewed by their own communities often helps youth witness the power of their ideas more effectively than if their work appears on, say, The Learning Channel. Such grassroots forms of distribution have also been some of the more successful methods of disseminating youth media.
One young person I know, Zach Webb, produced an experimental, personal video documentary about institutional racism at his high school. Initially the video, “All I See Is What I Know,” screened before dozens of members of his small rural, county in Kentucky. Although the video explored a controversial subject, it helped to generate a thoughtful community discussion. As more people began seeing and talking about the video, the governor of the state got word and requested his own copy. The governor was so affected by what he saw that he created a task force on minority school achievement with the directive to be “inclusive of youth experiences and views.”
Webb became the first teen in the history of the state to be appointed to a governor-formed educational task force. Eventually, a regional chapter of the National Center for Community Justice distributed his tape to hundreds of African–American churches, civil rights groups and multicultural education organizations. This is one of many examples of youth media that has not only altered attitudes, but impacted public policy. And in this case, it occurred on a regional, grassroots, community-based level.
Now the Internet is providing even more possibilities for distribution that won’t come from a “high-profile,” top-down approach. YouTube currently streams an astounding 30 million videos to millions of users worldwide. Admittedly, much of its content is crude, amateurish home-made movies, but a system that rates videos by how often they’re viewed lets the most popular of the bunch bubble to the surface. And it is young people who create a large portion of the media on dozens of new sites streaming video, including Google Video, America Online’s In2TV, and Clash TV.
I am not suggesting that youth media should be randomly uploaded to profit-motivated media streaming sites like these. Youth media is most powerful when it is curated, contextualized or framed according to the diverse themes and issues that it conveys. (And this has proven true in other genres of youth media, as well, including print.) It is also most effective when it resonates with specific concerns of the community where it was created, as did Zach Webb’s video.
So instead of continuing to try to partner with high-profile outlets, we should begin exploring how we can take what we already know works in terms of distributing youth media—using grassroots channels, curating the media around themes, identifying communities the media resonates with—and connect it with the power of the Internet. When we speak of distribution, the questions should involve not how to partner with commercial outlets, but rather: How do we connect the power of the Internet with the real needs of youth and their communities to see and hear their stories represented in the media? How can we harness the Internet to increase youth media’s visibility online?
It is crucial to begin exploring these questions immediately, because whatever this field has failed to create in the past, now is an unparalleled opportunity to build for the future.
Mindy Faber served as director of distribution at Chicago’s Video Machete, where she facilitated video workshops for immigrant youth and curated youth media compilations for national distribution. In addition, she taught full-time media arts at Evanston High School for three years where many of her students produced award-winning programs, several of which aired on national television. Faber currently operates Faultline Media Services, a consulting firm dedicated to improving the quality of media arts education through training in best practices, curriculum design, and participatory evaluation.
Above left: Mindy Faber at work with a youth producer.

Mindy Faber looks at what works and what doesn’t in youth media distribution, and how the Internet can change everything.