Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of traveling to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. to deliver the keynote address at EIU's 35th annual Communication Day event. Throughout the day, I spoke with students and faculty about my research and, more specifically, how I make use of alternative media in my teaching.

Throughout the presentation, I used examples of alternative media, from short clips featuring Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, to the work of self-styled video activist Ava Lowery. I wrapped up my discussion about alternative media in the classroom with a public service announcement (PSA) about the detrimental effects of radio payola on creative expression and public culture. Students from DePauw University produced this PSA a few years back.

During the Q&A session, EIU students asked some thoughtful questions about the current state of journalism and what, if anything, could be done to improve journalistic performance. It's tough to do justice to such questions in a few minutes. Nevertheless, I did my best to suggest that the Internet and related technologies provide some reasons to be optimistic about the future of journalism -- despite what naysayers in so-called legacy news organizations might say about blogging, social networking and emerging forms of journalism.

"In the absence of robust regulatory mechanisms for ensuring net neutrality ... the prospects for the survival of quality online news and information are far from certain."
As it happens, the following day this same question cropped up in a column posted to Media Channel, the online news clearinghouse. Media Channel invites readers to take a poll and weigh in on this question.

For some, blogging is playing an increasingly important role in setting the broader news agenda and holding people in positions of power and authority -- including news workers -- accountable to the public. By the same token, enthusiasts note that blogging is a powerful tool for community organizing and social mobilization. On the whole, then, blogging is a boon to democratic processes on the local, national and global levels.

A contrary view holds that blogging is inconsequential. At the end of the day, the power elite will do as they please despite what might be going on in the blogosphere. What's more, some critics suggest that blogging, twittering and the like are little more than a release valve for pent-up frustration in the body politic. From this perspective, blogging defuses the potential for effective collective action.

For my part, I'm sitting on the fence. Sure, the Web 2.0 holds enormous potential for democratic communication here and abroad. Still, I'm reluctant to place too much faith in technology. After all, technology alone did not create our current crisis of journalism -- and technology alone will not bring about a renaissance of journalistic form and practice.

Indeed, in the absence of robust regulatory mechanisms for ensuring net neutrality -- the idea that the Internet ought to remain "content neutral" and that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be prohibited from discriminating against online material -- the prospects for the survival of quality online news and information are far from certain.
"Alternative media challenges the apathy and cynicism that corporate media purposefully cultivate."
Net neutrality principles have made the Internet a lively forum for alternative news, information and opinion. Likewise, a free and open Internet has proved to be a fertile site for creative expression and entreprenurism. But if the cable and telephone companies have their way, the Internet may soon resemble the vast wasteland that is broadcast and cable television.

So communication policy and policy-making processes are essential for realizing the democratic potential of new and emerging technologies. Equally important, high-caliber journalism relies upon a public that is interested and engaged in the issues of the day. Put another way: Just as democracy depends on journalism, so too does high-caliber journalism depend on democracy.

That's where alternative media in the classroom can make a difference. All too often, contemporary media culture treats us as consumers first and foremost. Rarely are we addressed as citizens in a democracy. Alternative media addresses us as members of a community -- and as citizens in a democratic society.

Alternative media challenges the apathy and cynicism that corporate media purposefully cultivate. In doing so, alternative media alerts students of their capacity to get involved, to articulate their concerns, and to make a difference in their private and public lives.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.