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Opt In to OptOut: the New Independent News App
News and commentary, free of corporate money, all in one place.
Built by volunteers and steered by award-winning journalists, OptOut, a new app hosting only independent media outlets launched on the App Store this week following a round of beta testing.
Funded entirely by small, individual donations and foundation grants itemised in detail on their website, OptOut is advertised as a personal newsfeed “100% free of corporate media narratives”, something called for by both progressives and conservatives as fears persist about a ‘post-truth world’ and ‘The MSM’ (…usually via The MSM).
Chompsky is the first UK publication to be hosted on OptOut(!). The financial transparency of the app is one of the things I love most about it and so, I promise, throughout this love-in about an app that platforms me, I’ll be making my position clear and (lovingly) interrogating the OptOut founders about theirs too.
Opting Out of Mainstream News
The app presents a newsfeed of articles - so far, so news app. But rather than algorithmically filtering stories, optimising for clicks to maximise advertising revenue, stories are hand-curated by a team of journalists/editors, more like a traditional newspaper. (The app itself features no advertising, though doesn’t exclude outlets that rely on ad revenue).
Outlets are also selected by the team, measuring against specific criteria: they’re required to be financially independent of corporate money, free of financial conflicts of interest, and must abide by a code of ethics.
The venture is part of a nonprofit co-founded by journalists Alex Kotch and Walker Bragman:
“The OptOut Media Foundation is a progressive nonprofit charity with a mission to educate the public about current events and help sustain a diverse media ecosystem by promoting and assisting independent news outlets and, in doing so, advance democracy and social justice.”
OptOut hosts a range of digital outlets; newsrooms that produce investigative articles are joined by opinion writers, analysts and commentators, and multimedia outfits focused on podcasts and/or video.
How independent, tho?
I heard about OptOut early on in its development; seeing the roster of sites already signed on I loved the idea of having a place to find all my favourite progressive news and commentary.
When I applied to be a part of the platform, the anxious part of me immediately began some mental gymnastics about marrying the word ‘independent’ to something that seemed to lean clearly towards my political ideals.
(I’m surprised at how often, given that I frequently think about the fallacy of media ‘objectivity’ as part of this work, that specific anxiety comes up. I think it’s partly a useful failsafe to challenge my own beliefs, and partly a response to online ‘gotcha’ culture that means I’m always expecting a pile on.)
As part of my discussion with Kotch, OptOut’s executive director, I put this to him. Luckily, he also thinks about this on the daily:
“Unfortunately in the U.S. today, the increasingly extreme right isn't interested in basic democracy, so it's those on the left who are trying to preserve it by advocating for things like expanding access to voting and getting corporate money out of politics. And progressives and leftists are typically the people who are working towards meaningful racial, social, economic, and environmental justice. These essential elements of a healthy society shouldn't be partisan, but that's how it is right now, so in this context, you could say that the OptOut Media Foundation and the news network we've built is on the progressive side.
But I want to be clear: we welcome app users of all political stripes. If you think we can do better as a society, if you believe that money and power are unfairly concentrated in the hands of big corporations and oligarchs, if you think every person deserves respect and equal rights, you'll find a lot to like.”
From the UK perspective, this is exactly the kind of thing that I find funny (read: deeply frustrating) about the BBC debate. Both progressive and conservative folk seem to think the BBC is biased toward the other’s views (the reality is far more complicated). So the idea of what ‘independent media’ means at the moment is muddled in the cultural consciousness.
OptOut’s inventory of ethical, financial, and accuracy standards mean they’ve managed to crystallise a clearer idea of how to choose outlets based on both independence and reliability. And, in addition, what is investigative journalism is separated on the homepage from what is commentary.
If a centrist, non-partisan, or even non-reactionary-and-financially-independent-conservative outlet was making reliable journalism about, say, sustainable energy businesses or ethical banking, might that be included on the app?
“…what matters is that we increase the market share of uncompromising independent media outlets that aren't beholden to corporate interests or party bosses, outlets that expose the massive inequalities in our societies and corruption in politics and business, and present perspectives often overlooked by the corporate and legacy media. Democracy is in peril, and the planet is dying. We can't afford a news environment that's dominated by a handful of huge corporations whose quarterly earnings goals are at odds with the wellbeing of our communities.”
What will I find there?
Better-known sites such as Jacobin, In These Times, and Tim Heidecker’s Office Hours Live podcast are joined by smaller or lesser-known outlets such as The Daily Poster, helmed by former Bernie speechwriter and Don’t Look Up screenwriter David Sirota, and this newsletter—the app’s first international publication.
As you opt out of what the app’s creators call ‘legacy and corporate media’ you can opt in to a feed of not only your favourite independent outlets, but one further curated by you.
Only interested in Jacobin’s podcasts? No problem—every multimedia outlet’s content is split into articles, video, and podcasts, so you can curate your own feed even down to the format.
Who’s in charge?
As noted, the money behind the venture is itemised on their About page but, broadly, it’s a handful of individual donations and a $5k grant from The Puffin Foundation, which supports “artists and art organizations who are often excluded from mainstream opportunities”.
Alongside the two founders the journalists/editors who curate the site are Trevor Beaulieu, host of the Champagne Sharks podcast; Jacqueline Keeler, author and founder of Pollen Nation Magazine; immigration reporter and poet Samira Sadeque; and labour reporter Michael Sainato.
The app itself was built by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Progressive Coders Network.
Kotch and Bragman are joined on the board by Rabyaah Althaibani, the NYC-based community organiser who founded Arab Women’s Voice; digital strategist Mark Colangelo; and Maria Bustillos, founder of Popula and media co-op Brick House.
OptOut users “may find much to like or disagree with, but what they won't find is corporate stenography, false equivalence, or softball interviews with dictators” says Bustillos.
“Corporate media are failing to provide readers with an accurate picture of events, so this invaluable project couldn't come at a better time.”
[Sidebar: Among other things, Bustillos penned Popula’s hilarious OMG Jeff Bezos Has Asked Me to Be His Accountant! last year, which is worth a read if you’re interested in other accessible political commentary sites, and/or billionaires’ lack of tax deposits.]
Ultimately, Kotch says, he wants OptOut not only to provide independent media but to help solve some of the biggest issues with digital media today:
“We want OptOut to become a huge platform where independent news outlets can thrive and news consumers can get some relief from Facebook and Twitter and learn about the world without ads, algorithms, crazy uncles, and creepy DMs.”
He is confident the app will take off and outlined some upcoming goals: after the spring launch of an Android version will be a fundraising push, with an aim for 20k users by the end of the year.
The team is currently working voluntarily, but they plan to be a sustainable nonprofit and build their staff team next year, and further into the future they hope to expand further into Canada and the UK (I’m simultaneously excited, and sulking, about losing my only-international-publication status.)
I too hope the app takes off, partly for my own sweet, sweet gain.
But mainly because OptOut is a much-needed app that takes our access to information out from underneath the boot of corporate dominance and government influence, and away from the vice grip of our addictive, bubbled ‘newsfeeds’.
OptOut is now available at all good iOS App Stores.
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