Innovation: How one labor union has become its own news organization

Over the weekend, I spent some time at LaborTech 2008, a conference dedicated to exploring how the labor movement can use social media and social networking to organize. The conference was held at the University of San Francisco.

There were several strong presentations, but the one that really caught my attention was given by Naj Alikhan, a communications specialist who works for SEIU 1000, which is one of the largest state employees unions in California. Labor has long complained about the lack of coverage in mainstream media. SEIU decided to do something about it: They created their own news organization called Chanel 1000.

I’ve talked a lot about the idea that we’re entering an era where there will be “many next newsrooms.” There will be a growing ecology of newsrooms, from independent bloggers, to independent news associations to mainstream legacy media. While big media organizations struggle, there’s an opportunity for grassroots groups and other organizations to create their own news and information networks. In the news recently, Kaiser Permanente announced it was starting its own news service to provide in-depth coverage of health policy and politics.

Channel 1000 is another great example of how technology and networks allow a group to create its own news organization.

A couple times each week, Alikhan anchors a video broadcast that discusses issues related to the union. While the production is obviously funded by the union, it looks and sounds like anything you’d see on your local television station. Alikhan works full-time for the union, but was formerly an anchor for the local CBS affiliate in Sacramento.

Alikhan said in October 2007, he started kicking around the idea with his supervisor. They launched the broadcast this past Spring. He works on the broadcast full-time, and there’s one full-time reporter, one Web producer, and several other members of the union’s communications staff contribute time on tasks ranking from reporting to running the teleprompter. Beyond that labor, Alikhan said the total cost of producing the segments is about $1,000 per month.

The videos get 500,000 views each month, Alikhan said. So far, there’s been no meddling from the union leadership in terms of the content, he said. His division is exploring other ways to use social media to connect with its membership across the state. SEIU 1000 has also created its own YouTube channel.

One big takeaway from this conference: Instead of complaining about what your local news organization can’t or won’t do, figure out how to build your own news organization that will do it.

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