The Burning Man ethos, news media style

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA


On the way to Reno International Airport for drop off, our friend Nancy offered two options to kill time. Her choice was a visit to a bakery boasting “homemade Pop Tarts,” complete with raspberry filling, pink frosting, and red sprinkles. The other was a visit to The Melting Pot World Emporium & Smoke Shop, which bills itself as Reno’s Burning Man headquarters.

Burning Man is an annual “experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance,” according to its Web site. It is held the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend in Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada.

Though considered counter-culture in many ways, Burning Man embraces ideals that ring true with news media.
Though considered counter-culture in many ways, Burning Man embraces ideals that ring true with news media.

Nancy is no stranger to Burning Man: Her son and one of our dearest male friends have both attended the desert awakening. She was hardly enthralled as she combed the store’s racks for odd costumes and jewelry of questionable function. (“Do you know what that necklace is for?” she asked. I shook my head no. She whispered in my ear. I dropped it as if — ha! — burned.)

Undeterred, my other friend, Toni, and I gamely tried on neon-rainbowed faux fur vests and steam punk goggles. We examined vegan “leather” satchels in which we could stuff body glitter tubes, every imaginable style of pasties, and ropes of love beads.

Of course, we left with nothing more than Emporium-branded car stickers for each of us, and, for me, a small velvet bag filled with clear quartz, “prized for its ability to clear the mind of negativity to enhance higher spiritual receptiveness,” man. So much for counterculture.

Intrigued enough to at least ponder Burning Man and its ethos, but of course not to attend (fine sand in … every crevice? Um, thanks but no), I at least read deeply into the Burning Man Web site. And pondered what applications, if any, could its 10 guiding principles have on those in the news media business.

For our purposes, let’s examine three.

  • Radical self-expression: Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Whoa, man. This seems quite apt in the age of newspaper consolidations, with big chains gobbling up smaller properties, and service centres serving far-flung newspapers with design assistance, ad building, and other operations normally handled in-house.

What could go wrong? Well, the thing that makes newspapers unique and useful to the communities they serve, for one. Why would we think the thing to do is commoditise the very thing that sets us apart and, in fact, allows us to charge customers more for quality content that matters to them? Seems sort of — how would you say it? — counterintuitive.

  • Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Mind blown, yo. Remember back in the day when editorial departments concerned themselves with, you know, news, and advertising departments concerned themselves with, you know, selling? Call me old-fashioned, but these separations existed for a very good reason. When a newsroom wanted to commit new or unusual acts of journalism, its company decided whether or not to fund such projects.

But with each passing day now, the world is blurrier and blurrier. Newsrooms create non-profit status sub-departments that now compete with corporate grants that, in turn, fund noble endeavors — some journalistic, some not so much.

Is this wise? Time will tell, but don’t colour me surprised the first time a member of the public wonders if a newsroom is truly able to cover a corporate donor’s malfeasance with complete unfettered integrity and no concern about the money it’s received to fund a pet project.

  • Participation: Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

My heart just grew three sizes. Because isn’t this the essence of the media business, old-school version?

We want our communities to participate through reading our journalistic work, through shopping at local stores after they see our ads on mobile and in print. We are filled with pride when our work inspires improvement and change in the communities we serve. Everyone is invited to read. Everyone is invited to think. We engage and inspire the best in those who live in the communities we serve.

We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Wow. That rang true for me. You?

About Kathleen Coleman

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