Creating Your Own Alternatives

From Media for Social Change: A Resource Guide for Community Groups (Revised edition, 1986), published by the Community Forum on Shared Responsibility, Toronto.

To get your message out to the public, you don't necessarily have to convey it through existing media or even through what we conventionally think of as media. Sometimes the cheapest and most effective way to get your message across is to run a contest or distribute balloons to kids at a local community celebration. (For information about novelties like balloons, T-shirts and bumper stickers, check the yellow pages.)

But getting your message across is basically a public relations function. The more skilful you are at catching the public's eye, the better.

In preceding parts of this book, we have discussed whether or not to use existing media, and also how to go about using them. This chapter will help you to consider the questions around creating your own alternative media, from posters to films.


Print is still the most accessible means of mass communication in terms of skills required and prices of reproduction. Even so, there is all the difference in the world between a flyer or brochure put by someone with no graphic skills at all and one designed by someone who has acquired a basic grasp of the principles of design and layout.

Whether you're publishing a single-sheet flyer, a poster, a brochure, a newsletter or a newspaper, you face choices about the use of graphics, layout, typesetters, and printers.

Your first effort to create your own media; may be something fairly simple, such as a poster or a newsletter. You will need some basic materials which can be purchased at any art supply store: Lettering stencils in plastic or letraset letters are available in all sizes and colours. Felt-tip pens are also available in all sizes and colours. Light bonded paper(8 1/2"x 11" or 8 1/2"x 14") is also available in various colours and can be used for pamphlets, newsletters and small posters.

One suggested format* for a first attempt at a newsletter is to use lightly coloured 8 1/2" x 14" paper. Folded in the centre, it will give you space for a four-page booklet. The cover should identify your organization, feature its logo, and give its address. On the inside cover page, list your steering committee and describe your group's goals. Use half of the back page for a membership and/or information request form. The rest of the space on the inside cover, the third page and the back cover can contain any other information or news about what your group is doing. Keep it simple and stay away from jargon and 'big' words which not everyone will understand. This is only a suggested layout, and you will find that your own ideas and work will improve with each creative effort. The following sections offer more detailed ideas for creating your own printed media.

Graphics and layout: Graphics are what make any publication look great (or bad). Thus, they often comprise the most difficult aspect of printing for community groups with limited resources The term, “graphics” includes drawings, photographs, lines and white space everything relating to the design of your publication.

Pat Jeffries, a Toronto peace activist and graphic artist, designed two posters for the Toronto Disarmament Network (reproduced following this section). They cost about $10 for materials, but, if done commercially, they could have cost about $400 for labour and design. It took her about two weeks to complete them.

Pat says the left is conservative visually, since people in the various social justice movements express and sustain their ideology largely through the printed word. She believes that although people are influenced by the power of words, they receive most of their information through visual media, usually films and television. Given this context, information should be conveyed through powerful images and short copy.

As a peace activist, she feels the peace movement can contrast the images of war which predominate in mainstream media with warm, non-aggressive images.

Some community groups are fortunate enough to have members who are skilled in the creation and use of graphics. If your group wants to create its own print media, and you lack design skills within the group, don't hesitate to ask for help or get some training. There is a growing network of struggling graphic artists with a social conscience who would be pleased to share their skills, especially if you can afford to pay at least an honorarium.

Community groups which publish newsletters or newspapers often borrow' graphics from other progressive publications. For good or ill, this practice has become something of tradition on the left. Although the copyright legally belongs to the author, photographer, cartoonist or to the publication which bought their work parties which can sue unauthorized borrowers borrowing has become an unofficial practice among the hundreds of small alternative publications across the continent. Nevertheless, all the progressive publishers we talked with in Toronto said that they wanted borrowers to request permission first and to acknowledge their sources in print.

Old materials for which the copyright has lapsed provide another source of graphic material. When material is fifty years old, it goes into the 'public domain' (which means that the copyright has expired), unless someone renews the copyright. Dover Publications, whose paperback are available at most bookstores, puts out a huge selection of books containing reprints of old woodcuts, decorative frames, borders alphabets and ornaments, most of which are old enough to be reproduced without permission.

Old books and arrival material provide another source of graphics and photos, but you the borrower, must find out through the publisher whether the copyright has been renewed. The Archives of Ontario (77 Grenville St., Toronto) has a collection of historical photographs and publications relevant to Ontario. A disclaimer is stamped on the back of the prints so that if a copyright problem arises, the borrower not the Archives, will be responsible. You must credit the Archives in your publication or on your poster if you use their prints. Other sources include existing media.

Mainstream newspapers and Canapress (the photography section of Canadian Press) charge about $30-$50 for the reproduction of a photo or article, and will sue for breach of copyright if they find that you have used their material without paying for it.

You might also be able to visit editors of progressive publications like Issues & Actions, the Catalyst, or Catholic New Times to look through their photo files.Chances are you can use the material for free.Another possibility for small publishers in search of graphic material is to hire a student from a local high school or community college. Call the art department of the school to make your request, or check on cooperative programs at community colleges (discussed elsewhere in this chapter).

Posters and brochures need graphics, but some effective newsletters use them minimally.One example would be the Cross Cultural Communication Centre newsletter, which uses clean looking, small headlines and plenty of white space.

On the hand, Tenants Bulletin the newspaper of the Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations, uses lots of small drawings and cartoons to brighten its pages.

Typesetters: With the advent of personal computers, many groups are using word processors and various types of printers to prepare their copy. While this material looks better than what you can create on a typewriter, material that has been typist looks cleaner and more professional than that which most personal computer printers can produce.

This book was produced using a personal computer, and major headlines were typist. But the quality gap is narrowing now that laser printers are becoming more popular. (The publicity flyer for this book was printed on a laser printer.)

One typesetting firm popular among community groups is Wordmakers. Some print shops also offer typesetting services.


This section is missing...


Photography is a form of visual communication which can be used as documentation at many levels. Snapshots record a particular scene or event simply to help the participants remember it later. A news photograph implies that the scene recorded by the camera is authentic.

At another level, a photograph can communicate the photographer’s viewpoint, and can possibly influence people’s opinions. Used with words and/or other pictures, a single photograph can become an integral part or a careful structured story. Photography is a powerful medium for the use in education and mobilization.
Making a photographic image can be as simple as pushing a button on a Polaroid camera and watching the picture develop before your eyes. At the other end of the scale, it can be a a studio set-up with complex lighting. Professional photographers spend years in training and then practising their trade, and this pays off in the quality of their photographs.

Even so, an amateur can learn the basics of photography quite quickly. And if you have a processing shop develop your films, an amateur can take photographs or slides for your project.

A photostory (pictures with accompanying writing) is one method with which to tell a story. It is often used in brochures, pamphlets, books, newspapers or magazines, and in displays at public events.

A slide show (with or without tape) is for many groups a cheap method with to educate the public about important issues. The advantage or creating a slide-tape show is it needn’t be shown by its creator; it can be presented by anyone. And because a package including slides and tape is quite compact and light, it can be sent through the mail quite easily.

A slide tape show is a viable option for those groups with little funds(or which do not want to raise them).And because photography is a medium with which most people have some familiarity, it is possible to involve the participants or subjects of your production in the actual process of production.

Slide tape technology can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. The basic skills needed are photography and a well-written script; the basic equipment includes a slide projector and tape recorder. If you want you can add up to 24 projectors, but the more complicated the technology gets, the less portable it becomes.

Slide-tape can be cheap: just the cost of photography and making a good soundtrack. They are easily updated.

But producing a 10- or 15-minute slide-tape show can be time consuming: you have to plan, raise money, find people with the necessary skills, research your issue, prepare a script, obtain the photographs, make the soundtrack and assemble the show.

The uses of a slide-tape show are many:

-documentation of an issue

- education of members of your organization community

-introduction and training session for volunteers

-chronicle of the history of your organization

-introduction to your group for use at fundraising presentations and community events
transferred to video, your slide tape can be used as a public service announcement or shown on cable television.It costs a bit more than 20$ for this transfer.

-In Toronto a unique coop exists which is devoted is popularizing audio visual technology among groups or individuals working for social change. Kai Vision works has a slide library with thousands of slides catalogued under headings which include industry, energy, health consumerism, indigenous peoples, gay and lesbian people, peace, pollution, third world, etc.

-Since Kai Visionworks, is worker controlled and non-profit, the charge per slide is substantially lower than the $70-100 charged by commercial libraries. Of special note here is their slide show on How to Make a Slide Show for Social Change, which you can rent. Kai Visionworks also has workshops on preparing slide show. Contact them at Box 5490, St. A, Toronto, M5W 1N7, or 964-1278, weekdays, a.m. to noon.


Film is an expensive and complex medium, but it can also be effective. That is not to say that any given film can initiate mass change, but it can inform people and empower
work for further change.

The production of a film is a lengthy and often costly process. If you and your group are not willing or able to take the time and spend the money it requires, it is better not to start, because no one wants to watch a technically poor film.

But if the issue you want to publicize is still going to be around in a year or two years time (like the pollution of the Great Lakes or racial discrimination), film may be the medium you will choose.

You will probably not want to make a film unless one of the following conditions is met:
- at least one, or preferably two or more people on the film crew have had experience and training in film-making;
- you are hiring a technical crew;
- you are working with film students (see the section on co-op programs in this chapter) who will providing the technical skills;
- you plan to take some courses in film-making before you begin production (courses are listed in the Getting Organized Chapter).

For more information about film making and distribution, contact one of the many film makers living and working the Toronto area. It is easy to track down film-makers who may be interested in your project. Simply find a film that documents the subject (or a related subject) you are planning to film, and then find out who distributed the film. If you then call the distributor, and explain why you are attempting to contact the filmmaker, there is a good chance that the distributor will give you the address and telephone number of that person.

The next part, the hardest part, is trying to convince the film-maker that your project needs their expertise and assistance. If you are well prepared(and a little bit lucky),they may be interested in your project. Another benefit of contacting a film-maker at an early stage is that they may give advice about possible sources of funding. Independent film makers have had lots of practice in this endeavor, and they may save you a lot of time and energy.

In addition, you might wish to speak with either of the following film distributors:

Canadian Film-makers Distribution Centre
67-A Portland
Toronto M5V 2V9

DEC Films
Devlopment Education Centre

Laision of Independent Film Makers of Toronto ( LIFT)
345 Adelaide W.
Toronto M5V 1R5

Video and Cable TV

Video is cheaper and less complex alternative to film. Video tape works much like the audio taping process, by storing electronic information on a magnetic tape. The ease with video tape can be edited electronically is one of the most useful qualities. Unfortunately, video does not offer the clear picture quality(resolution) that film offers. Most video photographers resort to using tight shots to overcome resolution problems. That is why television is called a 'close-up medium'.

If you and your group wish to make a video documentary, much of the advice offered in the previous section on film pertains here as well. Video requires some technical training, and the equipment is expensive. Again some community colleges offer courses, and some have co-op programs from which you may be able to obtain students to help you.

On the other hand, you may simply wish to record a speech by a resource person which your group has brought to town for use later when introducing your group to new members. If this is the case, borrow equipment from a friend(and possibly enlist their technical aid as well), and start shooting.

One of the choices is making a video production is whether to use cable facilities that are available to the public. Certainly, in terms of cost, cable is an excellent option as there is no cost to the producer whatsoever, except for any reproductions of the final tape that the group or individual wishes to make.

Cable: If you have no access to equipment (particularly the editing equipment), the Toronto cable stations may be the route to choose.

They run good training programs, and it is helpful to have taken one of these courses or have other experience before starting the project. This ensures more control of your production. Otherwise, volunteers are used.

Even though they are, technically anyway, working for you, if you do not understand the technical decisions that affect your production, some decisions may get made without your involvement.

Producers are not always as helpful as you might hope, simply because they are overworked. You may have to be persistent and push for certain things. Some producers may be very sympathetic to the idea you are documenting, while others will simply tolerate your efforts.

Cable station exist as local community broadcast outlets. Their purpose is to provide production and broadcast services for, about, and by the people in their community.

Their programs are different from and provide an alternative to the programming of other broadcast outlets.
Cable station receive nearly all their funding from cable TV subscribers. At present, cable reaches about 80 per cent of the homes in Toronto.

The main requirements for community cable are that the programs by non-commercial, different from other stations and be about the local community, or be of some local specific interest to the community. For example while disarmament is a social issue, it is not necessarily of specific interest to one local community alone, whereas the problem of tenants in a local building would be a specific local issue. Also, because of the large number of programs proposals received by each station, an issue that has received a large amount of exposure on cable may be bypassed in favour of that has never been aired on cable before.

A written program proposal must be submitted, usually about six months in advance, to the programme director of the station in the area where you live. Forms for this purpose can be obtained from the stations. Programs must be produced in the area where the community group operates or the individual lives. The proposal should include the name of the group and its co-ordinator, the objectives and to-pics of the program, plus a detailed shooting script(dialogue, camera shots, locations, effects, lighting, edits, sound and music cues, plus any other pertinent information).

The program should be as completely prepared as possible before hand to give the cable people a specific idea of how much time will be involved in the production, the number of people, the amount of equipment, etc. This will influence the decision of the proposal. If a program is too complex, it may be put off to another time or the application denied.

The decisions are made by the program department and are based on whether or not it meets the requirements of a community cable station, whether there is time and space available at a particular time, and its technical feasibility.

The cable company needs to know that a completed production will result form a submitted proposal, so the group must be organized and know exactly what it wants to do, what it wants to get across, and be prepared to do the necessary work.

People at cable stations like to see a group make a good, tight creative use of the video medium resulting in interesting, eye-catching presentations.It is in their interest to have good productions made because they are shown on their channels.

Because cable technicians are always very busy, they prefer that volunteers from the group produce the program themselves. If people from do not know how to use video equipment, the station can provide technicians and assistance at no cost. Sometimes, training workshops can be given to specific groups.

All cable stations offer regular workshops which cover all aspects of production including post-production (editing, titles effects, etc.) and allow you to use any piece of equipment in the station once you are qualified. But if you take the series of workshops which the station offers, it expects some level of commitment that is, providing some volunteer time and assistance in the programming.

The Toronto-area cable stations are listed in the Toronto Media Directory chapter.


Related Resources:

Expose Yourself - A booklet about effective media relations, providing practical advice about getting media coverage and relating to the media. - Web site featuring practical articles about media relations and public relations.

Sources - The directory which connects organizations with messages to get out to journalists looking for spokespeople and experts on the issues they are covering. Both the online and print versions of Sources are widely used by reporters, editors, producers and freelancers working on stories.

Media Names & Numbers - This directory (in print, online, and also available as a database and mailing list) has listings and contact information for all print and online media in Canada. Also available as a database and mailing list.


Subject Headings

Contact Connexions

Donate to Connexions

If you found this article valuable, please consider donating to Connexions. Connexions exists to connect people working for justice with information, resources, groups, and with the memories and experiences of those who have worked for social justice over the years. We can only do it with your support.