How Alternative is Alternet?

  • How Alternative is Alternet?
    Al Giordano, the publisher of the excellent and crusading investigative news site Narco News, has published a scathing critique of Alternet, the largest syndicator of “alternative” news content, and its executive director, Don Hazen. Giordano takes Alternet and Hazen to task for charging a “usurious” fee of 50% of net for authors whose work is republished, and for allegedly taking “bounty fees” for finding and distributing certain stories without sharing that money with the authors. And that’s just the beginning of things. Giordano lays out a litany of ethical problems with the non-profit syndicator that taken as a whole really seem damning. Fundamentally, he identifies a root problem being Alternet’s actual mode of business:

    “Alternet, although it is, technically speaking, a non-profit organization, deals in reproductive capitalism. Unfortunately, ‘non-profit’ status does not cure the corruption of finance in too many ventures, nor make it a “non-commercial” operation. Commercialism rules the day at Alternet. The majority of its product is not produced by Alternet, but, rather, reproduced from the work of other publications and writers. In sum, Alternet’s main role in the industry is that of Middleman.”

    I must admit that I’ve always been a little skeptical of Alternet’s business model, though I’ve listed it as a good alternative news source on the right sidebar and blogged about it before — the site does aggregate good content, even if it doesn’t produce much itself. Until now I was unaware of Alternet’s fee model, nor of the fact that it’s pulled down at least $1 million, which is a ton of money compared to the likes of Indymedia. What always bothered me some was that by syndicating this “alternative” content relatively cheaply, it acts as as discouragement for client publications, like alternative weeklies, to publish local stories by local authors. Simply, they can acquire decent pieces from Alternet for cheaper than they can pay local writers, even if those payments are still paltry by anyone’s standards. Never mind the fact that most so-called “alternative weeklies” are no more alternative than the New York Times, as they are typically owned by large regional or national companies, driven as much by shareholder profit as Nabisco or TimeWarner/AOL. (They’re only alternative because they publish phone sex ads and articles with dirty words in them).

    But it seems truly slimy if it is true that Alternet has syndicated Narco News content and possibly accepted payment for it without the permission of either Narco News or the author.

    Sharing content, especially truly alternative and independent content, is a good thing. These types of networks enhance our ability to communicate and cooperate across borders of all kinds. That’s why I’m such an advocate of Indymedia. But Alternet is no Indymedia. Indymedia is about true sharing — content posted there is for anyone to use for any non-profit purpose, all for the purpose of sharing and spreading information. And while I might accept that one goal of Alternet is to do just that, because the syndicator is not really a creator, it really isn’t sharing a damn thing. Maybe that role is a necessary evil in the world of for-profit so-called “alternative weeklies,” but that’s not a world I’m working for or support.

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